Director Terri Zopf-Schoessler is uncertain of how audiences will react when the curtain falls on “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” her latest production with the Soldotna High Drama Troupe, which will play at Soldotna High School from Thursday to Saturday.
“Several people said at the end ‘are we supposed to clap?’” Zopf-Schoessler said, referring to audiences who saw the play during rehearsal. She joked to the cast that if applause is slow and reluctant, they will have done their jobs.
Zopf-Schoessler said she expects “Bang Bang You’re Dead” to draw a more sober reaction from audiences than the troupe’s earlier comedies and musicals because it addresses the issue of school violence. The script, by William Mastrosimone, is based on a 1997 shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, in which an expelled student killed two classmates and wounded 25 in the school’s cafeteria.
The cast members have created performances that also draw on real experiences closer to home.
“I think some of us have pulled from the hospital shooting, how we felt then,” said cast-member Courtney VinZant, referring to the 2008 incident in which a former Central Peninsula Hospital employee killed a former co-worker and wounded another in an armed attack.
People who were in Central Peninsula Hospital during the shooting have spoken to the cast about their experiences, as well as a woman who survived a school shooting in Washington state. Cast member Logan Parks, who plays a student victim, said that his mother was a hospital employee present on the day of the hospital shooting.
“I remember sitting there wondering if my mom was alive or if she’d been shot,” Parks said. “I sort of keep that in the back of my mind when I see everyone else get shot — how would I react?”
The play begins with former high-school student Josh, now incarcerated after shooting five of his classmates and his parents, remembering the events that led to his episode of violence. Josh, based on the real Thurston High shooter Kip Kinkle, is played by Logan Schoessler.
“It’s basically my imagination tormenting me for what I’ve done previously,” said Schoessler. “It’s me imagining all this in prison, where I’m slowly going insane.”
Throughout the play, off-stage voices representing Josh’s peers, the public, and Josh’s own thoughts state different views of why the violence occurred and what should be done about it.
The cast said that the psychologically-oriented play has no on-stage shooting, and guns are not among the minimal props that they’ll be using. Zopf-Schoessler said the violent action is deliberately omitted in order to focus on its causes and consequences. Although the play tries to depict the inception and the aftermath of school gun violence, Zopf-Schoessler said it avoids drawing conclusions about what ultimately leads shooters to commit their acts.
“(This play) doesn’t answer it,” said Zopf-Schoessler. “But it does open up… more discussion, more questions.”
Those questions will be confronted in a discussion following the play, in which Zopf-Schoessler and the cast, along with school administrators, will speak with the audience about issues raised in the play. Zopf-Schoessler said that the discussion compliments the ALICE (an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training for response to armed attack that Soldotna High students received this January, but that the play wasn’t intended to directly relate to that training.
For the cast members, producing a drama based in real-life issues has provided a theatrical challenge.
“It’s a tough play,” said Zopf-Schoessler. “I said ‘if worst comes to worst, underplay it. Don’t push it. Don’t create that melodrama.’ And they have filled it up with real emotion. I’ve been very proud of them.”
For Rachel Nill, who plays Josh’s mother, the drama has come as a change of pace.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do a bunch of different plays back to back,” Nill said. “I did ‘Seussification’ [a Dr.Seuss-themed musical that Soldotna students produced in November 2014], I did ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ And in all of them I’m like this happy little thing that just runs around and smiles all the time. And I get here and I’m like: No smiling for me. Let’s act!”