ADVERTISEMENT

When Amy Mings was in seventh grade, she opened up an instant messenger window and unleashed a cutting barrage of insults at a schoolmate.

She'd had a fight with the fellow student earlier that day, and the messages she sent contained harsh words -- "stuff that you shouldn't even say," as Mings put it. After pressing "enter," the guilt washed over her almost instantly.

"I definitely would never have said that to her face," Mings said. "I'm really embarrassed that I did it. I just feel so bad about it to this day."

In the moment she sent that first message, Mings -- like thousands of students before and since -- learned how easy it was to fall into the world of cyber-bullying.

Now a junior at Kenmore East High School, Mings plays the role of a bullying victim in "The Secret Life of Girls," a play that takes a hard look at the changing face of bullying among teenage girls. The show, part of a new collaboration between Theatre of Youth and Independent Health, opened Friday in the Allendale Theatre.

Bullying, viewed as an age-old schoolyard rite of passage for millions of students, has taken on a new and disturbing face over the last decade. While standard-issue bullies once pursued their victims in broad daylight -- think of the constantly snickering Nelson on "The Simpsons" or Judd Nelson's character in "The Breakfast Club" -- today's bullies have extended their battle from school hallways and cafeterias to AOL Instant Messages, Facebook profiles and cell phone picture messages.

And that's where "The Secret Life of Girls," by Dallas-based playwright Linda Daugherty, comes in.

"It sort of takes apart the whole system of bullying," said TOY Artistic Director Meg Quinn. "When you watch characters alone, when they're hearing things and they're e-mailing and stuff, you get to see that they don't want to really be part of it, but they feel that if they don't respond or play the game, that they might be the next victim."

Modes of communication that weren't prevalent a generation ago -- from text and instant messaging to social networking sites -- provide a wall for students to crouch behind and launch anonymous insults and attacks. Serious incidents involving so-called "cyber-bullying," a recently coined term that already sounds outdated, have resulted in serious mental health issues and have been cited as a factor in at least one suicide.

A healthier audience

> The show, which features seven students from high schools around Western New York, focuses on a group of seemingly tight-knit junior high school girls. Their self-esteem-challenged ringleader, Stephanie (Sara States), often pits one against the other, while the fragile Abby (Mary Keenan) suffers psychologically at the hands of the group they ostracize and belittle her for a lackluster performance on the volleyball court.

For City Honors student Kaila Proulx, the show provides a perspective on bullying that victims and bullies themselves rarely see.

"I think that's why theater is helpful, because it gives you the opportunity to actually see it," Proulx said. "Sometimes when you're bullying or even being bullied, you're not seeing really how the bullying is affecting [you] or your victim. They don't really know the true effects of it. Onstage, I think it'll really get through to them since they're able to watch it from a different perspective."

"The Secret Life of Girls" is part of a major sponsorship initiative from Independent Health, which in November pledged $500,000 to Theatre of Youth over five years. In exchange, TOY will present two plays per year focusing on physical and mental health issues facing America's youth.

The initiative grew out of Quinn's dual desires to find new funding sources in a tough and worsening theatrical economy and to have a real and measurable effect on the health of her audience members. The need for a more interventionist mode of theater became obvious, Quinn said, when the scope of the child obesity problem in Western New York became clear.

"One in four kids in this community is obese, and the long-term problems are so astounding that we really are in a position to do something about it," Quinn said. "For me it's always about what it means for kids, but I'm practical on the other hand too. We needed to just create new funding streams, and all of that. That's just smart."

In an effort to drum up awareness about strokes among children and families, and with the help of funding from the Oishei Foundation, General Mills and Independent Health, Quinn wrote and produced "Inside Out," a play aimed at helping children make healthy eating and exercise choices.

>Reaching out

After the success of "Inside Out," Independent Health was easily sold on the idea that theater had real potential to improve the physical and mental health of kids. Even as HMOs across the country intensify their efforts in preventative care -- as much to look out for their future bottom lines as to improve the health of their customers -- a collaboration as extensive as that of Independent Health and TOY is rare.

"I think it's relatively uncharted territory," said Michael Cropp, president and CEO of Independent Health. "We've recognized that if we are going to create a healthier community, then we have to really reach beyond the health system, the health insurers, the physicians, because so much of what influences individuals' health is deeply rooted in their own behavior, their own choices."

The project, which entails the production of two plays per year that focus on health and are tied to quantitative research studies, will be re-evaluated at the end of the five-year sponsorship to determine whether it's been as effective as Quinn and Cropp both hope. The plays, as "The Secret Life of Girls" shows, will focus on a wide range of health issues, from the psychological to the physical.

"Getting to understand what the scope of the challenge is with cyber-bullying and knowing how difficult it is to be a kid and how those anxieties will translate into a number of different things," Cropp said. "This is just as important as the issue of obesity or diabetes in the long run."

And for those who say that the theater is a place for entertainment rather than activism, lighthearted romps rather than serious lectures, Cropp disagrees.

"What I saw with the 'Inside Out' play, for me, was entertaining and it was incredibly eye-opening and one didn't have to crowd out the other," he said.

The idea of major, programming-tied funding for a Buffalo theater from pharmaceutical companies and HMOs is liable to raise some eyebrows. But for Quinn, who knows as much as anyone how difficult the funding picture for theaters is now and how much worse it's likely to get, the potential downsides are far outweighed by the positives.

"We can be really important in the lives of children," Quinn said. "When you want to get their attention and tell them things that are important for them to know about, theater is a way to do that. And it's viable and it's honest and really meaningful for the long term."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com