Taproot Theatre: Bringing Bullying Prevention to Life | By: Matt Pearsall For over 20 years, Taproot Theatre in Seattle has partnered with Committee for Children to create bullying prevention performances for schools that are aligned with the latest research. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Shelby Parsons, Taproot’s director of education and outreach, about using theater to help make a difference in children’s lives. Matt Pearsall:Tell me a little bit about Taproot Theatre. Shelby Parsons:Taproot was founded in 1976. In the ’80s we began doing social issue plays in schools, talking about substance abuse, physical fitness, health. Matt Pearsall:How many shows do you put on a year? Shelby Parsons:In the 2018–2019 school year we did 297 performances, at 233 schools, serving 121,327 students. We’ve more than doubled in the past dozen years. Matt Pearsall:Why have you chosen to focus on bullying prevention? Shelby Parsons:Around the early 2000s we had a staff member whose child was is being bullied. That inspired us to start digging into how we can use theater to address this. That’s when we connected with Committee for Children. Since then it’s been the main focus of the touring company, as there’s been more and more demand for bringing these plays into the schools. We feel uniquely suited to be working with schools and be a part of their conversation around bullying prevention. We know that students watching the bullying situation on the stage are able to empathize in a way that is unique to live theater. We view our role very much as storytellers. We’re not the experts—we’re going to facilitate conversations while still staying true to what our role is as artists. Matt Pearsall:How have your shows changed over time? Shelby Parsons:About six years ago, we shifted into talking about cyber bullying. That came out of schools saying, “We are experiencing this. Our staff doesn’t know what to do with it. And can you help us with that?” Our new elementary show has a gaming setting in which we begin to touch on cyber bullying as a theme. It’s excited to begin to talk about that on the elementary level. Matt Pearsall: I’m wondering if there’s a recent success story that stands out to you? Shelby Parsons:Gosh, there are a lot of great stories . . . After every performance, the actors do a talk-back, and those interactions and the conversations with kids afterwards have been really powerful. So last year, an African American cast member shared her story about being bullied for her natural hair while she was growing up. She had kids come up to her and say, “Hey, I experienced the same thing.” Then one student that was just going through chemo came up and said, “Hey that’s my experience,” in a very different way. Matt Pearsall:What are the reactions that you get from kids during the show and in the talk-back? Shelby Parsons:In elementary schools, a thing that we see pretty consistently is when something happens on stage, like they see someone exhibiting bullying behavior, students just yell out, “You shouldn’t do that.” They can see it’s wrong. We find that can be really productive. There’s such impact when it’s live in front of you. Then on the secondary level, that show is so personal and raw. Often those conversations are really, really powerful. Matt Pearsall:What surprising things have you heard from students in those talk-backs? Shelby Parsons:On the elementary level we often go in expecting the conversations to be pretty basic—and then we’re often surprised at their depth of understanding, even if it’s in the words of a kindergartner. This happens especially at schools who’ve been building their bullying prevention curriculum for many years as well as a school culture that has really grown into talking about social-emotional learning. It’s really beautiful to hear an example of how we should treat others, really nuanced cool ideas coming from wonderful young humans. Matt Pearsall:Are some things hard to hear from students? Shelby Parsons:When we get questions around bullying at home, and when they start talking about real issues and not just the concept of bullying. Our team loves engaging in those things, but also it is an emotional roller coaster. The actors take on a lot when they are doing this. Matt Pearsall:What have you heard that’s particularly inspiring? Shelby Parsons:It’s those exciting aha moments, like the students being able to name really beautiful things about how to treat others. Being a part of developing that language is exciting. And having schools tell us, “Thank you, this is moving the needle on this topic that’s so important right now.” Matt Pearsall:Do you think there’s something that educators could take from what you do and incorporate into their own practice? Shelby Parsons:How powerful empathy is. Whether it’s seeing live theater, or students engaging with it themselves as the performers, or in a role-playing type of activity. It’s so natural that hearts are just drawn in. Which I think is a really exciting thing. It’s attainable and can be a powerful tool in integrating into their own classrooms. Matt Pearsall:Thank you very much, Shelby.