This is not a typical review about the opera. You can find many articles about Shane Koyczan’s buzzed-about Stickboy adaptation online, with accolades better than what I can give it here.
No, this is a more personal account of my experience in taking in Stickboy. While the story is hardly original, the sentiment is important to my final thoughts, and I hope you’ll bear with me.
A shove against the gym doors, an almost absent-minded gesture that sets your pulse racing for the remainder of the day. The girls appear angelic, kind-hearted; the type of winsome blond teenagers that makes the abuse all the more shocking. It’s a jarring, everyday reminder of your place. Of your imperfect invisibility cloak coming apart at the seams.
A 12-year-old boy shows off the new razor that he’s snuck into school. He threatens, in an almost jovial manner, to cut you with it. You’re not sure what to do in the moment and go with it, trying to keep calm while your heart screams in fear. He ends up satisfied by carving into the cover of a book that one of your teachers lent you. You’re so ashamed that you can’t speak of the incident when you return the book; instead, you tell the teacher that the cover fell off.
A group of girls play Ring Around the Rosie. Taunting and jeering at your grandma in the middle of the circle. She doesn’t speak English and can’t make her way past the group. This one you have to imagine, through fragments of what you’ve been able to glean from your grandma’s reluctant hints. It’s a daily obstacle in her trek out to school at lunch to walk you home. When you confront them, the recess monitor stands alongside all of you, gentle admonishments with little meaning behind them – but then, she’s the mother of one of the girls. After all of these years, you keep wishing that you had punched one of them in the face.
Like I said, none of the above is original to our ears. In a society where girls and boys both told to toughen up, the only way of surviving the experience is to disassociate yourself from it. Because society demands from us the role of functioning, mature adults, perhaps you’ll take on some of the behaviours of your abusers, or perhaps you’ll become so numb that it changes your personality and future social interactions.
If music is supposed to be therapy, then Stickboy is a trigger word. There aren’t any easy answers, no soft denouement, no superhero redemption. Stickboy works because anyone having gone through the experience will instantly recognize the behaviours and feelings on stage. They’ll be brought back to those years of misery and distrust, and feel their impact as surely as it was yesterday.
Stickboy is an anthem for bullying survivors and bullies alike, but it’s set to a sad and hopeless refrain. This isn’t a rallying cry; the very definition of bullying, after all, is a solitary burden and endeavour. Koyczan’s work fully revels in the experience and the result is a poignant elegy that, like the crime, stays with you long after the curtain has lifted.
Vancouver Opera’s Stickboy plays at The Vancouver Playhouse until November 7. More information here.
Photo Credit: Tim Matheson