Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett on creating DIFFERENT=AMAZING

Matthew Ivan Bennett, 5th Grade

Matthew Ivan Bennett, 5th Grade

Matthew Ivan Bennett has been Plan-B Theatre’s resident playwright since 2007.  In addition to four radio plays and more than a dozen short plays, his BLOCK 8, DI ESPERIENZA, MESA VERDE and ERIC(A) have premiered at Plan-B. His new play DIFFERENT=AMAZING (inspired by the 2010 event of the same name) is Plan-B’s second annual elementary school tour.

I was bullied. As a sixth-grader I got into a fistfight over a pink sweatshirt. I suppose I technically could’ve avoided that confrontation—the bruises and the bloody nose—but I was never easily cowed. I was prideful—and I sincerely felt that there was nothing wrong in a boy wearing pink. Nevertheless, I was small, and I suffered for my smart mouth.

Junior high was worse.

My lunch, or lunch money, was stolen. Sometimes, in the short scurrying period between classes, my locker would be kicked shut five times. I was classically held by one boy and slugged by another. The bigger boys liked to lift me and throw me simply because they could. I was chased through the city park. Stones were thrown at me—when I’d been chased onto a church’s rooftop. Once, a pair of boys followed me home, burst into our front door (my parents still at work) and chased me into my room. They taunted me and beat on my door as I held it closed with my foot. The bullies splintered the bottom of the hollow pine door and I told my parents that I had done it.

I reacted largely by, well, becoming weird. I wore black. I wrote stupidly enigmatic sayings on the chalkboard. A rumor began that I was a devil worshiper; I fed it. I hung out with The Smokers, even though I didn’t smoke. I changed my handwriting. I suffered from insomnia. I would sometimes, literally, sleep on the stairs because they were ironically the only place I could fall asleep during the worst of that depression. Finally, I didn’t know who I was. My mother caught me imitating a friend’s voice and, in a rare moment of self-awareness, I realized that, yes, I had been imitating my friends because I didn’t know who I was. By eighth grade, I felt cloudy. I remembered a point, before the bullying and depression, when I was “sharp” or “clear” inside. I still feel this sometimes—a feeling that there used to be more of me. Some people call this feeling “soul loss.”

Of course, I was resilient too. I grew up with a big brother, and a younger brother who was bigger than me, and when there was a chance to fire a rubber-band gun at someone’s face that chance was not wasted. I stood up to physical aggression because I was conditioned to: I was always trying to prove myself physically as the shrimp of the family. I enrolled in a Kempo karate class. I stretched, I did sit-ups, and I saw my bullies as I went through my katas. One time, in Taylorsville Park, I even Judo-chopped a bully in the throat and then ran as fast as I could.

High school was better, but I was still called “fag” (for being in drama), my locker was slammed shut, and two boys once elbowed their way into my living room and threatened me.

But it would be years before I fully realized how being bullied emotionally gouged me.

When I was 26, I worked for a local television station and we periodically shot a panel show in the evenings that aired on Sunday mornings. On the show one night was a bullying expert. Behind the camera, I sort of smirked as I listened. I thought it was all so touchy-feely. Following the show, I struck up a conversation with the guest, telling her about some of my experiences, and she said, “You must have been bullied a lot.” I said no, but I sounded insincere.

I went home and thought. And remembered. As I remembered, I saw a pattern: I told almost no one about my problems. Not my parents. Not my bishop. Not even my friends, really. For the first time I saw that I had been a victim, which changed nothing physically but changed everything mentally. At last I could mourn. At last I allowed myself to feel sorry instead of numb.

Writing DIFFERENT=AMAZING began with a comic monologue about the pink sweatshirt incident. I performed it, myself, at a fundraiser in 2010 and, by far and away, it was the scariest theatrical experience of my life. And it was freeing. I was terrified to stand on a stage and say, effectively, to hundreds of people: I was a weakling, I was a little nerdy kid, I had my ass kicked. But in saying it I saw it wasn’t actually true. I was beaten but I wasn’t beaten down.

After that fundraiser, my stepmom and dad said to me, “This has to go places!” They didn’t mean only my piece, but the whole idea. So I was thrilled when the funding came through for Plan-B to do a touring show to elementary schools.

We solicited stories from the kids and it was torture to read many of them. You read about a little girl getting buckets of mud thrown on her and you wish you were Superman so you could zip to the school and toss the bullies a mile into space to teach them a lesson.

Matthew Ivan Bennett, performing an excerpt from DIFFERENT=AMAZING at THE ROSE EXPOSED (2013)

Matthew Ivan Bennett, performing an excerpt from DIFFERENT=AMAZING at THE ROSE EXPOSED (2013)

But there is no Superman.

There’s just us. Sometimes, it feels like it’s just you—but that’s never the case. (And I wish I knew that then…)

One of theatre’s great functions is its telling us “You aren’t alone.” Really, that’s the most I can hope for with DIFFERENT=AMAZING when we take it to the schools. I just want bullied young kids to feel it’s OK to talk. To someone. To anyone. At Plan-B, we say that our mission is to create conversation. “Conversation” is usually understood as an intellectual happening, but of course it can be emotional too. We can “come into conversation” with our feelings, as I did, when I went home to think about whether I’d been bullied.

The stories I received from the students humbled me, and healed me, and I hope that—in my amplification of them as a playwright—they can do the same for those students’ classmates in Davis and Salt Lake Counties.

Plan-B Theatre Company’s world premiere of Matthew Ivan Bennett’s DIFFERENT=AMAZING, featuring Tyson Baker and Latoya Rhodes and directed by Jerry Rapier, tours to 30 elementary schools in Salt Lake and Davis Counties between February 24-March 14.  The tour kicks off with a free performance at noon on Saturday, February 22 in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner.  Tickets are free but required – click here for more information.

The 2014/15 Company
34th - and final - performance of PETER AND THE WOLF this Saturday afternoon in partnership with Salt Lake Symphony

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