BWW Interview: MacDonald Kerr and Y York Examine the Bully in First Stage's CRASH
Bullying---when did society become consumed by the bully and the resulting destructive tactics, especially with children and young adults? When will society be able to control or stop these behaviors? In a young adult novel that explores the dynamics to bullying, Milwaukee's First Stage dramatizes author Jeffrey Spinelli's young adult novel Crash on their Todd Wehr Theater stage this spring.
The production develops the story seen through the emotions of three young men in the throes of adolescence and family trauma. Artistic Director Jeff Frank chose Milwaukee's accomplished Mary MacDonald Kerr for her directorial debut at the children's theater company while an experienced playwright Y York adapted Spinelli's novel. In the Milwaukee production, two women explore male bullying, a significantly "other" experience than with teenage girls, with great success.
From the Milwaukee Youth Art Center before a Crash rehearsal, MacDonald Kerr discussed what attracted her to this particular play. With a serious timbre in her distinctive voice the city has come to appreciate, she commented, "The play examines how a bully comes into existence. No one is born a bully...so the play looks at Crash [the main character] and what being male means in this society..[in their relationship] to females and to each other, themselves."
Y York, the woman playwright who transferred these male identities from book page to theater page was quoted in an interview by email: "I'm truly sick of people talking about bullying and children as if the problem arose from the kids. Kids are modeling what they see grownups do, on TV, in politics, in schools, at home. Snark is rewarded as wit, meanness rewarded as courage and bullying a rite of passage...Kids need better role models."
As if confirming York's comments regarding the topic, MacDonald Kerr added, "Crash's parents, the adults in this play are culpable, too. They are busy while Crash faces some difficult decisions..unaware of what is happening...The play covers a variety of complex emotional themes within a short time frame."
MacDonald Kerr then defines the complex themes that this play leads the audience into: aging, caring for ill family members, debilitating disease, environmental issues, the physical smallness of being a male, and the religious strictness of Quakers. Crash must decide how to behave and confront all these concerns while he chooses if and when to bully his long time childhood friend Penn at the encouragement of Crash's new school friend Mike.
These concerns represent realistic situations numerous families may face in today's world while parents struggle with the pressure of paying for expensive extracurricular school activities, such as sports equipment..or just feeding their families and keeping them warm. Or when families try to save for future college and retirement costs simultaneously, which adds to the time necessary to supporting a family.
In the play, the cultural preference for Crash's male physique, bulky, larger and built for "crashing" into other males during a football game can be acknowledged. Meanwhile, his friend Penn grew up small in stature, and while very smart adheres to his stricter religious background, which compounds the choices Crash deals with in bullying his friend, so many from which to choose. "Technology," adds MacDonald Kerr, "makes bullying easier to do. They [young adults] have such access to each other [through Facebook, smart phones, twitter} and news travels so very quickly."
To complete the production double cast with great young performers, Deborah Staples, Bobby Spencer, and Jonathan Wainwright light up the First Stage theater, stellar adult professionals who reveal Crash's penetrating message about bullying with shots of humor. As both MacDonald Kerr and Y York indicate, no one can be entirely immune form bullying, which may be blurred and buried in ageism, racism, sexism and religious stereotypes.
York revisited an interesting phenomenon about these characters she wrote and still writes about, how she embodies their stage persona to become more human: "I just try being each and every one of these characters, as fully and as honestly as I could. Being a playwright means inhabiting the different, the good the bad the ugly, and the flawed and the sad and the egomaniacal, wrenching ourselves outward and inward, and laughing and crying, and trying and trying and trying out the playwright's "what if?"
"What if?" represents the questions audiences, parents and young adults, will need to ask. And then try and answer after observing the characters of Crash, especially the young adult males, Crash, Mike and Penn. Who does need to be role models for these teenagers and what effect does technology play in their lives? What does society expect from their young men? When we are allowed do something, anything that could affect someone negatively, even if merely teasing, how far does someone go? In this production Macdonald Kerr relates there is ultimately forgiveness and redemption for Crash, and she adds, "there are costs, costs for Crash to make good choices. Because from his Penn's point of view, Crash appears to his friend as someone, "Internally a decent guy when externally you're a jerk.'"
Crash opens at First Stage on Friday, March 28 with the company's directorial debut of MacDonald Kerr and features an acclaimed cast in an effort to examine life in the 21st century where "bullying" is all too common. The play provides Milwaukee audiences with a unique opportunity to search for solutions to this increasingly harmful behavior, which can lead to what counselors now call "bullycide," a lethal result to extreme bullying. Y York sums these opportunities as an artist, and provides a framework for audience's approaching all theater when she says, "I can only write from a place of searching, writing [and watching] to discover what I didn't know when I started."
First Stage presents Y York's adaptation of the Jerry Spinelli novel Crash in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through April 13th, which is recommended for ages 8 and over. For further information, programming, or tickets, call 414.267.2961 or visit www.firststage.org.