The eight-member cast of columbinus learned about the Borderline shooting on stage at a rehearsal less than 24 hours before their scheduled opening night. Most of them had friends who were, or might have been, at the dance hall where 13 people died on Nov. 7.
By design, each actor had two or more roles in this play about adolescent life and the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, the 2005 play relies on documentary evidence.
This meant that, even as another in the long line of U.S. gun massacres since Columbine, each one in some way a sequel, was about to unfold four miles down the road, Cal Lutheran students were playing shooting victims and survivors, parents of the victims and of the two killers, a pastor and police spokesperson, and the killers themselves. With a work of theater, they were preparing to launch the kind of public conversation about gun violence and its causes that never starts too soon, but that can come late.
The first weekend of the Mainstage Production was canceled, and the second weekend was curtailed and closed to the public after several days of reflection and discussion among the cast, crew, departmental faculty and staff, and administrators. Cast and crew gave an invitation-only show to an audience of 160 on Nov. 17, winning an ovation for months of effort and, after a pause, a spot in regional competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. It was the fifth time a Cal Lutheran show was selected.
Finally, more than three months from the intended opening night, columbinus went public on Feb. 10 for two shows ahead of the competition in Los Angeles. The outcome was not yet known as this magazine went to press.
Directed by Brett Elliott, the show stars Clayton Currie, Jordan Erickson, Jonathan Irwin, Victoria Karr, Mahyar Mirzazadeh, Amber Marroquin, Gabrielle Reublin and Jacob White. CLU Magazine sat down with them near the end of November.
The play has a first act about high school and the people found there, and a second act about the mass shooting at Columbine High 20 years ago. What did you all make of the script?
Amber (Perfect) The archetypes of high school characters in the first act (Jock, Prep, Freak…) are really important. It sets it up so that this could happen to anyone.
At first it was like, what? I’m playing “Perfect”? What does that mean? But then it made sense and it makes the second act more powerful.
Also, when we first read the script, the “Morning Ritual” part was, like, whaaat? [Laughter.] What is this?
Gabrielle (Rebel) I don’t think the audience expects it either, that we open like that (see inset photo at left). You’re expecting something so intense, especially after all the talk. Instead, it’s light and, oh, it’s kind of funny.
The scene is interesting especially because it’s to a beat. It’s almost musical.
Brett (director) It’s not called for in the script, for it to be set to a rhythm, but the language was rhythmic to me and seemed to cry out for that.
Gabrielle I had seen other takes on that scene, and it seems a little slow and dull if you don’t have a rhythm. It’s made for that almost.
Who has a favorite line from the play?
Jacob (Loner/Dylan Klebold) I have a least favorite line if that counts.
Jacob In the Act 2 “What If?” scene with Johnny, Dylan says, I want them to feel this…like a knife to the skin of America, slicing her, with a jagged edge. The skin’s bunched up, digs in deep. It won’t heal right without a scar.
It’s poorly written because Dylan actually said that. [Laughter.] When you realize, Oh no, this is genuinely what he thought, I guess that makes it less kitschy.
Brett The respondent who judged the show singled out that line and said that really impressed her. Sometimes theater is like that. You think, This part sticks in my craw, and to someone else it works awesome.
I liked Johnny’s line, when he says to his guidance counselor, You are not equipped to handle what’s going on inside of me. To me, that was always the theme of the first act. Could that possibly be more true?
Amber My favorite line that resonates, I think with all of us, is Clayton’s last line in the show: For the moment I’m different. But is that enough?
It’s so real and it’s so true. With everything that happened, we’re hurt. But what really can we do to make it better?
Right, everyone is “different” after a theater production – “for the moment.” Do you think the performance on campus changed the audience a little?
Amber My roommate, she came to the show. She was friends with Justin Meek. After the show, she said it made her cry, it was scary, it made her feel a lot, and it was terrifying. And she said it made her realize it was OK to move on.
Well, at least we did something. It at least helps one person or a few people in the audience. I wish we could have helped more people that way. But that gave all of this purpose.
Jonathan (Freak/Eric Harris): That’s really sick to hear, actually.
I think that this play isn’t going to solve any problems. That would be ridiculous, to think that it would. But it does a lot more than not doing anything.
It does show us, like the play says, “the whole ugly package.” It’s a side of things we don’t normally get to see. On the news, you only hear about what the shooters did. You don’t get an in-depth look.
Brett I think that’s it. The people who were expressing reservations about doing the play said things like, This just happened up the road. What’s the point of a theater piece about it?
What a theater piece does is: You have to sit there for two and a half hours and really empathize with it and watch people experience it, and you experience it yourself a bit. There’s nothing else like theater to do that, not documentary film, not interviews, not books. Nothing.
I’m a dad to a 6-year-old and there are certain things that I can’t watch on the news. You know, like I have yet to really watch a story about Newtown (the Connecticut town struck by the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting). I can’t go there. Most people do that. I think we all have to do that to try to survive.
What did you all know about Columbine? For most of you, it was before your time. Did you think of it as the beginning of the series of mass shootings you’ve been living through?
Victoria (Faith) I knew of it. I knew it was a shooting; I didn’t know anything about the shooters. Definitely I didn’t think of it as the start – I mean, now I do. For me, the start was Newtown, even though that wasn’t very long ago. And the movie theater shooting in (Aurora) Colorado. That was scary and especially Newtown.
