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General Information
Henry’s Law, a play about bullying

There can be no denying that our current culture is dominated by an abundance of information available to us online, as well as the ability to be in nearly constant contact with others through various social media outlets. But is that always a good thing? Well, not when a misguided post online can damage a person and potentially lead to drastic consequences. In her recent play entitled Henry’s Law, playwright Stacie Lents explores this deeply prevalent issue of cyberbullying. Here, Ms. Lents discusses why this issue matters, how it can potentially be better addressed and the pros and cons of young people being so connected online:

In addition to being a playwright, you are also an actress and an associate professor. How do you think those two latter professions influence you as a writer?

Having come to writing from acting, it is always the individual characters and their relationships which serve as the starting points for me. I like to write characters I would love to play myself; one of the results of this, I suppose, is that I try to work against the notion of a classical “antagonist.” It is important to me that I empathize with all of my characters because I want to be able to write honestly from each person’s point of view, so that their struggles and dialogue will ring true for the audience. This was especially important to me with Henry’s Law. I wanted to avoid writing a play that merely reinforced stereotypes about conventional “bullies” which make it easy for audiences, particularly young audiences, to dismiss those characters as “not me.” The truth is that people can’t be so easily sorted into teams of “bullies” and “victims”–most of us are both. And we have to be honest about that if we are going to do anything about our behavior.

As for the impact of my teaching on my writing, I certainly owe this play–and so much of my success as a playwright–to my students and to my job as a professor. Henry’s Law was a commission from Fairleigh Dickinson University and I developed it with a cast of student actors who then toured it to high schools and college before it went on to have a professional run. I was working with actors who had themselves experienced the ramifications of bullying at the middle school, high school, and college level and who were extremely savvy when it came to social media. I relied on them as dramaturgs, particularly when it came to text-speak. During the rehearsal process, my students also gave me feedback about the play, letting me know, for example, if a moment in the dialogue rang untrue. It was a particular privilege to watch them interact with the audiences–and to see all that they took away from their experiences. They were especially moved when high school students related to the characters they portrayed. At one high school, a student stayed after to shake hands with each of them in turn, relating his experiences to the events of the play. This, I think, was the highlight of the tour for the actors.

Henry’s Law deals with the deeply prevalent issue of how damaging cyberbullying can be. What inspired you to write a play about this issue? While researching for the play did you learn anything about cyberbullying that surprised you?

What a great question! I was really invested in writing a play that responded to the questions high school students and teachers are actually concerned about rather than a generic idea of what bullying means.

So, as part of my research, Dr. Donalee Brown, a professor of Psychology and Counseling at FDU, arranged for me to meet with several high school guidance counselors. What I learned from them was that the issues we so often associate with bullying–issues of race, class, sexual orientation–are secondary to the issues truly at the heart of bullying behavior. These counselors felt that the real impetus for bullying is the same thing that drives so much bad behavior on the part of adults as well as teenagers, and it’s situational. Basically, bullying starts with hurt feelings. Someone ends a close friendship; someone isn’t invited to a party; someone isn’t cast in a school play; someone accepts a homecoming date with a best friend’s crush…There is a fight. People say things they don’t mean. And because, the counselors explained, high school students have fewer tools at their disposal to express themselves, it is more likely that racial slurs will be invoked or that sexuality will be called into question. Then battle lines get drawn according to cliques and loyalties which may or may not correspond to ethnic and socio-economic classifications.

My aim was to represent this process. To find a way to dramatize this heat of the moment–and all the awful things that happen as a result. Because the truth is that it’s not really Bullies who bully. It’s regular people. I mean, which of us nice, regular, adults hasn’t bullied some customer service representative when we were having a really bad day? The point is, I think we have to look at bullying differently if it is ever going to stop.

Nowadays, it is considered normal for someone as young as ten to already have a cell phone, along with access to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives of children engaging in such social media outlets so young?

Twitter, Facebook, etc. mean that things said in the heat of the moment stick around. It’s hard to deny the benefits of email and cell phones for safety, education, and the like. But I’m not sure I’d want the things I said or thought at the age of 10 to be following me around today. One of the things the play looks at is how technology has turned communications that should be ephemeral into exactly the opposite of that—they last. And last. And get retweeted.

