School for the Arts turns to pol­i­tics

Bea­con stu­dents to world pre­miere play as part of fundraiser for a gun con­trol ad­vo­cacy group

Woonsocket Call - - FRONT PAGE - By RUSS OLIVO ro­[email protected]­et­call.com

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.”

Ernest A. Brown photo

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.

Ernest A. Brown photo

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.

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