From DC to NYC to the World: A Gun Control Theater Action
Following the January 26th, Washington D.C. theater action, New Dramatists in New York will stage a Gun Control Theater Action on April 29th 2013 — a preview to Gun Control Theatre Action Week scheduled for May 27 to June 2nd, 2013 around the world. At the helm of the project is Obie Award Winning playwright and “artivist” Caridad Svich.Caridad, In addition to Gun Control Theater Action, your play The Way of Water has also been staged around the globe in a similar theater action to raise awareness about Deepwater Horizon. Can you briefly talk about how arts advocacy can help to further the conversation about social issues?
I believe in necessary theatre — urgent theatre — a theatre that is part of the cultural fabric of a nation as well as a theatre that reaches beyond national borders and engages in its thinking and aesthetic approaches to global concerns, and even cosmic ones!
In 2012 with The Way of Water (50 readings) and Spark (32 readings) international reading schemes,NoPassport theatre alliance and press experimented with putting into motion hands-across-many-waters theatre actions in order to engage diverse communities and fellow practitioners on social-political and ecological issues.
Gun Violence is hardly, sadly, a new topic. A theatre colleague wrote to me shortly after the Newtown tragedy and asked me if I was going to write a play addressing gun control. I didn’t know what to say. I felt a strong sense of despair and hopelessness that making theatre could contribute anything to the conversation. Yet, I also felt that, well, if theatre is and can be necessary, as citizen-artists it might be worth speaking out — just as Euripides and Brecht and so many dramatists before us did. I also felt that a collective action might be the best approach artistically to this vital conversation.
I put out an open call for short plays to coincide with the March on Washington for Gun Control on January 26, 2013 organized by Molly Smith and Suzanne Blue Star Boy and at the same time called upon artistic colleagues in Washington D.C., force/collision ensemble director John Moletress and Theater J, and hoped that we could, at very least, make an evening happen to offer a shared space of communion around art and healing.
There was great interest amongst colleagues in the field around the book 24 Gun Control Plays and the plays contained within, and as a result, a desire to continue this artivist dialogue through performance led to organizing the April 29th event with playwright Chiori Miyagawa at New Dramatists in New York City in collaboration with force/collision, NY Madness and NYTR, which has, in turn, led to a GUN CONTROL THEATRE ACTION WEEK scheduled for May 27 to June 2nd, 2013 around the world in collaboration with producer Meredith Lynsey Schade.
I think the more we as artists can speak to what troubles our societies, to what needs healing, in whatever manner we can — on poetic and spiritual terms — the more the art we make in our humble corners of ordinary existence, reaching, albeit for the stars, perhaps can stir dialogue and action in audiences and communities. I don’t pretend that art can change laws or ingrained behaviors in a given society, but art can make us stop, think, reflect and perhaps, transform little by little, if our hearts are open and we listen.
John, You have also been a director of Erik Ehn’s plays, most recently Soulographie. Can you briefly describe force/collison’s mission and the way that you approach these types of works?
John Moletress (director): Erik Ehn. His plays stroke you by the hair and whisper “the world is exploding” in your ear. Very similar to Caridad’s use of dense, poetic language. It nurtures the artist’s mouth. It opens the ears to the possibilities of language. force/collision wants to ask big questions, make bold artistic gestures and keep the work close to the performer’s body, intimate. Gun Control is a large idea. These plays provide the text which touches this idea through a collective remembering.
Writers, can you briefly talk about your play and what you hope the audience takes away from seeing it?
Neil LaBute: Cecily was my desire to get into the mind of someone who decides to use a gun as the final extension of their anger and sadness and desperation toward their failed marriage. By having access to a pistol, the narrator plans to regain the power that he believes was taken from him when his wife — the Cecily of the title — leaves him and his children and moves to New York. It is certainly a cautionary tale about the limits that often get pushed in dysfunctional relationships but when guns are added to this volatile cock-tail, the results are usually even more tragic and far-reaching.
Caridad Svich:The Wake is a prayer, a call, a night voyage into the soul — an elegy for lives lost — and those left behind, in violence’s wake.
Winter Miller: Orangutans Don’t Kill — you know how occasionally, someone looks at you or your friend askance and you go into fight or flight response? Collectively, as a culture we enmesh stereotypes and our personal histories and projections and believe somehow that this is truth. It’s not uncommon that out of nothing, we spin stories of hatred. All it takes is one wrong move and these misconceptions spiral into violence. So many of our people face feelings of personal powerlessness — we are marginalized, we are human–sometimes our actions are a desperate bid for power. Culturally and sometimes individually, we commit horrible acts and justify them. Then we call this person a villain and this one a victim. The cycle of violence is terrifying.
