ST. PETERSBURG — At an American Stage board meeting five days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, an anguished Todd Olson started to read aloud from The Amish Project, an upcoming play based on the murder of five Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania.
In one scene, two sisters, Anna, 14, and Velda, 6, confront the gunman, Eddie:
Anna: Sir, please shoot me first!
Velda: Please, shoot me second!
Eddie: I shot 'em! Each one. In the head. Then I shot myself.
"At that board meeting, you could hear a pin drop when Todd started reading passages from the play," board chairman Frank Biafora said. "It got very emotional. Todd actually cried. That moment made me think long and hard about this."
The raw emotion surrounding the Newtown, Conn., shootings prompted Olson, artistic director of American Stage, to discuss the propriety of doing The Amish Project as scheduled in April or switching it out for something lighter.
Amid a national debate on gun control and school safety, is now a highly relevant time for such a play? Or is it too agonizing? Would audiences turn away? How much should that matter?
The Amish Project is not an exploitative play. A "fictional exploration" of the school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., it explores the extraordinary response by the Amish community, which forgave the gunman and offered aid to his widow. A single actor — it was the play's author, Jessica Dickey, who is also an actor, in the Off Broadway premiere in 2009 — plays seven characters in what the New York Times reviewer said was "a remarkable piece of writing."
"There is a great deal worth meditating on in what happened at Nickel Mines," said Dickey last week from her Brooklyn neighborhood. "It seemed to draw on the worst of what we can be toward one another as human beings as well as the best we can be for one another. It's that instant reversal that inspired me to the write the play, when the Amish responded with compassion and forgiveness by embracing the gunman's family as fellow victims."
Still, Olson's reading of Dickey's play was tough to bear so soon after the Newtown shootings that killed 20 students and six educators. "Our first feeling was that we bought into the forgiveness, the healing of The Amish Project, and we should stand by that," Olson said. "But when I read this section, it was like, 'Oh, my goodness, we should really think about this.' "
The American Stage board is made up of 20 civic leaders, business people, educators and others who are ultimately responsible for the theater's welfare. Olson gave board members copies of the script.
"I read it and about halfway through I had to stop and go out on my patio and think this through," board member Scott Wagman said. "I was initially not in favor of showing it because it is such a gut-wrenching play."
Other board members felt the same way. They worried that staging Dickey's play might be seen as a perverse attempt to capitalize on the tragedy in Connecticut, even though it had been announced the previous spring.
The decision was up to Olson, but he wanted the blessing of the board and staff members. The artistic director's reasoning was colored by a recent episode when his daughter's elementary school went into lockdown after a nearby shooting.
"So, as a parent, this issue is really close to me," he said.
The decision about The Amish Project was complicated by the company's lackluster financial performance. With a $2 million budget, it is the Tampa Bay area's largest professional theater, but it issued an appeal last summer for donations to balance its budget. Some longtime supporters complain that there have been too many downbeat plays, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's corrosive portrait of a marriage, and A Steady Rain, a lurid cop drama by Keith Huff. Theatergoers stayed away from last fall's big production of Wit, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winner about a cancer patient.
"Wit just bombed," Wagman said.
Olson and the board seemed inclined to put off The Amish Project. "The last thing I want to do is cause our good patrons pain on top of the pain we all feel on this subject," Olson wrote just before Christmas. "Which is not to conclude that I do not believe in The Amish Project. I do. But could it better be saved for another day? Perhaps."
Olson and Katherine Michelle Tanner, the actor contracted for the play, discussed alternatives. Though The Amish Project is a small production, the theater would take a loss from canceling it, estimated at about $10,000.
However, the tide started to turn as board and staff members began coming out in favor of continuing with it. Diane Bailey Morton, a board member who at first opposed doing the play but changed her mind after reading it, dismissed the desire of some patrons for lighter fare. "We could do Rodgers and Hammerstein every show, and be safe, but that would be dinner theater," she said.
American Stage staff members reached out to Philadelphia's Simpatico Theatre Project, which opened a production of Dickey's play this week. "We did consider all the implications of the show," said Allen Radway, Simpatico's producing artistic director. "Amish country is about an hour and a half away from us. I think we're privileged to offer such a healing story to our community. It's an opportunity for theater to really do its job."
Mike Alford, who is in his first year on the American Stage board, wrote an eloquent email that Olson and several board members said was influential.
"In my mind American Stage was made for a time such as this and a play such as The Amish Project," Alford wrote, citing not just Sandy Hook but other mass shootings like Columbine, the Aurora multiplex and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
"Will it be difficult for many? Absolutely. Will it cause us to ponder painful questions? Yes. Will it make a difference? That is the question I'd like us to consider as a group. In my mind, true art makes us wonder. It makes us think more deeply about ourselves and the world around us. Will it make a profit? I don't have a clue. But I do believe it will create ripples far beyond the run of a single play and I do believe it may help the community to have a profound and profoundly important conversation that we badly need to have. Even if it hurts."
Olson decided just before the New Year to go ahead with The Amish Project.
"There was no unanimous decision until the end," board chair Biafora said. "Now we cannot put on The Amish Project as if it's just another play, run it several weeks, and call it a day. This is going to require us to let everyone know when they walk into the theater that this is a challenging position for American Stage to take. Let's run this play but let's use it as a platform for a community to come together and have a dialogue about something that's so important."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.