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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Door County youth troupe taking on ‘columbinus’

Shootings at Columbine High are part of the play.
Samantha Spohn, from left, Hadley Takashi and Connor McClelland rehearse for "columbinus" (Warren Gerds)
Samantha Spohn, from left, Hadley Takashi and Connor McClelland rehearse for "columbinus" (Warren Gerds)
"columbinus" director Robert Boles (Warren Gerds)
"columbinus" director Robert Boles (Warren Gerds)

PHOTO: StageKids Theatre cast members rehearse for “columbinus.” The scene depicts the library of Columbine High School in April 1999. Warren Gerds photo

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Sometimes theater can be a catharsis – a letting go of emotions through art. That’s the case with a play being presented this week by 11 high school students from four Door County high schools.

StageKids Theatre is in the midst of a demanding project in the performance of “columbinus,” which includes words and events surrounding the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, 15 years ago today, Sunday, April 20.

Four performances of “columbinus” will be presented Friday through Sunday, April 25-27, at Third Avenue Playhouse. Info: www.thirdavenueplayhouse.com. The play is not recommended for children age 12 and younger because of strong language and depictions of violence. Following each performance, community leaders will take to the stage to talk with the audience and cast about the many issues raised in the play.

The lineup:

- 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 25: Sheila Saperstein, Michelle Geiger-Bronsky, Shirley Senarighi and Rudy Senarighi.

- 2 p.m. Saturday, April 26: Bob Lindahl.

- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26: Cheryl Pfister and Regina Shaw.

- 2 p.m. Sunday, April 27: Sheila Saperstein, Jeanne Kuhns, Cheryl Pfister and Peggy Sue Dunigan.

In the cast are Josh Augustson, Sturgeon Bay High School; Jacob Barbercheck, Sevastopol; Jemma Benton, Sevastopol; Dominic DiCarlo, Sevastopol; Sophia Friedenfels, Gibraltar; Michaela Kraft, Southern Door; Connor McClelland, Southern Door; Isaiah Spetz, Sevastopol; Samantha Spohn, Sevastopol; Hadley Takashi, Gibraltar; and Dylan Thornton, Sevastopol.

Director Robert Boles says, “In part, the play deals with the events at Columbine High School in April 1999. The text is taken from eyewitness accounts, video transcripts, etc. On a larger scale, the play deals with the day-to-day pressures and stresses of being a high school student today, and how that pressure and stress could lead to something like Columbine. The play’s dialogue in these sequences was taken directly from interviews with high school students from throughout the country.”

While high school students perform in this production of “columbinus,” high schools at large would think twice about mounting the play. The content of the piece and the language prevent a lot of schools from doing it.

Cast member Michaela Kraft says, “Some people are excited about that and are coming for that. Some people are a little more wary, but I think everyone is curious about it at least.”

Robert Boles says, “This is not your typical high school play. The language is very rough, and the violence depicted, although not explicit, is unsparing. It is not just that, of course. It is a highly theatrical stylized piece that also has a large dose of humor and pathos.”

StageKids Theatre is a training/educational/performance arm of Third Avenue Playhouse, which has Robert Boles and James Valcq as co-artistic directors. The theater is multifaceted and includes the small Studio Theatre within it that has put on professional productions that are earning the venture growing respect and attention.

Robert Boles directed “columbinus” in the past when he taught at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

He says, “I picked the play because the students at the university weren’t really very politically active and weren’t really involved in current events. And then Virginia Tech happened, that horrible thing at Virginia Tech (the slaying of 32 people). The day after, the students came into class, color drained from their face, and could not talk about anything else because this hit home to them, that ‘This could happen to me. I could have been in that dorm room or that classroom.’ And then I found a copy of the script. I just had an informal reading with students, and they took to it like a duck to water because the play is comprised of interviews of high school students from around the country. All the dialogue is authentic. They were thrilled to be playing people who were like themselves, like people they knew, people they dealt with on a daily basis. So they just dove into it. Ever since then, I thought, well, it’s not done in high schools very often mainly because of the content of the play. The language is pretty rough at times. The images are fairly violent. But it is about growing up in high school today, and it is a play with high school students. Once I came here to Sturgeon Bay and took over the playhouse, it was on my list of things to do. We are really pushing to have an educational program here, outreach, to do classes and workshops and to do different kinds of plays for small children and for older students. And I thought the time seemed to be right to try this.”

