"Wicked," the hit Broadway musical, "has gotten a new surge of importance because of all the bullying that has come to the nation's attention," said Christine Dwyer, who plays green-skinned Elphaba in the touring production, currently in Orlando.
Since 2010, "Wicked" has taken an anti-bullying message into schools, including Orange County's. They are joined in the nation's 10th-largest school district by several well-known local arts groups that battle bullying with puppets, magic, improvisational acting and other trappings of their craft.
Because of its link to student safety, bullying is a key concern for school officials, said Shari Bobinski, a spokeswoman for Orange County Public Schools.
"Right now the No. 1 need in terms of school shows is bullying," said Tracey Conner of MicheLee Puppets, which teams with the Orange County schools bully-prevention program. "That's what the schools want."
For children, the arts are an effective teaching tool for delivering the anti-bullying message, said Jennifer Bonner, whose Orange County Arts Education Center provides training to local arts teachers.
"A performance is an attention-getter," Bonner said.
Conner's troupe uses animal puppets to teach younger children, while a more intense shadow-puppet show depicts suicide as a consequence of bullying for middle-schoolers and teens.
Presenting such a program as entertainment, as opposed to a lecture, helps keep kids from tuning out.
"When you bring in a show that's fun and entertaining, that doesn't mean it's not educational," Bonner said. "We're tricking kids a little. But sometimes that's the best way."
For two years, Nancy Wood has used the "Wicked" anti-bullying program with her students at Conway Middle School in Orlando. The materials, developed with the national nonprofit BullyBust Campaign, include role-playing ideas, anti-bullying tips and videos featuring the cast.
One video shows a rehearsal scene from the show in which Elphaba is mocked for wearing a pointy hat her schoolmates deem uncool. The scene goes on to show how one of the students comes to Elphaba's aid — called being an "upstander" in bully-prevention lingo — and the actors discuss the importance of taking a stance against bullying in the real world.
Wood's classes discuss the bullying aspects in "Wicked," then create public-service announcements shown throughout the school. Wood, who has taught in Orange for 19 years, has seen results.
"I have had some students who truly have been upstanders and stuck up for victims, either by telling an adult or telling the bully to stop," she said.
Orange County schools have seen results, too, with reported cases of bullying declining in the past two years. In the 2010-11 school year, 609 incidents of bullying were reported districtwide; that number fell to 423 for 2011-12.
The popularity of anti-bullying arts programs has prompted local groups to expand offerings.
The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland launched its UpStanders: Stand up to Bullying Program with 10 Orange County middle schools in 2010, then quickly expanded into Seminole and Osceola counties.
Jeffrey Revels, artistic director of Orlando Repertory Theatre, also has an eye on expanding his bully-prevention programming. For several years, his theater has presented "Pipsqueak: An Anti-Bullying Magic Show" to elementary-school groups. In the show, magician Tony Brent uses juggling and magic tricks as he teaches children how to deal with bullies by relating stories of his own childhood, when he was bullied for being short.
"The audience has grown so large that we will expand to two weeks next season," Revels said. He also plans to add public performances.
For her part, Dwyer says her role in "Wicked" connects with young fans who tell her that watching Elphaba's struggle with ostracism and cruelty changes their outlook.
"They think, 'Maybe I shouldn't judge someone who has a different background than me; maybe I should be kinder,'" Dwyer said. "When you talk to people you've affected in a positive way, you feel like you've actually changed lives. The next time you do the show, there's a little bit of them in you."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038