It’s a topic that many are hesitant to discuss. It’s intense, daunting and captivating, but students in the JMU School of Theatre and Dance have come to know it well — the social issues behind school shootings.
Cast members have been researching, designing and rehearsing since October in preparation for their performance in the two-act docudrama, “Columbinus.” Written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, the play was sparked by the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Junior theatre major Dustyn Bain proposed the idea and was chosen by students and faculty to direct the play. “Columbinus” will be held at the Studio Theatre in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts April 2-6.
“There are many ways that you can interpret the script,” Bain said. “I think we’ve blocked it in a very collaborative, ensemble-driven, movement-based way.”
The first act is set in an unnamed American high school. The ensemble Bain refers to is composed of six cast members who play different stereotypes: Prep, Freak, Loner, Rebel, Jock and Faith. The ensemble members are never just one character; they switch back-and-forth between roles and are only referred to by their stereotyped names. Interactions among the characters highlight various problems that high schoolers face daily, such as bullying, grades and relationships.
In Act 2, the ensemble members still play out their “labels,” but two of the characters — Freak and Loner — take on the roles of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Act 2 serves as a retelling of the events before and after the school shooting. Freshman theatre major Will Baruch and sophomore theatre and media arts and design double major Chase Downey play the two school shooters.
Cast members made a collaborative decision to exclude the act of the shooting itself, but still represent it in a respectful way. Audio of Harris and Klebold is used as well as direct quotes from interviews, journal entries and counseling reports.
When making production decisions, freshman musical theatre major Allie Lytle commented that cast members have tried to maintain respect for the tragedy by thinking, “Would I be proud if a Columbine parent or friend came and saw our show? Would I be comfortable with them seeing our show?”
Cast members agree it’s been challenging as actors to say and act out such horrifying scenes, like the “What If” scene, where Eric Harris (Baruch), manipulates Dylan Klebold (Downey), who’s in a depressive state, to go through with the shooting. Freshman musical theatre major Josh Polk, who plays Prep and ensemble, said Bain made it a point to work with the cast on making sure they leave everything onstage.
“What I’ve been doing to kind of separate myself is I try not to do any research anymore in my own room,” Baruch said. “I went down the rabbit hole with it because there’s so much stuff on Eric. I have access to almost all of his journals, all of his chat logs that he saved, even videos. Like, I’ve seen him talk, I know the way he talks.”
Polk agreed that the biggest challenge has been keeping in mind that “Columbinus” is a story they’re telling and not just a script they’re going through every time they rehearse.
“Everything is very open and honest,” Lytle, who plays Faith and ensemble, said. “We have a safe word and you have to be honest with how you’re feeling and what you can take as a person to be able to do it.”
Lytle also commented on how Bain has created a safe environment for the cast members to work in. When rehearsing, if a scene becomes too emotionally charged, cast members can shout out the safe word “tangerine” and take a moment to regroup.
The actual 911 call from the day of the shooting is featured in the play. Lytle said when cast members sat down to listen to the call for the first time, many of them were in tears. Baruch admitted to throwing up after his gut-wrenching monologue audition and felt nauseous after his first run-through of Act 2.
“We’re making it into a platform that we know how to speak through,” Lytle said. “We’re doing it through art to talk about the horrible things that are happening in our country that have been happening for 20 years plus, and we’re using that to stand up for something that we believe in.”
The performance will also feature a cast-created lobby display that tackles different issues surrounding gun violence such as mental health and anger issues, acts of kindness, petitions and resources for audience members to send letters to local representatives.
“We want the audience to leave with a sense of desire that they can do more,” Bain said.
Bain has created an Instagram account to keep the narrative surrounding gun violence and mental health going. In the days leading up to “Columbinus’” opening night, Bain features a different U.S. mass shooting with external links to mental illness screenings, campaigns and articles on mental health curriculum.
“School shootings have become so common in this country, and it’s really easy to say it won’t happen here, but you have to remember that it is a possibility, and regardless of what you believe, preventative measures should be taken,” Polk said. “It’s important that we put it out there and show the ugly story and what can happen if we choose not to acknowledge an unfortunate truth in this country right now.”
Contact Jamie Graeff at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.