The Littlest Critics

I've faced some tough crowds in my career (Drunk Bostonians in an Irish pub? Check. Bewildered Philadelphians in a coffeehouse? Check.), but never have I been filled with as much trepidation as I was last Monday, when my play, Oskar and the Big Bully Battle, was about to face the uncensored judgment of hundreds—hundreds!—of cranky kindergarten through fifth-grade students early in the morning. The first show of this Bay Area tour kicked off with an 8:30 a.m. performance (followed by one at 10:30 a.m.) in a school cafeteria—the kids sat on the cold, freshly mopped floor while the smell of hot dogs wafted in the air.

What exactly were the students watching?

OSKAR AND THE BIG BULLY BATTLE
by PRINCE GOMOLVILAS

In OSKAR AND THE BIG BULLY BATTLE a minor schoolyard mishap spirals out of control, and three elementary school students—Oskar, Frank, and Beth—become embroiled in a tale about bullies, victims, and bystanders. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's who, but OSKAR AND THE BIG BULLY BATTLE—a play told with humor and imagination—attempts to sort it all out.

I've often told playwrights that there's lots of supplemental income to be found in educational theater—indeed, it's been the bulk of my bread and butter for many years—but don't misunderstand how difficult it actually is. Do you know how fucking hard it is to write a kids' play?!

First, you have to face the technical challenges of creating a show that can be easily transported to and performed in places like cafeterias and classrooms, while still making it visually imaginative and interesting enough to hold the attention of elementary school students for a solid 35 minutes or so. Second, you have to write something that both kindergarteners and fifth graders will both understand and be entertained by (believe me, that's a wide spectrum)—it's a tough balance to make sure that fifth graders don't feel like they're being talked down to and that kindergarteners genuinely assimilate the material. Third, with educational theater plays, you have to figure out how to educate the audience without being didactic—youngsters can sniff preachiness a mile away. Fourth, while doing all of the above, you still must adhere to good playwriting craft. Finally, you have to ensure the play meets the demands of the theater company, school principals and administrators, teachers, and parents, who often all have different agendas.

Well, it's been a week since the tour kicked off, and I can safely start bragging. OSKAR AND THE BIG BULLY BATTLE kicks ass. (Even more so than my previous tour with TheatreWorks, OSKAR: THE KID THAT COULD, which I wrote about here. I knew that play, which promotes literacy, was a triumph when two kids were overheard having the following exchange after a performance—KID #1: Books suck. KID #2: No. You suck.)

The three actors (adults who play children) and stage manager are funny and dynamic on stage, and, while those first two performances were rough around the edges, the kids loved the show. I get performance reports from the stage manager every day, and it's been going very well—the students respond with laughter and applause, talk to the actors, voice their opinions, and are starstruck while passing the cast on their way out of the venue.

Hey, how could they not? The play features the following monologue, delivered by Oskar, who's struggling with what to do after he sees a classmate being bullied:

OSKAR
To tell, or not to tell—that is the question
Whether 'tis nobler to keep my darn mouth shut
About Frank's extreme outrageous misfortune
Or to risk getting into lots of trouble
By telling a teacher about Beth's deeds

...And I would add something about "this mortal coil," but even I don't understand the words coming out of my mouth.

Believe it or not, certain school audiences eat this monologue up.

We've already gotten a lot of great feedback. Here's an an e-mail from a school administrator/teacher:

The play was so successful, truly on target, and went beyond our expectations, entertaining us without losing the focus of the serious issues we needed to address. The playwright...has to be acknowledged for his ability to communicate to children and adults and for his special ability to bring humor in just the right measure in dealing with difficult concepts. The actors are wonderful, and as a cast they are believable, unflappable (a challenge with young audiences) and extraordinarily engaging. Those of us inside the arts know its value is in the communication, examining how we connect to others, resolving conflicts, and creating new possibilities. The collective efforts of all involved made it happen.

And this great one from a parent:

My 9-year-old daughter and I were two of the some 120 parents and kids who watched... Oskar...on Monday night. The morning after the show, she got irritated at her older brother, and said, "If you don't give me that toy, I'll rip your picture." I immediately looked at her and said simply, "What would Oskar do? How would Oskar work this out?" And thanks to the play, she instantly knew deeply and truly that Oskar wouldn't resolve a conflict by making threats. Later that night, she was apologizing to me about something, with a quick one-word "sorry"... and, without even having to think about it much, I turned to her and gently repeated one of the lines of the show, "Say it like you mean it." Then we had a great conversation about the ways you do that--by taking the time and making the effort to go speak to the person face to face and by speaking to them in full sentences. Again, thanks to Oskar, she and I had a great platform to talk this over in a loving, constructive way. I had the tools, and she was receptive to the suggestions, all because together we had watched and learned from Oskar. She later came up to me, with no prompting, and offered one of the most heartfelt apologies I've ever heard. In that moment, I was so proud of her and so grateful for Oskar! This play is a powerful resource for helping kids learn how to work out the conflicts that happen in life. So...thank you for creating this entertaining, and informative theatre piece that has in less than 24 hours already helped my family!

Yes, sometimes, a life in the arts is worth it, isn't it?

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BAMBOO NATION: The Littlest Critics
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