Robert Boles says it’s coincidental that the performances fall in the 15th anniversary period of the Columbine shootings. “That was the fluke of the calendar,” he says. “There are only a couple of windows of opportunity up here if you’re going to do something with high school students. They get involved in sports, forensics, math club. They divide their time around all these different activities all the time.”

Michaela Kraft, a sophomore at Southern Door High School, is involved in forensics, National Honor Society and the school musical; she is a park volunteer with her mother; and she’s in StageKids Theatre. She performed in StageKids’ “The Littlest Angel” and in the adult Stage Door Theatre Company’s “The House of Blue Leaves.”

Michaela Kraft’s attraction to “columbinus”: “I think because it was so different and because the things that the characters go through in this, somebody can relate to something. It’s like no matter who you are, you can relate to something that somebody’s going through. And the message that you leave with is one that’s really powerful.”

The play was written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, with contributions of others. “columbinus” premiered in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2005 and ran off-Broadway in 2006. Stephen Karam continues to write plays that have found an audience, and awards, in New York City.

“columbinus” includes excerpts from discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders as well as diaries and home video footage.

Robert Boles says, “These are interviews of high school students that were taken from everywhere, and the interviews were done by guidance counselors and psychologists for the sole purpose of finding out what is on students’ minds, what are they going through on a daily basis. Really, more than half of this play is not about Columbine at all. It is about a group of high school students going through the day from the time they wake up to the time they leave school and what they go through, how they’re treated, how they treat other people and most importantly, with each one of them, we go into their minds and find out what they’re thinking at any given moment during the course of the play. So a lot of these thoughts and actions are uncensored.

“I read about plays like the musical ‘Rent’ and several others that high schools try to do and for one reason or another people get nervous about the content and all that. This is definitely a rare opportunity for the students to come here to do a kind of play that maybe they wouldn’t necessarily do in high school. They would do either high school musicals or comedies. High schools tend to stay away from more dramatic pieces. Not all the time, but primarily you’ll see either comedies or musicals. Musicals especially because you can get the most people excited and involved with a musical and that’s what’s great about high school musicals. But this gives students an added opportunity. This really just supplements what the schools are giving because the arts programs, you know, all over the country are pretty much slashed. So we hope to at least fill a niche for those people who want to go further in their arts education.”

Michaela Kraft says rehearsals are more intense than other plays she’s been in. “We really care about the details,” she says. “We don’t just try to get through it. We try to make sure it’s right and it’s really good.”

Robert Boles says, “For me as a director, they know more about these people than I ever would. I mean, I’m here to merely guide and shape and help them along. But as far as characterization goes, I have to sit back because they are much more expert on who these people are.”

In preparing this article in various stages, any person I told about this production – putting “Columbine” and “play” in the same sentence – had an immediate reaction. Columbine is a lightning bolt for people who were around when it happened. The cast members give Robert Boles a different perspective.

He says, “Most of them they didn’t live through Columbine. They were babies or not even born when it happened. I told them at the first reading, ‘You know, I couldn’t count on my right hand the number of mass killings or things like this happening when I was your age. How many can you think of?’ And suddenly they were, oh, this one, this one. It’s part of their life. I mean, God forbid this never happens or comes close to happening up here, but it’s certainly in the back of their mind, everybody’s mind. They’re aware of it. School administrators are aware of it. It’s part of growing up and kind of adding to what other stresses that they’re going through in their lives.”

In the play, Michaela Kraft plays Faith, the good girl.

She says, “She’s religious, and people think she’s naïve but there’s a lot more to her than that… She has a line that says she’s like everybody else. With Faith, I just want people who don’t fall in the extremes, the so-called normal people, to know that somebody else knows what they’re going through and that’s just as hard as everybody else.”

Parents of everybody in the cast signed releases for participation.

