Monthly Archives: May 2016

Bully Part 1: The Bullying Epidemic

“Kids will be kids,”
“Boys will be boys,”
“They’re cruel at that age”
“It’s a part of life,”
“You’ll get over it,”
“Why can’t you just be friends?”
“Just ignore it,”

Anybody who’s been bullied has heard those words. Bullying seems to be expected in school. It’s almost considered a rite of passage. We hear about it on the news, another precious human has taken their own life because of bullying. Everyone stands up briefly and shouts about how wrong it is. They call for change. They agree this should never happen again.
Then the victim blaming begins. The victim started it. They were just as responsible. They should have told someone. Just ignore it and it will go away. It can’t have been THAT bad!
The media stops reporting. The world moves on, and a shattered family is left with the ashes of their ruined lives.
The sad fact is that bullying is not something that ‘goes away’ when you grow up. Adults can be bullies, and be bullied. We live in a world that allows and encourages lying and cheating your way to the top. We watch reality shows that purposely puts awful human beings against each other in the name of entertainment. I can think of at least one prominent example of a bully with a huge platform….

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Not naming any names, of course

In 2011, Australian teen Casey Heynes became an international hero when mobile footage of him standing up to a bully went viral. After being brutally punched in the jaw, Casey physically lifted his assailant over his head, slamming him into the ground. Despite being suspended, he was applauded all over the world. Today, Casey is still an anti-bullying advocate with no plans to slow down.
2011 was also the year that an American documentary film Bully was released, amid a rating controversy, and became an instant hit. Critics and audiences alike called it “essential viewing” for children. I disagree. It’s essential viewing for every person in the world, regardless of age or gender.

When Bully was released, I wanted to see it, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea just yet. I was 19 and still very damaged by the relentless bullying I’d experienced in school. But now, in my early 20s, I’ve finally seen it. And I’m glad I didn’t see the film in theatres. There’s little doubt in my mind that I would have ended up under the seats in a sobbing mess.

Bully follows the lives of five young victims of bullying. Alex Libby, a sweet-natured 13 year old with social and learning difficulties is tormented beyond belief on the school bus. Kelby Johnson, 16, is ostracised by her Bible Belt town when she comes out as a lesbian. The teachers at her school join in with the tormenting and she tells of being purposely hit by a minivan containing six boys from her school. Ja’Meya, 14, faces felony charges after bringing her mother’s gun on the school bus, attempting to intimidate the bullies into leaving her alone.
But the most tragic of the five are the two children we never meet, as they have taken their own lives. 17 year old Tyler Long hung himself after being harassed and abused for years. He was shoved into lockers and had his clothes taken while showering. Finally, there is Ty Smalley, who committed suicide aged only 11.

Bully is not easy to sit through. During the scenes where Alex is being stabbed while the bus driver doesn’t even look, you find yourself fighting the urge to jump up and do something about it. The filmmakers ended up showing footage to the school and Alex’s parents, only for the assistant principal to give a plastic smile and a promise to do something.
“That’s what she said in the fall,” Alex’s mother says tearfully. “She’s not going to do anything,”
The administrators and teachers at the school are shown to be apparently oblivious/uncaring to the widespread bullying problem. In perhaps the most infuriating scene of all, a boy identified only as “Cole” is pulled aside by the aforementioned assistant principal with a boy who has been bullying him terribly. She orders the boy to shake hands and make up. The bully, who has the smile of a snake oil salesman, sticks out his hand. Cole refuses to accept it. The assistant principal berates Cole for not accepting an apology. “You’re just as bad as him!” she claims. The audience shouts at the screen at this idiotic woman. She simply refuses to see the truth. Instead, she launches into the victim blaming. Why is Cole hanging out with this kid. “I’m not,” Cole says, close to tears. “He comes and finds me,”

Bully isn’t interested in lecturing anyone. It’s not interested in giving a definitive answer. It just wants to show real life, and it wants to give hope. And I love documentaries that do that. Instead of launching straight into scenes of violence, the film is very clever about drawing us into this world, creating connections with these children and their families, allowing us to see the truth.

