Monday, January 21, 2008

The local cast performs several dances to demonstrate the power of bully ism. Most are local sstudents and residents ages 13 to 70. The Relevant Stage founder collaborated with the San Pedro Ballet Co. to perform some of the parts in a dance.


By Diana L. Chapman
Ray Buffer reminds me a bit of a cross between the determined "High Noon" savior, the dude who commits to a don’t-bury-your-head- in- the-sand -attitude and the buddy who shows up at your house and churns a light-evening gathering into a hot bed of social debates – the kind most want to flee from.
In a sort of Dickens-mannered approach -- the director of the newly founded Relevant Stage now housed at San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theater -- delves into ongoing social-ills as did the 1800s author who constantly hammered away through his writing that children worked in factories and starved in the streets of London. For Ray, he’s driven to the contemporary heart of hate, urging openness and discovery about why Ninja-dressed students gun down their peers on campus and other tragic student figures -- commit suicide -- from constant tormenting vocal darts.
Using his production company, the director wants to continually remind us that those horrors are not behind us. They are not just yesterday’s news. They are today’s news, tomorrow’s news and the news the day after that – at least until we face the misery and address these challenging issues now.
“Truth is really the crux of these stories,” explained the former manager of the Long Beach Opera who dropped everything to start his own theater company. “When you avoid these truths, you don’t fix the problem. Our mission is to engage the kids, challenge their hearts and expose the truth.”
That’s exactly the point of “Acts of Desperation,” and why I’m so interested in this production which will run at the Warner Grand Theater Jan. 31 to Feb. 3. The two acts – telling two entirely different stories – detail accounts of kids hurting, maiming and damaging one another – until, well, “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead,” the title of Act II.
It’s sad, but complete in its storytelling. And it's why I am actively encouraging hundreds of students to attend this performance—especially since Ray and the show’s director, Lucas Pake, offered schools 2,000 seats for free. The Long Beach school district has already booked half of those seats; Los Angeles Unified has been much slower on the uptake, which I hope to see change shortly.
Seventeen local actors and dancers, ranging in ages from 13 to 70, perform in the show, which paints the stories through acting and dance, choreographed by Cindy and Patrick Bradley, owners of the San Pedro Ballet Co.
The offer for students to attend should not be ignored as we are all skating along the walls of hostilities, that many say stem from racism, but in the end, really burst from that ghoulish word -- bully ism. It was a much used and heeded device on Hitler's front, when he attempted to take over the world.
But we still don't seem to understand just how deadly and powerful it is.

Despite attempts to squelch it, bullying continues to carry its ugly face, kicking around like the devil, in school corridor halls. Because adults don’t seem to resolve the problem, kids often lead themselves down darkened and sinister paths to find their own cure.
While some consider taunting and tormenting a “right of passage,” so to speak, a gauntlet that all kids have to go through, nothing could be further from the truth.
First, not all kids have to go through it. Second, how does any one ever expect for students to learn when they come to school riding waves of fear? I've always wondered about the how, and the why debates, about children failing in school. The first question I'd ask students is this: "Are you living in fear?"
You'd be surprised by the hundreds of kids who would answer yes and those are only the ones that are being truthful. And it doesn't matter where they live.

What's the cost when students find their own way out of this often-spiraling downward issue? A life, perhaps, maybe one or more. In the case of Act I, Rats and Bullies –a true story – a young British Columbia teenager, 14-year-old, Dawn-Marie Wesley, becomes the target of three vicious former friends who relentlessly torment her with no end in sight.
She at last finds relief; she hangs herself by a leash and her little brother, D.J. discovers her body. Dawn leaves behind a letter naming each one of her tormentors.
What are the consequences for the survivors? The parents’ divorce. D.J. becomes emotionally imbalanced. The girl’s best friend drops out of high school. And all three of the tormentors never finish high school, Ray explained, who has extensive knowledge of the case, because his wife, Roberta McMillan, an actress and film maker, shot a documentary that detailed the 2000 suicide. The documentary aired in 2003.
His wife, having been bullied in school herself, had a vested interest in revealing the story in the hopes that it would prevent other such incidents.
Act II, “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” describes the composite story of a teenager, named Josh, who first kills his parents and then shoots five students at his high school using a hunting rifle.
Again, Ray selected this play written by William Mastrosimone , to reveal the actions and consequences and why we must face and discuss these issues to try and prevent them.
“It’s not the type of show where people will say: “I enjoyed the show.” But what the directors want is to provoke discussion. In fact, for the student shows, the directors plan to haven a panel of police and gang abatement officials to have a round-table with the students.
“This is a one-two punch and it really strikes home,” Ray revealed, saying the levels of torment have heightened with the advent of technology. “High school has never been harder and people prefer to sweep all this under the rug. But the technology we have today, e-mail, text-messaging, video games give the kids the tools to be that much more aggressive.”
At least six dancers from the San Pedro Ballet Co. will darn the stories on stage; two San Pedro High School students also are performing in the production.
From a dance perspective, Cindy Bradley of the San Pedro Ballet Co., said this type of program gives her teenage dancers the chance to explore their art while learning about such painful issues.
“It gives them the opportunity to express the emotions from within,” she said. “San Pedro, as a community, is ready for an edgy production such as this…I believe it will help them relate to the art and hopefully provide some insight into the subject matter.”
I’m wishing Ray and his performers much success to provide San Pedro live performances at the Warner Grand. Relevant Stage will launch four more productions after this, all dealing with some type of social injustice or trouble.
Relevant Stage came together in a peculiar way.
While living in Huntington Beach, Ray had wandered into San Pedro one day and visited the Warner Grand for his first time. He fell in love with the theater – which he had never heard of before – and thought it “ a palace.” Soon after, he opted to leave his job as the manager of Long Beach’s opera and form the Relevant Stage.
It was a huge risk – but Ray believed he was ready and also understood that he needed to carve out a different niche. Instead of doing the “old war horses,” such as "The Sound of Music," he would embrace newer, and socially-driven pieces.
After "Acts of Desperation," four more powerful stories will be launched at the Warner Grand: "Over There Over Here," "Urine Town" "Bat Boy" and "Reinventing Eden."

Tickets for any of the events can be purchased at: Tickets range from $5 for any one under the age of 18. For the first show, adults will cost $15 and seniors $10. Adult admissions for shows thereafter are $35 and $30 for seniors and college students. (Tickets for anyone under 18, will remain at $5.) Tickets can be purchased at Sacred Grounds Coffee House and Williams Bookstores, both on Sixth Street.