Dallas — Mara Richards Bim, founder and artistic director of Cry Havoc Theater Company, is committed to providing talented young Dallas teenagers a voice on the stage. Working with young writers and actors, the company produced last year’s fascinating devised theater piece, Shut Up and Listen, as well as Good Kids, a critically applauded work showcased at the Festival of Independent Theatres.
Now Bim and co-director Ruben Carrazana have created a new work based on the violent outcome of a July 7, 2016, peaceful protest rally in Dallas in response to recent police shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. An African-American Army Reserve veteran ambushed police officers assigned to the rally, killing five and wounding nine officers.
TheaterJones talked with Bim about the process of making Shots Fired, a response based on interviews conducted in the fall of 2016 by local teenagers.
TheaterJones: How did you select the teenagers to conduct the interviews for this piece? Are several schools represented? Are they a racially diverse group of students?
Mara Richards Bim: When I first started Cry Havoc, I reached out to theater teachers I knew across the city of Dallas. For our first production, I went to a number of schools to audition students. I also held public auditions. From that original group of students cast in The (out)Siders Project, a handful are still in high school and are still with me in the company. For each show, we hold auditions to fill out the group and replace anyone who is graduating or can't do that particular show. Of the 11 students in Shots Fired, eight have been in a prior Cry Havoc production. Six have worked in two or more shows. Each production we do pulls students from across North Texas. They're a diverse group in every sense of the word, racially, socio-economically, and geographically. In this production, we have six high schools in the Dallas area represented.
The relatively fast period for the student interviews seems critical. When did you decide to create the work, and how did you put the process in place?
When the shootings happened last summer, the teens were in rehearsal for our Festival of Independent Theatres show, Good Kids. I had just been released from the hospital after delivering my daughter. The day after the shooting, I came into rehearsal, baby in tow, to talk with the group. The director, Shelby-Allison Hibbs, and I planned to have a 30-minute conversation letting the teens express any anxiety they might be feeling. It turned into a 90-minute conversation about race, Dallas, and the recent shootings across the country. At the end of that conversation, I proposed to the group that our next devised work be about this topic. They enthusiastically agreed.
I knew I couldn’t tackle this show alone. I was a new, first-time mom and the challenge was enormous. I reached out to Ruben. We’d been trying to find a way for him to work with the teens, and this project made sense. He and I started meeting as soon as the FIT show closed to figure out what this might look like. We looked at models other companies have used to create devised and/or documentary theater. We ultimately felt that what Tectonic Theater Project did to create the The Laramie Project would be the best model for this.
The short window for conducting interviews and creating this piece are a function of the teens’ school schedule, rather than a deliberate choice. We were able to complete about 20 interviews, 10 of which are included in the final performance. We’re looking at ways to continue and expand upon this project. We’re thinking of everything from licensing the full audios to continuing to conduct interviews and build upon this work. It has been an amazing experience for everyone involved, including Ruben and myself.
How did you arrange access to the policemen, the protestors and the others for interviews? How were “community members” selected?
Early on, Ruben and I spent a great deal of time researching the shooting and its aftermath. From our research, we made a “wish list” of individuals we’d like to speak with, people whose lives had been directly impacted by the shootings. Because the shootings happened at a rally, finding community members to participate was actually the easy part. However, we did want to present a balanced perspective, so we selected community members who had differing views on race relations and police brutality. The more difficult part was reaching out to individuals who were not participating in the protest, but were caught up in what happened. I’m talking about police officers and Dr. Brian Williams, the trauma surgeon on call at Parkland that night. For Dr. Williams, I reached out to him on Twitter and he responded. To contact the police officer that we ended up speaking with, I went through friends who made the connection and we guaranteed him anonymity from the outset. Something people don’t know is that the shooting is still under investigation by a variety of government agencies. They continue to investigate everything from who was associated with the shooter to how the police ended the standoff. We’re really grateful for the officer who spoke with us.
How is theater a strong vehicle for making meaning of this event for the collaborators? What role do the students have in refining a raw interview into a moment in the play?
We all came into this project with some biases. We were each drawn to this project because we have strong opinions on the dialogue around race and police shootings. Each of the speakers gave us a huge gift in sharing their story. Each of us is walking away from this project with new insight and an enhanced perspective. The teens will tell you that they’ve never done anything like this and it’s had a big impact on them.
After each interview, the teens kept journals about the experience and then Ruben and I debriefed with them. We audio recorded everything—the interviews as well as the group debriefings—and had a slate of transcribers turning the audio into written transcripts. We worked with the teens as we decided which moments to include. Ruben and I then came up with the framing device and didn’t let the teens in on it until the end. We didn’t want them censoring their own responses along the way. We took everyone’s feedback on the interviews and edited down each hour-long interview to roughly six minutes of text. It was painful because we had to leave out so much, which is why we’re looking at ways to license the full audios. We then presented the script to the teens, got their feedback and made edits.
Do students perform along with professional actors?
We have yet to produce a show where the teens perform with professional adult actors. It’s something we’re talking about down the road. We are a very material-driven company. It would have to be the right material for us to think about producing it with adults working alongside the teens.
What is the audience you hope to reach for this work?
Everyone in Dallas was affected in some way by the shootings. We hope that this piece will appeal to people who may not consider themselves theatergoers but who are interested in talking about race relations in Dallas. We see this as a vehicle to bring new audiences to our work.
How does Shots Fired “provide a snapshot of race relations in Dallas,” as you mention in your description of the piece?
From the get-go, I’ve been careful to say that we are only providing a glimpse, a starting point, for this conversation. What’s important to me is that this snapshot is driven by the teens’ view of the world. Teens rarely get to share their opinions on difficult subjects in any meaningful way. They are inheriting this world and its problems from previous generations, so Ruben and I wanted their perspectives to be a driving force in the creation of Shots Fired. Beyond that, we’re aware that our selection of who to interview and who to exclude shapes the snapshot we’re providing. I like to think we’ve curated a conversation about race relations in Dallas that leads to further dialogue. We have to start somewhere talking about race. We chose to start with this group of teens and these specific adult interviewees.
Would this be an appropriate work to tour middle schools and high schools in the city?
We’ve not talked about touring work before, but this would be appropriate and I like the idea.
Faced with such a sad and violent event, how do the students find a way out of such confrontation? Do they see hope for the future?
I talked with students about their outlook. They came to the project already engaged in the topic, and eager to talk about the event. When I asked if their peers talked about the topic and race relations generally, their answer was “not so much.” They all say they were impacted by the national election. The consensus is, sadly, that they have hope for better race relations in the distant future, but not in their lifetime. Specifically, they define that time as “when the old people die off.” They’re partly joking because they have all seen that racial attitudes are passed on from generation to generation. Still they’re hopeful for the long term. After all, a lot of activists are passing on their ideals and hopes for the future to their families and communities.