Spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan admits it’s still painful, almost three decades later, to return to such a difficult part of his life.
The poet turned librettist has been doing lots of reflecting on a traumatic childhood as Vancouver Opera puts the final touches on the new work Stickboy. Written with composer Neil Weisensel, the ambitious production depicts the horrific acts of bullying the artist started suffering at around 10 years old. Stickboy follows Koyczan into the violence and depression that led him to eventually become an aggressor himself. The title comes in part from the monster he imagines inside him, one made of sticks of dynamite that he can feel readying to explode.
“I wouldn’t constantly take myself back to a place of absolute despair if I didn’t feel there was some value that would come out of it, if I didn’t think there was something that could be gleaned to help somebody get through another day or help them get through school,” Koyczan tells the Straight from Saint John, where the in-demand performer has just finished a show with the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot Tour to raise passion for another of his favourite causes: the environment.
Interestingly, reliving the scenes of beatings he endured through the new opera’s workshops and rehearsals hasn’t bothered the Yellowknife- and Penticton-raised Koyczan as much as other moments.
“The physical violence for me wasn’t the scariest part,” he reveals. “The scariest part for me was always nobody having a reason for why they were doing it. When finally confronting a bully and saying, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ the answer you would always get was ‘Because.’ Because, because: a million becauses to fill a million whys. It was this meaningless answer, and that was terrifying, because you don’t understand why this was being done to you.”
In his first role as a librettist, Koyczan sometimes had to nudge the opera’s creative team into darker territory to capture the true ugliness of what happened. “My bottom line to them was ‘You’ve got the genre wrong: it’s not drama, it’s horror,’ ” he explains. “For the people that go through this, it’s terrifying. You’re constantly afraid. It’s like being in a horror movie. If you’re going through it in school and you have no one, you’re absolutely terrified, and that’s what school was for me: a horror story where I remember constantly wondering, ‘Am I going to make it through the day?’ ”
It’s Koyczan’s naked honesty about what happened to him that has made him such a beacon of hope and change in the face of bullying—and that keeps bringing him back to the disturbing subject. Last year, the animated video of his poem about the lasting effects of being picked on, “To This Day”, went viral. (It’s at 14 million YouTube views and counting.) He followed it up with a video about cyberbullying called “Troll”—a subject his young fans begged him through letters to confront.
The normally upbeat 38-year-old gets worked up just talking about the social-media abuse: “It’s just insanity to me—this idea of hiding behind anonymity.”
The ripped-from-the-headlines subject makes Stickboy’s themes even more urgent, and speak directly to a new generation of operagoers. “Today, you’re not even safe in your home anymore,” Koyczan remarks.
While his videos are reaching the masses, the opera project has transported him back to the experiences that started all this: the scared 10-year-old boy facing the horrors of kids’ fists, hockey sticks, and name-calling, and as an added insult, adults blaming him and his weight for the abuse he was taking.
Structuring it all into a libretto over the past year was a huge challenge for someone who jokes his only previous experience of opera was Bugs Bunny’s “Kill the Wabbit” episode.
“It’s like, here’s a guy who’s completely in his head, and that’s what it was like for me growing up: I didn’t say anything to anybody else,” he says. “It was always this internal dialogue. So the question became ‘How do we bring it out of this character?’
“Also, people have to be able to sing the words that you write,” he continues, “and, me being a poet, I love language and I love to use language in complicated ways. And you can’t do that with opera! So you take the one thing I really love and you’re having to bend it and twist it and manipulate it in a way that I’m not used to.”
For his part, composer Weisensel has found the material inspiring to work with. Brought on relatively late in the process, after original composer Jordan Nobles stepped down for personal reasons last winter, the prolific Winnipeg conductor and creator of scores for film, stage, and animation cleared the decks to throw himself into Stickboy.
The talent behind such operas as Gisela in Her Bathtub and City Workers in Love was moved to work with the spoken-word poet who had captured his—and the nation’s—heart with his performance of “We Are More” at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony. But Weisensel was also drawn deeply by the story.
“I had problems with bullies when I was a kid,” he reveals, talking to the Straight over the phone from his home in the Manitoba capital. “And my daughter had a kid in her class bothering her and we had to go talk to the teacher—she was eight and that just cut really close to the bone. I pray for things to come into my life where I feel like the art and my life come together, and that what I produce can make a difference. And there aren’t a lot of opera companies in Canada doing new work.”
For Weisensel, one of the biggest challenges was wrapping his music around the show’s technical components. Narration, video, and multimedia animation (by Giant Ant, Koyczan’s collaborators on “To This Day”) are projected across three screens on the deconstructed-playground set that serves as multiple locations. Stickboy is aimed at a wide audience (it will even be cut down to a 45-minute school-touring version after its premiere), and its creators want to draw people to the show who might never otherwise go to the opera.
