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Let’s Talk About Violence (In Our Artistic Work! Seriously!)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the recent shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.

Wait a second. Actually, I haven’t. I’ve been thinking about it some. Occassionally, at best. But the truth is, this very recent and very tragic act of violence, culminating in 13 deaths (including the shooter, Navy Yard-employed computer technician Aaron Alexis), hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind. It seems like that’s been the case for the vast majority of the American public. This tragedy has yet to come up once in a conversation with a friend or colleague. I’ve seen the press, read the articles, watched the news clips… but it seems like nobody’s talking about this event in real life. Why is that?

This seems exceptional because of the many unpleasant conversations I was forced to have last year about various tragedies, such as Aurora, Newtown, and the marathon bombing here in Boston. Immediately after these events occurred, and for weeks after, I spoke with friends and family, teachers and peers alike about the tragic nature of the events, about how I and my peers were directly and indirectly affected, and about the latest updates coming through the press. It was such a pervasive conversation last year that I hesitated to even link news articles to this blog post. After all, you knew exactly what I was talking about without clicking on them, didn’t you?

I feel like that may not necessarily be the case this time around. It’s not as loud or pervasive a topic. So what happened? Could it be the victims? The attack wasn’t directed at children or families—the victims were adult employees of the Navy Yard. Does that somehow make their lives less valuable, or the event less tragic? It can’t be the motive of the shooter—right now, most signs point to mental illness (Alexis reported hearing “voices” and thinking voices were “speaking to him through the ceiling of his hotel room, seeking to penetrate his body with vibrations from a ‘microwave machine’ to prevent him from sleeping”. And, regardless, the motives of last year’s 3 tragedies mentioned above were widely varied, some political, some personal, etc. Could it be that we’re simply exhausted? At this point, I’m forced to ask myself: what more is there to say? Yeah, it’s bad. It’s bad, bad news. Yeah, it’s scary, and yeah, it’s sad. It’s really freaking sad. But is it surprising? No. So why would my friends and I make time to talk about it when we have other pressing matters to discuss, like rehearsal and classes and racism in 21st century America and the ever-present issues of rape culture and slut shaming?

But, listen, it’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. Violence is an issue that I can’t even quite get out of my head. So I went looking for it, and found a really interesting conversation on HowlRound about race, class, and gun violence and its depiction in the media. And then, even more thrillingly, I found information about the American Theatre Company’s production of columbinus, a play about the perpetrators and victims of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. The livestream discussion on HowlRound was in direct conversation with columbinus, which is playing at the ART through September 29th.

One of the discussion panel members, Betty Shoels (aunt of Columbine victim Isaiah Shoels), spoke about reporting the bullying that her nephew endured at school, only to have the principal respond with claims that such behavior was not actually happening at all. Mz. Shoels went on to suggest that our community choose to speak out when violence begins, and not quietly endure it, as she and Isaiah did before his tragic death.

This seems like the key. The first step to solving the violent epidemic that’s plaguing our society is to talk about it. Letting it go on in silence will only allow it to continue and grow. But the ATC’s production of columbinus begins to address the issue in a very healthy way: by “laying out the circumstances and letting the audience grapple with the ultimate question: “why?”

That can be a simple, feasible goal for today’s young artists. We’re faced with countless problems within our society. They need to be fixed, but first they must be addressed. So, for now, our job is to start the conversation: just ask “why?”

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