folio arts

Abstract & Absurd

A holiday play about a mass shooting

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"I don’t know, I wasn’t running from [pornography] on Wednesday. I was running from the sound of gunfire, semi-automatic gunfire in a high school I’ve taught at for 15 years […] There’s no way to explain what that felt like, to see my students running at me saying ‘Mr. Simpson, they’re effing shooting at me.’”

Sean Simpson is a science teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He was at the school on Feb. 14, 2018 and still teaches there. Simpson’s experience is not singular. Nor is it as simply summarized as saying the teacher is vitriolically anti-gun. He’s actually a gun owner, and he has publicly said that he would support voluntary weapons training
for teachers.

Simpson, like many of his fellow Americans, is nuanced and multifaceted, reflecting back to us our own relationship with the Second Amendment. In many ways, it is our perception of our nation’s gun-toting mythos, and our place in that mythos, that most clearly highlights the grandeur and tragedy of these events.

Thus it is a subject ripe for examination, and playwright Adam Groff tackles it in his new play, Mass, produced and directed by Phase Eight Theater Company’s founder and artistic director JaMario Stills. Groff says he was catalyzed by “the rampant mass shootings happening all over the country and the world, but mostly our country. It was just something I couldn’t ignore, and characters have been on my mind.”

The central action of Mass takes place during an office holiday party, where the shooter—a person familiar to many of the characters—enters and, in two and a half minutes, kills 11 people. Without giving anything away here, the narrative arc of the play is created by little vignettes of the surviving coworkers, who are going through workplace-mandated grief counseling sessions. As each character participates in the session, what they’re saying is being acted out by the other characters. So there are many different scenes, though the bulk of the play takes place in a conference room. It’s a bit of an abstract play, a bit of an absurd play, and that’s
on purpose.

When asked about this specific approach, the idea of vignettes married to the counseling session happening in real time, Groff replies, “I didn’t want to make a play where people were hiding under furniture in terror while there were gunshots going on […] I didn’t want to make it about fear. I think what’s happening with the gun culture in this country is scary enough.”

For his part, Stills says of the work, “Adam and I knew going into this we had to be very sensitive about it. It is such a hot topical moment we’re going through in American history. I have to be able to read it and see this juxtaposition … if it becomes about political value or a position on gun control, we lose the humanity of the story […] A very small percentage of this play focuses on the shooter; it is on the people and their experiences.”

There are moments of dread, beauty and humor, explains Groff, who also admits, “It’s not an easy play to watch, though I tried to not make it a difficult play to watch, but I wanted to get a message across.”

In discussing motivation and slant, the playwright states, “First of all, I’ve never experienced a mass shooting and I don’t know anyone who has … I needed to be careful and respectful, so I went with the angle of coping. Because I know what it’s like to cope with something incredibly difficult. That said, the play is not anchored in that moment of the shooting. There are two scenes where it sets the stage, so to speak, but then everything after that are the characters and what they’re dealing with, the aftermath. Because I do know the emotional stakes of something really heavy.”

Groff says that when everything was said and done, the multifaceted play took about five weeks for him to write. “While I was writing it, there were three mass shootings in the same week, two of them within 48 hours of each other, and I texted JaMario and said, ‘This makes it harder and easier to produce this play. I think it’s time.’ But unfortunately, it’s always going to be time because I don’t see an end to all of this.”

Considering his own reaction to the work, and the idea that there is no neat summary or solution offered in the play, Stills explains, “We’re producing art. We’re not even trying to give you an answer. We’re bringing a product [with respect to the craft] that will allow you to meditate in a human way.”

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