School for the Arts turns to politics
Beacon students to world premiere play as part of fundraiser for a gun control advocacy group
WOONSOCKET – When Jason Robert LeClair got his hands on a copy of “Declaration,” the theater director at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts didn’t just read the stage play about a mass shooting in school – he inhaled it like a man starved for air.
“I’ve been a teacher for 19 years and I have children of my own,” said LeClair. “With all of these shootings happening nonstop since I can’t remember when, it takes a lot to walk into a school every day and think there might be a moment any time when you have to protect the children in front of you, and your life kind of flashes right in front of your eyes.”
Now LeClair and his junior-class drama students at the arts-based charter school in Monument Square are poised to stage the world premiere of “Declaration” as the centerpiece for the “Declaration Initiative,” a national fundraiser for March for Our Lives. That’s the activist movement that sprang up in response to the shooting earlier this year at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. – the deadliest shooting at a high school in history, claiming 17 lives.
The California-based playwright
and educator who wrote the script, Jonathan Dorf, will be in attendance for the premiere at Beacon’s schoolbased theater, arriving two days ahead of time for some hands-on collaboration with LeClair, the director, and the performers. While Beacon is the only school in the country accorded the distinction of staging the premiere, on Jan. 10, other schools from coast to coast will sync up with live readings and sibling performance as part of the fundraiser, with all proceeds funneled directly to March for Our Lives.
How did Beacon manage to become the hub in this dramatic pinwheel of social activism?
For one thing, LeClair jumped when the opportunity arose for the Beacon Theatre Workshop to become the premiere host.
A career educator with whom LeClair has long been acquainted through the Education Theater Association, Dorf announced the opportunity on his Facebook page about three months ago. LeClair happened to see it and quickly asked for a copy of the script.
“He asked if anybody wanted to read it and perhaps do the world premiere,” said LeClair. “I read it and within 45 minutes called him back and said, ‘We’re doing this.’ It was incredibly moving. And well-written.”
Dorf wrote the play so that it’s malleable – the details can be changed to make any school the setting for the fiction, which – yes – does involve a mass casualty event. What grabbed LeClair’s attention more than anything, however, was Dorf’s ear for language – student language.
“I’ve read plays that sound how adults think students speak,” said LeClair. “This is how students speak. It was very authentic.”
Moreover, by sheer happenstance, the play includes students who are involved in visual arts, theater and culinary arts – Beacon’s three concentrations!
“It’s a play that has focus, and it fits our program so well and it really hits home,” said LeClair.
As LeClair explains, “‘Declaration” explores the “befores, durings and afters’” of a group of students whose school is decimated by a mass shooting. Using various dramatic techniques, including connected scenes and monologues, the characters struggle to make sense of the frantic moments of chaos in which the shootings take place, and their aftermath.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the characters reflect upon the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the bedrock entitlements of American citizenship, enshrined by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence – from which Dorf drew the title for his work.
Like LeClair, the students responsible for staging “Declaration” – over 20 actors, stagehands and members of the production crew – felt an immediate kinship for the material.
They were drawn to the play, in part, as a vehicle for protesting a social climate in which the loss of the nation’s youngest lives in random, senseless acts of violence has become so frequent it practically seems normal.
“You’ll be sitting in class and someone says, ‘Oh, there was a shooting in Colorado or something...’ You get sad for about 20 minutes and then you go on with your day,” says Jude Leaw. “The next day you’re not thinking about it anymore. As if it’s almost like a normal occurrence. The fact that that’s the case is just disgusting in a way.”
Natalie Sampson believes the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, and others like it, have had a far more widespread effect on students than many realize. There are “so many kids nowadays who are afraid” to go to school, she says.
“As children, we shouldn’t have to fear going to school,” said Sampson. “We shouldn’t have to feel these feelings, but we do.”
Although earlier school shootings were similarly catastrophic – 27 lives were lost in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., including 20 six- and sevenyear-olds – no school-based killing spree previously galvanized political activism for reform of gun laws like that which occurred at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
Armed with an AR-15 rifle, a former student with a history of behavioral problems entered the school on Valentine’s Day and began firing, killing 17 students and injuring 17 others before he briefly eluded capture.
Not long after, student survivors with the help of professional organizers formed a group called Never Again MSD, which was instrumental in putting on the March for Our Lives, a demonstration in support of stricter gun control that took place in Washington, D.C., on March 24, with more than 800 sister rallies around the nation – and abroad. Various sources say the turnout in the U.S. was over 1 million, making it one of the largest protests in history.
Since then March for Our Lives, sometimes shortened to MFOL, has evolved into a permanent nonprofit, with continuous fundraising and a mission to promote universal background checks on all gun sales, an increase in the federal age for gun ownership, a nationwide ban on “assault weapons,” and other restrictions.
With its intimate theater, Beacon is a tiny venue for tackling such weighty and urgent matters – one reason why LeClair suggested to Dorf that the premiere be the hub for a nationwide fundraiser, featuring script readings and synchronous performances at other school-based locales.
Tickets, $20 per person, are available through beacon.booktix.com. The proceeds will be sent directly to March for Our Lives.
“We’re such a small school,” said LeClair, “but we can make a large impact.”
Crouched behind chairs, students in the Beacon Theatre Workshop, from left, Gussy Acosta, Joseph Carr, Elliot Gosselin, and Brittany LaCroix, rehearse the scene ‘Barricade’ for the upcoming World Premiere of “Declaration,”w a play by Jonathan Dorf and directed by Jason Robert LeClair, to be presented by the Beacon Theatre Workshop on Jan. 10, 11, 2019 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and all proceeds will be donated to March for Our Lives.
Director Jason Robert LeClair, center, poses with cast and crew of “Declaration,” a play by Jonathan Dorf, to be presented by the Beacon Theatre Workshop on Jan. 10, 11, 2019 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and all proceeds will be donated to March For Our Lives. In front row, from left, Alana Carroll, Elliot Gosselin, Kyaram Rosa, Natalie Sampson, and Bethany Crawford. In back row, from left, Victoria Caires, Emma Morris-Mensay, Rosie Luker, Taylor Dyman, Brittany LaCroix, Jude Yean, LeClair, Gussy Acosta, Hatlee Croteau, Joseph Carr, Emily Keable, Breanna Jones, and Emma LaCombe.