Last September, theater teachers at Chicago’s Senn High School started workshopping a play with their students about the Columbine High School shooting. It seemed like important work for teenagers to tackle. For many of them, it was an introduction to Columbine; they weren’t even born in 1999.
Tryouts were in December. Callbacks in January. Then, in February, the Parkland shooting.
Student actor Rory Hayes, 17, cast as a character based off a Christian student killed at Columbine, says she could barely read through the script.
“It’s detailed, how these [Columbine] kids were murdered,” said Hayes of the play, columbinus. “It was just so horrible to read, and just so heartbreaking.”
Reading the script “while also having previously viewed Snapchat videos of what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas” High School was intense, Hayes said. It moved her, “really feeling that fear that students had felt.”
On Friday, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, students in Chicago and across the country staged walkouts and other actions, their efforts heightened because of the Parkland shooting and the student activism that’s followed.
At Senn on the city’s North Side, seeing connections between two American high school shootings that took place nearly 20 years apart is fueling student advocacy.
“Working on columbinus really compelled me to push forward through student-led activism at our school,” Hayes said. At least three of the columbinus cast members, including Hayes, have been key organizers of student walkouts. Even before the public started hearing about national walkouts — just two weeks after Parkland — hundreds of Senn students marched through their neighborhood to their congresswoman’s office.
The play is being staged by The Yard theater company, which casts young people in works relevant to them. The production opens at Steppenwolf Theater on May 3.
It details the run-up to the shooting and wrestles with American high school culture, bullying, depression, and hate. It looks at the role of teachers, peers and parents in the horrific shooting where Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher in Colorado before ending their own lives.
From Columbine to Parkland
Hayes grew up in Colorado before moving to Chicago, but Columbine was never discussed at her elementary school.
“We didn’t ever observe the anniversary — nothing like that. [It] just went unmentioned,” she said.
It was only when she started going through security to enter Senn — and questioned the metal detectors and backpack searches — that she learned about the Columbine shooting. She viewed the security checks as an invasion of privacy.
“People were like, ‘No, there are high school shootings’... and then the principal at the time told me about Columbine,” she said. “I was 14, had no idea.”
Joel Ewing is the lead theater teacher at Senn. He has a role in the play, playing various adults from Columbine, including the guidance counselor, a dad and a “juvenile diversion counselor.”
“Much of the text comes from actual interviews or writing — it’s verbatim — from Eric and Dylan, from their classmates, from their clinicians and therapists,” Ewing said.
Other parts are fictionalized. Ewing says it’s been eye-opening to compare what Columbine means for adults to what it means for teenagers.
“What is so impactful about Columbine for us as adults is that we just couldn’t fathom that event. We just had never imagined something so horrific,” Ewing said. “It was really the first thing that brought it into the national consciousness. What’s interesting about these young people is they can’t imagine a world without it. It’s the only thing they’ve lived with.”
Bringing alive the unthinkable
columbinus director Mechelle Moe says it’s powerful to have teenagers tell the Columbine story.
“But it’s also hard to kind of cope with that, and for them to enact and bring these characters to life,” she said.
Young actors are usually taught to invest emotionally in their characters. But cast members say it’s hard to bring something to life on stage that terrifies you. They said it’s hard to embody characters you never want to be.
Senior Cleo Shine says the library scene — where the killing takes place — is especially hard.
“Sadly that is something that is on my radar every day at school, and so during the scene it’s just about removing yourself from it,” Shine said.
Acting and speaking out
Studying Columbine deeply has given the Senn High School teens a reference point from which to view Parkland. They say they’re inspired by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids’ activism around guns — something Hayes says was missing after Columbine.
“We can, and should, do what we can to prevent this from ever happening,” Hayes said.
Her take on what’s happened since Columbine?
“School shooting, school shooting, school shooting. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. And nothing ever changes. Columbine happened — I wasn’t even born yet — and there has been so little change in all of that time.”
Friday, instead of walking out, they held a student open mic in the school gym. They planned to talk about state gun laws and voting.
The play columbinus itself is a form of activism, the students say.
“To be actually doing something artistically, to be doing something in response to everything that has been going on — and has been going on — is remarkable,” Hayes said.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation.