An Australian theater troupe wants to help East Texas kids learn how to overcome bullying.
Monkey Baa Theatre Company is bringing its long-running adaptation of Susanne Gervay's children's book "I Am Jack" to the Liberty Hall stage in Tyler next week. It tells the story of Jack, a normal kid who loves handball and photography, whose world suddenly starts to crumble when he becomes the victim of a classmate's harsh taunting and teasing.
Tim McGarry, who co-founded Monkey Baa and co-adapted "I Am Jack" for the stage, plays 11 different characters (ranging from an 11-year-old boy to an 82-year-old grandmother) over the course of the 50-minute production, taking the audience through Jack's journey as he discovers his inner strength and comes to understand the things he's endured.
"What we decided to do with this story to make it work theatrically for young people, we decided to set the story in Jack's bedroom. So, what he does in effect is, he re-enacts the story that's going over and over in his head in his bedroom," McGarry said. "And in a way, the way we tackled it theatrically, it's more like I'm mimicking the characters instead of becoming them, so there's no need for costume changes or change of set or scenery. (Jack) is using his bedroom to relive and demonstrate aspects of his life and places that he's been bullied. It's almost like a monologue of me living the story in my mind, and then physically and vocally changing to portray the other characters."
McGarry said he was never bullied as a kid, but he carries with him the memory of an old classmate every time he walks out on stage.
"I went to a very large Catholic boys' school in Sydney, and I remember there was one boy in particular who was being bullied mercilessly. A friend of mine, Andrew, said to me, ‘Can you see what's happening here to David?' And I said, ‘I can but I'm just ignoring him and hope it'll all go away.' He was bordering on suicidal, and Andrew said, ‘I know how to fix it, we'll just bring him into our group,'" McGarry said. "As soon as David came into our group and started playing handball with us, the bullying started to dissipate because he was part of a tribe, and it was absolutely key to what fixes bullying."
The play is very specific in the way that it describes Jack as not being an odd kid or an outsider, emphasizing that bullying can and does happen to anyone, regardless of their status or behavior.
"It's often the bully that has the issues and it's often nothing to do with the person being bullied," McGarry said. "The bully is trying to take attention off of themselves. And in this situation, the character of the bully, George, is dyslexic so he was trying to deflect off his own poor grades and boost himself up. … Jack actually finds that out in the end and feels sorry for George and has empathy for him once he realizes why."
A crucial part of "I Am Jack" is the Q&A session after the performance, a time when McGarry said he's had some remarkable moments with members of the audience, allowing him an opportunity to connect with kids and touch on some of the lingering issues and questions that come up. But it's not just kids who find themselves impacted by the show.
"I was in a country town in northern New South Wales. There was a school teacher in the audience, he would have been in his 50s, and he walked forward to the stage at the end of the performance, and asked if he could talk for a moment. He had tears in his eyes and started to cry and said, ‘I just needed to stand here as my students leave the hall, I don't want them to see me crying. The story that you just told is my story, and I have never gotten over it. Never.' And my heart just went out to him," McGarry said.
McGarry will perform "I Am Jack" at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28 at Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information or for tickets, call 903-595-7274 or visit www.libertytyler.com.