Renton councilwoman uses theater to combat bullying

Carol Ann Witschi’s ‘Drama Kids’ program draws on personal experience.

The confidence to act on stage and the confidence to stand up to bullies may not be traits that kids and teenagers naturally possess.

But a business in Renton is trying to change that.

Carol Ann Witschi, who directs the South and East King County chapter of international drama education program Drama Kids, is using theater to bring an anti-bullying message to local schools, churches and community groups thanks to Drama Kids’ new STOP BULLYING program. Witschi is also a member of the Renton City Council.

“[The curriculum] is designed to build self confidence, self expression, empathy and public speaking skills,” Witschi said. “I teach high-energy kids to be better listeners… and quieter kids to speak up and be heard.”

Through weekly classes for grades kindergarten through second are able to place themselves in fictional bullying scenarios that are based on what actually goes on in schoolyards across the nation, and to act out useful strategies for combatting the antics of different types of bullies. This way, students learn how to deal with the issue of bullying while at the same time developing their skills as actors.

“We ask, ‘What would you do? What would be an effective way to stand up for the person being bullied without getting yourself in the line of fire?’” Witschi said.

Classes focus on different aspects of drama, such as speech, projection, stage presence, movement and improvisation, Witschi said. Each class is different so as to keep things fresh and fun for the aspiring thespians.

Witschi said that it’s very important that kids understand that bullying comes in all forms. While hitting and shouting are the more obvious kinds of bullying, it can also include the subtler, quiet acts, such as the so-called “popular kids” making the “unpopular” kids feel unwelcome at certain lunch tables, or one girl not inviting another to a sleepover. In the age of social media, more and more unkindness is being spread online through cyber-bullying.

“It’s not just pushing and shoving … it’s gossiping, social media, all kinds of intimidation,” Witschi said.

Sadly, Witschi has plenty of experience from which to draw, as she herself underwent particularly awful bullying at the hands of other girls in her sixth grade class. What started out as a simple argument with Witschi’s best friend turned into all of the girls in her class slowly turning against her. Eventually, this culminated in everyone standing in a circle around Witschi at recess chanting “We hate Carol Ann.”

Painful as the memories are, Witschi said that “it made me who I am,” noting that the events taught her to be strong and made her determined not to let anyone push her around.

Now Witschi hopes that her anti-bullying classes can help to stop new generations of bullies, so that no one will ever have to go through the torment that she endured.

“This is to build self-esteem and self-confidence … so you can get up, wipe yourself off and move on,” she said.

The same goes for Drama Kids’ non-school programs. Witschi has noticed girls in her classes who “you can tell outside of that room … are not the popular girls.

“We give them a safe place,” she said. “We need to help them gain confidence.”

According to Witschi, theatre helps prepare kids for working in whatever field they choose, as well as for dealing with life in general.

“Drama is a supplement to anything you want to do in life,” Witschi said. “At some point, you’ve got to get up and present your ideas. These classes force kids to talk to one another.”

She laughed that her classes make kids speak clearly, noting that “you don’t get very far in life if you mumble.”

The art of public speaking comes in handy for every kind of career, Witschi said.

“Teaching, sales, any type of leadership position — I call my program a ‘Post-Masters for kids,’” she said.

Growing up in New York City, Witschi always harbored a passion for the theater, but she did not allow herself to make acting into a career until this past year.

“I followed the track my parents wanted — to get a business degree — and spent my money on acting classes [on the side],” Witschi said. She spent 25 years in sales and human resources, where she said the money was good, but she “was never as passionate about [those jobs] as I am about drama.”

Just this past year, Witschi said she “made the decision to take a chance and jump off the cliff.” Following her heart, she quit her job as an HR consultant and opened the South and East King County chapter of Drama Kids — and she hasn’t looked back since.

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