Mahyar (AP/honors student) I always connected Columbine with the shooting. But I’m about four or five years older than everyone, and I’m not from the states. I’m from Norway. When I came here, it already was in my head that Columbine was the first shooting. I’d heard the name here and there in songs and articles.
This play is from 2005, so the authors weren’t aware of recent shootings. More importantly, they didn’t focus on guns as much as the world of high school.
Brett The way the play is structured seems to lay the fault at the feet of the high school or could be read that way. That there’s something wrong with the institution of high school.
In our research, we learned that the principal at Columbine High School worked really, really hard to create a unified, loving community, and he was devastated that this happened at his school.
And yet it happened there. That’s part of the reason our set looked like it did. I asked our set designer for chain link, because that seems to be what high schools are built out of now. So are jails. It’s a weird similarity.
I think there is something to the fact that we take these kids before they’ve found their niche and found themselves, and we put them in these gigantic institutions, thousands of kids sometimes, and don’t really provide them with a community. Maybe that contributes to their feeling to some degree isolated.
Mahyar That was kind of my feeling when I went to high school in Wisconsin: The yellow bus is taking you to this place where you’re in prison for six hours. You have to sit there and listen. You can’t go to the bathroom without getting a hall pass. The bell ringing – we don’t have that in Norway. The teacher in Norway says, OK, there’s two minutes left in class, or, We’re two minutes over, you guys can leave. That whole thing makes it feel prison-like.
Brett Certainly institutional.
In the play, high school is an inauthentic world and the students are all posing. The only way to get a character to say something that’s true is to freeze everyone on stage so that one actor can do a monologue.
Jonathan I think that’s something that’s super-super important. Almost every character here has a frozen moment where you get a really honest version of themselves. Sometimes it’s the whole picture, but not always. With Mahyer, it’s literally him trying to shoot a basketball. When we freeze, it’s just one moment of honesty.
It goes to show everything about that high school is inauthentic, but I think a lot of our daily interactions are pretty inauthentic too. Inside, you’re saying something completely different. A lot of things would change if we were truly honest.
What do we know about Eric and Dylan’s relationship? Does the play get us closer to understanding why they killed 12 people and wanted to kill more?
Jacob Eric is the driving force behind what happens, all of the ambition, and Dylan, from my interpretation, was a sort of passive yes man who didn’t really challenge what Eric said. When he does challenge it, he gets a shotgun in his face, and I’ll never say no to you again.
Prior to columbinus, I thought Eric and Dylan were both just pure anger. If you google their names, the first results that pop up are pictures of them going haaa! with their angry faces in the camera. So I had no clue that they were depressed. I thought they were pure anarchist rage and violence.
Victoria It’s interesting. You see on social media, like when the Vegas shooting happened, that when media outlets try to talk about the shooter, his past and his personality, that people on social media get really upset: Stop talking about the shooter. He was just a monster. Let’s focus on the victims. That is obviously important, but I feel like we’re generalizing every shooter as, Oh, they’re just all monsters. Even Dylan and Eric, who were in the same crime, were very different.
That’s an important point this play brings up. It’s uncomfortable, but we’ve got to start talking about them as people because they were people. It’s uncomfortable because they did terrible things, but it’s really important.
Did being in this play change the way the Borderline shooting affected you?
Clayton (Jock) I’m the youngest in the cast, and I don’t know anyone who was at Borderline. None of my friends have started going yet. So I don’t know how I would have reacted if I hadn’t been in this show. I probably would have been upset, but it wouldn’t have hit as close to home. Because I told everyone. We were on stage. I was on Twitter when I saw it and I told everyone at rehearsal.
And when I said it – there was a shooting at Borderline here in Thousand Oaks – I didn’t know what that meant. But they all just instantly: Oh, we know what that means. That’s where people are right now. That’s where our friends are.
It felt bad. I felt guilty. I don’t know why I felt guilty. I was just sitting there watching my friends, my cast-mates, panic almost, trying to figure out what was going on, find out who was where when. I wouldn’t have had the community to have that reaction had I not been in this show.
How did you feel about doing the play after that?
Victoria We thought it would be disrespectful to put on a play literally the day after. For the first weekend, we understood.
Gabrielle That was emotionally wise. And then the fires came right after – we wouldn’t have been able to do it that weekend anyway.
Victoria Our issue was we didn’t want the play to be canceled altogether and not do it at all. Mostly I think we thought, We need to get this message out there. We can’t just avoid it now because this happened close to us. That’s all the more reason to do it.
Amber One of the first things that popped into my head was, Out of all the places that this shooting could have happened. And out of all the plays, we’re doing this one. And I was like, This is why we’re doing the play.
Another thing was, We don’t want hate to win either. That goes against the whole message of the play.
Gabrielle I don’t want to sound insensitive, but if we want this to stop happening, we have to have this conversation. Unfortunately, there’s going to be more shootings.
Clayton There already has been.
Gabrielle And there’s never going to be a right time to do this.
For me, it’s what you don’t see that matters, or what you choose to ignore is happening. In the “Basement Tapes” scene, Eric and Dylan are in their basement planning this and no one knew about it. But people could have known if they’d chosen to see all of these warning signs.
It was almost symbolic that the rest of us were not on stage for that. I loved that scene and I always wanted to listen in. I loved how it was acted. I thought it was just so intense. But I tried to usually remove myself and not listen to that scene and put myself where I’d be if I was a victim. If I was in this shooting.