The biggest lie/misconception is that ALL bullies bully because they feel bad about themselves. And I don’t believe it for a second. The bully who has been tormenting Cole is about as sincere as Kanye West being happy for Taylor Swift at the Grammys. You look at his face. You look at his grin. You see the meaningless handshake. The assistant principal watches the young ones get on the bus to go home. “My little cherubs,” she smiles fondly. The film then cuts to those ‘little cherubs’ stabbing Alex with pencils. Choking him. Punching him. Slamming his head into the back of the seat while others shout encouragement. Later, shown telling outright lies about what went down.
Bullies don’t always have a self-esteem issue. They have a lack of empathy. That is their problem. They don’t care about how other people feel. They’re narcissistic. They only think of themselves. They enjoy the power.
Bullying isn’t just physical. It’s psychological, social, emotion, verbal. Bullying is not just isolated to the school building anymore. The power of the internet has given rise to cyber bullying and the anonymity of such attacks gives even more sense of power. Bullying is everywhere now. In schools, homes, the internet, the workplace. And it needs to stop.

Bully has been criticised for apparently offering no solutions to the problem. And that’s perfectly true. The documentary simply shows what the problem is. It shows the truth, raw and brutal, of how bad bullying can get. But that’s only half the story.
My day job is touring to schools all around Australia, performing anti-bullying plays to primary and high schools. During the Q&A sessions I share my experiences with the kids and teach them how they can stop bullying. And as a prop for one of the shows, I use a book. It’s called Bully.

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Yes, it’s the companion book to the film. Several hundred pages of information and strategies to combat bullying. And the best thing about it? It does NOT blame the victim. On the contrary, it emphasises that the victim is not at fault. I want to see a world where bullying isn’t tolerated or dismissed as harmless. I want to see a world where victims can report without fear of being disbelieved or being told they brought it upon themselves.

Bully is five years old now, but everyone needs to see it. It’s raw, hard-hitting and difficult to stomach at times. You’ll be fighting the urge to throw things at the screen. You’ll want to shake those adults and make them come to their senses. You’ll want to rip those brats off Alex while they stab him. But it contains truth that you just don’t see normally. They don’t talk at the kids. They show them the brutality of schoolyard life. But they also show hope. The final moments of the film show the foundation Ty Smalley’s parents set up, Stand for the Silent. Balloons are released for children who lost hope and committed suicide. Ty’s father delivers an emotional speech where he vows to fight bullying forever, because his son “will be 11 years old forever,”

This is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon, and the only way to fight it is by standing up against it as a community.

For more information on the film and the anti-bullying movement, visit  http://www.thebullyproject.com/

Next Blog: Bully Part 2-My Story

Disaster Films: Maleficent

Right now I’m on tour, performing theatre in schools around the country. Touring is a mixed blessing. It’s a great job, but you are away from home a lot. You have to get used to moving constantly and I can’t say living out of a suitcase is the most ideal of clothing situations. But on the plus side, I’m doing what I love, I’m travelling and I’m getting to meet a lot of really incredible kids.

Two weeks ago, while in my motel room, I discovered the joys of Foxtel Disney. So many classics at my fingertips! I watched Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Big Hero 6, Beauty and the Beast….I was in heaven.

And then Maleficent came on.

Maleficent trailer

Don’t be fooled by the smile. This movie is AWFUL.

When I heard about Maleficent, I was entirely indifferent. She was a cool villain but Sleeping Beauty wasn’t my favourite Disney movie and I hadn’t seen it in years. Plus, looking at the trailers it was painfully obvious that they were trying to rip off Wicked. As a result, I didn’t see it.
But last year I re-visited Sleeping Beauty and found myself quite enjoying it. Well, aspects of it anyway. The side characters are great fun, the fairies are wonderful, the climax is one of Disney’s best and Maleficent is a PHENOMENAL villain. She doesn’t have a lot of motivation, but the lengths she’ll go to seek revenge are so high you can’t help but be riveted. She’s given a perfect amount of air time. So why did she need her own film?
Short answer, she didn’t.
Long answer….? Well, I advise you to get comfortable. There’s a fair bit to talk about.

