The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To address the gun violence epidemic, look to the lessons of theater kids

(Mary Laura Philpott)

I was not surprised to learn that several of the teenage survivors turned activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are members of their school’s drama club. Conspiracy theorists have accused these students of being “trained” because they’ve been spotted practicing their lines before going on camera.

Well, yes. For months and years before these teens stood in front of news trucks or in town hall meetings to demand a stop to school shootings, some of them got what would, tragically, become their media training in the theater. Breathe, speak up, calm your nerves and stick to the words you mean to say. That’s what you do onstage, and, if you’re lucky, it’s what you do when someone puts a microphone in front of your face.

A father’s eulogy to his son, killed in the most recent school shooting

I’ve been watching interviews with Parkland survivors because I feel that adults owe them an audience. I made myself watch more difficult footage also, in the cellphone videos recorded by terrified students during the shooting. Many of these boys and girls were the same age as my ninth-grade son, and I wept to imagine him and his friends texting their siblings and parents in confusion and farewell. I remembered again what it felt like five years ago to watch reports of the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My daughter was in first grade then, and I couldn’t help but picture her school, her classmates huddled in the corner of their classroom.

My daughter is now in middle school, as the victims of Sandy Hook would have been if they had survived, and she has been acting in school plays since the third grade. Last week she got her first taste of directing, working as an assistant stage manager to call the cues on her school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Two nights before opening, they had a particularly disastrous dress rehearsal: The Tin Man was out with strep throat, Glinda kept floating into the wrong scenes, and Toto barked every time Dorothy tried to speak. Their theater teacher, writer Braden Bell, emailed the cast and crew that night.

“The more complicated a show, the more things can go wrong. Practice will help us get it right,” Bell wrote, reminding them that every play they had done in the past had gone through terrible rehearsals, too. “When we wanted to quit and give up, we pushed through. When things got tough and discouraging we chose to drag ourselves up the hill a little longer. I know you’re tired. I am too. And it will get worse before it gets better. But tired will pass. Tired is temporary. Pride and satisfaction in doing really hard things is forever.”

The shooting in Florida happened the next day. It was all I could think about — all many parents could think about. We are losing our children not on battlefields but in school gymnasiums, in movie theaters, at concerts, everywhere they are no longer safe. I feel hopeless sometimes. Like most parents, I’d take a bullet for my kids, but there are so many bullets now — how can I step in front of all of them?

The following night, “The Wizard of Oz” opened. As I watched the young actors sing and dance, I had this thought: “Whatever else happens, at least they will have had this.”

I am so grateful for my children’s experiences in the theater, but I don’t want to be thankful that my children have had a great and happy experience before they die in gunfire. I want not to fear that my children will die in gunfire at all.

This is tech week for my son’s high school musical. He graduated from the same middle school my daughter attends, where he, too, found a home in the theater department. He prefers operating the spotlight to standing in its beam, so he sits at the back of the auditorium in the dark, working the light board for hours at a time. At the end of the show, he attends the cast party, where he and his fellow students hug and high-five. They tease one another for their mistakes and congratulate one another on their triumphs.

Watching his enthusiasm for his craft this week has given me another, more hopeful thought: Maybe theater could be part of the solution?

Think about it. Acting requires facing and harnessing your vulnerability. As actor Michael Ian Black wrote in his “boys are broken” tweet this week, this is something young men, in particular, are not taught or encouraged to do in an age in which outdated notions of tough, dominant masculinity still prevail.

Studies suggest loneliness runs high in schools today, with technology allowing teens to become less adept at interacting face-to-face than earlier generations. The killers in school shootings, almost always, are young men who have felt ostracized. What if they hadn’t felt left out? What if they’d had — if not theater, specifically — their own version of that peer-family? The camaraderie of a dramatic production can feel as much like a family as a tightknit athletic team does. (My daughter recently made herself a T-shirt that reads, “My sport? Theater.”) What if they’d had a place to go, an activity to grasp onto?

This sounds a little silly, I realize. I’m not so naive as to think a stint on the school musical would reverse a killer’s path. I know that in many cases the gunmen had mental issues that went far beyond loneliness, far back into their childhoods. Ending school shootings will require bigger answers — gun control legislation, better mental health care, and a cultural shift away from shoot-’em-up entertainment, to start.

But maybe there’s something the rest of us can learn here. At the very least, perhaps more adults might embrace the lessons of theater kids in our approach to solving the gun violence epidemic. Don’t give up when it’s hard. Know that it has gotten worse, but it can get better. Work together, no matter how small each of our parts. If we do, we’ll have something to be proud of. We’ll have our children’s lives.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “Penguins With People Problems” and “I Miss You When I Blink,” a forthcoming memoir in essays. She tweets @marylauraph.

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More reading: 

In the era of school shootings, how do we expect our kids to learn?

Schools are teaching empathy. Here’s how it can work at home, too.

How to talk to kids about another school shooting? There are no words.