The Pulse nightclub attack was a devastating blow to the LGBTQ community. Within days of the June 12, 2016 massacre of 49 patrons in Orlando, Florida, New York-based playwrights Caridad Svich and Zac Kline and actor-director Blair Baker decided to expand a “theater action” idea they’d used in the past – to solicit playwrights to write pieces to be produced as readings, drawing from their rage.
After Orlando, an international reading scheme produced by Svich’s No Passport Theatre Alliance and Brown and Kline’s Missing Bolts Productions, solicited original 3-5 minute plays that address the shooting and the lives it affected, and manages evening readings of the plays. Readings began in September 2016 and will run through January 2017, in locations including New York, London, Peru, Nebraska, and the Inge Center in Kansas.
In New York City, selections of the plays have been performed in several venues, including schools and small venues in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. And now there is a 4-evening run of readings through December 11 at the DR2 Theater in Union Square.
In the nearly 70 After Orlando events that have been held or scheduled to date, nearly 80 playwrights offer remembrance, community in theatrical space, and poetic expression of the inexpressible. Among these, the New York City DR2 engagement has a few attributes that stand out: this is a commercial venue with higher donation/admission price than most other venues, and this is a multiple evening event. The steep admission price, which is really a donation to a Pulse-related charity, required a new agreement with the participating playwrights. As co-creator Svich reflected, it is “its own unique atomic particle in the middle of this large amoeba.”
Over 50 of the 80 After Orlando plays will be presented across the four evenings at the DR2 Theater, curated by Svich, Kline, and Blair, with a different set of plays and actors each of the four evenings. Wendy Goldberg, Artistic Director of the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and her Associate Director Gregg Wiggans direct the events. Goldberg says, “We’ve kept the presentation very simple to focus attention on the words and the emotional power the pieces hold both singularly and as a collective.”
Post show conversations are included in some readings and not others. A St. Louis, Missouri event co-curated by playwright and director Joan Lipkin in November placed great priority on the post show conversation that lasted longer than the readings themselves. The New York DR2 events will have post shows for some evenings and not others. Goldberg noted, “I think the evening is so powerful with just the plays themselves, but I do understand giving some space to process the event.”
Theater Action Meets the Pulse Cultural Event
Svich has been refining theater action strategies over a period of years, experimenting with reach and methods. “I use myself as a guinea pig,” she reflected, “to think about how to dialogue in a different way, to have it quickly, and to have it horizontally.” Theater actions by Svich since 2001 provide a roadmap for the After Orlando plays – raw, personal, immediate reactions by writers presented to the public.
The After Orlando assignment to writers was to create a 3-5-minute piece reacting to the Pulse events with a very short timeline – the call went out in July and the first readings were scheduled in September. “The national consciousness is short and we have lived through far too many of these events,” Kline observed. “This is a theater action examining what happened in Orlando that comes in a long line of recent gun violence and international terrorism, in a country that is in a conversation about equality and rights and what it means to love and respect your neighbor. We wanted this to happen right away; we wanted this to be action as action.”
Kline recalled, “We started off with a handful of trusted colleagues with an eye toward folks whose voices we just love, and who we thought would give a diverse accounting of how this was impacting them in their community.”
The 80 After Orlando plays are assembled and distributed by the producers, organized in nine separate packets of 8-14 plays curated by Svich as producible evenings, balancing tone and color and genre. Interested local producers are provided all the plays and are free to craft their own evenings, as long as they included 3-5 plays from the collection. Svich describes the complete set of plays as having “this incredibly intimate, raw, fearless quality.” She plans to publish the plays in some form, possibly in multiple volumes, as she published plays from an early effort, Gun Control Theatre Action, as 24 Gun Control Plays in 2013.
In our conversation, a few days after the Presidential election on November 8, 2016, Blair mused about its impact on the play events pre- and post-election. “It’s the power of theater that the plays are the same as they were a week ago, but the event is now meaningful in a different way and it continues the conversation that we set out to start.”
Plays and Playwrights Reflect
Philadelphia playwright Jaqueline Goldfinger, who grew up in rural north Florida, was approached by Svich for the project. Goldfinger loved the idea of “raising awareness and building empathy and building insight into these communities and celebrating our humanity while connecting with one another” with what she described as a “curated beautiful buffet” of plays. She loved that the speed of the project subverted the usual multi-year play development process. And her monologue piece Baby Sister, included in the November 20, 2016 DR2 reading, gave her an outlet for her rage at the bodies that went unclaimed after the shootings, “so rejected by their families that even in death, even after being a victim of a horrible hate crime, their families wouldn’t’ come and bury them.” In her play, a sister reclaims her brother’s remains and moves on “in a way that she couldn’t have moved on by herself, in terms of her life.” Goldfinger’s piece provides “a different perspective and understanding of what happened and how this culturally rippled out to the greater community.”
Playwright and director Joan Lipkin contacted the producers as soon as she heard about the project. Her two-hander Our Friends, included in the December 4, 2016 DR2 reading, is a conversation between a lesbian couple with vastly different reactions to the aftermath of the shootings, one embracing the predictability of small talk and the other infuriated by the return to normal small talk represents. Lipkin also produced a reading event, and underscored the importance of local artists and producers who know their community at the helm of reading events. “It’s very important as cultural workers that we be sensitive to the needs of individual communities and respect the contributions that they can make, and be wary of the ways that we might criticize them. Unless we are working in a community, we don’t know what their circumstances are.”
Other project plays illustrate the range of the collection. In Everyone Gets a Stick by Deborah Laufer, two mothers of elementary school boys and a school principal discuss an incident with a stick in a world where sticks are like guns, and the blame for wounding is placed on the stickless. The principal announces: “I don’t enforce the rules – I just make them. I’ll be right here. In my office. With the door closed. And the blinds drawn.” In Gone Silent by Jennifer Maisel, in text laid out like a poem, a mother reflects on her beloved adult son at the club, terrified of returning his call while the shooting was happening. “And I can’t call back / Because what if his ringer is on?” And in O-Town by David Lee, a riff on Our Town, a narrator describes the streets of Orlando near the club, awakening on the day of the shooting. “In the words of Thornton Wilder, I think that Earth might be too vast and complicated for anybody to understand it. I wonder if any human being on the planet ever realizes what life is while they live it…every single second….”
After Orlando Vision and Final Words
“We entered this project from a place of deep hurt, deep love, and deep need, and that has only grown,” noted Kline. “We’re heartened by the love, the community, the power of the word, the testament to not forgetting and not letting this happen again and to moving forward and celebrating the communities that we love and need. It’s as important now as it ever was before to sit in a darkened room with a real live person next to you, off your phone, off Twitter, off the news cycle, for 90 minutes or for 2 hours, and let that story change you or speak to you. It feels important to let ourselves do that and continue to share these pieces and share our thoughts and open our arms when the lights come back on.”