A Thousand Oaks College Was About To Stage A Play About Columbine. Then The Borderline Shooting Happened
On Wednesday night around 11:15 p.m., a dozen students at California Lutheran University were finishing their final dress rehearsal for Columbinus, a play that explores the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting. At around the same time, approximately five miles away, a gunman walked into the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, pulled out a .45-caliber Glock 21 with an extended magazine and began pulling the trigger.
He killed 12 people.
Dozens of other Cal Lutheran students were at the scene of the carnage that night. Among the dead was 23-year-old Justin Meek, a recent Cal Lutheran graduate who reportedly died trying to save other people.
"I was literally in the process of giving [my students] notes about how to make their portrayal of a mass shooting, victims and survivors, more realistic," says Brett Elliott, the director of Columbinus and a theater professor at the small, liberal arts university. "And now, it is more real for them than I ever would have wished."
Elliott spoke to KPCC's Take Two about the production, and what happens now.
Opening night, which was scheduled for Thursday, was cancelled. Elliott doesn't know if the show will go on — or if it should.
"The cast feels more motivated to do the show than ever before, understanding that it will be difficult. At the same time, people need space to grieve, and if they feel this is somehow disrespectful to their grief, we would never want to give people that impression, so we're conflicted," he says.
VICTIMS & VICTORS
The first time Elliott read Columbinus, which draws on eyewitness accounts from survivors of the Columbine shooting, he wasn't sure he wanted to, wasn't sure that he could, direct the play.
"When I sat down and read this script, I put it down two-thirds of the way through and thought, 'I don't know if I can live in this mental space for the two months that it would take to put this up,'" he says. As he got to the end of the work, he was impressed by how it handled the tough stuff.
A documentary featuring Columbine survivors also helped clarify his intentions. He particularly remembers the account of one man, who had been pulled to safety by the SWAT team, saying: "He said, 'I could think of myself as a victim or I could think of myself as a victor.' And I thought to myself, 'That's exactly right.' That's how I'm going to approach this play. I'm going to approach this play like I have something positive to contribute. This show needs to be done. This story needs to be examined."
That may be even more true now than it was before.
'A DIFFICULT PROCESS'
"I call theater the gymnasium for empathy," Elliott says. "As theater artists, our job is to literally put on the shoes of somebody else and walk a mile in [them]. And then the audience, as they come in, they do the same thing."
Columbinus is unvarnished and intense, theatricalized in some parts and documentary-esque in others. Written by PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam, it begins by focusing on the shooters, pulling from their journals to examine the high school culture that spawned the massacre.
The second half of the play takes audiences through a beat-by-beat account of the events of the day, drawn from the accounts of survivors, first responders, witnesses and anxious parents.
"We can tackle these things in documentary films or interviews or books and there's just nothing like putting a live person in the same room with you, having them speak the words of somebody like Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold to try to get into that mindset," Elliott says. "What could be more important to try to understand how this kind of thing comes about and what we can possibly do to get out of this cycle?"
Elliott says every day in rehearsals was emotional. Some of the young actors were cast as parents of Columbine students, waiting to hear news of their children — similar to what some of them later experienced waiting to hear about their friends who'd been in the Borderline bar.
"It has been a difficult process," Elliott says. "I knew it would be." (Cal Lutheran has clergy members and psychological services on campus to support students and staffers dealing with the massacre's emotional aftermath.)
But, he also says, "The theater faculty at Cal Lutheran thought it was important to tackle this problem, this epidemic that we find ourselves in, in this country. We wanted to contribute to the national conversation about it and take a hard, honest look at it, which this play really does."
Whether or not the performances of Columbinus go on, he hopes the play will help people understand that they aren't alone and, possibly, spur them to action.
"I don't think there are simple answers," Elliott says. "One of the survivors of Columbine called it the threat of our time and I think that is absolutely right. I hope people would come away understanding that and motivated to do something about that."
This interview was conducted for a Take Two segment. You can hear the full show here.
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