What do you think parents, teachers and even students should be doing to better confront the issue of cyberbullying?

I’m certainly not an expert! But from my perspective, to start with, we need to offer students something that truly incorporates their point of view–something they can relate to. Whether we’re talking about a play like Henry’s Law or any other method of intervention, I think that we will only accomplish change if students recognize themselves in the portrayals they see–if they feel understood and taken into account. Of course I’m biased, but one of the reasons I love live theatre is because it’s a way for audiences to respond in real time to actual people who are also responding in real time to the circumstances of the play. It’s immediate. If it’s true that cyberbullying stems, at least in part, from a tendency to live our lives online and away from human contact, then I think it’s important to get offline for a solution. But the most important thing, I think, is that we somehow present realistic, relatable portrayals of bullies and bullying. If we show–and discuss–good people who are guilty of bullying, people who may even like or be friends with their “victims,” I think it’s easier for audience members to admit and address their own bullying behavior.

I’d also say that it’s important to have a sense of humor. Bullying is serious. But certainly plays can include characters who are funny and surprising–and comedy is a great way to draw in an audience and to make them pay attention to the larger issues, especially on a topic as important as this one.

The four main characters in Henry’s Law each reflect a different, easily recognizable high school stereotype. What role do you think these types of characters play in conveying the play’s message to its intended audience?

Well, my aim in writing the characters in Henry’s Law was to offer a range of characters–four distinct points of entry, or ways for the audience to relate to the play. I am aware that not everyone watching the play is going to love science like Max or be into pop culture like Annie. I wanted to offer someone for everyone, so to speak. However, I also wanted to find a way to turn those stereotypes on their heads because I strongly believe that people don’t fit neatly into boxes or character descriptions or, most importantly, other people’s expectations. And sometimes, we limit ourselves in high school because we think that we are “supposed” to be or act a certain way. Sara is a good example of this. As a pretty, popular student, she thinks of herself as limited academically, but her friendship with Max reveals her passion for school and science–and her longing for a different way of relating to people. This was important in terms of the play’s message about bullying. Without giving away the play’s ending, I wanted the audience to be surprised by the roles the characters played in the actions of the story. By allowing the characters to surprise the audience, I hope that each audience member will be encouraged to dig deeper into their own actions and motivations.

It is interesting how, at a number of points in the play, a character mentions repeatedly calling or texting another person several times in a row. While these can be read as comedic moments, it can also be read as a reflection on our current culture which often has a strong emphasis on such forms of communication as opposed to speaking in person. What do you think are the pros and cons of this emphasis and how do you think this is impacting the development of interpersonal relationships?

One of the contradictions inherent in internet society is that we have all these new, seemingly endless ways to communicate. But this mode of expression is inherently limited because it is two-dimensional. I give an assignment sometimes in acting class in which my students are not permitted to use their iPhones, Facebook pages, or emails except to fulfill class assignments or to respond to calls from parents. (The looks of disbelief when I first give out the assignment are priceless… but my students come back with incredible responses.) We are actually training ourselves away from interacting in a three-dimensional fashion, from reading non-verbal cues. As a result, we are editing out much of our compassion and empathy. It is much easier to attack someone when you aren’t confronted with his or her tears or facial expression after you have done so. Ironically, in a Facebook-obsessed society, we seldom communicate using our actual faces. We are all, instead, represented by the same frowny face emoticon.

-Stacie Lents

A woman exposed to many aspects of theater as a playwright, an actress and an associate professor, Stacie Lents received her MFA from Rutgers, Mason Gross School of the Arts and her B.A. in Theater from Yale University. Aside from Henry’s Law, her playwriting credits include Laugh Out Loud (cry quietly), Written on Her Face and  the book and lyrics for the off-Broadway production Daisy in Disguise. Ms. Lents has performed in both New York and regional theater and is an associate professor of Theater at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she originated the Black History, Black Voices series which she writes and directs.

 





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