Shakespeare on the Sound is raising money so William Shakespeare can continue fighting bullies.
Plays written by the Bard, who died in 1616, feature the same kind of cruelty found in today's schools, and Speaking Daggers, a program of Shakespeare on the Sound, is using those plays to teach Norwalk teens how to combat bullying.
"Bullying is such a big problem," said Emily Bryan, director of education for Shakespeare on the Sound. "It isn't going to be the magic bullet, but it's hopefully another way to reach people in a different way.
"Power struggles and conflict are so obvious in Shakespeare you can get kids to think about it. It's from 400 years ago; the names are weird; it takes them out of their comfort zone and makes them pay attention."
Speaking Daggers, which is named after a line in "Hamlet," involves professional actors performing a scene from Shakespeare that includes bullying and then students discuss what's happening in the scene.
The program was introduced in the George Washington Carver Community Center in Norwalk and, so far, it's also been in Norwalk's Roton Middle School, Nathan Hale Middle School and Ponus Ridge Middle School, said Scott Bartelson, a teaching artist with Shakespeare on the Sound.
Scenes performed so far have been from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet," and "The Merchant of Venice." Bryan said she thinks the program works best with middle-school students, though she added it also may work with freshmen in high school.
"The scenes are very good," she said. "They're also plays that get used in the English curriculum and are likely to be very familiar."
Debra Ross Williams, manager of the Youth Development Program at Carver Community Center, said Speaking Daggers was well received by kids when it was performed in the facility's gym last spring.
"The kids enjoyed it, they were engaged," she said. "They did like it because there was acting involved and they would stop a scene."
Shakespeare on the Sound is now raising money to continue the Speaking Daggers program and hopes to raise $17,500 by Nov. 4 through crowd-sourcing, a large-scale publicity effort on www.indiegogo.com/speakingdaggers, and a total of $50,000 by January.
"Part of the reason we're doing the fundraising campaign is we've had interest from schools but this isn't in their budget," Bryan said. "We had a fairly small grant to do the four sites we did and only reached about 400 kids. Our goal is to hit 5,000 kids.
"It can travel. The pilot (program) was harder because we were designing and rehearsing and adjusting, but now we're at a place where it can move easier. It requires no sets -- just the actors and a few props. It's very portable."
The scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" involves girls fighting each other over body issues and a man, and the actors stop mid-performance so students can discuss what's happening and who they identify with, Bryan and Bartelson said.
"In Romeo and Juliet, we go even farther with the interactive nature and have kids try to diffuse it -- step into the role of Tybalt, Romeo and a bystander and come up with strategies of how to diffuse the situation," Bartelson said.
Bryan said students who witness bullying have the power to stop it.
"You actually have a lot of power as a bystander to stop it," she said. "I don't think kids realize -- I don't think even adults realize -- the power they have to step in. It's kind of like getting a new social skill."
"We did a fair amount of reading on anti-bullying, and intervention very quickly is often the best way to stop it ... or if someone can be a friend to someone else," he said.
Research on ways to combat bullying has shown that role playing and performances are helpful because students realize there is a way to "change the script," Bryan said.
"By watching these scenes, we can relate and take them into our own lives," Bartelson said.
"The Merchant of Venice" scene is tied to empathy and the idea of stepping into a bullying victim's shoes, Bartelson said.
Before a scene is acted out, students receive a sheet that asks, "Sometimes people pick on me because I am ..." and they have to fill in the rest anonymously. Bryan said kids have penciled in everything from race and ethnicity to body shape and intelligence.
"The worst one was `Sometimes people pick on me because I'm too nice,' " she said.
During the program, students also talk about bullying incidents in school that are similar to ones found in Shakespeare's plays and what they think characters are feeling during the scenes. The actors, who are mostly in their mid-20s and who studied Shakespeare in graduate school, also talk with students about how they were bullied in school and whether they themselves were bullies.
Students also receive a series of statements, based on the plays, in which they're asked to say if they agree or disagree with the statement or if they're not sure.
In a scene from "Romeo and Juliet," Friar Laurence tries to keep Romeo from killing himself, and Roton Middle School students, asked to respond to the statement "Suicide is a sin" unanimously disagreed based on the effects of bullying.
"They all decided suicide wasn't a sin ... and the reason they gave was if you were being bullied at school, and the torture was so unbearable, that would be a (justifiable) reason," Bryan said.
Students also discussed modern examples of bullying in the news, including Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in New York after he was bullied because he was gay.
But Speaking Daggers is also flexible and "can adapt to what the students are pushing toward," Bartelson said.
The pilot program, which was funded by GE, began at the Carver Community Center and then was introduced into the three Norwalk middle schools to an audience of about 100 students in each school.
Speaking Daggers could be expanded into ninth grade, though a different play, likely "Richard III," would be used, and "Julius Caesar" may work with older elementary school students. The program also could be brought to libraries and community centers and could be expanded into other cities and towns in Fairfield County, Bryan said.