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New Video: Behind the scenes of exhilarating reading of new play on gun violence

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Cast announced for special reading of Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Natural Shocks’ at Fountain Theatre

Actresses Amy Pietz, Victoria Platt, Suanne Spoke, and Sabina Zuniga Varela will combine their versatile talents to play the same lead character in a special reading of Natural Shocks, Lauren Gunderson’s funny and powerful new play on gun violence and gun control, at the Fountain Theatre on Friday, April 20th at 11:19am. Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs directs.

The timing is intentional: April 20 is the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout, organized by the student activists in Parkland, Florida. The reading at the Fountain Theatre starts on April 20th at 11:19am, the date and exact time of the Columbine shooting.

“The Fountain Theatre has a long history of social and political activism,” explains Sachs. “Our celebrity reading of All the President’s Men at LA City Hall and our world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall are recent examples. With Lauren’s play, I believe we need to add our voice,  as theatre artists and citizens, to the national outcry of young people across the country against gun violence and advocate for gun control in this country.”

Amy PietzAmy Pietz has appeared in over 300 episodes of television, most recently starring opposite Jason Alexander on Hit The Road.  She was a series regular on No Tomorrow, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Aliens in America, Rodney, The Weber Show, Muscle and Caroline in the City (SAG Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy).  She has had recurring or guest starring roles on: You’re The Worst, The Magicians, The Office, Trust Me, Maron, How To Get Away With Murder, Dexter, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many others.  Film roles include those in The Year of Spectacular Men, Halfway, Prom, The Pact II, Autumn Leaves, Rudy, Jingle All the Way, Dysenchanted, Jell-Oh Lady, The Whole Ten Yards, and others. Her favorite theatre credits include: Stupid Fucking Bird at the Theatre @ Boston Court (Ovation Award, LA Drama Critics Circle Award), The Boswell Sisters at The Old Globe Theatre, Christmas In Naples at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lobby Hero at the Odyssey Theatre (Ovation nominated), Fiorello and Company (Ovation Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical).  Currently producing a film on gun control called Bodyman, Amy is passionate about getting guns off of our streets.

Victoria PlattVictoria Platt is currently in Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son. THEATRE: Jelly’s Last Jam (BROADWAY), Building the Wall and Roxy in Cyrano (Fountain Theatre), Venice (Public Theater & Kirk Douglas Theatre – Ovation Award Nom), Sammy (Old Globe), Pippin (Mark Taper Forum, Asphalt (Red Cat), Atlanta (Geffen).  Select TV/FILM: Major Crimes, Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, Criminal Minds and contract roles on both All My Children & Guiding LightH4 (adaptation of Henry IV which she co-produced with Harry Lennix & Terrell Tilford) and as Josephine Baker in HBO’s Winchell. Upcoming film:  #Truth (Charles Murray dir.), The Gleaner (opp. Angus MacFadyen, Harry Lennix dir.), InterferenceFramed and CW’s Lucifer.

Suanne SpokeSuanne Spoke has an extensive career in theatre, television & film, appearing in the critically acclaimed film Whiplash and starring in the feature film Wild Prairie Rose,  winning multiple awards on the festival circuit. On television Suanne recurred on Switched at Birth, Famous in Love and has guest-starred on many others. She can currently be seen recurring on General Hospital. She has performed at numerous theatres and has won every major acting & producing award in Los Angeles including three-time recipient of the Ovation Award/Lead Performance by an Actress. She was most recently seen in the West Coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek  at the Fountain Theatre. Suanne serves on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching acting in the Graduate Film Directing program.

Sabina Zuniga VeraleSabina Zuniga Varela, a native New Mexican based in Los Angeles, is an artist, educator and organizer committed to the path of social justice, authentic representation and storytelling.  She is an award winning theatre actor with an MFA from the University of Southern. California. She also holds an MA in Special Education with a focus on twice-exceptional/gifted learning. She is currently a producing director for the LA based theatre company: By The Souls of Our Feet. Most recently she was seen on stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival & Portland Center Stage in the title role of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles and was seen in Season 3, Episode 3 of ABC’s American Crime.

