An alumna of Miami Country Day School has begun filling the gap in South Florida schools that lack an open forum to discuss bullying.
Tiffany Kontoyiannis, a sophomore at Barnard College in New York City, is creating an anti-bullying kit for schools based on a play she wrote in ninth grade – The Cycle. The play earned her a Silver Knight accolade for drama and a Florida State Thespian, District 8, Critic’s Choice Award in Playwriting in 2012.
In the span of 35 minutes, the play tackles bullying head-on.
The kit will include a copy of the play’s script, a question-and-answer guide for processing the play, an informational video, a sample anti-bullying curriculum and a primer on how to start an anti-bullying club. She is seeking funding to create a website and make the kit available by the end of the year.
At Miami Country Day, a private school located near Miami Shores, Kontoyiannis shared her work with guidance counselor and school psychologist, April Vogel. After refining the play and assembling a group of actors, Vogel reached out to her network of school guidance counselors and began scheduling performances at schools around South Florida. She estimates the group of 14 students performed at eight schools between 2010 and 2012.
“People were so much wanting to have a discussion about this,” Vogel said. “It exploded. Before we knew it we had more than we could do.”
Students’ schedules limited the number of performances they could give despite the high demand, she said.
The need for more school resources was exposed during the sessions after each performance, in which actors posed questions to the audience. The group found that many schools lacked an open forum to discuss the topic.
“We found students would just talk and talk and talk,” Vogel said. “Parents in the audience sometimes would say things like, ‘Wow, my high school would never have done this.’ They were shocked.”
The shock factor was intentional, Kontoyiannis said. She wanted to keep it as realistic as possible and drew on her own experience of being bullied in the seventh grade for inspiration. She even inserted a thought from some of her darkest moments.
The line reads: “I wish life was as easy as Facebook, with the click of a button you delete your problems. Maybe I should do the world a favor and delete myself.”
Says Kontoyiannis: “In some presentations we almost have to laugh at how absurd it is, but I want to show how serious it can be, and can create insecurities that people carry with them for rest of their lives.”
Miami Country Day senior Josh Rivas auditioned for The Cycle his freshman year. He earned the role of a cyberbully who dupes his mom into believing he is a perfect son by creating two Facebook accounts.
“After one of the performances a teacher came up to me and said, ‘The children are never this quiet,’ ” he said. “I learned they probably never talk about bullying, or it’s never spoken about.”
He described it as a wake-up call for faculty who realized their students urgently needed an outlet for this issue.
By using her passion for theater and writing, Kontoyiannis was able to make sense of what happened to her, and connect with others who had been through similar experiences. She began by writing monologues that grew into dialogues, and eventually a play, with Vogel’s guidance.
“For her it was very much a healing process,” Vogel said. “She used writing as a way to heal what had happened to her. She wrote herself into the play.”
As Kontoyiannis’ writing evolved, Vogel called on the head of the drama department, Chris D’Angelo, to share his playwriting experience.
“It opened my eyes to how theater can really cause an impact,” Kontoyiannis said. “Just conversations can be awkward because they can’t see what you’re seeing. By putting it on a stage you can spark emotion that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
In 2012 Rivas became president of the newly formed Anti-Bullying Club (ABC) at Miami Country Day, taking over the reins for Kontoyiannis when she left for college. Today the club has more than 50 members. They have hosted a number of events to raise awareness, including a week of kindness, suicide awareness day, a viewing of the movie Bully and attending an Anti-Defamation League conference in Washington D.C.
Rivas and Kontoyiannis are pursuing careers in the performing arts with hopes of sparking new conversations and creating change. Both credit Miami Country Day’s after-school program, Theater for Social Change, with teaching them how to connect their passions with probing important social issues. Kontoyiannis is assembling a new team of actors from Barnard and Columbia University to perform the play in New York schools.