“We want to produce columbinus.”
Nausea swept through me. I was somewhat aware of the award-winning and critically acclaimed 2005 play, by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, about the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. There’s no way we can do a play about a school shooting, I thought.
Over the next several days, we discussed the script at length. The language, imagery, and subject matter are brutal. The play is not a sensationalistic or political look at guns, it’s an exploration of the darkest sides of the modern American adolescent experience. It starts by examining eight archetypes—from Loner to Prep to Jock—who transition into real-life teens who don’t come home from school on April 20, 1999.
Ben and I had a surprising and sad epiphany: Not one of our students was alive when the Columbine shooting happened. A high school senior today has never known a time when mass school shootings were not a regular occurrence. What is art for, I thought, if not to tell the stories—many of them difficult—that compel us to look at ourselves differently?
In my heart, I knew that we had to do the play. I picked up the phone and starting calling trustees.
When it comes to big decisions, I do not subscribe to the early Facebook credo “move fast and break things.” The Academy has a deeply reflective, participatory culture, and I gathered as much perspective as I could. I asked department chairs for reminders about controversial work we’ve done in the past (and received many); I asked administrators to anticipate the reaction of the community (cautious support); I asked trustees—an investment manager, a television executive, a school principal—for their assessment of the risks and opportunities (both high). And then I gave Ben the go-ahead to announce the play.
This is what art is for, I repeated like a mantra. I knew that our difficult decision making was far from over.
Making the CallStudents at The Chicago Academy for the Arts have a long history of taking on challenging material. Freshmen practice figure drawing with nude models for the first two weeks of the school year; many seniors read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The work produced across the school can be provocative (as art often is) and our faculty excels at framing the process in a way that prepares students for not only a lifetime of art-making, but community building as well. However, over winter break, I could not escape the feeling that our ability to handle controversial work was about to be put to the test.
That first test came on Valentine’s Day.
We were in final preparations for Showcase, our largest event of the year, during which we present top work from each department to families, donors, community members, and arts figures from around the city. The opening scene from columbinus would open the performance.
On February 14, the day before Showcase, a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As we learned about the horrors, I spoke with our board chair while Ben handled calls from the actors’ parents: Were we still going to do the scene?
I met with the senior team and as many department heads as we could gather just eight hours from curtain to discuss what we might do. Should we remove the scene? Should I address the audience beforehand? How should we acknowledge what happened? There was no clear path forward, and none of the ideas (substitute a scene from another play, have a moment of silence, open the show with remarks acknowledging the horrors in Parkland) felt right.
I sat in the empty theatre during the final tech run-through of the columbinus scene, weeping as “Mad World” played over eight still figures fading into black silhouettes. I knew then that we would keep the scene, that there would be no contextualizing remarks, that we needed no moment of silence. The work spoke for itself. This is what art is for.
Reactions to a Difficult DecisionI talked with the actors before the performance and was deeply moved by their solemn commitment to telling this story, to adding their voice to the national conversation about this uniquely American tragedy. Their pride in doing meaningful, challenging work was clearly evident. With them, I thought, we’re in good hands. Their performance that night was a beautiful tribute to the victims in Parkland, and the emails Ben and I received the day after were universally supportive.
Not long after Showcase, Ben and his ensemble entered the final few weeks of rehearsals. Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune wrote a thoughtful and sensitive piece about Jacob Flores, the actor playing Eric Harris, one of the Columbine gunmen. “The first time we read through the library scene, which is where most of the students lost their lives, we took a break,” Jacob told Stevens, “and I went backstage, and just cried.”
The piece touched off a surge of local media coverage, and suddenly Ben and his ensemble were facing cameras nearly every day in the final two weeks of rehearsal. The online trolls came out, too, viciously attacking our decision to produce the play. Out of an abundance of caution, I asked the Chicago Police Department to step up patrols around the school on opening night.
Ben’s director’s notes provided important context, and we published them in our newsletters before opening night.
I continue to read opinions on feeds and timelines from folks who feel we may need to better shelter kids from the horrifying events that face our nation. But that's not what we do here at The Chicago Academy for the Arts. Rather, we take the most challenging subjects facing our students and we confront them with art. This type of confrontation often infuses difficult topics with empathy—with movement toward openness. Approaching something with empathy, whether it is our stage combat class or our upcoming spring play, allows us to access even the most challenging issues. We know that sheltering students from the realities of the human experience will rarely prepare them for what lies beyond adolescence.
The reactions of our families online, via email, and face to face, made it clear that we had their support. The entire run of the play quickly sold out.
Why Challenging Art MattersWatching the play was a deeply moving and emotionally draining experience. Audience members openly wept, the actors spoke passionately and articulately in the talkbacks afterwards, and the emails from parents expressing their support began rolling in.
One father wrote:
I've been working in schools my entire career…and it's after experiences like the one I had over the weekend that reminds me of why I chose to do this work in the first place: trying to help young people find their voice whatever that might sound or look like. You do this important work every day and with each child. The opportunities you provide students for all varieties of creative expression, in a truly sanctuary setting, is absolutely powerful.
It took both courage and confidence to bring columbinus to your stage and I commend you both for that. I have never been more emotionally attached to a school production than I was columbinus, ever. There were so many moments that provided me with a range of human emotions [and it] gave me about all I could handle...and all for the right reasons. The students are simply remarkable people with talent both innate and cultivated by you. I’m not sure how you do your work really, but I thank God that you do.
It is easy to get caught up in superficial reasons that the arts are important in education, like improved self-esteem, discipline, and higher test scores. But last spring validated something for us that we’ve known for a long time: The arts have the power to inspire, to unify, to broaden perspective, to give voice, to mobilize, and—just maybe—to help us heal.
The most important work we do is rarely disentangled from difficult decisions, and losing sight of the fundamental reasons we do our work allows the “easy” paths to grow more appealing. I am grateful every single day to be surrounded by a community—students and families, teachers, administrators, and trustees—willing to remind me, and each other, why art matters.