Accident of Timing
Photo by Erin FiedlerIN THE WAKE OF ANY DISASTER, BOTH MEDIA and public apply themselves to understanding why it happened: why the plane crashed, why the earth shook, and why, most recently, two high school students murdered 12 of their classmates and one of their teachers before killing themselves. Then, in the weeks that follow, as we tire of the explainers and their editorials, it's hard to so much as comment without fielding accusations of exploiting a tragedy. Consequently a theater company that planned, months ago, to produce a play about carnage in a schoolroom may not want to make too much of the grisly coincidence of Columbine High School.
But according to Luck Hari, director of such a play, Circle X Theater Company's production of Show and Tell, the theater didn't have a choice. "We weren't going to deal with it at all," says Hari, "until inquiries started coming in -- from the press, from people we know, from the Red Cross," which already had a tie-in to the theater's marketing effort. "To ignore them would have been as bad as pandering." In response to what Hari calls "our community," Thursday-night performances will be followed by discussions, in which audiences can air any concerns the production might raise.
The play, by Anthony Clarvoe (The Living), focuses on a fourth-grade teacher in the wake of an explosion which killed her entire class of 24 students. Having stepped out of the room moments before, she struggles to come to terms with both the fortune and the guilt of her own survival. There is no violence onstage. "Structurally, it's like Greek tragedy," says Hari, who is given to quoting Aristotle to emphasize her ideas. "The only horror you see is the aftermath."
Hari, a delicate young woman with dark olive skin and ebony hair, has a measured politeness about her that would seem quaint if it weren't so useful in moments like these. She has worked through the loaded circumstances of her directorial debut with rigorous sensitivity, leaving no weakness unexamined. "I am very concerned about the issue of violence," she says, "about not depicting violence literally. I feel strongly that it's more powerful when actors deal with the aftermath, with what violence is and violence does." Hari had planned, on the evening of April 20, to have her cast sit in a circle and work through the intention behind each line of text. As it turned out, in the hours after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned their guns on Columbine High School, the actors weren't capable of much else. "I'm very against rehearsal being a place where you work out psychological troubles," says Hari, "but that night it was impossible to avoid. We were all very emotional."
ANTHONY CLARVOE, WHO WROTE THE PLAY IN 1990, says he was inspired not by any schoolroom incident, but by a combination of events that followed the San Francisco earthquake and a PSA air crash that occurred around the same time. "Part of what had happened in the coverage of the crash was that for the first time, what happens to the human body when objects cause it to die became part of the public discourse," he told me over the phone. "Until very recently, there'd been a real reticence about the specifics of death. "Forensic personnel figure prominently in Show and Tell," says Clarvoe, "because I wanted to know what it is like for the people whose job it is to deal with our dead, our taboo. If my own response is a combination of horror and fascination, what is theirs?" He chose to make children his subjects, he says, to put those questions in dramatic relief.
"I asked myself, 'What is the most horrible thing that can happen?' Is it possible to find any redemption in that? If there is, it must be a fundamental good." To have a teacher embody that fundamental good contributes to the tension. "We don't know how to think about teachers," says Clarvoe. "We both revere them and pay them badly, because we simultaneously need them and resent them. A public-school teacher is by definition transgressive, because she's teaching our children things we won't; we're entrusting her to teach the values of the public sphere. She's embodying a position which is inevitably fraught with conflict."
Survivor's guilt, the human response to dismembered bodies and our cultural ambivalence about teachers -- all are points of exploration both relevant to the tragedy of Littleton and yet somehow entirely beyond it. In other times, equally chilling parallels could have been drawn between a production of Show and Tell and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, or the crash of TWA Flight 800. Says Luck Hari: "Live theater is temporal.
"Audiences now will make the connection [to Littleton]; they can't help it. But in 10 years, this play will mean something entirely different."
Show and Tell opened last week at Stages, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood; performances are Thurs.Sun. at 8 p.m., Sun. matinee at 2 p.m., through June 19. Call (323) 969-9239. See Theater Pick of the Week.