Art after the Unthinkable: Three Perspectives on TYA and School Violence
How have your interactions with the young people you serve – in your theatres, your classrooms, and your communities – been affected by the recent tragedy in Parkland, Florida? As TYA practitioners, we are deeply connected to the world that children and young adults inhabit. If it wasn’t clear already, the reality is sinking in that an entire generation of kids has grown up in the shadow of school violence, and now the young people themselves are leading the charge in demanding change. This shooting, yet another senseless act of gun violence added to an overwhelming list, forces us all to confront our responsibility to the young people in our community, and consider the ways we can make change, perhaps even through our day-to-day work. How can TYA be a force to start conversation, encourage debate, and ultimately drive people make change?
Several theatremakers across the country are staging works in their current season (either performed for or by young people) that directly address school shootings and gun violence. While each of these works were relevant when they were chosen, they are sadly more timely and urgent now in the wake of recent events. We asked three artists involved in upcoming productions to share their thoughts with us on why they chose to present these plays, and how they hope to utilize the work on the stage to comfort, connect and empower their audiences:
Megan Cramer (High School Theater Teacher, and performer in Syncronicity Theatre‘s upcoming production of Ripe Frenzy by Jennifer Barclay)
Ernie Nolan (Artistic Director of Nashville Children’s Theatre, Director of the upcoming NCT production of Mockingbird by Julie Jensen)
Mechelle Moe (Co-Artistic Director of The Yard, Director of The Yard’s upcoming production of columbinus by PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam)
Q: Why did you decide to produce or perform in this show in this season?
Megan Cramer: I’ve been trying to run from this topic for a long time. Last year I was invited to be part of a group of artists who were interviewing gun owners and gun rights supporters, investigating what’s behind/underneath our gun control debate. Their goal was to create original theatrical material in order to help bridge the deep chasm of opinion and emotions. But it was too intense and emotional for me. I pulled out of the group. However, within a couple of weeks, I got the invitation to audition for Ripe Frenzy, which dealt directly with the lead-up and aftermath of a mass shooting.
This is an extremely emotional and hard topic for me. I am an artist and an educator. I have worked with young people for 20 years. I have worked in schools full time for the past four years. I have been through lockdown drills, heard terms like “Code Red”, “passwords”, “black-out curtains”, “hide”, when I should have been in curriculum development meetings or planning for rehearsals.
I am also part of a family that has been touched by murder. I have seen the unfathomable ripple effects that an action like this makes. It goes far beyond the victims. So when I got the audition, read the play, and then subsequently got the role, I knew that I could not keep avoiding this horrifying reality. To be honest, when I got cast in November, I was hoping that it would feel passé by this Spring. I was not expecting to have recurring tragedies to support the imminence and immediacy of this play.
Ernie Nolan: As artistic director of one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city of Nashville and the largest theatre in middle Tennessee, I feel passionately about telling stories which reflect our community, instill profound empathy, and foster personal discovery. When I read MOCKINGBIRD, I felt like it did all of those things. The voice of the central character, a young girl with Asperger’s, was one that I didn’t think young audiences heard often. I thought producing this play let audiences experience several empathetic journeys, and I thought that was really exciting.
Mechelle Moe: I work as a teaching artist, and initially, I was looking for a strong piece to workshop for my in-school residency with the Senn Arts Junior Ensemble–who are very socially conscious and activist-minded–and our partnership with Raven Theatre Take Flight Residency this past fall. Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of documentary theatre in class as it generally resonates strongly with the students and and really connects to curriculum. COLUMBINUS, a Chicago-born project from the late PJ Paparelli and the American Theatre Company, has always been on my radar for a potential partnership and seemed like it would be a great fit for this particular ensemble.
I was unable to predict, however, how much this material would impact our students. This story sparked intense conversations, research, and debate. It made them examine the complexities of the issues and how best to effectively express those issues theatrically. There was an excitement and fear in telling this story. A great responsibility in telling this story. And it was halfway through this in-school residency that I knew that The Yard needed to tell this story on a larger platform. To do this show professionally and voiced by young people. That’s what The Yard is all about. How then will this story resonate with audiences when told truly told through the lens of a young person? We had a slot at the 1700 space at Steppenwolf, and this seemed to be a really good fit for both our organizations, as they too, have a great education program.
Q: How is the recent tragedy in Florida (and those recent tragedies before that) impacting your rehearsal process? How do you think they will affect the way audiences receive the play?
MC: My role in Ripe Frenzy is very close to home: my character is a high school theater director– which is also my real-life job. Currently, I have students who knew some of the victims and the survivors of the Florida shooting. This is one of the first times that I have seen young people really care about a shooting. At school, we are having to review our safety procedures and protocols, and young and old people alike are shaken and disturbed. It has been helpful for me to use this play as a way to start conversations with students and teachers; and to offer the performances as a way for people to come together to have a common conversation in the future.
