Twenty years ago, the nation watched in horror as the events of a school shooting played out in Littleton, Colorado on television. From then on, the word Columbine would forever be synonymous with the massacre. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in American history. Unfortunately, it would not be the last.
In 2005, the United States Theatre Project debuted columbinus – a play that explores both the events of the Columbine High School massacre and the hostility and social pressures alive and well in any high school today. Although the original production received mixed reviews, an Off-Broadway revival is currently in the works. Before then, Long Island audiences have the opportunity to see this work on stage at the EastLine Theatre in Wantagh.
Theatre for Change
Director Alix Black said she, like many young Americans, was exposed to numerous mass shootings over the course of her schooling.
“Time and time again I just have felt angry and helpless not knowing how I could help or make change past Facebook posts and donations,” she said.
During the events of the Parkland shootings, she was a senior at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Ms. Black said she was there when the March for Our Lives movement took place.
“I felt very humbled and galvanized and kept researching and speaking out trying to make a difference where I could,” said Ms. Black.
When the opportunity arose to submit a proposal to the EastLine Theatre this year, she decided to take a chance and submit a scarcely produced play dealing with the events of Columbine for consideration. Although hesitant, she said she was reassured it was the time and the place to address a national epidemic on stage.
“A Monster of a Project”
With columbinus greenlit for EastLine’s 2019 season, Ms. Black began preparing a year and a half before the play would open in November. A majority of the time was dedicated to research. The young director soon realized what “a monster of a project” she was dealing with. The play consists of three acts. One portrays the lives of high school characters named only by the stereotypes they fit into. Two introduces the specifics of the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the events of the massacre. Finally, three explores the aftermath involving the victims, their families, and the community.
To ensure the portrayal of the real harrowing events were nothing short of completely accurate, she enlisted the help of a dramaturge, Bridget Foley. Ms. Foley was no stranger to the reality of school shootings. She graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School two years before the Parkland shootings. She was and remains rooted in her community and the aftermath, said Ms. Black.
The director said their first task was constructing a “skeleton of topics,” which would eventually become curriculums for the performers and production team. They became the basis for the workshops developed to explore the themes and history.
“We automatically have to channel that information in an artistic way to elevate our visions and text,” she explained.
“Having an objective voice and presence in the process to educate the actors without artistic bias and to be a check point for where accuracy and [sensitivities] are called for is indispensable.”
In one instance, Ms. Black needed to block the library scenes in the show’s second act. Columbine High School’s library served as the location for a majority of the murders.
“[We went] through multiple formations, cast involvement, prop and set involvement, and readings. Ultimately we as a collective agreed on the current depiction that we felt best served our purposes to do the scene justice,” Ms. Black said.
Directing columbinus was only part of the challenge. The actors cast in the production also faced a difficult task. A majority of the actors play multiple characters. They include a high school stereotype (in Act One) as well as a number of real victims, their family members, police officials, and the people of Littleton. Additionally, two roles depict the dual roles of Freak and Eric Harris and Loner and Dylan Klebold – the perpetrators.
William Meurer (Freak/Eric Harris) and Anthony Noto (Loner/Dylan) sat down backstage at EastLine to speak with Long Island Arts Scene about their roles. They refer to their space as a therapy room of sorts. Mr. Noto said he finds coloring especially therapeutic. Fortunately, they said they have ample time for some much needed decompression during Act III.
“It’s a very stressful show,” Mr. Meurer admitted.
Mr. Noto said it was the poignant topic that inclined him to audition for the play. Although he knew it would be challenging and would involve much research, the chance to work at EastLine in particular on such a project drew him in.
“This was probably a little bit more intense because the research is so dramatic and serious. It’s very heavy stuff, but I love the challenge,” said Mr. Noto. “I wanted to get into the idea of what being a high schooler was like. I haven’t been in high school for a little while now so I really wanted to tap into that mindset again.”
Mr. Meurer said that although he conducted his own research in addition to the table work during rehearsals, he wanted to put a cap on it at a certain point.
“It’s kind of easy, especially with a show like this, to get obsessive with the research,” Mr. Meurer explained. “I didn’t want to emulate Eric in any way because to me, as an actor, it was important to separate myself from the character I play.”
With that in mind, Mr. Meurer said he avoided focusing in on Harris’ mannerisms and other physical components in order to bring his own approach to the character.
“It was more of: this is who I am as a person – what would I do if I was under the similar circumstances that he was in at the time? [I wanted to] try to understand what led these two kids to do something so unthinkable,” he said.
While developing their characters, the actors also met the challenge of differentiating the myth Columbine from fact. This idea is heavily explored in David Cullen’s 2009 book Columbine. The book takes a deep dive into the side of Harris and Klebold that many people did not know. Ultimately, Mr. Cullen debunks the concept that the two shooters were complete outcasts who were bullied by their classmates. Mr. Noto said the book was referenced many times during the production’s table work.
“I didn’t want to victimize Dylan as a character. It’s easy to sympathize with the Loner character and in some ways it is possible to sympathize and maybe empathize with things that Dylan and Eric went through. But, of course, they took it to extreme extremes and there was definitely some help needed,” said Mr. Noto.
“I wanted to make sure not to paint him as a victim, but maybe paint him as someone who definitely could have used help and where given the right outlets he could have turned out to be a different person,” he said.
Violence + Art
With works such as Todd Phillips’ Joker stirring the pot on screen, the question of how dark art should go continues to be part of the cultural conversation. The actors and production team behind columbinus stand behind their show. Although it may make people uncomfortable, the topics remain relevant and important.
Mr. Noto said a few friends in conversation wondered aloud why there was a play about Columbine. However, he had a simple and straightforward answer for them: “because we’re still talking about it.”
“Art is art. It’s supposed to invoke emotions in us – sometimes ones that may not be so pleasant,” said Mr. Noto.
Ms. Black said that columbinus ultimately portrays violence and puts tragic events and reality in front of people to inform and be honest.
“Origins matter. Precedents matter. Reflecting on where we came from and seeing how much or how little we’ve learned and grown is an important catalyst of change,” she said. “Going through not only one but three types of stories that surround these tragedies (what lead up to the events, the events themselves, and the aftermath) in two hours and change is a holistic journey that a lot of people in our community need to be a part of.”
columbinus runs November 9th to 24th at EastLine Theatre in Wantaugh. Please visit their website for tickets and additional information.
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Vogel and EastLine Theatre