Dallas — The Center for Homeland Defense and Security data reflect more than 230 school shootings in the United States since Columbine in 1999. According to Education Week, 25 school shootings with injuries or deaths occurred during 2019 in the United States with 51 people killed or injured. Two of those were in Texas. Just a few days ago, Jan. 11, in Dallas, a shooting occurred during a high school basketball game. The shooter was a 15-year old boy.
The American Psychological Association estimates that 28 percent of witnesses to a mass shooting will develop PTSD, and the disorder will be acute for approximately 33 percent of that population.
Slide By is a play by former DFW resident Thomas Ward that follows a former student who returns to his old high school as a substitute teacher the week after the Columbine massacre. Jake Nice, in partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center is the producer and director of this world premiere, which opens their 2019-2020 Elevator Project season. This is the second play Jake has produced and directed for the project, the first being Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die.
The show features Jon Garrard, Brian Witkowicz, Cindee Mayfield, Detra Payne, Sydney Lo, Cory Kosel, and Jeremy LeBlanc — Nice points that many of them work in education. TheaterJones chatted with Jake about Slide By, which runs Jan. 16-26 in the Sixth Floor Studio Theatre in the Wyly Theatre.
TheaterJones: In a recent interview you described Columbine as having been super-magnified by the media when you were a child. What did you mean?
Jake Nice: I think one element of the current school shooting epidemic kicked off with Columbine in 1999. It sometimes seems there is a sick sort of body count competition among shooters. The media should definitely cover these kinds of things, but since Columbine we are learning more and more to shift how we are portraying these events in the media in an effort to avoid any glorification of the shooters. For example, we have learned to avoid publicizing the shooter’s name. Instead, we give out the names of the victims. We now know not to beam in on how big the attack was, rather just to say it happened.
Am I correct in that you grew up in or near that location in Colorado? Also, how old were you when Columbine happened?
Yes, I did grow up in that area. I was six so I can’t say I was super personally affected. I don’t think I knew anybody at from Columbine, but it was probably a 10 to 15-minute drive from my house. Another member of the Slide By team, Claire Carson, grew up a little farther away but still in Denver. She has her own personal connection to what happened. So, you see, Slide By is a play that is sort of tied to home. It is ironic that Thomas Ward set the play in Centennial High School because Centennial is the township my parents lived in. Littleton and Centennial are like two parts of the same whole.
I wondered how many school shootings have occurred in Colorado since Columbine. There have been four: Platte Canyon High in Bailey, Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton, Arapahoe High School in Centennial, and STEM School in Highlands Ranch. A check in Google maps reveals that except for Bailey, the other cities are close in proximity.
You are correct, they are close together. Arapahoe is one of three high schools I might have attended based on my neighborhood. That school, Heritage High and Littleton, where I went, are all part of three in the same area, school rivals. I remember when the Arapahoe school shooting happened. I have friends who went there and were affected by it.
The STEM shooting was actually committed by a young person I knew through a junior production of Guys and Dolls at Town Hall Arts Center several years before. He was this young kid who was super funny and engaging with everybody. Several years later when I saw his name pop up in the news, that was a shocking moment. It was a small world in a bad way. I think there’s something to the towns’ close proximity, that one attack seems to inspire another. That’s the thing that makes it seem like terrorism and is so horrifying about the epidemic of school shootings.
In the video promo for the show on the ATTPAC website, you identified four topics in the play: violence, abuse, institutional corruption, and toxic masculinity. Which of these four topics most intrigues you about this play?
Gun violence is something I feel passionate about. But what humanizes the play for me are the relationships among the characters. Thomas has so beautifully written this pretty grim depiction of the American education system and the dark ins and outs of this suburban high school. He makes us care about the characters and root for them. Of those four topics toxic masculinity is strong. Thomas explores the intricacies of male friendship and certain strictures on young men who grow up hearing you should be a certain way, and this is what you should successful person does. Then they go to college and enter the workforce. It is possible that a lot of those pressures could be released in misguided aggression. We see how all of this affects some of the men and some of the women and how they are living in this pattern, tied together, each having the potential to lead to violence and abuse.
Learning from what we now know after so many of these shootings, a profile has emerged of the young, suburban, cisgender male who is usually white. Do you think as the young males navigate the pressures you describe that their whiteness factors into the toxic masculinity?
I think it does, yes. I think young, white, cisgender men seem to be responsible for a lot of the mass shootings that happen in America. We have become a lot more politically aware in society. Some might say we have become overly sensitive, but we seem to have become more aware of or sensitive to ethnic diversity, LGBTQIA rights.
It seems to me that there has been a cultural shift if not toward supporting those things to at least acknowledging those things. I can say this is a person from a different background than me but that doesn’t make them a monster even if I do not agree with their identity in some capacity.
One of the important things Thomas does is look compassionately at somebody who is hard to approach with compassion.
What would you like our readers to know before coming to see this play?
This is an important play which handles sensitive subject matter so they should approach the experience with an open mind. We can all benefit from examining these difficult issues on the stage, breathing together in a room and assessing our relationships with some of these heavier subjects together. I truly believe that the togetherness of being in the theatre is key to finding compassion for each other and people who have differing political viewpoints. Through this coming together in the same space people can at least acknowledge that these issues exist in the world and through working together we can find the solutions.