Cecilia Copeland: The Next Time — I found myself very torn over the issue of gun control. My own views are very much in favor of banning fully automatic weapons, restricting gun sales to only those who must pass rigorous background checks and attain at minimum three sworn character witnesses of suitability, pass tests in safe gun handling as well as psych exams, have safe storage laws and fire arms registries. However, I have relatives and loved ones who are gun enthusiasts, former military personnel, and competitive shooters, but they are extremely careful with their firearms keeping them in combination safes. I wanted to write something that honored their safe handling of guns while illustrating that without action on this we will keep having another horrible tragedy when innocent people, children in particular, are killed for no reason other than our unwillingness to change or compromise on gun laws. The goal of writing my play, is to call everyone to action so there won’t be another next time.
Saviana Stanescu: Many people are fast to label those guys who go on shooting sprees as crazy, drawing a line between society and criminals (the others), so the problem becomes the crazy others not the presence of guns. I think it’s more interesting and valuable to explore what makes them crazy/angry, as sometimes it’s all about extreme anger and depression accumulated due to lack of human communication, connection, love and appreciation, hence the sense of failure, the loneliness turning into violent anger against the world, etc. My play Hurt is structured as three inter-cut monologues exploring the dark side of the characters’ mind, the possible reasons that can trigger bad thoughts and criminal acts: loneliness, lack of love and recognition, frustration, alienation, depression, trauma.
Lynn Manning: I am a survivor of gun violence. I was shot and blinded at age 23. Five years later, I received a late night phone call from my mother after she’d shot her boyfriend three times in a drunken rage. My piece, Electric Midnight Emergency Call, is a poetic replaying of that call. I hope that people come away with a slightly more visceral understanding of the mayhem the proliferation of guns creates in our cities.
Gary Winter:Dick and Jane Get Ready for School simply shows what our society would look like if you took the NRA’s wet dream of arming every man, woman and child to its logical conclusion. The play is a parody, of course, but pretty terrifying because I believe it is the direction we are headed in. I want the audience to be as appalled as I am at that possibility.
Jennifer Maisel: What struck me so vividly during the coverage of Sandy Hook — and during Aurora and Columbine and the far too many tragedies that can be listed that have happened and will continue to happen if something isn’t done — is the ordinary day that will now never be ordinary again. In writingRand I wanted to take the audience on the journey of a human need, a moment of connectiveness, a second of petty-ness, sharply derailed. A daily, forgettable moment of life, now never to be forgotten.
Zac Kline: What Are We Going to do About Little Brother?, is an exploration of the connection between societal reactions to mental illness and gun control. As a writer who often creates texts about young people on the verge of adulthood, it was important for me to engage with this topic, especially as the media focuses on troubled young men from Adam Lanza and going back to Columbine and the role that mental illness, bullying and other factors contribute to these tragic events.
Oliver Mayer: My play riffs on Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred.” If he were alive today, Hughes would have something pithy to say about the NRA and the congressional logjam. The last question in the poem and the play remains unanswered.
Chiori Miyagawa: Happiness, is a monologue that is delivered by an ordinary young mother. It’s pro-marriage, pro-family, pro-childbearing, pro-happiness, and pro-“freedom.” I’m not anti these good American things, but I find it sinister that almost everything can be used to support keeping the society violent.
Gab Cody: This past January, Kyle Bostian and Tammy Ryan asked me to write a piece for the Pittsburgh Gun Control Theater Action (which Kyle had organized to coincide with the NoPassport event in D.C.). Though neither of them knew it, my family history was shaped — and scarred — by gun violence. I knew exactly what I would write about: a pair of true family stories buried in my childhood memories, stories I’d been trying to write for years. To excavate them, however, was daunting. I found the event in Pittsburgh devastatingly uplifting. We all need a spur to action.
August Schulemberg: I wrote A Poem for Sandy Hook immediately after learning about the tragedy as a means of grappling with the grief and powerlessness I felt. I wanted to create something that would transmute a measure of that pain into something beautiful, in hopes that it might offer some solace to others who felt the same way. Thinking of the poem now, I realize I was also trying to lodge some raw splinter of that memory into my mind, so that it would trouble me into sustained action. My hope is that the poem does the same for those who read it and see it performed: that it offers some measure of healing, and spurs action. Sometimes I think that when it comes to the moral arc of the universe and its slow bend towards justice, progress is measured in laws but change is measured in people. That kind of change, person by person, soul by soul, is slow but essential work. Theatre and poetry are some of the best ways I know to empower that kind of personal change, and if nothing else, writing this piece changed me.”
