When I was growing up, I got picked on. Fairly ruthlessly, come to think of it. Being a classical musician in high school did not put me with the popular crowd. So, wasn’t I excited to get to college and be around “my own kind” – people that got what I loved and were just as nerdy about it as I was. German sixths? Awwwww yeah!
Imagine, though, getting to your chosen place of higher learning and discovering, whoops, you were wrong: this community isn’t going to be supportive either. And worse, these people do what you do and use their perceived knowledge and talent as a weapon to bully others, including you. For many students this scenario is not a stretch.
Two students generously volunteered to share their stories with us. They are from different well-respected musical theatre programs around the country (No, we will not divulge which ones. Sadly, we don’t think these stories are particularly original to any one program). We believe they both shed much-needed light on the bullying issue, which often seems to escape the notice of teachers and administrators alike.
“Musical theatre students often hide behind sarcasm to bully people. They pride themselves on how good their ‘serious face’ is and how long they can keep a ‘joke’ going. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, I love pretending like I hate [insert name here], but they know I don’t mean it.’ As long as someone ends with ‘I’m just kidding,’ they have the power to say anything to anyone without consequence. It also allows bystanders to laugh and play along as much as they want without feeling guilty. Worst of all, it forces the person in the center of the joke to take it with a smile.
Once I walked up to a group of students in my program at the start of the semester. I hadn’t seen many of them since summer break so I wanted to say hi. Someone greeted me with, ‘Oh you’re back?! I’m surprised you haven’t dropped out yet!’ Followed by many ‘Oh sh*t’s from the crowd, and then the all-healing ‘just kidding.’
Most musical theatre students are subject to sarcastic comments about talent, casting decisions, or our worth in the program and sometimes even about our weight, looks, and love life. This, unfortunately, happens quite often.
The comment that hit me the hardest actually wasn’t a sarcastic remark. Another student had been joking about who knows what and I got upset. Her response was something along the lines of: ‘If you can’t take this you’ll never make it in the real world, so good luck with that.’ She justified her bullying and managed to put me down to a point where I felt I couldn’t defend myself any more.
Theatre students face a lot of situations with people talking behind our backs, people picking friends purely on talent alone, friendships being broken because of competitive jealousy or arrogance, etc…. However, to me the worst is when it’s said right in front of you, with truth behind someone’s eyes but then disregarded and laughed about 10 seconds later. No easy way of defending yourself, and no way of knowing what was meant to hurt or what was just a sassy accident.
I’m not at all saying sarcasm is a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s the base humor for most of our generation! That being said, it’s also turned into a weapon for bullying. I’m sure there are people who never mind being the butt of someone’s joke, but there is no way of knowing if what you’re going to say is going to offend someone.
Stopping The Cycle
Wise beyond their years, another student wrote in suggesting how to stop the cycle of bullying:
“I was recently talking with a friend of mine in the same program as me and something she said stuck in my head. She said, ‘It is hard to succeed when everyone around you wants you to fail.’ I remember thinking she was a bit dramatic, but she’s right. You can be the most talented person in a room. But if everyone in that room wants you to fail and is validated by your missteps and mistakes, pretty soon all of that negativity is going to get the best of you.
And this is when our parents and mentors tell us, ‘They’re just jealous of you! Don’t listen to them.’ And while jealousy may very well be a factor in all of this negativity, it doesn’t make the pill any easier to swallow (or, in this case, the song any easier to sing). I think the only way to overcome this negative energy surrounding young people in the theatre community is for all of us to take a few simple steps:
- Accept responsibility for yourself and your abilities. You aren’t anyone else but yourself. Constantly comparing yourself to the people around you is going to do nothing but make you feel insecure (no matter how talented you are) and create an atmosphere of unhealthy competition.
- Exude confidence, not arrogance. Confidence builds bridges and nails auditions. Arrogance burns bridges and breeds insecurity. Why do that to yourself? The moment you allow yourself to feel positive about yourself and your talents, your entire attitude toward your peers will mirror that.
- And this is the MOST IMPORTANT STEP. Accept the fact that other people’s successes are NOT your failures. As long as you work hard at your craft, are passionate about what you do, and exude a positive energy, your time will come. And when it does, you will want your peers by your side supporting you just like you did them when they had their moment.
This cut-throat, negativity-driven attitude is an epidemic amongst young people in the theatre community, especially with those still in college programs. But it isn’t too late to change our tunes. I promise that being supportive will not make you vulnerable. If anything, it will open you up to a world of experiences and relationships that negativity has prevented you from entering.”
I believe it’s the educator’s job to create a supportive atmosphere where students can do their work. I hope we will continue to ask ourselves, “How can I create a safer place for my students and snuff out bullying wherever it might exist?”________________________________________________________
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