And by the way, there will be spoilers.

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God shoot me. What a waste of celluloid.

In the film, Maleficent is given a backstory that will likely send any fan of the original animated film into a foaming rage. Or maybe that was just me. Anyway, apparently as a child Maleficent lived in the forest on the edge of an evil kingdom (why is it evil? Never explained. Does it have any real impact or necessity to the story? Nope). She had wings and fell in love with a young boy named Stefan. Years later, Stefan has become corrupt with ambition (you’re not fooling me, movie. I know he’s going to grow up to be Aurora’s father and I am spoiling that with no shame whatsoever) and Maleficent is the official guardian of the Moors. Stefan is told if he kills Maleficent he will take the throne. Apparently this is all the reason he needs to kill the woman he loved for years, but he can’t bring himself to do it and instead cuts off her wings. This scene is meant to be subtle in its symbolism, but it’s about as subtle as a stab in the eye with a salad fork. Have fun explaining that scene to your kids.
Stefan takes power, and you know what happens next. He doesn’t invite Maleficent to the christening out of spite (strike one in continuity, originally it was just an oversight), she turns up and curses the baby, the three fairies take the baby into hiding, you know it.

The scene at the christening is so rife with idiotic mistakes I can only do one of my lists.

  1. The three fairies were Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Not Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle.
  2. Flora and Fauna gave Aurora the gifts of beauty and song, not whatever they gave her in the remake.
  3. Maleficent curses the baby to DIE when she pricks her finger, not fall asleep
  4. Merryweather was the fairy who softened the curse from death to sleeping until true love’s kiss.
  5. Maleficent’s raven is actually a human? ….What?

That’s just the christening scene. What follows is an affront to art itself.
Apparently Maleficent ALWAYS knows where Aurora is. She follows her around and gains Aurora’s trust. They actually have a friendship. Eventually Maleficent doesn’t want the girl to die and tries to revoke the curse, then cause Prince Phillip to kiss her.
Do I even need to explain why this is beyond stupid?

Maleficent isn’t the only character who got shredded to pieces in this movie. Everyone did. Especially the fairies.

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Holy Tinkerbell, Disney. What were you thinking?

In Sleeping Beauty, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are some of the most likeable comedic characters the studio has ever produced. They’re memorable, unique and a lot of fun. They get plenty of laughs, but they also have a lot of intelligence, resourcefulness and bravery.
Here, Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle (ugh!) are dumber than a pile of bricks. They spend most of the film bickering, getting into fistfights and straight up neglecting the kid they’re supposed to be protecting. Because that’s what we all wanted to see, right? The three fairies as idiotic morons with juvenile antics bordering on teenage girl drama. Good grief, this is some of the worst character development I have ever seen. It’s downright insulting to the original film. And there is absolutely no reason for it.

In Sleeping Beauty, King Stefan and King Hubert were really charming. In Maleficent, King Hubert doesn’t even exist and Stefan is just a run of the mill douchebag. To make things worse, actor Sharlto Copley’s performance reminds me of a train wreck at an excruciatingly slow pace.

I’ve never been president of the Princess Aurora Fan Club and the way she’s portrayed here doesn’t help. If anything, I dislike the character more. She keeps having ‘girl talk’ conversations with Maleficent and stupidly believes Maleficent to be her fairy godmother.

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Because that’s totally what I would think too.

Of course, she finds out the truth and runs away in fear, but as soon as she wakes up, she somehow doesn’t care that Maleficent tried to doom her to a fate worse than death. She smiles sweetly and even helps to take down her own father.
Oh, and with the whole ‘true love’s kiss’? Yeah, they try to put a stupid twist on that too. I won’t spoil it here but let’s just say you can see it doing the fan dance from a mile off. It’s also stupid beyond all reason.

