‘Odd Girl Out’ brings true-life stories of bullying to Temple stage

 The cast of 'Odd Girl Out' during a rehearsal at Temple University (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The cast of 'Odd Girl Out' during a rehearsal at Temple University (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Temple University has premiered a documentary theater production about girls bullying girls.

The play, “Odd Girl Out,” is based in part on the book of the same name by Rachel Simmons (and subsequent Lifetime channel TV movie) about “the “hidden culture of aggression in girls.”

Unlike the more physical bullying boys often do, the way girls bully girls can be secretive — almost invisible to adults or those outside the immediate peer group.

“It’s about the weaponizing of intimate relationships and friendships as a way to control or destroy another person,” said Doug Wager, the the artistic director of Temple’s theater department. He created this theater project after discovering his own 13-year old daughter had been traumatized by bullying.

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“Girls may stay in relationships with friends that belittle them, or dominate them,” said Wager. “It can be so sophisticated a form of bullying that the person to whom its being done may not know who is doing it to them. It is almost singularly focused on destroying self-esteem.”

In the past, Wager had worked with Anna Deavere Smith, who pioneered a documentary theater technique wherein she interviews many people on a single topic, and recreates those people onstage with their own words. The 13 actors in “Odd Girl Out” interviewed girls and women involved about their experiences with bullying, then embody them onstage.

The actresses had to approach the interviews scientifically. Temple University insisted they be trained to conform to standards set by the Institutional Research Board. “They had to learn the protocols of doing research,” said Wager. “The do-no-harm aspect of conducting interviews, especially with emotional subjects.”

After conducting the interviews, the actresses spent several weeks constantly listening back to the recordings on their iPods and cell phones, internalizing the voice patterns and idiosyncratic rhythms of the girls.

Holly Grum, a junior, interviewed a 6th-grader who was bullied by her friends. “It was, like, yeah, 6th grade is great!” Grum said of first part of the interview. “Then it was more like she’s discovering — she’s discovering as she’s talking that this sucks.”

Onstage, Grum’s performs the stark difference between an 11-year-old girl excited by 6th grade, to the slow, plodding speech of a girl emotionally beaten by her peers. Her breath gets shallow and her body starts to twist as the girl uses all of her resolve to keep from crying.

The actresses in the play learned that the voice of the bullied girls reveals as much, or more than the words spoken.

Sarah Stearns, a senior, recreated the voice of a 17-year-old, who never stopped smiling while recounting being bullied. Her speech is fast, her words are clipped as she described how it happened.

“Suddenly I just got really upset, like, weeks later. And no one had any idea. And I didn’t want to deal with it. So I just made new friends,” said Stearns, channeling the girl’s words.

By recreating that voice, Stearns came to realize that the girl’s effort to hide her emotional pain behind a fake laugh becomes physically painful.

“It’s like in the back of her throat, and in her nose. It’s really nasal. And she’s smiling all the time, which you can hear in the voice,” said Stearns. “I can’t do that on stage because it really hurts my voice to do that. There’s a lot of throat tension. I had to figure out how to intersperse the smiles to avoid tearing my throat out with the smile.”

“Odd Girl Out” runs at Temple’s Randall Theater through Saturday.

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