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Student theater group uses musical to address bullying, teenage suicide
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Student theater group uses musical to address bullying, teenage suicide

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MOUNT PLEASANT — When Jessica Silvani, 18, of Racine, recalls standing on a stage at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with other performers from Case High School last November, she thinks of the show they performed as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Having just finished performing a musical that dove into issues of bullying and teenage suicide — particularly among transgender students — she and her peers of Case Eagle Theater stood as an audience of several hundred gave them a raucous, extended standing ovation.

She noted that many audience members told them afterward how deeply the performance touched their lives, addressing experiences that are not being discussed at their schools.

“I felt like I touched someone and I affected someone’s life in that audience,” Silvani said. “It gives me a sense of purpose that I can do so much more in the world … there can be so much change that can happen by just speaking out and doing a show or just spreading the word about things.”

For their efforts on the show, the students of Case Eagle Theater came away from that performance at the Wisconsin High School Theater Festival with five awards: Outstanding Crew, Outstanding Actor (Justin Durant), Outstanding Ensemble, Outstanding Directing (Nancy Gibson) and the Critics Choice Award.

Since then, the students have been performing the show at events and schools throughout Kenosha and Racine counties, particularly at middle schools where they also conduct a workshop — called Break the Hate Habit — to help younger students relate to one another and understand the impact bullying can have on their peers.

Nancy Gibson, theater teacher at Case High School, 7345 Washington Ave., explained that students involved in Case Eagle Theater positively influence students all around the community, but they learn how they can be instruments of change just by learning to be comfortable and confident in themselves.

“Two things happen: one, they learn how to impact people in a way that can really create change; and two, they learn they have the possibility to be that change, and then they inspire everyone around them,” Gibson explained.

Tackling bullying and suicide

Their award-winning musical, “#DarkSideOfTheRainbow,” developed over the course of about a year, with advanced theater students providing ideas and feedback as Gibson worked with a smaller group of students and alumni to consolidate those ideas into a show.

The show particularly served as a medium for students to express their emotional reactions to the suicides of several students at nearby Horlick High School over the past several years, particularly among transgender students.

“We found those topics important because bullying leads to suicide and a high rate of teenage suicides is of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Justin Durant, 16, a foreign exchange student from Cape Town, South Africa, who played the lead role of a transgender girl named Danielle. “We’re bringing up the attention of bullying and how it affects people and we’re hoping to make students aware so they can make a change.”

An interactive show

Unlike most theater pieces, “#DarkSide” is an interactive musical in which the audience is encouraged to participate. Gibson explained that when the show nears an end in the worst possible way for the characters involved, the performers stop and ask the audience how things could have gone differently.

The students invite audience members onto the stage to assume a role and demonstrate how that character should have acted, a method that is particularly effective with middle school audiences, explained Jimmy Kohlmann, 17, of Racine and Gibson’s son.

“We didn’t really have the intention of solving the problem — because we know that you can’t do that with a 40-minute show — but we really wanted to start the conversation and be the catalyst for that change,” he said. “A lot of it is just about starting conversations … hoping that in that car ride home after the show that you and whoever you’re riding with are going to think about things and just kind of open up.”

In addition to doing shows and workshops in the area, Gibson said the group is raising money to be able to take the show to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., in June. Anyone interested in donating to their efforts can email nancy.gibson@rusd.org.

“We really want to outreach,” she said. “We really feel it’s an important message and opportunity for people.”

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