This movie, as a whole, is so unnecessary it’s laughable. Like Cars 2, Cars 3, or Monster’s UniversityMaleficent didn’t need to be made. It’s trying to be Wicked without trying anything new or creative. On the contrary, it seems hell bent on extracting anything we liked about these characters to begin with. We don’t need to see a good Maleficent. She’s a wonderful villain. The three fairies were brilliant, they don’t need to be degraded to this point. The kings were fun, why make him the villain?
Wicked worked because it was carefully constructed. It was well written. It had great characters to disguise any flaws in the story. The music was wonderful and to be fair, it was pretty much the first time we’d seen anything like it. Taking a story we thought we knew and giving us a fresh perspective was something that hadn’t really been done before. But it wasn’t trying to change Wizard of Oz. It was paying homage to the imagination and wonder of a classic and it knew exactly where to focus the drama and comedy. Maleficent doesn’t do this. It’s dark, depressing, pretty insulting to the original and overall just trying to cash in on what Wicked did so well.
But what shocked me the most was when the credits started rolling. At first, this was cause for momentary celebration until the writer was named.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the screenwriter for Maleficent was Linda Woolverton, the writer of Beauty and the Beast, arguably Disney’s best animated fairytale, and The Lion King. The Lion King!!!!

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She also wrote Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. What else is there to say?

How did she sink to this level? She goes from writing Disney’s finest, to sinking below the bottom of the barrel. What happened? How did this script ever get approved without someone saying “Hang on, are we taking a blowtorch to a classic?” I’ll never know. Some mysteries in life are best left unsolved.

I probably hate this movie a lot more than it deserves. I can’t say it’s a bad influence or saying anything morally wrong. I just really can’t stand it when Hollywood comes along and tries to butcher a really great film. Especially when it does well commercially because it just encourages the trend of making worse and worse entertainment.

Sadly, Maleficent’s success at the box office has led to the announcement of a sequel. This means once again, the Mistress of All Evil is going to be whitewashed into a misunderstood antihero. And I’m going to be sitting at home, drinking champagne, watching Sleeping Beauty and seeing Maleficent as she should be portrayed.

And I advise you all to do the same.

Hamilton

Hamilton is the life story of the ‘ten dollar founding father’, the forgotten Alexander Hamilton.  And quite honestly, even that’s too much of a description because this musical needs no introduction. It’s become a Broadway phenomenon, currently sold out until January 2017. The Off-Broadway production won 8 Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical. The original cast recording won a Grammy. Needless to say, it’s practically guaranteed to sweep the Tony Awards in 2016 and for good reason. It’s a good show. It’s a rich historical period piece with Lin Manuel-Miranda’s brilliant use of hip-hop and rap contrasted with sweeping ballads. The multi-talented composer/lyricist also plays the titular character, as was the case with his last show, In The Heights.
I won’t lie, I’m one of those irritating people who listens to it over and over (on my iPod, to be fair). I love it as much as anyone else.

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Hamilton has recently become the ninth musical in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s now joined the ranks with Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, RENT, and Next to Normal. Looking at the past winners, it’s fairly easy to discern the reasons for them winning the Pulitzer. Of Thee I Sing and Fiorello! were political satires. How to Succeed was social satire of the business world and ambition. South Pacific dared to comment on the roots of racism. A Chorus Line finally acknowledged the harsh reality of being an artist. Sunday in the Park with George delved into the mind of a genius and the choices we make in life. RENT talked about HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues at a time when they were rampant but largely ignored. And of course, Next to Normal is a raw and unapologetic piece about grief and mental illness. Nine musicals which I hereby dub The Fellowship of Broadway (patent pending).

