TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Tackles Slings & Arrows of Childhood With ‘Oskar’

2 min
Jomar Martinez and Filip Hofman share a hug in “Oskar and the Big Bully Battle,” performed by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo: Courtesy of Scott Devine)

This week marks the start of this year’s season of Oskar in schools, community centers and hospitals around the Bay Area. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley tours with a short list of plays especially focused on the challenges of being a kid today.

Oskar and the Last Straw, for instance, is about a 10 year-old lugging around what appears to be the biggest backpack known to humankind. He’s got too much to do this week: school, soccer practice, ukulele lessons, buy a present for his friend Molly's birthday, memorize songs for Mikey's rock concert, and deal with the pressures of mass media. "Whatever that means!" his friends on stage yell periodically.

When a proverbial last straw is added to his pack, Oskar falls over and can’t get up. It may sound a little silly, but the idea behind “drama therapy” — as plays like this one are called — is to introduce coping skills to elementary school kids before they’re really overwhelmed in high school.

The Oskar plays — there are now five in all — were originally commissioned from playwright Prince Gomolvilas by the Palo Alto Unified School District about a decade ago, around the time it began to struggle with teen suicide spikes.

Jomar Martinez, Vivian Marino, and Filip Hofman perform in “Oskar and the Big Bully Battle," touring with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley through April 5, 2019.
Jomar Martinez, Vivian Marino, and Filip Hofman perform in “Oskar and the Big Bully Battle," touring with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley through April 5, 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Scott Devine)

"This was a response to community concerns," said TheatreWorks' Director of Education Lisa Giglio, who added the play topics come from suggestions forwarded by the schools, including embracing diversity, gender stereotypes and bullying.

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The other play on tap this year from TheatreWorks is Oskar the Big Bully Battle. "I think we know it in our bones, sadly, that bullying would be the number one thing that people will relate to."

Or #2, according to recent research from the Pew Research Center that ranks anxiety and depression as #1. Whatever the case, there is a growing body of evidence American teenagers operate under psychological stress. So it stands to reason younger children are just a few years away from needing the tools to cope.

"This is happening. How do we convey it to kids that haven't yet reached that point?" said Oskar tour stage manager Rachel Spanner, who added the series is designed to plant the seed in children's minds that they can turn to friends, family and educators for help in later years for "coping strategies that actually work in high school and college."

The plays last a little more than a half hour, and are typically attached to lesson plans ahead of the performance and Q&As after.

"Hopefully these plays can provide a way for kids to deal that they either didn’t think of before or were thinking of doing but didn’t know how to approach it," said Filip Hofman, who plays Oskar this year.

Sadly, grown ups are often the primary source of stress in children's lives, and they often can’t stay off social media unless their goal is total social isolation. But if they leave Oskar plays thinking they're not alone, it's a positive start in the direction of psychological health.

Oskar the Big Bully Battle and Oskar and the Last Straw run through April 5, 2019, with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley performances scheduled throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, click here.

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