Showdown & Mixed Messages: Theatre for Social Change

The Facts

What is bullying and why has it been such an important topic for so long in schools? In 2012 Ontario became the third province in Canada to implement anti-bullying legislation. A study done around the same time by the Public Health Agency Canada revealed that nearly 20% of students report being bullied, while 40% of students report being both victims and bullies[1]. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines bullying as follows:

“Bullying is a relationship problem. It is a form of repeated aggression where there is an imbalance of power between the young person who is bullying and the young person who is victimized. Power can be achieved through physical, psychological, social, or systemic advantage, or by knowing another’s vulnerability (e.g., obesity, learning problem, sexual orientation, family background) and using that knowledge to cause distress.”[2]

The above definition expands our understanding of bullying beyond physical violence; it looks at the deeper power dynamics between and among youth, and the numerous ways through which power is achieved. The organization Promoting Relationships & Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) states that bullying rates in Canada are higher than 2/3 of OECD countries, and the bullying doesn’t stop when students leave school. Some more facts from PREVNet include: Over 1/3 of Canadian teens have seen cyberbullying take place, 1 in 5 teenagers now report being victimized electronically, and 80% of teens have seen racist or sexist content online.[3] What this data reveals is that bullying is a complex problem that requires a dynamic approach and solution.


We Listen

In 2002 the idea for Showdown began with Simon Malbogat, the Artistic Director at Mixed Company Theatre, as he delivered workshops to schools in North York, York, and Scarborough. Through his work with these schools, Simon realized that bullying was not only a common issue, but also a daily occurrence in the lives of students. He decided to work with students and teachers to create a show and workshop, using Forum Theatre to address issues of physical and emotional bullying, isolation, manipulation, and bullying between genders.

MCT applied to Crime Prevention and received funding to create and perform the workshop and show. Support from such a well-known organization helped Mixed Company Theatre to build trust with school communities, and raised awareness about the efficacy of Showdown. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TDSB) heard positive reviews of the production, and helped bring it to more classrooms, through the provision of subsidies. Other school boards also started to request the show. Simon had hit upon crucial social issues through listening to the needs of the schools, teachers, and students, and Showdown was in demand, and was eventually seen by over 350,000 students and educators.

This ability to pay attention to the needs and feedback of students and teachers led to a turning point for Showdown in 2011. The internet and online social platforms were quickly becoming new places for bullying to occur. Mixed Company Theatre realized that Showdown was not keeping up with this shift and would soon be outdated if the company didn’t adapt. Thus was born Showdown 2.0, an updated version of Showdown, which included technology and ways of dealing with cyberbullying.

Through the positive reviews and feedback about Showdown, and our amazing funders and partners like Crime Prevention and the TCDSB, Mixed Company Theatre was able to tour two versions of the show: one version for younger grades, and another version for secondary schools. In 2009 The Bullying Show with Morro & Jasp was also developed to respond to the need for an anti-bullying show for students in Grade 2-5. Through these shows, we were able to reach audiences of over 30, 000 per year from 2004 to 2014. With the funding received through Crime Prevention, Mixed Company Theatre was able to add the production and aesthetic values which gleaned a DORA nomination.

We Feel

Showdown wasn’t born solely from Simon’s experience giving workshops in various school districts; Simon was personally affected by bullying. More specifically, his son experienced physical and psychological bullying at school. Simon did what any parent would do: he went into the schools and spoke with his son’s teachers. His teachers promised to deal with the situation, but the bullying persisted. Simon then reached out to the principal to help put an end to the bullying, and separate his son from the bully. The teachers and principal did little to help, and his son continued to come home bruised, bleeding, and defeated.

This is when Simon realized that he had to take matters into his own hands. The school system wasn’t addressing a serious issue, and continued to place his son in harm’s way. Simon wrote letters to the head of the district school board, the trustee and superintendent of the board, and anyone that would have more power to help his son, and ensure that bullying would be taken more seriously within the education system. Despite the fact that the principal did not take drastic actions to resolve the bullying, Simon was admonished for going over her head, and it took five months before the principal dealt with the situation. People eventually started to listen to Simon’s plight, recognize the broken chain of care within the education system in dealing with physical and psychological bullying, and see its impact on those that fell victim to the violent behavior.

People started speaking up about their own experiences with bullying in their schools, from teachers and guidance counsellors to students, principals, and politicians. This input from principals, teachers, students, the mayor, and other leaders, all catalyzed the development of Showdown, Showdown 2.0, and Mixed Messages. It also ensured that Mixed Company Theatre was continually aware of their audience and adapting to changing needs and issues.