Robert Boles says, “When we had auditions, I made sure all the parents, all the families of the students participating, knew exactly what they were getting involved in – gave them copies of the script if they wanted it. I told them, for instance, their children will be saying any word you can imagine your child saying – that you don’t want them to say – they will probably say at some point. There is no graphic violence per se in the piece. It’s all pretty abstractly done, but still the spoken images are very distinct and out there. So I just wanted to make sure the parents had a clear understanding of what was going on.”

Michaela Kraft says of her parents, “Luckily, they’re very supportive of whatever role I’m playing. They are aware of the content, but they are not aware of how it’s used, so they’re not going to make any judgments about it until they see it.”

Robert Boles says, “As far as the rest of the community, I have absolutely no idea. You know, some people can’t get past language, for instance, and I put no judgments on that. That’s just the way some people are. I imagine I’ll hear a little flak about that. I’m hoping that mostly people will see the reason why. We’re not doing it just for shock value. We’re doing it to show that this is the way these students think and act and talk amongst themselves and if we put our heads in the sand and try to believe that is not happening then we’re just helping, creating a problem. I’m hoping for that kind of honesty. I found that to be true in Connecticut. We had people who were complaining about the language, but mostly we had people who were just so involved with what the play was talking about and the importance that it needed to be talked about.”

From his experience in Connecticut, Robert Boles felt there was a need to follow the StageKids Theatre performances with an outlet.

He says, “This play is subtitled, ‘A Theatrical Discussion.’ It was designed to not give any answers. Like I said, half of it’s about high school, the other half is about Columbine, and Columbine just simply is put there as perhaps a worst-case scenario. If we allow the kids growing up to act and behave and go through what they’re going through. this is a probable consequence of not really paying attention to what’s going on. So it’s called ‘A Theatrical Discussion.’ Simply meant, the play lays out as best it can in theatrical terms – and I don’t mean to imply that this play is not entertaining, there actually are some very funny, entertaining moments with in this play as well – but it lays out the facts, yet in a very theatrical way, and after the play I’ve invited several community leaders to come up on stage and to give their point of view. I have psychologists, teachers, people who work with the police, coming up here, giving their point of view about the issues the play raises, to help the audience ask questions… or just to express themselves. I found from doing ‘columbinus’ in Connecticut – I did something similar there too – most people stayed, and everyone just had an urge, a need to talk. It’s common for theaters to have talkbacks, and it’s usually questions like, ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ But this one they wanted to talk about the issues and what they’ve just experienced and give their own experiences.”

The project of “columbinus” is like a mirror ball – so many angles, so many individual reflections.

One reflection is the core aim, expressed by Robert Boles: “For most if not all of these students (in the cast), it represents the first time they have been involved in a play that reflects their lives today. They recognize the characters as themselves or people they know very well. Plus, the play has a timeliness and importance attached to it that they also respond to.”

Another reflection may be of the unknown, a story about which Robert Boles tells from his experience in Connecticut:

“At the end of the play, the names of the 13 students who were killed at Columbine were projected all over the theater. After the talkback, this kid came up and he was crying and could barely speak because he was crying so hard. And he asked to see the cast. I got the cast there, and he pointed up to one of the names and said, ‘That was my friend.’ I’m in New Haven, Connecticut, but he was from Littleton, Colorado, and his friend was one of those who was killed there. He proceeded to tell us that he wasn’t going to come, he came and didn’t know if he was going to stay. He was just trying to tell us how grateful he was that he did stay, that we did do it, because it helped him understand and took a weight off his shoulders, he said. I turned to the cast after he left and our jaws were just on the floor, and I said, ‘You never know who’s watching, you never know, whether you’re doing the silliest comedy, whose day you’re brightening, or you’re doing something like this and whose life you’re making a little better.’ And certainly that kid didn’t have to come see the show. He certainly didn’t have to come up to us and tell us he was there. You never know who’s being affected by what you do. This piece very dramatically shows the power of theater to – change lives sounds too lofty – but I mean just to motivate people, to get discussions going, to do just much more than simply entertain. And simply entertaining is also an important part of it. But it shows them a different side of theater, that theater can be a force for good, for change, and just to start discussions, and this is what we hope to do.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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