“I wanted to make sure that the music is relatable to a wide variety of people,” Weisensel explains with a passion that seems to have taken hold of everyone on the project. “I want a 10-year-old kid to come in and say, ‘That was cool,’ and I want an 80-year-old lifelong operagoer to say, ‘There was some beautiful music in there.’ ”
The result, he hints, is a mix of lyricism and rhapsody with the avant-garde and dissonance. “The worst thing you can do in any form of theatre or opera is bore your audience.”
Sunny shams, the rising young local tenor who will be taking the role of Shane as The Boy in Stickboy, says while audiences may be shocked at what occurs in the story, they will be struck by how beautiful the music is.
“Neil’s done a fantastic job. It’s incredibly poetic musically,” Shams says, taking a break from rehearsals at Vancouver Opera’s East Side headquarters. He notes that he has many parlando asides where he addresses the audience directly, as if it’s a party to his journal. “I also have some beautiful lines and quasi-arias. He has found the beauty to reflect in the character. We had a music run-through the other day and many moments gave me shivers. I could see that some of the administrative staff who were watching were wiping away tears.”
While the genial Shams matches Koyczan in burly size, the gentle giant reveals he never faced the problems of bullying that the slam poet did in school. “I’ve always been a big guy, but more the jolly big guy with a lot of friends,” he says with a smile, and then grows serious. “But I’ve had friends who have been bullied; I’ve seen it.”
Under Rachel Peake’s direction, Shams must travel extreme emotional terrain over the course of the opera, morphing from a relatively innocent 10-year-old, whom we meet as he falls down after his first beating at the top of the show, into a bitter high-schooler who’s become the bully. The turning point comes after the Boy moves to a new school, ready to make a fresh start, and a classmate starts teasing him.
“I lash out and start beating him up from anxiety and anger,” says Shams. “There’s a feeling of power that comes from that. I end up pushing so many people away, and that ends with me in depression.…Through all this the music is getting darker, heavier; I have a sense of more empowerment in my body.”
Shams says the role is hugely physical, not just because he’s getting thrown around a lot (“You kind of do feel it when they’re punching and kicking you”), but because of some of the psychologically dark territory he’s forced to enter. In his most gruelling scene, he says, he’s not even singing, but breaking down to the orchestral score, throwing tables and chairs, and eventually spiralling into self-harm.
What may separate Stickboy most from other operas is how it refuses to provide a complete resolution. “In opera either everybody has a grand wedding or everybody dies,” says Shams. While he won’t divulge exactly how Stickboy ends, he allows: “Really, the message is survival is not an instinct, it’s an act of sheer will. It will never get better and you just have to keep going.”
The Boy himself, Koyczan, says he wants there to be some glimmer of hope in Stickboy, if not easy answers. In his own life, things had a happy ending: he went to university, blossomed as a writer, and watched the cool crowd that tormented him fall by the wayside. He became a national icon at the Olympics, a role model for survivors of bullying, and a spoken-word poet who’s in demand on stages, on video, and at TED talks. He’s performed from Edinburgh to Sydney and won the U.S. National Poetry Slam. He’s just released his album, Silence Is a Song I Know All the Words To (which includes “Troll”), and is heading out on a national tour in 2015.
There has been some resolution with the bullies, too: some have written him letters apologizing. “To me you’re never late on saying sorry,” he says. “I get that. A lot of it was that pressure of school, so I don’t blame them. And I love the fact that they took the initiative to step up and say, ‘Yeah. I’m responsible for that.’ But on the other hand, I’ve had people that think we’re buddies or pals and I have to inform them no, we’re not: ‘I remember what you did to me very clearly. In fact, I’ve written about it,’ ” he says with a laugh.
So does Koyczan think things have improved since the days when he felt so isolated and afraid in the corridors of his school?
”Yes, absolutely,” he says without hesitation. “Things are changing. Growing up for me in school, I never saw a single poster about bullying. I never saw a single poster about suicide help lines or any of that, or help groups if you were cutting. I could walk into a school now and you see that stuff everywhere. And it means a lot to people to just know there’s somebody out there trying. Somebody wants to help you: that can be enough to get you through the day.”
That somebody, for Koyczan, was his grandmother—or the Grandmother, as the beloved figure is named in his opera. Koyczan may have felt existentially alone at school, but the woman who raised him was there—as viewers will see in Stickboy—pleading gently for him to open up about what was bothering him.
“She would have to work for it; she’d spend two hours just asking me about my day before I broke down and said, ‘Here’s what happened and why it was awful,’ ” he explains. “It meant something that somebody cared enough to put the time in, even in those moments.”
But perhaps most poignantly of all, the woman who saved Koyczan can’t face reliving it by watching her grandson’s opera on opening night. “I’d love to bring her, but she doesn’t want to go through it again,” Stickboy’s creator says with emotion, making it clear that the horror show of his school years has had a lasting effect. “I talked to her about it and she’s like, ‘You know what? We made it through that.’ And I’m not gonna put her in that position again by saying, ‘No, you have to come to this.’ She knows what it was like; she lived it.”
Vancouver Opera’s Stickboy runs at the Playhouse Theatre from October 23 to November 7.