Stage fright: a play about a school shooting becomes too real

At a high school in New York City, life imitates art imitates life

 

By Bliss Broyard

On June 9th, 20 students gathered in the black-box theatre at LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York, best known as the inspiration for the hit movie and TV series “Fame” in the 1980s. It was the dress rehearsal for an end-of-year showcase of scenes written and performed by 15- and 16-year-olds. The first scene, “It Only Takes One Bite”, was about a school shooting in which a teenage girl survives but her younger brother is killed. Rehearsals for the LaGuardia show had already begun when 19 children and two teachers were gunned down at a school in Uvalde, Texas, in late May.

The playwright and director, 16-year-old Carly Gold, had been shaken by the similarities between her story and the massacre: the age of the kids, the number of people killed. She consulted with family, friends and the actors about whether to proceed with the production. Many thought it was too soon, that it would be uncomfortable for students. But Gold has a steeliness that belies her age, perhaps the product of trying to make it as an actor in New York. (She made her Broadway debut at the age of 13, playing a child in a big Irish family in Jez Butterworth’s play, “The Ferryman”, which won a Tony.) She knew how hard the actors had worked. Wasn’t theatre supposed to make people uncomfortable?

The day after a ten-year-old survivor of the Ulvade massacre testified before Congress, the dress rehearsal began

LaGuardia’s legendary drama teacher, Lee Lobenhofer, who has been a mentor to stars such as Timothée Chalamet and Ansel Elgort, agreed with Gold: the Uvalde killings made it even more important to put on the performance. “Art is a mirror of a society,” he told the young actors.

So, just two weeks after the shooting – and the day after an 11-old girl testified before Congress about covering herself in her friends’ blood to survive – the dress rehearsal for Gold’s scene began. The lights went up, showing a row of conspicuously empty desks arranged in a semicircle, before an announcement blares over the fictional school’s public-address system: “Attention Riverview students. We are currently going into a hard lockdown. Please take proper action.”

Next came the backstory: that morning, ten-year-old Eli, played by a mop-haired student named Zane Elinson, whines about going to school. Leah, his older sister, bribes him by putting Oreos in his lunch box – an act that will come to torture her.

Jumping forward in time, Leah and some classmates flee when they hear the announcement. A student calls after them, “But it’s not what we’ve been trained to do!” The remaining kids text their loved ones – Gold got the actors to read messages sent during real school shootings:

Mom, I don’t know what’s going on.
I heard gunshots.
People are screaming.
I am sorry for everything I have put you through.
I love you.
I’m scared.
I don’t want to die.

Meanwhile, Eli and two of his classmates hide under the desks. “It’s all going to be OK, you guys,” he says. “We all have lots of things to do.” One of them orders him to shut up and begins to cry. Another scoots over to tell him that her father is taking her to the cinema after school that day. “What are you seeing?” Eli asks. “Sing 2”, she says, matching his hopeful tone.

The actors read messages sent during real school shootings: I am sorry for everything I put you through. I don’t want to die

The scene ends with Eli waiting under the desk for help to arrive. He eats his sandwich and then takes out an Oreo and holds it up for the audience. Some people, like him, pull the wafers apart and lick the cream off first. The cream doesn’t know that it’s a part of a biscuit, Eli explains, so it doesn’t see what’s coming: “It’s safe.” Others pop the whole thing into their mouths. “It’s sad in a way,” he says, staring poignantly into the distance, “because you eat them and then they’re gone. Eli is enjoying the last piece of his treat when someone pounds loudly on a door behind him and the stage goes black.

From the wings, the other actors in the scene watched Eli’s final monologue. They held hands, trying not to cry, riveted, in dread at what happened next in the scene and what happened in Uvalde.

But there were 11 more scenes left to rehearse that day – the show must go on. The LaGuardia crew quickly set up for “Romance Scene”, and the lead actor was preparing to say her first line when an announcement crackled over the public-address system: “Attention. Attention. Please shelter in. Once again, please shelter in and take appropriate action.” The actors on stage looked at each other, laughing uncomfortably at what they assumed was a messed-up audio cue.

Gold, seated in the auditorium, assumed it was a prank. “That is so not funny,” another student said. Then Lobenhofer came running down the aisle, keys jangling, and locked the theatre door. Jolted into action, Gold, who was also the stage-manager, began herding everyone toward the prop cupboards that line one wall of the theatre. “Cut the lights,” she called, and the whole theatre was plunged into darkness. Her legs shook as she clung to the other students squashed into the cupboard, unsure who anyone was. Kids whimpered and cried.

“I love you guys so much,” one student whispered.
“I’m scared,” another said.

Unable to see anything, the cast of “It Only Takes One Bite” stumbled over pieces of the set and banged into prop tables as they rushed to the far corners of the room. “I’m sorry for what’s going to happen,” whispered Bridget Buckheit, who played Leah.

Under the protocols of New York City schools, a shelter-in order means that an act of violence is taking place outside the school: exit doors are locked and teachers are instructed to be on high alert, but otherwise it’s business as usual. A hard lockdown indicates that the threat is inside the building, which means teachers should barricade classroom doors and turn off the lights while students hide. The drama students said they hadn’t been taught the difference between hard lockdowns and shelter-ins. But it isn’t surprising that everyone assumed the worst, considering the frequency of school shootings in America – and the scene the students had just performed.

They held hands, trying not to cry, riveted, in dread at what might have happened next

After five terrifying minutes, an assistant principal came onto the address system and said that the shelter-in order had been lifted. Lobenhofer flipped on the lights to see the makeup on the kids’ faces streaked with tears. The teenagers called their parents, then collapsed into the theatre seats. “What were the chances?” they kept asking. About 4m American students experience some kind of lockdown each year, according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, because firearms are discovered, or there are threats of bombing or shooting. In the LaGuardia case, the students would later learn that a shooting had occurred in the Midtown Manhattan neighbourhood where the school is located, but the gunman never entered the building.

Before the performance – which was the day after the shooting scare – Lobenhofer gave Gold a moment to address the audience of students and teachers, most of whom hadn’t been locked down 24 hours earlier. (When the actors were rehearsing, the rest of the school had the day off.) She explained the rationale for putting on the scene despite the timing: “Sadly, this is the reality we find ourselves living in.” Then she offered people the opportunity, if they wanted, to leave while the students performed “It Only Takes One Bite”. No one moved.

Bliss Broyard is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York

images: Alamy and Getty

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