The 20th anniversary of the mass school shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado, will be on closing night for columbinus at 1st Stage. The play was written by Stephen Karam (The Humans) and PJ Paperelli a few years after the event.
The questions we had were the same 1st Stage had already heard from their constituents: Why produce this play now? What are your concerns about triggers which the graphic play could produce in this post-Columbine climate? Alex Levy, Artistic Director of 1st Stage, is directing the play. Here are his responses in an emailed conversation.
Why did you decide to add columbinus to your season?
It’s a show we’ve considered for years but I was especially drawn to it as we approach the 20th anniversary of the events. We have had interns that have never heard of Columbine because they have never known a world before it. They have gone through their entire education understanding their schools to be targets. I wanted them to know that there was a time before that. This is not normal.
As a director, what were your thoughts about possible triggers from the production, due both to the fact that, as you said, some young people have never known a world without school shootings and some may have even experienced them?
We had such a shooting here in Southern Maryland not that long ago, not only traumatizing the survivors, but the teachers, who are from the Columbine generation and to the fact that some young person in your audience may be fantasizing about carrying out something similar in the names of those shooters?
We talked about this quite a bit. In the 15 years since the show was originally staged, a lot has changed. So many people have been traumatized by gun violence. It was important to Juan and me and the entire creative team that we take a different approach than the original production. Where PJ’s production really overwhelmed us with visceral stimuli to disorient us and create a sense of terror, Juan and I have tried to find another way to tell this story. The hope is that it is elegant and manageable. Also, by not overwhelming with the sounds of gunshots and terror, we are able to shift the attention away from the shooters and towards the survivors who share their stories.
When we interviewed PJ Papparelli in 2012, he held parents partly responsible because he discovered many of the students were being treated medically for behavior disorders.
I won’t speak for PJ but I will say that I think it is a dangerous idea to accuse parents of a neglectful act when they allow their children to be treated medically. I am not in anyway interested in further stigmatizing mental health issues. Whatever personal views PJ may have had on the issue, I don’t think they appear in the play.
As a parent, I know it is an incredibly difficult time in which we raise our children. There are so many outside forces and fewer and fewer trusted adults our kids can turn to. I think most parents are doing their best to navigate a very difficult terrain and while there is certainly no doubt that teenagers are often living in an increasingly isolated world, I don’t think that is because of something as simple as parental neglect or neurological medicines.
What do you think will be the takeaway from your production about responsibility?
I always hesitate to say what people will takeaway from a play. Everyone brings their own history and experiences into a story and thus they will take different things away. I do think the play helps us understand how insignificant most teenagers feel on a day to day basis and how they act out. Most will not turn to this sort of violence but that feeling of insignificance and not being understood never results in positive actions and when mixed with an ill mind, can be extremely dangerous.
What do you think we’ve learned since Columbine?
While, we’ve learned a lot about Columbine itself, we’ve learned very little about how to prevent these shootings. The problem has only gotten worse and the conversations about how to fix this problem are depressingly simplistic when they happen at all.
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How does your young cast regard Columbine and the subsequent shootings?
The thing that I have found is that young people are having this conversation every day. It is my generation and older that are avoiding it. When we announced this show, I got calls from college students and grad students asking how they can help. They want this conversation in the public square because they are living with it daily. Similarly, I got calls from older audience members asking why we would do this. They felt this story was too depressing to talk about or create a show about. Young people are begging us to have this conversation and we are largely, as a society, responding with “It’s too hard. Let’s not talk about it.” I think the cast is grateful for an opportunity to have the discussion.
How did they react to the two recent suicides from Parkland?
It’s heartbreaking. We lost two survivors from Parkland and a parent from Sandy Hook in the same week. One of the things we have spoken about a lot is that we often frame this conversation as the number of people killed in the school by a bullet. So Columbine had 13 victims or Parkland had 17. Of course, the number of victims is far greater. The Washington Post estimates that since Columbine nearly 250,000 students have been in a school while a shooting occurred. That doesn’t even count teachers, staff, family members and the rest of the community. These shootings are taking an enormous toll on our society that lasts for decades. We haven’t even begun to understand the ramifications of this violence on our society.
Do they or you see arming teachers as a preventative?
I won’t speak for them. I do not and I work with a lot of teachers and have yet to meet a single one who supports this idea. Most have told me they would leave their profession if teachers began carrying firearms in schools and many have told me they would pull their own children out of school as well.
Are any of the methods now in use helpful?
One thing I think we have to get away from is thinking that a single act will cure the problem. It’s far more complex then that. Lately, it has entirely fallen to the question of gun control and yes, I am in favor of making it harder for people to get extremely lethal weapons. But the issue has to be approached on multiple fronts. Children need more access to mental health. We need more counselors and those counselors need more options when they have concerns. Our schools need to be structured so that students feel seen and heard. We need a society that supports parents better. There is no single solution that will solve this problem.
columbinus is on stage now at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner.
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