Based on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Natural Shocks is a classic Gunderson play: a 60-minute tour-de-force that bursts to life when we meet a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. She overflows with quirks, stories, and a final secret that puts the reality of domestic violence and guns in America in your very lap. The play is part confessional, part stand up, and part reckoning.

“The play is written as a solo play for one actress,” explains Sachs. “I have Lauren’s permission to have four actresses read the role, as one voice. Together, they are one woman — and all women. I think having the play read by four women adds diversity, theatricality and a stylized musicality that is worth exploring.”

“I wrote the story to continue to push the narrative away from the perpetrators of gun violence and toward the people whose lives are lost, shattered, and shadowed because of it. So many of these people are women. And there is such a tight connection between violence against women and gun violence,” insisted Gunderson.

Gunderson is right: the connection between domestic violence and gun violence is well documented. More than half of the mass shootings from 2009-2016 involved a partner or family member. Nearly half of American women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners. American women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other developed nations. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed. In short, domestic violence and grievances against women are the “canary in the coalmine” for gun violence. Any effort to end gun violence must address domestic violence as well.

Lauren GundersonLauren M. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America of 2017, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award, the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, she is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company, and a commissioned playwright by Audible. She studied Southern Literature and Drama at Emory University, and Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the US including South Cost Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), The Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The O’Neill, The Denver Center, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire and more. She co-authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley with Margot Melcon, which was one of the most produced plays in America in 2017. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, and Toil And Trouble), Dramatists (The Revolutionists, The Book of Will, Silent Sky, Bauer, Miss Bennet) and Samuel French (Emilie). Her picture book Dr Wonderful: Blast Off to the Moon was released from Two Lions / Amazon in May 2017.

Reserve Seats to Natural Shocks at Fountain Theatre. National website

Fewer Guns in Plays after Sandy Hook?

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by Tammy Ryan

Playwright Tammy Ryan

Playwright Tammy Ryan

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I felt like I’d felt after 9/11: grief stricken, traumatized and voiceless. In all the categories I fall in: woman, mother, playwright, human being, the events of that day, remain unbearable. The blessing and the curse of the writer is her imagination. At every mention and at random moments of every day in those first few weeks, I would begin to imagine what occurred in those classrooms, what was waiting for the first responders, and for those children’s parents. Even now, I have to harden my heart to put these words onto paper. While I avoided most of the news on cable, I did venture onto Facebook where I discovered some of my “friends” were anti gun control. I do not understand this position, so I started reading (and posting) all the articles I could find on gun legislation. I read some very cogent, practical and common sense articles like New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s, op-ed. Then I read Porochista Khakpour’s essay, “Why Did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?” In it, she describes her personal journey of love and obsession and ultimately rejection of guns: guns made her feel safe, guns made her feel powerful, guns were sexy, guns were fun.

I met Khakpour when we were both fellows at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008. I see her standing at the podium, tall and beautiful, throwing back her long dark hair as she read from her novel with a mischievous and joyful spirit, and now I can imagine her shooting a gun.

I have never owned a gun, never touched a gun, never even ever seen a real gun. I don’t share Khakpour’s obsession, but the characters in my plays do. Not in all of them—just the most successful ones, the ones that have been sanctioned by the powers that be as “good,” the plays that receive professional development, multiple productions, get published, and win awards. In each one of those plays a character either, has a gun, shoots a gun, is threatened by a gun, threatens someone else with a gun, is afraid of guns or is somehow traumatized by the violence of a gun.

pig-smallThis is a deeply disturbing revelation for me for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think of myself as writing about guns. I think I’m writing about family, communication, the power of forgiveness and healing. But the presence of guns in my writing is undeniable. In my first play Pig, written straight out of grad school, a troubled sailor goes AWOL and takes his family hostage. He shoots his neighbor’s dog (which was for audiences the most disturbing thing that happens) shoots his uncle and them himself. (note: I called it a comedy, okay, a black comedy)  At the first talkback an audience member expressed disbelief that I’d written this play. The moderator chimed in, “Seriously, you look like you’d write something like Mary Poppins, where did this come from?” To be fair, at the time, even at thirty, I did look like I was twelve years old, but I was offended by the implication that a woman, even a seemingly innocent young woman couldn’t write a play with what I then imagined as real world action in it. I wasn’t going to be put in that woman ghetto box, thank you very much. After giving birth to my first daughter, my plays began to evolve. I knew I’d write different kinds of plays from that point on, and no matter how dark I’d go, always strive to “reach for the light.” But, the guns kept coming back, emerging seemingly organically in play after play.

