Mick Neven went to 13 primary schools in the 1980s, so it’s not surprising that he copped a bit of bullying for being the new kid. What is surprising is that even after his experience, he went on to bully his best friend in high school.
In the ensuing 25 years, Neven struggled to figure out sleepovers, and talk about girls morphed into his best friend threatening to stab him. His conscience wouldn’t rest.
“I’d been feeling bad about this for such a long time and it doesn’t just go away, and the only way you can help it to go away is to tackle it,” Neven says.
He wrestled with the guilt until he figured out a way to deal with it: he contacted his victim and apologised. The long, often awkward, conversations allowed Neven to make amends and settle some ghosts. He also transformed the experience into a bitingly personal comedy show, Bully, which he’s performing at the Red Violin as part of the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
While it’s hard to reconcile the terms ‘bullying’ and ‘comedy’, Neven’s natural charm and candour make it possible to see a lighter side on his behalf, without making a mockery of the real pain that’s involved. His ability to relate to the issue from both perspectives–the bullied and the bully–operates as a buffer against harsh judgement.
When Sam Patterson from the Alannah and Madeline Foundation heard Mick’s story, he was intrigued.
“It’s a really interesting story that highlights that the impact of bullying does in fact extend well beyond the school years. For 25 years he had been mulling over this. People often think of bullying behaviour as a rite of passage, that things will be OK after school. But there is significant research that shows bullying does have long term impacts,” he says.
Because the Alannah and Madeline Foundation supports campaigns that keep children safe from violence and help to create behavioural change to reduce bullying in the community, Bully is a natural fit.
“Mick’s story illustrates in a simple, practical way what we as an organisation are all about. Often we talk about bystander intervention but intervening can be as simple as apologising or showing support,” says Patterson.
Neven recently performed Bully for the Adelaide Fringe Festival and people were blown away – not just by the show but by the audience response to it. Throughout the show, Neven calls on members of the audience to join him on stage with his kickboxing dummy to share their bullying experiences. Without giving too much away, the input from the audience allows Neven to really hit home the point that bullying is wrong, and he does it all while providing a great big belly laugh.
Because Bully involves audience participation, Neven and the Alannah and Madeline Foundation have been working together to make sure the show sends the right message about bullying and how to deal with it. Neven has returned the Foundation’s support by turning opening night of Bully into a fundraiser. Not only do all monies from the night go to the Foundation, Neven will be there at the end of the show collecting donations and having a chat.
Getting up on stage as part of a comedy show and confessing that you were a bully might be considered crazy – or brave. Patterson concurs: “Yeah, I do think he’s brave but he also demonstrates that anyone can do it. You don’t have to be particularly special. Understandably, people would have fears about bringing this up 25 years later but Mick’s story shows there’s nothing to be fearful about. And that’s one of the great things about it.”
When it’s suggested to him, Neven won’t have a bar of the “brave” label. In his typical everyman drawl, he articulates it beautifully.
“It’s just something I felt I had to do. I don’t think I’m brave for doing it. I think it’s honest,” he says.
Neven’s honesty makes the show relatable but his humour makes it a must-see for the Comedy Festival season.
Mick Neven’s Bully and the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival run from 25 March to 19 April.
Ingrid Vaughan is a former editor of upstart. You can follow her on Twitter: @IngridVaughan.