“Oh, man. I’ve been dreading this question,” says playwright Thomas Ward.
It’s a pedestrian question, and Ward isn’t wrong to dread it. Asking him to sum up the hoped-for experience of any given audience member is like asking someone to start speaking in a language they do not know. It’s an impossible task. Still, I’m curious. What does Ward want the audience to walk away thinking about his new play Slide By, a dark comedy about the 1999 Columbine High School shooting?
Ward doesn’t consider himself to be a political writer. But his new play is about school shootings, specifically the Columbine High School Shooting, which happened when Ward was a newly-graduated theater student working as a substitute teacher in Abilene. And while it doesn’t get more topical than school shootings, Ward is simply asking what it would be like to live in a world where shootings are not a daily occurrence. He’s not providing a solution, rather a catharsis.
“This is not a TED Talk,” says Ward, and he’s not here to lecture (though by seeing the play, you could probably guess that he supports some form of gun control). Ward is quick to speak up when he doesn’t have an answer or doesn’t feel qualified to field a question. Where he does feel more than capable of speaking up is when he discusses the point-of-view of the teachers he writes in his play.
“I was an unemployed college grad with a theater degree in Abilene, Texas,” he jokes, explaining how he took a job as a substitute teacher at 22. When Ward arrived at school one morning, police cars were outside and there was a buzz around school that a “copycat” shooting might happen. Tons of teachers stayed home that day as Ward realized there were more subs than usual.
“There was this swelling, high tension. It was a crazy time, there was no internet.” From this experience came the germ of a story he’s been working on since 2004. As he’s gotten older and packed more teaching–and life–experience under his belt, Slide By has continued to evolve.
“I thought the play was about the issue of gun control, but it’s really not about that,” he admits. Time spent as an elementary and middle school teacher and becoming a father opened Ward’s eyes to his once-limited point of view. The roles, subs and a janitor, which he lovingly compares to Kevin Smith characters, came to him right away, but he still needed to do the research. The story has grown and evolved into something more throughout Ward’s life. Therein lies the discovery for the writer.
“The play started as preaching, but working in education has allowed me to find ways for the play to be messy and complicated.” That day as a twenty-two-year-old substitute was just as messy. At one point a student set off firecrackers, which elicited the reaction you’d expect: A school full of terrified students and inexperienced subs expecting a second Columbine to happen at any second.
The play, directed by Dallas-based Jake Nice, is told from the perspective of the protagonist, a young sub named Chad. He’s an immature kid himself who keeps making jokes. Ward recalled how disturbed he felt that day at the comments some of the male students were making about Columbine. Without knowing it, Ward says, he was really writing about what we now call toxic masculinity.
Now, the quiet father of two boys talks to his sons about their teachers and how they might be feeling. Ward recounts a recent conversation in which his fifth grader mentioned that his teachers seemed stressed. Ward laughs, “I told him, ‘Well, Buddy, she probably is!’” He finished that conversation with a lesson in empathy for his son, “I told him that teachers are human beings. Show them grace and don’t expect perfection.”
Ward recently moved from Dallas to Atlanta with his family. He’s a well-known stage actor and the husband of solo artist Sherry Jo Ward, renowned for her own work in DFW. Atlanta’s booming film industry lured the writer, whose 2019 film International Falls was chosen as an official selection at film festivals across the country, including the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) and the Ashland Film Festival, where the film was awarded “Best Narrative Feature.”
The Wards wanted to be near Sherry Jo’s family as well. Her acclaimed one-woman show Stiff chronicles her ongoing struggle with a rare disease called Stiff Person Syndrome. Ward’s comedic delivery and stand-up comedy style has given her show great life beyond Dallas, where it premiered to great acclaim. The Wards moved to be closer to her family as her condition progresses, as her travel schedule requires quite a bit of recovery time. She’ll perform next in Chattanooga. The couple seems to have a knack for inserting humor into the midst of sadness. Ward says of his own play, “I wanted to find a way to laugh in the face of something tragic.”
Drawing on humor to make his way through tragedy has been cathartic and revelatory for Ward. As he continued to write, he came to realize the ways in which society puts institutions, like schools, on pedestals. It can be jarring when they fail, as his character Chad realizes. Ward says he felt similarly dismayed at schools like Penn State, Baylor, and Michigan State, who weathered horrific scandals in the last decade. Going further, Ward’s research shattered myths he’d held about the details of the shooting and the shooters themselves. He saw himself in the shooters: a young, white boy listening to grunge music and playing video games. Though he believes the shooters’s psychological issues motivated killings, he’s shocked and scared that reaching for a gun has become an expression of rage or sadness or anger.
Ward’s experience writing Slide By is the same experience he hopes for the audience; a cathartic moment of consideration and understanding.
Slide By is showing at the Wyly Studio Theatre as part of the Elevator Project 2020 Season select dates January 16-26. Find showtimes and tickets here.