Like many people across the country, high school students are talking about guns. And Cry Havoc, a Dallas theater company made up of youth actors and adult advisers, is listening.
Babel, the company’s new play about gun violence, is drawn from dozens of hours of interviews with gun supporters, gun control advocates, elected officials, and the parents of children lost in school shootings.
The three-hour production, which wraps up its run this weekend at the Winspear’s Hamon Hall, comes a year and a half after Cry Havoc gained national attention for Shots Fired, a documentary-style theater piece about the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers in July 2016. This time around, Cry Havoc worked in conjunction with AT&T Performing Art’s Center’s Elevator Project, an initiative that platforms art and artists too often left out of the mainstream.
Speaking over email, Cry Havoc founder Mara Richards Bim says the high school performers feel a close connection the work. “Teens in our community experience lockdown drills regularly. Most of the young people in the cast have had classmates die by gun violence,” Bim says. “Depending on which neighborhood those deaths occur in, there is little to no news coverage about the incidents.”
The teens travelled to Washington D.C. earlier this year to meet with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who worked across the aisle to create the “FIX NICS Act,” intended to strengthen federal background checks. The group also visited Newtown, Connecticut to speak with survivors and parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, site of the largest mass shooting to occur at a school in the United States.
To hear a different aspect of the conversation, the teens also spoke to gun moderates, pro-gun advocates, and NRA members. The group had the most trouble holding an open dialogue with staunch gun control opponents, Bim says.
“The NRA leadership has done a great job in terrifying their base into believing everyone is coming for their guns,” she says.
After months of interviews, a team of transcribers converted the recorded audio into workable text. Bim and associate director Shelby-Allison Hibbs synthesized the material into dialogue, consulting the company’s young people as they went along. The remaining challenge was to translate the emotional register of their experience to the stage. The group used Moment Work, a theater technique developed by Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project to build moments of heightened realism on stage. The company also drew on the techniques of Augusto Boal, who created the Theater of the Oppressed, form of theater that directly involves its audience in social issues. (Bim studied with Boal in 1996.) To accentuate specific moments in the play, Cry Havoc also enlisted the choreographic talents of Bombshell Dance Project, a Dallas-based contemporary dance company.
“I spent months grappling with how we’d use the space in a way that would give resonance to the story we were setting out to tell,” Bim says of the lofty Hamon Hall. Alone in the car for a six-hour road trip, Bim began to think of the Holocaust Museum in D.C., specifically its room full of shoes taken from the feet of concentration camp prisoners. A few months and more than 8,000 donated shoes later, and Cry Havoc completed “The Cenotaph,” an installation serving both as backdrop and memorial. Connected by their laces, shoes hang in long chains from the ceiling, collectively representing the number of Americans killed by gun violence so far this year.
Cry Havoc hopes that the play can encourage audiences to have an open discussion about guns in America. Even if they disagree.
“We hope that people leave thinking about guns, the role they play in our culture, and what role we want them to play in our everyday lives,” Bim says. “We hope audiences leave ready to engage in meaningful conversation about firearms and violence with firearms.”
Babel runs through the weekend in Hamon Hall at the Winspear. Tickets here.