Mixed Messages Wordcloud with logo

We Change

Now that the demand for Showdown and our more recent production Mixed Messages is waning, how will Mixed Company Theatre adapt to our audience? We know that it is still necessary, more than ever, to teach our kids the difference between coercion (bullying, manipulation, and rape culture) and consent, as well as the difference between the escalation and de-escalation of a situation. We know that in the past a Forum Theatre play, followed directly by an interactive forum and intervention session has really resonated with teachers and students alike. But what changed and how can we adapt to the shifting demands for the educational curriculum, especially in a time where it seems like mental health is taking centre stage? From the research mentioned at the beginning of this article, it would be fair to say that mental health is without a doubt part of the complex issue of bullying, and thus was born our new school tour, Half Full. No matter which issues are in vogue, whether bullying, consent, or mental health, one thing is for sure: Mixed Company Theatre’s approach using Forum Theatre will always lead to positive engagement and dialogue on how to create positive social change.


“Showdown provided a unique opportunity for staff to have fun while they learned and engaged with the topic of violence, in a credible and realistic manner. Showdown’s ability to provide hope and positive solutions for the very complex problems of violence and bullying was heartening, and clearly emphasized the resilience of youth. The material was all the more poignant presented through the voices of youth, challenging the audience to consider the experience of violence and bullying from the youth’s perspective.”

Edwina Godden, Central Region Youth Justice Trainer, Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services

“I have been able to use Mixed Company presentations, and some materials from your teaching guide, to continue to use lessons from the story, and make students think about their own lives and involvement with peer pressure. My students loved the performance and were very much engaged.”

Teacher, TDSB

“It was a pleasure having Mixed Company Theatre perform at Riddell. They were able to successfully plan and implement an anti-bullying performance that included all of the key messages and strategies for dealing with bullying. It was an interactive presentation with students participating and problem-solving throughout the performance. It was Grades 4-6 age-appropriate and connected very well to discussing our own school climate and how all of us have a responsibility to make Riddell the safest place to learn and achieve our full potential.”

Wes Hahn, Principal, R A Riddell

[1] 2012, K. Dearden. Canada: Ontario’s Anti-Bullying Legislation Is Now In Effect.
[2] W. Craig, H. McCuaig Edge. The health of Canada’s Young People: a mental health focus.
[3] PREVNet Bullying. The Facts.


A scene from Showdown 2.0

Showdown 2.0 – Dweepesh’s Intro to MCT

posted in: Showdown 2.0 | 0
A scene from Showdown 2.0
Photo by Erin McCluskey. From Left to Right: Michelle Nash, Tayves Fiddis & Michelle Jedrzejewski.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself – I am Dweepesh, co-op MBA candidate at the DeGroote School of Business in McMaster University. I have recently joined MCT as a Marketing Communications Specialist for the summer 2013 co-op term.

While watching my first theatre show presented by Mixed Company Theatre, I realized why I wanted to work here. I have enjoyed theatre over the years, but none like the one I experienced on Wednesday. The first act of SHOWDOWN 2.0 was about the worst case scenario of bullying in high school, especially through the use of social media. While watching I could sense the nervousness inside me because of the issues that were raised. I felt the actors portrayed the scenarios very realistically.

The second act was something I could have never imagined. The ‘joker’, or the facilitator, asked the audience to be involved in scenes they felt they’d like to change, and to pick a character in the scene they would want to replace. I was surprised by the enthusiastic response of the middle school kids, who volunteered to get up and intervene in the play. I noticed how many wanted to become the oppressor and change the way the bully treated others. Going up in front of their peers was a very brave step. The audience participants really influenced me, and if I was called up on the stage, I would have probably liked to replace a bystander and try my own ways of standing up against the bully.

Thank you MCT for this wonderful opportunity and I look forward to a successful term!

Strong by Megan Landry

posted in: Speak Out | 0

Today, Carina received an email from a young girl named Megan Landry. In the email she attached a video she created inspired by some of her own personal experience with bullying. The song is titled “Strong.” She wrote, recorded and filmed everything on her own. Oh, and she is 15.

In the body of the email she wrote:

“I was not going to let them break me. Reality, if it shows that it bothers you, they’ll just do it more. I hope my song will help those that are starting to feel torn down — to rise up! Don’t let anyone make you a victim. They aren’t worth it.”

Rise up.   Speak out.

Remembering “10% Reality”

This is Duncan McCallum, Associate Artistic Director, and I wanted to do some blog posting for a while now, but never found an appropriate topic to start with, so I kept putting it off.  Today, while waiting for the cast of Plastico: an Epic Eco Adventure to arrive, I noticed a reminder about the Day of Pink, which got me thinking back to my first job with MCT in 2006.

For those of you who are not aware, April 11th, is the international Day of Pink – which is a movement started by high school students to raise awareness of bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia in schools and communities.  The idea is that on April 11th, an individual wears pink to show support and help create dialogue for social change in their schools.  Check out the website for more info.

