Members of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s education program are slated to take their “Oskar” tour to area elementary schools March 2 through April 10, performing plays that embrace acceptance and discourage bullying.
The tour will feature “Oskar and the Big Bully Battle, Part 2” and “Oskar and the Countless Costume Changes,” written by award-winning playwrights Prince Gomolvilas and Matt Ackels and directed by Lisa Edsall Giglio. Jomar Martinez stars as 10-year-old Oskar; Tanya Marie and Max Seijas play Beth and Frank, respectively, along with several other roles.
The “Oskar” tour began as a result of a partnership between TheatreWorks and the Palo Alto Unified School District after a cluster of teen suicides in 2007.
“The school district wanted to know if there was a way to address this conversation in school before kids got to high school and were so stressed out,” Giglio said. “How do we help ourselves stop or slow down, do things one at a time and not get overwhelmed? That is where the relationship was born out of and what the ‘Oskar’ plays aim to teach.”
Teaching empathy and tolerance
“Oskar and the Big Bully Battle, Part 2” is a sequel to last year’s production. TheatreWorks hopes to teach students not just how to stand up to bullies, but how not to become one. Giglio explained that in the play, Oskar is determined to confront the bullies and put them in his place, but in his effort to prove that he is “right about what bullies are,” he ends up bullying his friends instead.
“He doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. The thing that’s different about this play is that it talks about the difference between poor choices and bullying,” Giglio said.
She added that people often just have bad days and lash out, but that can be amended by apologizing.
“(This play includes) ideas of how we notice it and what we can do or can’t do (when we encounter it),” she said. “Also, what we do if somebody does bully us, how we behave, how we can help, but another additional layer is (observing) the difference between somebody trying to do harm (and someone who’s not).”
The other play, “Oskar and the Countless Costume Changes,” focuses more on overcoming gender roles and expectations. Oskar and his friends are excited to participate in a school play, with Oskar directing and his friends acting. He wants to cast his friends Beth as the princess and Frank as the knight. But Beth wants to be brave and play the knight, while Frank wants to wear the crown and be a princess. In the duration of the play, Oskar learns that people don’t have to conform to gender roles as much as they have to be true to themselves.
“It teaches the kids about characteristics, people and how not everything we do is going to be traditionally masculine or feminine,” Martinez said of the play. “It just means that’s what the person does. And that’s it. I think that’s a really great show.”
Martinez and Giglio said that because they target a young audience, the performances are interactive and also include a Q&A session afterward. The actors take moments to pause and allow the kids to yell out answers or their advice on what the character should or shouldn’t do. The Q&A sessions allow students to ask questions about the lessons the play tries to teach as well as the theater aspect.
Martinez – who previously played Oskar’s friend, Frank – recounted stories of kids who were intrigued by how quickly he could change costumes.
“I played maybe nine different characters in one of the ‘Oskar’ plays in less than five minutes, so costume changes would happen on the fly in two seconds,” Martinez said. “It was a lot of costumes in less than five minutes. Countless costume changes indeed they were.”
At first, Martinez was surprised that young kids remained engaged throughout the play and were even curious about various aspects. Now, the actor said he alters his mindset while performing in an effort to reach the kids on a deeper level.
“I like to think that I’m just a big kid at this point. When I’m up there performing for kids (I don’t think) that I’m performing for kids, but rather that I’m one of their friends,” he said. “I think the big thing is that I want to be laughing with these kids and not too preachy, so I tend to just do what I can to enjoy myself, and with a little bit of direction, we’re able to put on a show with a lot of continuity to our message.”
In the past, the “Oskar” tour made stops at several elementary schools in the Los Altos School District, including Almond, Covington, Loyola and Santa Rita.
“In elementary school I think empathy and tolerance of fellow humans is the overriding message,” Giglio said. “What we really want to get across is just notice who your friends are and what they like.”
For more information on the “Oskar” plays, visit theatreworks.org/education/oskar.