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ACTSMART IMPROV theater in Amherst teaches young actors how to tackle bullying

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Jessie Gerber Dolan and Sam Findlen-Golden, who are members of Actsmart Improv Company, perform during an anti-bullying improv show Thursday at Bangs Community Center.

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Jessie Gerber Dolan and Sam Findlen-Golden, who are members of Actsmart Improv Company, perform during an anti-bullying improv show Thursday at Bangs Community Center. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Becca Greene-Van Horne, founder and director of Actsmart Improv Company, gets an improv subject from the audience during a show Thursday at Bangs Community Center.

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Becca Greene-Van Horne, founder and director of Actsmart Improv Company, gets an improv subject from the audience during a show Thursday at Bangs Community Center. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Lucas Chaplain, left, and Fred Goldstein-Rose

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Lucas Chaplain, left, and Fred Goldstein-Rose Purchase photo reprints »

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Hunter Bascomb, left, and Nick Hennessey, members of the Amherst-based ACTSMART IMPROV Company, perform during a recent anti-bullying show at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst.

    JERREY ROBERTS
    Hunter Bascomb, left, and Nick Hennessey, members of the Amherst-based ACTSMART IMPROV Company, perform during a recent anti-bullying show at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Jessie Gerber Dolan and Sam Findlen-Golden, who are members of Actsmart Improv Company, perform during an anti-bullying improv show Thursday at Bangs Community Center.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Becca Greene-Van Horne, founder and director of Actsmart Improv Company, gets an improv subject from the audience during a show Thursday at Bangs Community Center.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Lucas Chaplain, left, and Fred Goldstein-Rose
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Hunter Bascomb, left, and Nick Hennessey, members of the Amherst-based ACTSMART IMPROV Company, perform during a recent anti-bullying show at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst.

With humor, creativity and sincerity, the age-old problem of bullying is being confronted from a new angle by the ACTSMART IMPROV Company, a year-old Amherst-based theatrical group for middle school and high school students led by drama therapist Becca Greene-Van Horn.

ACTSMART uses theater techniques, including improvisation; Playback Theater, in which audience members’ stories are enacted; and ensemble acting, an approach that emphasizes collaboration among cast members. Using these methods, the actors dynamically illustrate the devastating effects of bullying while teaching empathy and constructive behavior.

“It’s healing. It’s using drama and the arts to raise awareness and consciousness,” said Greene-Van Horn, the founder of ACTSMART.

Greene-Van Horn says she formed the group after learning about the 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, who had been bullied by some classmates.

“I was just so moved to action by that and then reading about all the others. It brought back a lot of memories for me of being bullied and that feeling of being totally alone,” she said.

For Greene-Van Horn, who received a master’s degree in 1996 in drama therapy at New York University and has taught drama therapy, improvisation and acting methods classes at programs and colleges in the Valley, drama seemed the most effective way to tackle the issue.

“Drama uses your whole body: your mind, your heart, your feelings,” she said in a recent interview. “So it’s not just an intellectual or verbal way of teaching or processing, it’s hitting on all those levels.”

She says she hopes the project will have a strong impact on the way people of all ages interact.

“I’m committed to teaching everyone emotional and social intelligence through play and drama.”

Sharing stories

During its first year, ACTSMART secured sponsorship from Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education and has performed at the Youth Establishing Strength Conference in Springfield; the White Oak School in Westfield; the Raymond Hill School in New Britain, Conn.; Pelham and Wildwood after-school programs; and Jones Library and the Bangs Center, both in Amherst. Its 11 members, all freshmen at Amherst Regional High School, are Hunter Bascomb, Lucas Chaplain, Jessie Gerber-Dolan, Sam Findlen-Golden, Margo Kinney-Petrucha, Fred Goldstein-Rose, Nick Hennessey, Joe Konieczny, Emilia Mann, Abby McLean and Joe Woynar.

Greene-Van Horn and the actors meet weekly to rehearse and train in acting techniques. At shows, after doing improvisational games and warm-ups, audience members are invited to share personal stories about bullying experiences. Company members then act out the scenarios, often pausing to rewind or rework the story according to the storyteller’s wishes. They say they aim to accurately depict the emotions and feelings of each situation.

“With drama we can act out what happened, we can act out what we wished would have happened, and we can act out different alternatives for choices that were made” Greene-Van Horn said. The kids who share their stories, she adds, have a moving and powerful experience.

“We get everything from the audience,” she said. “We do a big long warm up, and then toward the end when we do the long-form stories people are raising their hands and coming up on stage and telling their stories.”

At a recent performance, Greene-Van Horn said, a girl in the audience talked about being bullied and started to cry.

“At the end of the performance she just looked at me with such a glowing face like this weight had been lifted. It was, ‘I got to tell my story. I was witnessed. I was respected. I was honored. And I got to say what I needed to say.’ It’s very powerful.”

Company members say the audience interaction is a positive experience for them, too.

“We’ve acted out situations that are really intense and I think we’ve made people more aware of bullying situations,” said member Kinney-Petrucha.

“It’s been really rewarding, especially when we’re in front of kids our age,” Hennessey added.

In addition, they say, the group has helped foster trust among its members.

“It has definitely made me more outgoing,” Gerber-Dolan said. “I’m not afraid to be myself, knowing that these people accept me. It has definitely given me courage.,”

A light touch

The actors’ camaraderie and enthusiasm were evident at a recent performance, given for friends and family at the Amherst Community Center. As the audience filed in, the actors talked and laughed among themselves before warming up with improv games directed by Greene-Van Horn. They performed short skits, acting out the complex feelings of being a bystander, a bully or a victim, using their bodies, faces and voices to immerse themselves in their roles.

In longer improvisations, three or four performers acted out personal stories about bullying told by two audience members and a company member. There was a constant dialogue with the storyteller, and the actors would repeat, rewind or alter the scene in order to capture the storyteller’s feelings about the situation. The stories dealt with difficult issues and complex feelings such as betrayal, distrust, disappointment, rage and helplessness, but the actors were able to effectively portray the range of emotions, and it was affecting to have the scenarios visualized.

Despite the somber nature of the stories, the actors incorporated humor when possible and used their creativity to expand their roles, making the performance accessible and engaging.

“It gets very heavy at times, but we’re not heavy. We’re light with our touch,” Greene-Van Horn said. “Some intense stuff comes out. A lot of people have been treated really badly.”

As the group’s second year gets underway, Greene-Van Horn says she hopes to expand the group and to work with teachers and train leaders to develop other companies.

“I feel like the bullying curriculum is really important,” she said. “It’s how to implement it in a constructive, appropriate and effective way.”

The actors say they, too, hope the group will expand and reach more audiences.

“I feel like we’ve really taken off,” Hennessey said. “We’re doing the best we can to get a bigger audience and I hope we succeed.”

ACTSMART is looking for middle school and high school actors to join the company for its second season. Auditions will be held at the first class meeting, Oct. 4, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Bangs Center, 70 Boltwood Walk, Amherst. Participants will be trained in improvisation, Playback Theater and other techniques. The fee is $60 for Amherst residents; $70 for non-residents. Fee reduction and partial scholarships are available. For information about classes and the company, call 230-3811 or send an email to becca@greene-vanhorn.com.

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