Back in 2006, after completing my Bachelor of Education at Queen’s I returned to Toronto, to start my performing career.  One of the first gigs, if not the first gig, I managed to get was with MCT as an actor in their production of 10% Reality.  The project was developed in partnership with a school board in Northern Ontario to create dialogue about homophobia in middle and high schools in their region.  The board approached MCT with this concept and over several months Luciano Iogna, the playwright, and Simon Malbogat, the director/dramaturge, created the play, which was then toured for two weeks.

In first entering into the company, as an actor/educator, I had never experienced Forum Theatre so the project was an incredible learning experience for me.  Once I had been fully introduced to MCT techniques and the production was rehearsed, we left for the northern region to begin our school tour.  At that point, I wasn’t expecting anything from our audiences:  Stand up, tell us what you think, change the situation and then we will discuss. For the youth’s part this was what we were getting: open and honest dialogue about the issue.

After a few shows the group really hit a stride.  The show itself was effectively catalyzing these youth to have a difficult discussion about homophobic culture within their school and community.  The youth were daring and creative in the ways they challenged the different prejudices in the play.  They found numerous, heart felt ways to speak out about and essentially stop the harmful behaviour.  Overall, the production was a success.  It was then that we started to receive some unexpected community resistance about our presence in schools.

Seeing as how the board had brought us into the community to create this production without first consulting the community, the community itself was angered.  Unbeknownst to us, several churches in the area had become aware of our production and its focus, and without first investigating or viewing a performance, started instructing their constituents to counter act our attempts at open social discussion.  Parents started pulling their students from class, teachers started calling in sick, and community members started attending our productions sitting in the back of the room audibly disagreeing with our presence.  The churches even went so far to accuse MCT of trying to ‘teach students how to be gay.’


Student’s argue over public prejudice in 10% Reality. (Left to Right – Nawa Nicole Simon, Duncan McCallum and Dan Watson)

To give you some context to the intent of the play, here is the show’s description taken from MCT’s website:

The 10% Reality examines the effects of homophobia on young people who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality—and the bullying they and their friends sometimes experience as a result.

Sam is being bullied at school for being gay, and now his Dad wants to kick him out of the house. At school, his best friend, Tanya, has started to experience name-calling and bullying because of her friendship with Sam. After learning Sam may be gay, Tanya’s father demands that she end her friendship with Sam.

Sam’s battle is difficult, as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. Tanya, too, feels immense pressure. Staying Sam’s friend will mean trouble for her at home and at school. Her other choice sees her abandoning her best friend to avoid the grief of being bullied at school and of defying her parents. What should she do? How can both friends stand firm about what is right for them? We ask students to help us find options for both Sam and Tanya.

At first, the cast were all astonished to find the community taking these measures, especially when no one had really approached us about the issue, or done research into the intend effect of the show.  From our perspective as artists, consultation with the community (students, schools) was accomplished and did effect the final product, as is MCT’s creation methodology.  As time went on and the negative prejudice persisted, we as performers  became unknowingly defensive.  We started speaking negatively among ourselves about this section of the community that would “dare have the audacity to do this.” etc. The negativity continued to bleed into our performances and at one show, we found the typically engaged response from our audience to muted.  The students just weren’t catalyzed.  It seemed as though the prejudice that had been brought into our space, had begun to influence us and then started to shut down the dialogue.

After this specific show, the facilitator (Nawa Nicole Simon) and cast (Sefton Jackson, Rachel Brittain, and myself) conducted a closing circle to air some of these feelings.  It was during this talking circle that we all named what was happening, and cleared the frustrations and feelings that were affecting our major purpose being in the community (catalyzing open and non-judgmental dialogue about social issues).  As a collective we decided to focus on the effectiveness of character and story and keep all personal feelings separate.  We are all facilitators there to allow the community to start conversation about their own issues.  We catalyze and facilitate, so there is space for open-hearted dialogue.  The community are the specialists in their own issues.

After this discovery, the frustration and anger from disagreeing community visitors had nothing to rebound off, nothing to build from and thus it dissipated.  Ultimately many visitors approved of our efforts, and slowly the community blow-back disappeared.  Through excluding our third party opinion, the community managed their own response which permitted the youth to, again, be the focus. This allowed their thoughts, opinions and options time to be considered and analyzed.  The production continued to spark creative solutions and helped to establish a strong base for the schools to continue raising awareness.

When using theatre as a tool for social change it is difficult to not allow negative perception, anger, guilt to affect the space and the individual, especially when you are dealing with raw and real issues.  Staying objective when creating dialogue is key because it takes away the target for these negative thoughts and emotions, allowing you to just ask questions and facilitate the discussion.  Your work is there to create the space for dialogue not to preach an agenda. The community decides what works for them; you help to catalyze and mediate, not decide.

Today, being the day of pink, it is important to remember that these issues are still a major part of our society.  Social issues don’t change over night or even in the course of a few years, it takes decades of talk to really change perception and create inclusion.  It is also good to remember that even in the face of prejudice when the dialogue is honest, people will listen, minds with ponder, and things can change.

Thanks for reading and keep it real.