November 17, 2018

Anti-bullying: The musical

Where will you sit at lunch?” Anyone who is now or has ever been a high school student can relate to that question. 

I remember well the cliques from my high school in Southern California many years ago. We had the “jocks,” the “drama kids,” “the “stoners” and the “nerds,” to name a few. At fictional Miracle High School, the setting for the original musical “The Intimidation Game,” there’s an updated roster of cliques for 2016: the “Fashionistas,” “Geeks,” the “A Capellas” and the most feared group of all, “The Bullies.” 

The show, which ran May 22-24 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, centered around Tyler, played by gifted songwriter and singer Domonique Brown, 18, as the new kid in town at Miracle High, who is trying to figure out which group he should join for lunch during his first day of school. Before he can decide that, however, the bullies start taunting him and ultimately start a huge food fight in the cafeteria, leading to detention for all of them.

The script and songs of “The Intimidation Game” are based on the real-life accounts of bullying told by the students and volunteers at The Miracle Project, an inclusive performing arts program for teens with and without disabilities. Although many kids may find themselves victims of bullying, students with autism are especially vulnerable. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that children with autism spectrum disorders, who typically have difficulty in communicating and understanding unwritten social rules, are far more likely to be bullied than their non-autistic peers. In fact, out of a national sample of 920 middle school and high school students with an autism disorder,  46 percent self-reported that they have been bullied. By comparison, in the general adolescent population, an estimated 10.6 percent of children have been bullied. 

The Miracle Project was started in 2004 by Elaine Hall (full disclosure: a very good friend), funded initially with a multiyear grant from The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. Over the years, The Miracle Project has expanded and changed venues, and classes are now held at the Wallis, along with The Help Group’s Culver City and Sherman Oaks locations and C.R.E.A.T.E. in Santa Monica. The Miracle Project was also the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary that appeared on HBO called “Autism: The Musical.”

Hall’s backstory is that while she was working as a top Hollywood acting coach, her then toddler son, Neal, was diagnosed with severe autism. When conventional therapies and approaches failed, she turned to her creative friends in the entertainment industry, trained them to understand autism, and they began to work individually with Neal, slowly helping him to engage and communicate nonverbally (he now uses electronic technology and sign language). 

As described by Hall, “The Intimidation Game” is a cross between the classic teen film “The Breakfast Club” and the Tony Award-winning musical “A Chorus Line,” in which dancers auditioning for a show share their own personal journeys to becoming professional performers. The most moving moments in “The Intimidation Game” happened during the song “Me Too,” when the cast members stepped forward one by one and spoke about how it felt when they were bullied, or were the bully. Cast members with autism also talked about how their sensory sensitivities to loud sounds and bright lights can make everyday experiences difficult. Another highly memorable number was “Whatever,” which laid out the optimal way to respond to a bully: Know who you are and align yourself with others who are similar to you, and then don’t let the insults and goading get to you.

Even though I have known many of the cast members with autism and other abilities for years, because our kids used to participate in The Miracle Project, I was still impressed by how much each person has matured and grown more comfortable singing and acting in front an audience. There was Spencer Harte, who was in our son’s special education preschool class, singing a beautiful solo; she is now an aspiring opera singer/actress and has sung with LA Opera’s Community Opera and guest starred on the NBC show “Parenthood.” Tristen Bonacci Miller has been part of The Miracle Project for 10 years, performing throughout Southern California and at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She now attends Santa Monica College, where she is majoring in voice, theater and foreign languages. Both have autism. As is often the case with inclusive groupings, it was hard to figure out which of the cast members had a disability and which didn’t, which is pretty much the point.

The universal anti-bullying message of “The Intimidation Game” is extremely timely and relevant; as our public schools ostensibly welcome an increasingly diverse student body in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability, students who are seen as “different” can still feel invisible, marginalized and humiliated. Funding for the production at the Wallis was provided in part by a grant from the Mandell L. and Madeline H. Berman Foundation, and as part of that grant, there’s an outreach component to take this show to local middle schools and high schools, where the staff of The Miracle Project can come in with the script and musical score and anti-bullying curriculum. Students from the schools will be chosen to act, sing and dance in a scaled-down version of the show. A DVD of the show also will be available soon.  

The Miracle Project is in need of volunteers, in-kind support and, of course, financial donations. Tuition for the classes and ticket sales for the recent three-day run don’t begin to cover all the costs of providing high-quality performing arts training for children, teens and young adults with autism and other disabilities, along with their non-disabled peers and siblings.

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FOR THE RECORD: The Miracle Project was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary on HBO, and not a Grammy Award one.