StickBoy: There’s a Bully in All of Us

“Survival is not an instinct, it’s an act of sheer will.”
“Survival is not an instinct, it’s an act of sheer will.”

No matter what it is that you feel when a show reaches its end, it is the strength of that feeling that marks its success. After an evening showing of the world premiere opera StickBoy, I couldn’t quite put a finger on what I was feeling. Something new had given weight to both my thoughts and emotions. I have realized, upon reflection, that I had been mentally bracing myself for much of the show, particularly during its final act – wary of the persisting darkness of its subject matter. What I felt afterwards was the impact of having related to the opera’s main character who had faced unwarranted bullying, who had turned on others and on himself, and who had survived by an act of sheer will. Being left with this feeling wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The show had reached me on a deeply personal level and had kept me engrossed in every moment.

The opera speaks to the ugly nature of bullying and its message to audience members is two-fold: things will never get better unless you keep going, but realize that you are never alone. One of StickBoy’s most moving scenes features an exchange between the Boy and his grandmother as they pass notes underneath the Boy’s bedroom door. Three screens on a deconstructed-playground set to the rear of the stage display the writing. Throughout the scene, the grandmother sings a descant and the music encapsulates the downtrodden boy’s feeling of defeat in that moment. The scene is both heart wrenching and heart-warming. A similar scene occurs twice later in the opera, and each time the differences in their interaction demonstrate the Boy’s downward spiral as a result of unceasing emotional and physical abuse.

Projections and animations are used to display dark visual metaphors that contribute to the audience’s ability to understand the Boy’s experience, the plot, the Boy’s inner world, and the world around him. Onstage, activity and set are kept fairly minimal. Sunny Shams, who plays the Boy in Stickboy in his Vancouver Opera debut, is center stage for the opera’s most grueling scenes. His facial expressions and body language convey powerful emotions. Shams also sings with a full and resonant tenor voice. Though he has never experienced bullying himself, Shams remembers friends from school who did and uses those memories to fuel his performance. Another noteworthy performance comes from Megan Latham, who plays the Boy’s grandmother. Latham is warm and embracing as the grandmother and her mezzo-soprano voice lulls. Latham can be seen in upcoming engagements as Rossweisse in Die walkiire with Canadian Opera Company, and as Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor with Edmonton Opera.

StickBoy is a collaborative project, with music composed by Neil Weisensel and libretto by Shane Koyczan. It is the third Vancouver Opera production staged in the Vancouver Playhouse. Spoken-word artist, Shane Koyczan originally wrote StickBoy as a novel in verse, retelling his personal journey through violence and depression. With his new project, Koyczan is looking to start conversation, as well as to provide a platform that enables audience member’s opinions and ideas to be voiced. He has done this is, in part, by providing a card in each program for audience members to write about their own experiences with bullying. These cards are then posted on a board outside of the theatre for public viewing.

StickBoy finished its run at the Vancouver Playhouse on November 7th. Other novels by Koyczan can be found at here, including his latest novel, A Bruise on Light, released this past February.

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