Arts » Stage

Nasty Girls

The Lyric's One False Move sounds frighteningly true.


Girls are mean in ways boys can't imagine. Whereas boys usually hide nothing and hit everything, girls pummel their rivals within an elaborate system of side glances, eye rolls and implication. Bruises heal but the scars of a well-orchestrated shun can last a lifetime.

Bullying among adolescent girls is the subject of Rachel Simmons' best-selling book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, which has been adapted into a forty-minute opera that premieres in Kansas City with two March 8 performances produced by the Lyric Opera's Education Department. Though it has been retitled One False Move, the material is no less vicious.

"There's not a woman out there who doesn't know about it," says composer and former Kansas Citian Susan Kander. "Let's say I am intimate with the behavior," she says, emphasizing that she doesn't want to talk about her experiences at the all-girls Sunset Hill school (now the coed Pembroke). "When I was brought into the project, I was asked if creating this would be a cathartic experience. Cathartic? No. I may be doing it in spite of all my experience."

The opera was the brainchild of Lyric Opera Education Director Paula Winans, who coordinates efforts like the Lyric's Opera Camp for young people and Opera Heroines, a group for mothers and daughters that deconstructs famous female opera characters. "I read things that might help me help the kids I work with," she says, explaining why she picked up Simmons' book. "I wasn't thinking opera when I read it, but it really moved me."

Winans tracked down Simmons and asked if she would be interested in pursuing the project. "I don't know anything about opera," Simmons tells the Pitch. But in working with groups of girls, she "had seen theater used as a tool to access conversations girls aren't willing to have and skills they aren't willing to use," she says. "When Paula contacted me out of the blue, I said, 'Oh, that's perfect.'"

To steer Odd Girl Out toward One False Move, Simmons enlisted Mimi Stauber, who teaches drama at Brearsley, a private girls school on New York City's wealthy Upper East Side. "I work with girls in making theater that is about things they want it to be about," Stauber says. "I just help them refine it." Simmons, Stauber and Kander visited Opera Camp last summer and spent the better part of a weekend with the girls. While the girls worked on interactive theater games, scenes and intense brainstorming sessions, Kander says she sat in the corner taking notes. Then she went away and wrote an opera.

"From that, I got the characters and the story," Kander recalls. "What gets said in the course of the libretto is what the kids really said." Kander's script, directed by Linda Ade Brand, is about "two best friends, the most popular girls at school. A new girl comes to the school and wants to be popular. She sees an entrée by creating a wedge between the friends. It can happen in sixth grade, ninth grade, twelfth grade -- it happens left and right, and someone gets rubbed out along the way."

If it sounds brutal -- a Cruel Intentions for the middle-school set -- it's meant to be. Simmons spoke with 300 girls from ten high schools across the country, where she discovered this particular theater of cruelty.

"The higher the girls are socioeconomically, the aggression is more indirect and more psychological," she says. "In urban, poor or working-class areas, there's a premium placed on girls who can defend themselves -- it's not discouraged; it's rewarded. But the girls on the Upper East Side, for example, don't feel the aggression any less. It's brutalizing with other kinds of aggression. Some of the girls have said they'd rather be knocked in the face than endure the long campaign of cruelty."

Winans says the cast, composed of adolescent or preadolescent girls from across Kansas City, is bringing some skills to the piece that transcend all schools of method acting. "When Mimi was here and asked the girls, 'Have you ever been mean to another girl?,' almost every hand went up," she says. "They know this dialogue."

Postscript: The Bush administration dismisses hundreds of thousands of peace activists as so many errant children, but it can't quiet the power of a potent work like Aristophanes' Lysistrata. The classic play about what happens when a group of women withhold sex from their husbands until their war ceases will be performed or given staged readings March 3 in more than 530 cities worldwide.

In Lawrence, University of Kansas junior Katie Wolff rounded up a group of friends to mount a staged reading at 8:30 p.m. at the Ecumenical Christian Ministries on Jayhawk Boulevard. She says she wasn't intimidated by her lack of theater training. "I'm a political-science major and have been demonstrating against going to war on Saturdays on [Massachusetts Avenue] for a long time," she says. "But I had been looking for another way to express my feelings."

Pam Marquis of Marquis Productions in Columbia, Missouri, is coordinating a staged reading of Lysistrata at 7 p.m. in the coffee house area of the University of Missouri's Memorial Union. "The play was written thousands of years ago, and we're still dealing with the same topic," she says.

Kansas City was late in getting on board, but Diane Bulan has started organizing locals. "I came to it when I realized no one was going to do anything," she says. One staged reading, touted as an Actors for Actors production, features a cast of twelve and is slated for Unity Temple on the Plaza at 8 p.m. For information, call 816-531-8656. And though plans were just being finalized at press time, it appears that the Equity talent in town, including Kathleen Warfel, Melinda McCrary and Gary Neal Johnson, will do a reading as well at the Next Space (512 East 18th Street) at 8 p.m. For information on that event, call 816-531-2393.

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