A hard look at bullying
Palo Alto Children's Theatre puts on 'The Secret Life of Girls,' a tale of middle school
Sitting in the audience at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, seventh-grader Jeanette Freiberg ponders her acting career. She's a veteran of six productions here so far.
"In past shows I've been princesses and dragons," she says. Her latest role may require a different strain of Method acting. This time, this middle-schooler is playing a middle-schooler.
Jeanette says Linda Daugherty's "The Secret Life of Girls" is the first play she's done that's "really realistic." The script takes a hard look at middle-school bullying: the name-calling, rumors and exclusion that have become rampant. Technology is a big player, with the characters shooting nasty photos on their phones and dropping gossip bombs through texting and IMs.
It's an up-close, up-to-the-minute story, so the show is being done in the theater's informal black-box space. Here, the smell of fresh paint from the scene shop mingles with audience chairs that line the small performance space on three sides. Various props are scattered about: cellphones, a Ouija board for a slumber-party scene, a volleyball.
The story may seem to hit too close to home for the young actors. But Jeanette doesn't appear fazed by playing Kayla, a girl who was once best friends with the "queen bee," Stephanie (played by Caroline Moley), and now desperately tries to win back her favor.
"I can share a lot of experiences with Kayla," Jeanette says matter-of-factly.
Sharing experiences is the goal behind the production, which opens Feb. 25. Managing artistic director Judge Luckey and the rest of the children's theater staff want to use the play as an opportunity not only to highlight what really goes on with girls, but also to offer an outlet for discussion. Each performance will be followed by a talkback session facilitated by family psychologist Erica Pelavin and life coach Susie Idzik. The show is meant for audience members ages 12 and over.
Luckey was originally struck by the play because of its focus on educating the community. He and "Girls" director Nancy Sauder met with middle- and high-school counselors in the Palo Alto Unified School District to go over the script. "They all said everything that was in the script they encounter," Luckey says.
Sauder, who has acted with TheatreWorks and other Bay Area companies, sees theater as an excellent medium to educate about bullying. "Girls" shows cruel acts from the perspectives of both the perpetrator and the victim, highlighting the consequences of actions.
In the slumber-party scene, for instance, audience members glimpse girls on both ends of a mean phone call. Queen bee Stephanie is on one end, and the girl who is being ridiculed and left out of the party on the other.
"It's a chance for the girls to see themselves," Sauder says. That goes for those both in the audience and on stage. The cast consists of seven girls — all seventh- and eighth-graders in real life — and two adults.
The play highlights how a girl's social status, like her Facebook status, can constantly change. One minute she's popular; the next she makes a mistake on the volleyball court and her teammates decide to hate her. The roller coaster can be just as traumatic for parents, and the play also shows that, says Sauder, herself the mother of two girls.
"It's that place where you don't know what to do, don't know what to say," she says. "There's no manual."
Resource materials will be provided for parents at each performance.
Sioned Hughes, a seventh-grader at JLS Middle School in Palo Alto, plays one of the characters who feels her stock go up and down. She gets to go to the mall with Stephanie and thinks they're friends, but before long Stephanie is ridiculing her and everyone's making fun of her weight.
"It's really honest," Sioned says of the script. "I've been through bitchiness in middle school before. ... You realize you're not the only person getting picked on. Everyone has been picked on."
Playwright Daugherty allows theater groups to update her 2006 script in each production, changing slang, technology and music so that the show feels fresh. For her part, Sioned is pleased to be replacing some of the songs used in earlier productions. "The Beatles," she says, rolling her eyes.
As rehearsal starts, the girls cluster around Sauder in their jeans and Ugg boots and sneakers. They work on various scenes, vignettes in the life of this group of girls on a middle-school volleyball team. Sauder gives gentle but firm direction, fixing blocking, helping the girls adjust their motions and motivations.
Playing Kayla, Jeanette has a monologue on the phone with her mother after the other girls have yelled at her. She says she has a stomachache, asks to be picked up, and says despondently, "This year's just not going good."
In another scene, Stephanie complains about Rebecca, saying: "She is such a pathetic suck-up. And you cannot trust her."
From time to time, the girls forget lines, act goofy and giggle together. There is a lot of youthful energy going around, after all.
But in a play with such painful moments, it's almost a pleasure when the actors break character. The laughter sounds sweet, not gossipy. The girls seem to be making friends through their common love of theater, and when the stories being told are so difficult, that's refreshing.
What: "The Secret Life of Girls," a Linda Daugherty play about bullying, presented by Palo Alto Children's Theatre
Where: PACT's black-box theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Feb. 25 through March 6, with shows at 8 p.m. Feb. 25 and 26; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 27; 4:30 p.m. March 4; 8 p.m. March 5; 2 and 8 p.m. March 6.
Cost: Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.
Info: Call 650-463-4970 or go to www.cityofpaloalto.org .