When survivors of the Parkland Shooting started speaking out to media — taking political action, opposing gun violence and calling for gun control — it quickly was discovered that the leaders of that group and its most outspoken members were all theater kids.
This weekend, more theater kids, this time in Louisville, are speaking out on the subject of gun control when Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Walden Theatre Alumni Company presents Eric Ulloa’s “26 Pebbles.”
The play is made up of interviews from the people of Newtown, Conn., about five months after the 2012 Sandy Hook Shooting.
It’s an almost documentary style of theater best known for Tectonic Theatre’s 2000 play “The Laramie Project,” which was later adapted into an HBO miniseries. Playwright Ulloa actually spoke with “Laramie” creator Moises Kaufman in preparation for his trip to Newtown.
(“The Laramie Project” also happens to be on the CTC’s season schedule next year.)
The Alumni Company’s production is directed by Ruthie Dworin, who graduated CTC’s Walden Theatre Conservatory in 2017. While she’s primarily trained as an actor, Dworin had directing experience while at the conservatory and in her first year at the University of Chicago.
When she was home from school over spring break, Mitchell Martin, CTC’s artistic associate currently heading the Alumni Company, asked if Dworin was interested in directing.
“I was a little wary of it at first, because things like political theater and devised shows about real people can very easily be very bad, but this one is absolutely gorgeous and profound and carries a lot of different opinions,” she said.
The play quickly introduces the town of Newtown and gives a sense of place before it moves into addressing the shooting and the townspeople’s responses.
“Like, what do the clergy do? What do the people who aren’t clergy, but are still healers in some way, how do they react?” asked Dworin. “How do the teachers react? How do the parents of the students who were affected react? How do regular community members react? How do community leaders react? And how do all of these go together?”
The company of actors, also made up of alumni, each play multiple roles in the show. All told, the six actors play 24 characters. In the script, roles are grouped together. Dworin called these groupings “character tracts” and noted that specific townspeople needed to be played by the same performer.
She also had a collaborative process when assigning parts in the play.
“Mitchell got the whole group together, and then I sent everybody the script and said, ‘All right, let me know which character tracts are speaking to you,’” recalled Dworin.
Those tracts led her to approach building characters with the actors in a specific way.
“We talked about this show on three levels,” she said. “Level one is the actual character. Level two is the storyteller, like Actor One is playing two characters, Actor Three is playing four characters. And then we talked about the actual actors, like Zoe, Aaron, Chase.”
Think of it as a meta-awareness that there is a play within this play, that an actor named Zoe is playing a character named Actor One, who is playing several people from Newtown.
That’s not complicated just for the fun of it. Because the piece is made up of interviews, essentially monologues, “Pebbles” doesn’t feel like traditional theater, so it shouldn’t be approached like one.
“What we’re going for is some sort of amalgamation of play, town hall meeting, rally … it’s somewhere in there,” said Dworin.
One last meta-twist to the production.
Because the Alumni Company shares a performance space with CTC’s summer acting camps for kids, they’ll be performing on a set designed for an elementary show production of “The Wizard of Oz” — an unplanned but powerful commentary on the 20 kids, 6- and 7-year-olds, who might have performed on such a set if they hadn’t died at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Dworin, and the actors, have a generational connection to the material that older actors lack.
“All of us are between the ages of 19 and 21. That reflects a lot of what is going on with our generation,” she said. “We are the first generation that grew up with intruder drills in school. We are the generation that is paying attention. The first generation that is doing something.”
Claiming responsibility for being the generation that makes a change — with direct action or theater — is a bold step. Is there hope?
“I think I would have had a different answer a few months ago … but I think about those Parkland kids a lot,” said Dworin. “I think what makes us not screwed is that a bunch of young people are about to be able to go vote.”
“26 Pebbles” runs July 6-8 at 7:30 p.m. and July 7 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10. The Commonwealth Theatre Center is located at 1123 Payne St.