Writing Under the Gun
Playwrights take up the fight for gun control.
By Justin Warner
In the first weeks after Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and 6 teachers with his mother’s semi-automatic rifle, gun-control advocates in Congress pushed for sweeping reforms with a renewed sense of purpose. Within four months, they had dropped every demand except a modest background check expansion, which died in a Senate filibuster. But during the same time period, even as the response on Capitol Hill has deflated, a band of playwrights’ response to the massacre has taken muscular form.
The theatrical movement, Gun Control Theatre Action, has poured its message into 24 Gun Control Plays, a diverse collection of three- to seven-minute shorts by an international cadre of writers. Politically minded playwright Caridad Svich launched the project shortly after the Newtown shootings, when a friend asked if she was writing a gun-control play. “I wasn’t, but I felt like I should,” she recalls. “But I didn’t want to write it by myself.”
Instead, Svich sent out an open call to playwrights right after New Year’s Day 2013, and within two weeks, she received over 100 short plays, monologues, and poems, approaching the subject of gun violence from a multitude of angles. At the same time, Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., was organizing aMarch on Washington for Gun Control on January 26. Svich quickly coordinated with Smith, along with director John Moletress of the interdisciplinary ensemble force/collision, the bicoastal production company Twinbiz, and Theatre J artistic director Ari Roth, to present 12 of the new plays at Theatre J after the march. Serendipitously, one of the playwrights, Kyle Bostian, helped set up a similar event with Pittsburgh PACT on the same day.
Since then, various combinations of the 24 core plays, written by Svich, Bostian, Neil LaBute, Saviana Stanescu, and many others, have been performed in venues like New York’s New Dramatists, Seattle’s Theatre Simple, the MLK Memorial in D.C., and the Darlinghurst Theatre in Sydney, Australia. The latter two performance were part of a global Gun Control Theatre Action Week, coordinated in the last week of May by Svich’s company No Passport and the New York-based collective The Vicious Circle. No Passport’s press also published the plays in an anthology, and offered open rights to producers around the world during Action Week.
To broaden the reach of the plays, Svich’s team will continue to look for opportunities to perform them at public events. They’ve also filmed some of the plays and posted them to a YouTube channel. While she has no illusions that the plays will instantly chnage anyone’s mind on the issue, Svich hopes they’ll spur people to reflect on, and potentially re-frame, the underlying issues—including the reverence for guns in American culture and how that reverence can interact with anger, fear, and mental illness.
“I feel Congress has failed us,” Svich said. “And so we have to do something as artists, to keep the dialogue open,” she says. “We’re citizens. This is our tool. And our tool can matter.”