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Theater as Therapy

Off-Broadway Players Bring Tragedy and Progress to Stage

Actors in the Off-Broadway Players' production of "columbinus" played multiple roles to illuminate the Columbine shooting tragedy.

By Julia Gavin

While the Off-Broadway Players were not yet in high school during the 1999 Columbine, Colo., shootings, they’ve lived with its aftermath. Emergency drills, anti-bullying programs and the faces of the victims have been part of their school experiences. And high school remains a difficult ordeal for many. As they took the stage to present “columbinus,” a play based on the tragedy, the students’ own experiences and feelings about the horrifying event shone through.

"We chose to do this play because we wanted to put on a meaningful and emotional play," said Kate Munoz, vice president of the Off-Broadway Players and an actor in the play. "Production was emotionally taxing for cast members because of the characters we had to embody and the content we used. But we helped one another get through and Colleen Rua, our director, created a safe environment. Even when we were rehearsing the most uncomfortable scenes, it was never unbearable." 

The play follows the actors portraying high school stereotypes for the first act, which was written using interviews with teenagers. A jock, a popular girl, a geek, a teacher’s pet, a “freaky” girl, a class clown and two loners interact and ignore each other as expected. As the act ends, the audience − seated on the stage − watches the loners become a shaky duo. The second act follows Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris' transformations from loners to killers using material from interviews with survivors and materials left by the perpetrators. The effect is chilling and made audience members think − exactly the goal.

"This play challenges us to really think about the ways in which our actions impact others and reminds us that in many ways, we are more alike than different," said Rua, artistic director at the Arlington Children's Theatre. "This applies to all of us, not just students.  These concepts seem so simple, so basic, yet we continue to see tragedies like the recent shootings in Ohio and Florida. Theater like 'columbinus' asks us to consider our own culpability as a society, but also offers us hope for change."

The actors also expressed hope that encouraging students to talk and empathize with one another more often could decrease violence in schools. Tom Cafferty and Tyler Potvin, cast as Harris and Klebold respectively, were especially passionate about the play after researching and portraying their characters. Rua said that the actors were "courageous" to take on the roles and portray them as something more than straight evil.

"There's a major failure in society − we are still having these shootings and people have gotten used to it," said Potvin after discussing that several friends of the actors weren't surprised by the Ohio shooting the same week of production. "The more we researched, the more we saw that they weren't evil. They were just kids. High school is brutal and it's important to try to understand more about why this happened and why it continues to happen. Hopefully this play will help."

Check out photos from the performance.

Theater as Therapy

As the audience and cast discussed the play during a talkback after a performance, the effects of the powerful performance were evident. Viewers asked the actors how they could get close enough to the characters to correctly portray them while without spiraling into their instability. Cafferty credited the entire production team and the collective sense of humor with keeping him comfortable while portraying the disturbed Harris. The actors said that performing the play has helped them process the tragedy and other issues related to school, a benefit lauded by Rhoda Trietsch, associate director of the Counseling Center.

"The community experience of viewing art − theater, painting, music − challenges the isolation, shame, and secrecy that can surround trauma," said Trietsch. "In some settings such as 'columbinus,' the art or theater piece can be a powerful catalyst to process and work through the tragedy."