While most of these musicals are rightly considered masterworks, there’s one or two that are questionable, like RENT or How to Succeed. And while Hamilton is an excellent show, it’s not perfect. No piece of art is, and that’s not even why it won. It’s dramatic, but not hard-hitting like Next to Normal.  The modern musical score contrasted with the colonial time period is wonderful, but nothing new (Spring Awakening, anyone?).  Overall, it’s not making any philosophical statements or social commentary. So what was it that scooped the Pulitzer Prize? It’s just the stage equivalent of a bio-pic.

And that is precisely why it won.

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The checklist re-emerges….

Hamilton’s subtitle is ‘An American Musical’. Truer words were never spoken. Much like historical films which comment on social norms at the Oscars, Hamilton is so red white and blue American it practically had to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Think about it. It ticks every box the academy likes.

Founding fathers of America? Check.
“Forgotten” Founding Father? Check.
Overcame a lot of hardship? Check.
Self-starter? Check.
Glorious telling of American history? Check.
Not-so-subtle stab at the British monarchy? Double check.
War hero? Check.
Tragic death? Checkmate.

Aside from the characters being historical figures and the story being about the founding fathers, every song is raising the flag. The only way you could make it more patriotic is if there was a giant bald eagle on the set and had curtains made out of the star-spangled banner.

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Can we shoehorn the Statue of Liberty in there somewhere?

I’m not saying this to bash Hamilton in the slightest. It’s a great musical. An excellent musical. I love it to death, I can’t stress that enough.  However, it’s so tied to the American culture and history there’s a question of whether it’s going to be as successful in countries outside the USA. A British production has been announced, as well as a production to open in Australia.

My partner and I were discussing this at length after listening to the soundtrack and he pretty much summed up what makes the story so good.
Hamilton doesn’t show whether characters are right or wrong, they just show you what happened and let you make up your own mind,”
That’s exactly right. The historical accuracy is of course down to creative license and what works on stage. But because they are old historical figures, it’s virtually impossible to know exactly what these people were like in reality. Hamilton is very clever at showing the flaws of everyone and the strengths, giving the audience an objective view of the story.

That is, except for one character. King George III.

Mr Burns is there so you can play Spot the Cartoon Bad Guy.

Poor King George. The lone Caucasian male actor in the show, the lone British character. And he is the most stereotypical Broadway villain in recent memory.
King George only appears three times in all of Hamilton, mainly to comment on America’s newly found independence and to gleefully chuckle over the state of their politics. His songs are catchy and fun, but he’s so cartoonishly evil and insane it’s hard to take seriously. Maybe that was the point. But what they conveniently neglect to mention is that the guy had a severe mental illness while he was in power. He shook hands with oak trees (allegedly), started every sentence with the word ‘peacock’ and adopted Prince Octavius.

“Prince Octavius” was a pillow.

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I remember the day we brought him home….

There’s a legit question of how British audiences will react to this. Although to be fair the Brits are big fans of self-mockery….and maybe if it comes to Australia we Aussies can focus on another political drama that isn’t our own.
If Hamilton is to succeed to the same degree outside of America, audiences will need to be aware that this is American through and through. That this musical is fiercely patriotic and with a very distinct sound.

Hamilton is a breath of fresh air for musical theatre. It’s taken a real story and adapted it for the stage, being true to history but still making it interesting, relatable and accessible for a modern audience. The racial diversity of the cast is inspired and the score is one of the best in modern musical theatre.

If you’re one of the two music theatre people who haven’t listened to Hamilton, go and listen to it. Even if you aren’t a musical theatre fan who somehow stumbled upon my blog, I implore you to give Hamilton a chance. You won’t regret it.

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Go ahead. We’ll wait.

I hope Lin Manuel-Miranda continues to share his gift with the world because I know I’m not alone when I say we want more from him. I’m keen to hear what he comes up with for the new Disney film Moana. He’s shown the truth of impoverished life with In The Heights and now he’s touching on American history with Hamilton. There’s a million things this guy hasn’t done yet, but just you wait.