Laura Zam: I write comedic one-person plays about difficult issues. Previous plays have dealt with genocide, childhood sexual abuse, and mental illness. Now, for Gun Control Theatre Action, I’ve created two short plays about gun control: Right After Virginia Tech (published in 24 Gun Control Plays) and Introducing Debbie Democrat (which I’ll be performing at the Gun Control Theatre Action performances in NYC). In writing about horrific events, I have found laughter a useful tool for increasing accessibility and engagement. However, I never make fun of another’s suffering. Rather, I poke fun at my own thoughts and opinions. Comedy, for me, is more than relief. It’s a form of critical thinking.
Yvette Heyliger: Bridge to Baraka: The Pen Instead of the Gun gives a historical insight into the issue of gun control from the perspective of race and class. It features the unlikely pioneers of the Modern Gun Rights Movement, The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense. During the volatile 1960s, Blacks were subjected to un-checked police brutality and murder. Malcolm X told us it was our Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” and to defend ourselves “by any means necessary.” The Black Panthers, empowered by the laws on the books at that time, agreed and took dramatic action in response to our elected government officials’ efforts to infringe upon their hard-won rights as citizens. As a result, Republicans, with the support of the NRA, couldn’t get gun legislation passed fast enough! Given this precedent, my piece leaves the audience wondering how fast we could get common sense gun legislation passed if “some beret-wearin’ black and brown folks totin’ military-style assault weapons with multiple magazine clips met on the steps of the Capitol!”
Amina Henry: Hello, My Name Is Joe is a poetic exploration of the potential for violence in us all. I hope that my piece will remind people how most gun violence in the United States actually occurs — an average citizen loses control for one minute and happens to have a gun. Easy access to a gun makes it easy to for good, or at least, normal, people to make a bad, sometimes fatal, choice.
Elaine Avila: My short play, Change examines the extraordinary costs of the current U.S. gun policies on individual citizens, especially teachers, children, and parents. It looks at the reassuring lies we tell ourselves, how they take away our political will and agency. It is inspired by Senator Gabrielle Gifford’s remark, “In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans, and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary — nothing at all.” The title “Change” refers to the change after the Newton shooting in one teacher’s mind, when she realizes the children in her classroom are no longer safe.
Kyle Bostain: My play is published in the collection and was performed at the D.C. and Pittsburgh events in January. Unlike many of the other pieces (and the actions themselves), mine wasn’t inspired by Newtown/Sandy Hook as much as by earlier shootings, especially Aurora. Out of my grief, dismay, exasperation, and outrage over that and similar incidents and what I perceive as a lack of meaningful response to them by our leaders. My play stages a single, “life-and-death” encounter in which political views take a backseat to/emerge from the dramatic situation of a masked man threatening to kill a woman with a gun he’s found in her bedside drawer. I hope it provokes and moves the audience, but I also hope it reflects the complexities of the “gun control” issue by not taking a side on the opposing perspectives offered by the characters.
Ian Rowlands: Troy Story It seems to me that any sentence which directly links guns with freedom is an oxymoronic one. Such sentences tend to be uttered by the fearful. Any civilized nation should work towards dispelling the fear within its people. If it persists in perpetuating fear, how can it lay claim to the title of civilized? It’s a bit clinical, and comes from an alien’s perspective.
Alex Broun (Australia): 50 guns starts with a young woman called Emma dumping a box of 50 (replica) guns on stage. Each gun represents a violent gun death. Some of the deaths are well known — others such as Quainta Hynman or the Bellar family less so. But there is one red gun that Emma does not want to approach. Slowly it emerges that this gun symbolizes a violent gun death with a personal connection to her.
I want people to accept the full reality of ceaseless never-ending violent gun deaths. And to realize that behind every gun death are real people. They are not just numbers or statistics — they are flesh and blood, humans just like us, and it is only dumb luck that may have seen our lives escape gun violence to this point. But as Emma discovers in the play — violent gun deaths touch us all at some stage. The political becomes the personal, the personal is the political.
Neil Blackadder: In Dad’s Guns, I was interested in exploring a couple of things in particular. One was the physicality of firearms, their shiny metallic presence, and how that quality seems to be something that appeals to those with a positive attitude towards guns. The other was how certain tropes about guns have made their way into our imaginations, not least in the context of popular songs. I’d love it if the play made the audience think more than they routinely do about both those things.
Chris Weikel: My piece, a monologue which I call Gun Control is an excerpt from a larger work entitledEmbrace. The character speaking is Billy, an Iraq War veteran talking frankly about his PTSD, and the lengths he goes through to feel secure in his own home. It seems to me that as we engage in the social project of curbing gun violence in America, we need to look at the various reasons guns are so prevalent in our culture. In this case Billy doesn’t present himself as someone we think of as a polarizing ideologue. His weapon simply makes him feel safe. He recognizes his need to change, but it happens gradually.
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