At Dexter Elementary in Cordova, the actors of Playback Memphis take the stage. The stage, in this case, is the school’s science lab and the audience is around 45 eager, squirming children. This Memphis troupe is acting on new local partnerships that bring theater and dialogue into community schools.
Playback theater is a unique performance where actors listen to an audience member’s story then instantly play it back. First developed in 1975, playback’s goal is to facilitate dialogue around difficult topics and help audience members build empathy as they learn about the experiences, struggles and perspectives of other audience members.
Memphis-native Virginia Murphy and her husband launched Playback Memphis in 2008. The organization celebrated its 10th anniversary in November.
In those 10 years, Playback Memphis has grown from a handful of actors to a full-fledged organization with a professional and youth ensemble that includes roughly 20 performers. They regularly partner with Memphis nonprofits, corporations, the Memphis Police Department and four Frayser charter schools under the Achievement School District to help improve communications, mindfulness and empathy.
In spring 2018, Playback Memphis launched its newest project — an anti-bullying partnership with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Shelby County Schools. Playback Memphis will perform 65 school-based anti-bullying workshops annually and can work with over 100 students across one to three session in a given day. SCS identifies schools, like Dexter Elementary, with high rates of bullying and the biggest need for intervention.
The partnership is currently funded by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Adolescent Health through June 2020.
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"I think it is going to decrease the number of referrals as far as [bullying] is concerned, and that's going to make a big impact at the school,” said Natasha Johnson, a guidance counselor at Dexter Elementary. “We've got small seeds growing here that will multiply."
“The purpose of it is to give kids a language for talking about bullying, to really help them to concretely identify what bullying is what it’s not, to be able to distinguish the difference between fighting and bullying, to be able to recognize and understand why people are targeted — that they’re generally targeted because they’re different in some way,” said Murphy, who holds a masters degree in drama therapy and serves as director of Playback Memphis.
Ultimately, the partners hope the program will help reduce pregnancy rates, dating violence and sexually transmitted infections when students reach their teen years.
Reducing bullying to promote healthy intimate relationship may seem like a leap, but the partners say they’re intimately linked. Learning self-confidence, bodily autonomy and how to identify coercive behavior in friendships lays the groundwork for future conversations around dating violence and how to build respectful romantic relationships when students are ready.
“If you’re taught at an early age how to not give in to peer pressure and to bullying then you can make better choices for yourself,” said Nikayla Boyd, manager of Le Bonheur’s teen pregnancy prevention program. “We don’t know how many students are having sex because they want to or because they feel like they have to.”
According to a 2015 study by the Office of Adolescent Health, 24 percent of Tennessee’s high school students reported being bullied on school property, 11 percent said they’ve experienced dating violence and 9 percent reported missing school because they didn’t feel safe. All of these statistics are higher than national averages.
“[Le Bonheur’s] goal is to make sure that students are healthy and that means mentally healthy as well,” said Boyd. “If they’re being bullied, a lot of the time they’re not going to school. If they’re not coming to school, they’re not learning. It has a ripple effect … Even in the news recently we’ve seen students younger and younger taking their own lives because they’ve been bullied.”
Playback Memphis ensemble members perform a personal story told by an audience member. (Submitted)
For Le Bonheur, Playback Memphis is filling a critical gap. Le Bonheur’s teen sexual health program, Be Proud! Be Responsible!, focuses on students in eighth grade and high school and isn’t age-appropriate for elementary students.
The Be Proud! Be Responsible! curriculum was developed by the Center for Disease Control and covers a wide range of topics relevant to maturing teens including puberty, birth control and safer sex, LGBTQ issues, dating violence and sexual responsibility. Le Bonheur sexual health educators partner with churches, juvenile justice facilities and SCS to facilitate classes. Memphis-based Urban Child Institute supported the curriculum's launch in 2011 with a $4 million grant.
“Last year we saw over 4,000 [students]. This year the goal is 4,500,” said Boyd.
A 2016 study by Le Bonheur and the Shelby County Health Department showed 22 percent of SCS high school students have had multiple sexual partners, 15 percent were sexually active before the age of 13. The rate of new HIV infections among teens had risen to 39 per 1,000 people from a low of 25.5 per 1,000 in 2013.
In 2014, Shelby County’s rate of teen motherhood was also significantly higher than the national average (40.1 live births per 1,000 females compared to 24.2 nationally), though it’s important to note that teen birth rates across the county have fallen dramatically in the last 15 years. In Shelby County, the birth rate for mothers ages 10 to 19 has declined 53 percent since 2007.
Le Bonheur saw Playback’s anti-bullying curriculum as a tool to begin introducing basic sexual health concepts in ways that were relevant and relatable for elementary students who will enter their Be Proud! Be Responsible! teen program in the coming years.
During each performance, Playback Memphis ensemble members ask students to define and describe bullying before acting out students’ personal experiences with bullying. They then invite students to the stage to help generate and act out bullying scenarios from the perspectives of the victim, the bully and witnesses.
“Sometimes friendships turn into romantic relationship and you don’t want to be in a position where your friends are bullying you,” said Boyd. “So hopefully they’ll be able to pick better friends or pick up on the signs that this person might be controlling. Then that’s something we talk about when they get to us in the 8th grade with the dating violence module.”
“It’s really great for setting the stage for that conversation,” added Murphy. “Essentially, we’re inviting young people into a space for learning to be reflective about your experiences, about your relationships, about how you feel and what you need to be safe [and] have feelings of peace and well-being, to be aware of your feeling and other people’s feelings.”
Boyd said the interactive format is one of the program’s biggest benefits because it keeps students actively engaged rather than sitting at a desk passively receiving information.
“With the younger kids, it’s easier to reach them when they’re actually able to participate," said Boyd.
Murphy said Playback Memphis wanted to launch the anti-bullying program several years ago, but the organization lacked the right resources and partnerships at the time.
Playback Memphis' co-founder and director Virginia Murphy. (Submitted)
“We knew that it was a strong program, we just kind of had to put it on hold. Once our other work got some legs under it, Le Bonheur reached out,” said Murphy. “It’s been great to have a partner that sees the value of your work and creates an opportunity for you to support amazing work that they’re doing.”
In addition to Be Proud! Be Responsible!, SCS teaches its own family life curriculum that includes lessons on healthy relationships. Boyd said these multiple touchpoints are important to cementing learning and Playback primes students to receive those lessons from an earlier age.
“I appreciate [Playback Memphis’] innovation and that they’re continuing to try to push the envelope and educate kids and do the right thing. That’s what Le Bonheur is all about,” said Boyd.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education. The Urban Child Institute focuses its grantmaking, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.