Heavy Light

Heavy Light

The title of a new play developed by students in Peter Loffredo’s Devised Theater class makes the work sound cheerful.

Shine Again.

Think again. The title references the song “Shine,” written by drama students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in the week following a shooting that killed 17, including 14 students. Even as the play’s title suggests light and renewal, the word “again” brings to mind the darker eventuality that other students will be faced, again and again, with gun violence at their own schools and elsewhere. According to the website SinceParkland.org, 1,200 more American children have lost their lives to guns since the Parkland shooting.

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If the subject of the production sounds didactic or “preachy,” that’s not the intent, says Loffredo, who’s been teaching drama at Educational Center for the Arts for 20 years. The goal of the class, he says, “is to help the students realize that they have the power to create theater through writing as well as acting directing. If there’s something that they feel strongly about, they have the opportunity to work on it.” The focus of Shine Again is on the facts, he says, “and we’re trying to tell as many different sides of the story as we possibly can.” One fact that will be missing from the performance will be the name of the Parkland shooter, an effort to avoid giving him notoriety.

In the upstairs hall of Trinity Lutheran Church on Orange Street, near ECA’s Audubon Street location, Loffredo’s class of 10 students from seven area high schools gathered on a Wednesday afternoon with self-authored scripts in hand to work on the blocking for the play’s first few pages. While Loffredo is their teacher and director, they have clearly taken ownership of this project.

Once they’d chosen their topic, which emerged from a conversation about bullying, the next step was to research gun violence history, related legislation and first-person accounts of survivors, explains senior Briana Michelle Mack, who is also serving as teacher’s assistant for the production. To help students construct the information-rich play, Loffredo provided the example of Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, a 2000 play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, who, in 1998, was tortured and killed because he was gay.

With research done and a rough structure in place, students then undertook a deep revision of their own creation. “The process kind of starts with… a slow, steady rereading through the script, realizing that this doesn’t belong there, and this belongs here, and you gotta place this over here, and then new facts come up,” says junior Kira Kelly. Rereading inspired more ideas, and the script grew.

Freshman Pablo Giannotti-Garlinghouse says he expected more conflict among classmates trying to create together, but the process has been smooth. Classmate Hannah Pogemiller, a freshman who is also working on some of the props and publicity for the production, adds that “even though it was a tough topic, we always had fun putting it together, and it was a great learning experience… It was nice to work as a team.”

That teamwork is on view in the first scene of the production. The play opens in a classroom, where students are studying the preamble of the US Constitution. It’s followed by a recitation of mass shootings, from Columbine to Marjory Stoneman Douglas. As the students recreate 911 calls and the testimony of survivors, their investment in the project is palpable. “The other sort of thing that I’ve challenged them to try to do is when they’re playing a real person, a survivor, they owe that person the courtesy of trying to understand that person as much as possible,” Loffredo says. “We want to do right by the people whose lives and stories we’re telling.”

Under the umbrella of Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), ECA provides “high school students with the experience of studying the fine arts with practicing professional artists, stimulating a life-long curiosity for learning and a passion for the arts,” its website says. More than 300 students from 25 school districts leave their home schools every afternoon to come to ECA for specialized instruction in creative writing, dance, music, theatre and visual arts. In the process, they learn much more.

“Before this, I was not very educated on the topic of gun violence,” freshman Shelagh Laverty reports. “It’s a very depressing topic, and now that I’m learning about this, I’m having conversations with my parents about it and learning this is what’s happening in America and throughout the world… I feel very educated about the topic now, so I don’t feel ‘out of the light.’”

Laverty’s light-related metaphor probably isn’t a coincidence. It’s adjacent to the one drawn by Parkland students Andrea Peña and Sawyer Garrity in their song “Shine,” whose chorus insists:

You’re not gonna knock us down.
We’ll get back up again.
You may have hurt us, but I promise we’ll be stronger, and
We’re not gonna let you win.
We’re putting up a fight.
You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine a light.

At 7 p.m. on May 9, when the lights go up in The Little Theatre, Peña and Garrity’s counterparts at ECA will be shining their own light.

Shine Again, an ECA Theatre Department production
The Little Theatre – 1 Lincoln Way, New Haven (map)
May 9 at 7pm | $5 at the door
(203) 777-5451

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 features Briana Michelle Mack and Layla Tracey. Image 3 features Hannah Pogemiller, Millie Sunshine Carlson, Georgia Crowder and Johanna Wethly. Image 4 features Briana Michelle Mack, Layla Tracey, Johanna Wethly and Kira Kelly.

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