EN: On the first day of rehearsal while talking to the cast, I mentioned how this play could possibly change for us while in rehearsal. Then Parkland happened. I’ve never been in a rehearsal process where the topical piece I was working on literally became the news in that moment. I think now, more than when rehearsals started, we are really a way for families and young people to not only talk about violence, but the emotional aftermath as well. This play about healing I think is now a living embodiment of healing.
"I’ve never been in a rehearsal process where the topical piece I was working on literally became the news in that moment. I think now, more than when rehearsals started, we are really a way for families and young people to not only talk about violence, but the emotional aftermath as well. This play about healing I think is now a living embodiment of healing."
MM: Steppenwolf announced their LookOut season, and the very next day Florida was all over the news. It’s been really hard. When we selected this piece the “why now” was already strong, but 2018 has been relentless. The immediate nature of the real world affecting and influencing the creative world of our production of COLUMBINUS in constantly developing and ever present in our minds. I’m sure the same will hold true for our audiences. Even though COLUMBINUS addresses the specific place and time of the Columbine High School shooting, there is no way to separate it from Sandy Hook, from Las Vegas, to our nation’s ever growing list of these senseless shootings.
If anything we are charged with creating a safe and healthy space to engage with young people around this very sensitive matter. Giving them a platform to express themselves in a way that they don’t typically get. I think that’s a good thing. It’s important. And hopefully people will listen.
Q: Are you making any changes to your plan – either what is on stage or the audience communication before and after – in light of recent events?
EN: Now, I think the offering of using the play as a way to start a discussion as a family really genuinely means something. Instead of talking about “these things have happened” we’ve found ourselves talking about “now this has happened again.”
MM: No changes at this point to our original plan or how the piece will be staged. I’ve been working with my production team and Steppenwolf about how best to frame the conversation around this piece, and prepare audiences, both before and after. It will be a somewhat immersive experience, that’s where our workshop lead us. What will it be like for an audience to feel they are sharing that space with the students? To be in those rooms with them? We actually don’t start rehearsals until mid-March, so we are still shaping ideas. But, as with the students, we understand the responsibility in creating safe space to tell this story and have these conversations.
Q: Why do you think young people should experience stories on stage that deal so directly with the reality of the violence we are witnessing nationally?
MC: Theater encourages conversation, and provides opportunities for connection. It allows us to ask of each other, “What’s your story?” “What’s your experience?” “What did you think or feel about that?” It forces us to connect and share, rather than isolate and divide– which I believe is the exact antidote this country needs.
"Theater encourages conversation, and provides opportunities for connection. It allows us to ask of each other, "What's your story?" "What's your experience?" "What did you think or feel about that?" It forces us to connect and share, rather than isolate and divide-- which I believe is the exact antidote this country needs."
It is also imperative that we begin to teach and reinforce that actions have cause and effect; actions have consequence. Ripe Frenzy directly deals with the questions of “why would someone do this?” and “what happens to everyone afterwards?” Young people need to get into the conversations that ask “why,” so that they are investigating different perspectives and digging more deeply into a human being’s intention rather than quickly putting someone into a box. I am constantly asking of myself and my colleagues how we can build a sense of communal responsibility and value of life into our education and creative work with young people.
I also believe strongly in the artistic practice of playwriting. Jennifer Barclay has written this new play– a play that gives voice to this reality of violence; a play that gives voice to so many people who are affected by it. And that kind of voice is so important. We should also be giving that voice to our young people– opportunities to write and be heard, which also enforce connection, rather than isolation. Every human being needs to feel that their voice is being heard. It is so empowering to see the stories of teenagers who are speaking out about this Florida shooting, and standing up to the legislators. Write. Speak. Share. Let’s hope that these important pieces of theater inspire further positive action.
EN: In a way this play is VERY Greek. The violence has happened before the action of the play has started. The audience never sees it. Characters, both related to the victims and the shooter, discuss it, but the audience never sees it recreated. What I think the audience really experiences is the processing of grief and the wrestling of questions that comes with a violent tragedy. I think the audience sees that it’s OK to have a tough time, to not understand something. How can we process emotions in a healthy way? I mentioned the Greeks above, and the more I think about it… I feel like that’s what our play has become. Something for the community to come together and grapple together. We’ve all shared in this experience, one that could happen again any day, and I think we’re left with not only a sense of healing but with the question, “How can we do something to stop this from happening again?”… much like how I think ancient plays like TROJAN WOMEN or ANTIGONE intended to affect their audience.
MM: I work with young people every day alongside my artistic partner Joel Ewing, who is the lead theater teacher at Senn Arts HS. The reason we started The Yard was to give them the professional opportunities they deserve in telling their own stories. They deserve to tell their own stories. They are talented, smart and have the maturity to handle this material. And these stories are far more effective and authentic with their voices behind them. We don’t shy away from difficult subject matter because the reality is that’s what they are living every day. What happens when you empower young people to acknowledge their pain, their reality, and provide them with tools to effectively express themselves?
"We don’t shy away from difficult subject matter because the reality is that’s what they are living every day. What happens when you empower young people to acknowledge their pain, their reality, and provide them with tools to effectively express themselves?"