Arts & Culture

‘Antisocial’ delves into Romanian student life

TAPS screens play criticizing rigid school culture, isolating nature of social media platforms

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2016

‘Antisocial,’ screened in the Granoff Tuesday and Wednesday, explores the influence of free speech and social media on Romanian student life.

“Antisocial,” a production by Romania’s Radu Stanca National Theatre and written and directed by Bogdan Georgescu, was screened by the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies department with subtitles in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts Tuesday and Wednesday. The play is a meticulous study of how a scandal involving a prestigious high school in a Romanian town affected the community’s students, parents and teachers.

The piece is based on a real scandal that rocked a provincial town in Romania in 2015 after a group of seven teenagers took the age-old practice of bad-mouthing their teachers to a new and evidently more dangerous platform: social media. They created a secret group on Facebook where 800 members participated in ridiculing their teachers. But the posts were soon leaked to the local press, leading to a national scandal.

The scandal started a debate about “freedom of expression, privacy on social media and the rights of students,” according to the flier distributed at the screening. But the school eventually dropped the charges against the students, as it was primarily interested in preserving its prestige.

Georgescu criticizes what he views as an overly rigid educational system and the widespread use of social media that seems to isolate more than it brings together.

The play is split into five scenes ­— the opening and closing scenes feature the students, the second and fourth show the teachers’ perspective on the issue and the third records the parents’ reactions when faced with the scandal.

All three groups seem to be very preoccupied with the notion of prestige. The teenage friend group is initially torn apart when faced with expulsion from their elite high school. Some of the students insist that they cannot afford to be kicked out of school. They eventually rally to stand up against the institution before eventually backing down in the face of the pressure their school and parents exert on them.

Meanwhile, the teachers, while offended by the posts leaked from the Facebook group, are at odds as to how to handle this situation. Some motion to expel the students and others want to lower the students’ “behavioral grades,” according to each student’s participation in the Facebook group. Finally, the last teacher, named Mr. Bondane, does not think the students should be punished at all. He believes that the teachers should help the students organize a humor magazine to allow them to exert their freedom of expression in a controlled environment. “You design their freedom … they feel free” and these situations don’t arise, Mr. Bondane says. But his proposal is rejected by the other teachers who believe that allowing the students to poke fun at them publicly would discredit the reputation of the school.

The concept of prestige is also very important to the parents who don’t want their children to go to “industrial schools” with “the dredges of society … all the thieves and gypsies.” Some of the parents claim that they don’t want their children to have to pay for the “incompetence” of the teachers who don’t seem capable of inspiring respect. In order to protect their children’s positions in the ranks of the elite, they are willing to sue the school, or even bribe the teachers.

Social media plays a very important role in the production. Some students and parents argue that the Facebook group should not be treated any differently from a group of students cursing out their teachers over beers. But social media gathered not a handful of friends but hundreds of people into shaming and diminishing the teachers — by posting in their secret Facebook group, the students left permanent marks when insulting their teachers, the play asserts. Their method of expressing themselves proved to be far more powerful than they realized. “Everyone believes in this freedom of expression thing, for a second. ‘Till they get scared,” a student named Paul says.

Another way social media plays a big role in this story relates to the title of the play itself. In the final scene, the actors speak one by one as they divulge their character’s most personal thoughts, their faces lit up only by the brightness of their cell phone screens as they each take the microphone. But their moment of honesty takes place in complete darkness, so that none of the characters can see each other when they are at their most vulnerable. Social media brought these students together and gave them the tools to express themselves but it made them more antisocial than ever.