Columbine High School, a public school in the Denver suburb of Littleton, was not particularly well-known outside of Colorado — until April 20, 1999, when two teenagers carried out a shooting that left 13 dead and more than 20 others wounded. The event traumatized the community and shocked the country.
In the two decades since, similar incidents in schools and other public places have taken place with all too much frequency in the United States. While we may prefer to ignore that reality, it is a subject that touches every child’s life and every parent’s, with active shooter drills now a regular event in elementary, middle and high schools.
One way of dealing with the emotional distress brought about by such events is to bring things out in the open, and that’s what Greasepaint Youtheatre will do Sept. 6-8, when it stages “Columbinus,” a 2005 documentary drama based on the Columbine school shooting and its aftermath.
Due to the subject matter, Greasepaint cautions the show is not for young children. Maureen Dias-Watson, Greasepaint’s producing artistic director, says the show is recommended for ages 16 and older or for younger high school students who are accompanied by a parent.
Dias-Watson wants parents to think carefully before deciding whether to bring their children to the show at Stagebrush Theatre, 7020 E. Second St. in Scottsdale.
“There is language that is both ugly and charged; there is violence, and though it is slowed down and discussed very dispassionately, it is all the more chilling for that reason,” she says.
Gerry Hills, one of the founders of Arizonans for Gun Safety, will moderate a talkback after each performance. The organization is a nonprofit whose mission is to “engage individuals, organizations and public officials from diverse communities in a statewide campaign to prevent gun violence.” In addition, the names of every child victim of any school shooting since Columbine will scroll on a screen at the end of the show.
“Columbinus” was written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, with dramaturgy by Patricia Hersch, as part of the United States Theatre Project. Besides using police evidence and excerpts from the shooters’ journals, the play draws upon interviews with parents and survivors and also community leaders.
The decision to take on such a production isn’t something to be made lightly.
“‘Columbinus’ is one of only a few theater pieces that deal with real events and present them without any glossing over the facts,” says Dias-Watson. She notes that “Columbinus” is part of a Bare Bones program Greasepaint instituted a few years back that allows the theater to produce one or more plays per year that speak to social justice and other themes relevant to high school students.
“‘Columbinus’ is the third production in this ongoing commitment we have to do the kind of work that other theater companies cannot do or choose not to do,” says Dias-Watson. As artistic director, she chooses the shows for each season and seeks the approval of the board of directors prior to announcement at an annual gala.
“One of our regular GP kids brought [‘Columbinus’] to me to read about a year ago, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Dias-Watson says. She told Greasepaint’s board that statistically speaking, they could expect another mass shooting to happen between the time they announced the production and the time they produced it, and they needed to be ready for that.
She was right.
“We announced April 28, and in the following two weeks, there were three more shootings on school campuses.”
The cast — all high school juniors or seniors — mostly represent characters who are compilations of kids at Columbine on that fateful day, according to Dias-Watson. Only the shooters are named.
“Parents were provided with the script and required to sign off on their child’s participation in the project,” says Dias-Watson. “It’s a tough piece.”
In the role of Dylan Klebold (Loner) is Nainoa Aguano, a senior at Chandler High School. Recent roles for Greasepaint include Race in “Newsies,” King Julian in “Madagascar Jr. The Musical” and Aladdin in “Aladdin Jr. The Musical.” He also played the Mad Hatter in “Alice” and Enjolras in “Les Misérables” at Chandler High School.
Nainoa knows this is a sensitive and controversial topic for many, but he hopes by doing this play, he’ll be able to help spread awareness of the importance of addressing mental health issues. He believes situations like the Columbine shooting could have been prevented if these troubled teens had the means to seek out mental health therapy.
Playing Eric Harris (Freak) is Ever Ruiz, a junior at Chandler High School. He previously played Wiesel in “Newsies” for Greasepaint, and Thénardier in “Les Misérables” and the Cheshire Cat in “Alice” for Chandler High School.
Other cast members include Ali Tichavsky (Faith), a senior at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix; Sophia Penn (Perfect), a senior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix; Eden Tornquist (Rebel), senior at Xavier; Bennett Curran (Prep), a junior at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale; George Nassar (AP), a junior at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley; and Spencer Blanchard (Jock), a senior at Brophy College Preparatory.
Many of the kids in the cast have expressed hope that the community will finally come together to help prevent gun violence.
Spencer adds he lost a close family friend to gun violence and is grateful for the opportunity to give a performance so relevant today. He hopes every audience member takes this show to heart and truly keeps in mind the effect gun violence has on our society.
“It is sobering,” Dias-Watson says of the show. “Our hope is that it also sparks conversation toward engagement and finally doing something to try and keep our kids safe at their schools.”