Brainstorm Productions performs to primary and high school students every day of the school year, including their anti violence school program ‘Sticks & Stones’. We talk to this year’s Sticks & Stones team, Kieren and Michael, about how they get students talking about what is acceptable behaviour and what’s not, why they love their job and some expert tips on breaking into acting.
Question: Tell us about Sticks & Stones and what it aims to achieve
Michael: Sticks & Stones is about relationships. It’s about challenging stereotypes around violence and what it means to ‘be a man’. It’s about all the things that can make young men feel angry and frustrated such as not being able to control a situation, jealousy, being humiliated, intimidated or embarrassed. It’s about out of control emotions and aggression and about finding more positive ways to deal with problems. It’s also about the legal stuff and the fact you could go to gaol for being violent. Pretty serious stuff, huh? But we keep it pretty real too, with lots of music and humour.
Kieren: Yeah, we definitely bring the fun too! To prepare for the role, we had specialist teachers train us in acrobatics, unicycling and a Japanese non-aggressive martial art called Aikido.
Question: How did you get the job and what role do you play?
Kieren: We had to audition for the role and I was up against hundreds of other hopefuls, so I was thrilled to get the part. I play Toby, a boy who has grown up with domestic violence. Every day I have to put myself in Toby’s shoes. He’s angry and frustrated and always in trouble. He has to learn how to manage his anger and treat people with respect.
He learns it’s not ok to ask girls to send inappropriate photos to him or to pressure them into doing things they don’t want to do. Following or stalking them, calling them names, embarrassing or humiliating them are definitely ‘no go’ areas. Controlling behaviour such as telling girls what they can wear and who they can talk to is also inappropriate. During the show, we ask the audience to help Toby learn the difference between a smooth move and sexual harassment.
Michael: I have two parts, playing Toby’s dad and Toby’s best mate TJ. Toby’s dad has also grown up with violence and encourages Toby to fight. Together, Toby and TJ hassle girls, bully kids and pick fights. But then they learn that strong men, real men, stay in control of their anger. It’s powerful stuff.
Question: What’s the best response you’ve had from the show?
Michael: Girls putting their hand up and telling everyone in the room, including the guys, what’s acceptable and what’s not and watching the audience really connect with each other. It’s also great to see young guys questioning what it means to ‘be a man’. More and more boys are growing up without strong male role models and are idolising flawless images of male models, pop stars and video game heroes. Every day, we meet boys who feel they don’t fit the standard ‘masculine’ mould and feel ‘weak’ or ‘weird’. They’re often exceptionally talented in the arts including drama, poetry or ballet, which can be difficult as it challenges the idea of what it means to be ‘masculine’. This can be a real struggle for some boys, especially if they’re being bullied. And yes, in case you’re wondering, ‘real men’ do do drama! And ballet demands a really high level of fitness and athleticism too. As much, if not more, than strapping on a pair of footy boots.
Kieren: Kids talking to you after the show about how our show gave them the courage to speak up about their situation and being able to refer them on to someone who can help. Also being two young male actors ourselves, I love that we can help boys understand that they don’t have to fit into a ‘hyper’ macho stereotype. Some days you can literally see the relief on some boys’ faces.
Question: Do you think this will help stop violence against women?
Michael: Absolutely. Simply telling kids that violence is wrong won’t really stop it happening. By using theatre, we’re helping kids to understand that violence is not acceptable. We act out real-life scenarios that they can relate too. The audience is given a personal look at our character’s physical and emotional struggle with violence and how violent behaviour does not equal respect. It just engenders fear which is not the same at all.
Kieren: If you want respect then learn to work things out calmly. Talk about your feelings. Get your aggressive energy out by playing sport, dancing, going for a run or joining a drama group. Maybe get some counselling. We want the audience to grow up to be people who can solve their problems peacefully.
Question: What would you say to a girl who was in a violent or unsafe relationship?
Michael: Don’t wait for your friend to tell you to act. If you know something is wrong, bring it up when you’re alone together and let your friend know you’re concerned and want to help. It can be hard, but try not to criticise your friend. Instead stay focused on what she has to say and her safety. Everyone deserves to feel safe and be treated with respect. Everyone also needs to be heard.
Kieren: Don’t put up with it! Speak to your parents or go to Kids Helpline or call 1800RESPECT. If there is a risk of immediate harm, call the police!
Question: What’s the best thing about your job?
Michael: Wow, that’s a hard question! With every show it’s something new. But for me the best thing is trying to make a positive difference to kids’ lives. I only finished school a few years ago, so I remember what it’s like – the desire to fit in and be liked. It’s natural. But for some kids, this can be a huge burden, leading to issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. For me, connecting with kids and making a real impact is the best thing about being a Brainstormer. It really is an amazing job!
Kieren: Most kids we meet understand that violence is wrong, but not always. Some kids will find reasons why violence is OK in some situations, such as proving your ‘manhood’. And it’s in these moments, when we’re given the chance to help kids understand that violence is never all right, I feel so lucky this is my job. That – and all the amazing kids we get to meet every day!
Question: What advice would you give to students who’d like to pursue a career in the theatre?
Michael: Practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more! Oh and be nice to people.
Kieren: Whenever I’m asked this question, my first question is always – ‘Do you love it?’ Seriously. Don’t become an actor because you want to be famous or for the money, although both would be nice, but do it because you love acting and you have fun doing it. The rest will follow.