Virginia Tech tragedy receives Whittier theatre treatment

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Grace Battista, Entertainment - By Grace Battista on Thursday, April 12, 2012 - 02:36

“It’s guerilla-style theatre,” Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Professor of Theatre and Communication Arts Katherine Jean Nigh said. This description is not for a play about violence or warfare. Instead, it is meant for the play What a Stranger May Know, written by Erik Ehn for the five-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting.

The performance, which will take place at 12:30 p.m. on Monday, April 16 on the grassy knoll outside Diehl Hall, is meant to be stumbled into while students are walking to lunch or class.

This sneaky and invasive method of performance is what gives it that guerrilla style.
Although this may seem experimental, the playwright originally intended for it to be performed outside. “It happened at a school, on campus during everyday life and then this horrific thing happened, and when it’s done in a theatre space it’s easy to forget that,” Nigh said.

The play consists of a collection of short plays, much like monologues or poems, and each cast member has 32 of them to represent the 32 victims of the shooting. Five families asked for their children to be left out, leaving 27 remaining victims that Erik Ehn researched.

Despite covering such a sobering topic, the work is not meant to focus solely on the tragedy. “It’s really about celebrating the victims’ lives instead of honing in on that day,” Nigh said.
According to Nigh, there is no narrative, it is more like many brief glimpses into the personalities and lives of each person, thereby celebrating them.

All the plays are spoken at the same time, with the actors staggered throughout the space, creating what Ehn likes to call a “sound garden.” “It should be a zen-like space, calming, mesmerizing,” Nigh said, in contrast to the guerrilla-like nature of the performance.
One can meander through, or focus on one individual at a time, to create a different play for each member of the audience. This unique method of performance marries well with the subject matter, according to Nigh.

She describes grief as a communal experience, something that is experienced, processed and reacted to collectively in a community. “Theatre is close to mourning because it is a collective experience,” Nigh said. She also commented on how grief is experienced differently by each individual, and how in the same way, a play is never the same two times and will never be experienced identically by two people.

Additionally, when theatre is used to reflect upon traumatic events, she sees benefits and parallels as well. “Theatre is live, it’s ephemeral, it comes and then it goes, and these events do as well,” Nigh said. She also stated that the emotional interactions that can occur between actor and audience during a performance do not always happen as immediately with other methods of art therapy.

When Nigh heard about this play from a friend who knew Ehn, she knew it would be well suited to Whittier College in a myriad of ways. Nigh’s background is in community-engaged theatre and this play has that community aspect that she draws her experience from, in both its outdoor, interactive method of performance and raw subject matter. In addition to the community feel developed between actor and audience, Nigh has seen a community build between the cast.

“I wanted to be democratic about it, I wanted people to feel included and to feel a connection,” Nigh said. “The most rewarding part [of theatre] is bringing people together, creating new communities.”

Nigh believed Whittier’s beautiful campus would be a fitting place for this outdoor performance. Moreover, she sees the play as poetry, the perfect thing for a bunch of Poets to perform, and a bunch of them did. The cast is comprised of students, with all different degrees of acting experience but the same desire to participate in this performance. There will only be rehearsal the weekend before the play and the actors have only had a month with their scripts.
In conjunction with celebrating the lives of victims, the play also brings other important issues up for discussion.

It is Nigh’s hope that a talk-back session can occur after the play, and is working with the Counseling Center to ensure that support will be available. “I don’t want it to be a hit and run,” Nigh said. “Although the play isn’t explicitly about violence, people will think about it. It’s important for people to talk about these things.”

The setting of the tragic event makes What a Stranger May Know particularly relevant on any college campus. This aspect brings up an issue that resonates deeply with Nigh: the responsibility of the professor. “We have a responsibility to each other, as a school community to watch out and notify someone if people are having a hard time, but after an event like this people always say ‘I knew something was wrong (et cetera.).’ Faculty often say, ‘I’m a teacher not a psychologist’ or ‘I’m a teacher, not a parent,” Nigh said. “We hold this role and it’s our responsibility to think about it very carefully.”