Now, I am not a careful planner of my career. My ideas show up like orphaned babies on my doorstep that cry out in the cold until I cave in and let them in. Besides guns, there is also a lot of war (often as backdrop): the First Gulf War, Bosnia, the Hundred Years War, Sudan, Iraq. Once early in my career, my mother asked me “Why don’t you write happy plays? I answered “I don’t choose these subjects,” I told her, “they choose me.” I do enforce some practical parameters, like maybe don’t put eleven characters in your plays unless you can double, but do I ever think, even subconsciously: better put a gun in your play if you want this one to get produced? Isn’t there always an exchange, a feedback loop between artist and potential producer? The fact remains that it is my most commercially successful plays that are the ones with the guns. Marsha Norman said something to this effect in her article “Not There Yet.” Says Norman, “People like the plays in which the women act like guys, talk like guys, wave guns around and threaten to kill each other…The critics have liked my “guy” plays—the ones with guns in them—and pretty much trashed the rest.”

I’m not advocating for self-censorship. I’m not saying never write about guns or violence, since writing about it is a way of standing up against it. As a student of mine said recently, “There are three hundred million guns in this country. We are clearly a gun culture. How can art not reflect that?” My husband is a good, gentle and kind man and his favorite movie is Pulp Fiction. Whenever it is on television (which is actually very often) he will stay up until two in the morning watching it again and again. “It’s funny,” he says. Is violence different when it’s combined with humor? Does it make it more palpable? Or does it desensitize? I once wanted to walk out of a production The Lieutenant of Inishman because I found the combination of butchery and comedy too much to take. Is it a matter of degree? I know I probably won’t stop writing about violence in my work despite these questions I have. In my current play, Soldier’s Heart, a mother points a gun at her own child. It’s integral to the action, to the theme and the whole point of the play. I’m not going to take that gun out of her hands. Despite Chekhov’s rule, though, the gun does not go off, so maybe that’s progress?

"The Lieutenant of Inishman"

“The Lieutenant of Inishman”

At Point Park University where I teach, the Cinema and Digital Arts Department has a “no weapons” policy for its Introduction to Screenwriting and early production classes. It is explained as a way of providing parameters for screenplay assignments, but it also addresses a “production and liability/risk management issue,” according to chair and screenwriter, Nelson Chipman. “With such prevalence of weapons in current fictional shows, reality, news and gaming we look for ways to help students create work that is more ingenuous, creative…tasked with creating a story without any weapons…students create more meaningful work, and actually get much more creative with violence and its repercussions.” My students balked at this rule at first and found myriad ways to hide all manner of weapons in their scripts, reminding me of a story a friend told me about her toddler, who faced with his mother’s strict no toy gun policy, bit his peanut butter sandwiches into the shape of pistols. But my insistence (points off for weapons) led them to discover that while guns can easily complicate a moment, create tension, lead to their climax, shock an audience, they are not necessary to good storytelling and in fact can limit the deep, surprising, complex and original conflicts that emerge in their work, finally. Without the guns, they were forced to imagine something new.

I read somewhere that after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Bertolt Brecht went back and revised the plays that came before. He felt it wasn’t the same world anymore, and that his plays, even the ones already written had to reflect that new reality. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has done that to me, it’s altered my view of reality. I’m not Bertolt Brecht, so I won’t be revising those plays with guns in them, but going forward I’m going to be more mindful of what Brecht also said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The gift of imagination that the writer has been blessed with is sometimes a curse, but it can also be a tool. We as writers can reflect society or reshape it, but we also have the opportunity to more completely re-imagine it. And in that re-imagination, I believe, lies all of our hopes.

Tammy Ryan is a playwright. Her plays have been produced or developed at such theaters across the country. “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” was developed at the New Harmony Project and was a featured play at the National New Play Network and will be published by Dramatic Publishing Company this year.