Eugene Playwright Honors Victims of Mass Shootings

Feb 14, 2020

Actress Michelle Persoff shares playwright Rachael Carnes' monologue "Waterfall"—written to honor Emilio Hoffman (14). Taken at the Play Ground Experiment's Faces of America Festival in November 2019 in New York City.
Credit Darin Chumbley

While some people are celebrating Valentine’s Day with roses and candy, others are remembering one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. A Eugene playwright has been collaborating with writers nationwide to remember victims of gun violence.

Assembling Writers

In February 2018, 14 students and 3 teachers were killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting in Parkland, Florida. After the shooting, Eugene playwright Rachael Carnes said she recalled feeling a lack of safety, and wanted to do something to help. So, she wrote a post in the Official Playwrights of Facebook group.

“I think as a community across the country—across the world—people were trying to knit together a new normal where this level of violence can happen at any moment in any place,” said Carnes. “And there's something about the fear of the idea of it happening in a school, in a place of learning or in a place of worship that is just so beyond any comprehension.”

The social media post sought 19 other writers to create one to five minute-long short plays in response to gun violence. The 20 plays represent the students that died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. According to Carnes, “they were supposed to be the end of this and they weren't.”

“It was really pretty remarkable to see how many people jumped in almost immediately,” said Carnes. “I think within that hour I had the volunteers that I needed to move forward.”

What is Code Red?

As a team, writers from across the country developed storytelling rules in order to protect the victims and families of shootings from further trauma. Carnes said the plays don’t depict or glorify violence.

“We wanted to have an opportunity to essentially remember the dead by eulogizing them through this work—by creating a space where some of the particulars of their lives and some of the universals of just being a human could still exist,” said Carnes. 

Her collaboration with writers has led to over 60 plays that address mass shootings in schools, religious buildings, and public areas. 

Carnes hopes the plays create a renewed sense of empathy, awareness, and community conversation that she said feels unattainable through the quickness of news outlets, or through the violence in television and film depictions.

“What's so tragic about these events is someone's life is irrevocably altered and we might read about them in the paper for a week if we're lucky,” said Carnes. “But now, not even that. It doesn't even seem to have the traction that we even learn their names, let alone anything about them—what they did for a living or whether they were a student or if they had siblings—it's not penetrating anymore.”

Relevance in Oregon

Code Red actress Priya Singh said she didn't realize how meaningful the experience would be for her.

“For example, for Slicing an Onion—I have no connection to Wisconsin,” said Singh. “But I have a connection to my religion and my culture and my people.”

Singh said the performance was cathartic for her.

“It's kind of like carrying a really heavy box around for a really long time,” said Singh. “And you kind of have been carrying this box for so long that you don't even realize how heavy it is until you put it down.”

Although there has not been a mass shooting in Eugene, Singh said the plays are relevant and applicable to society here.

I haven't personally known anyone who's been affected by gun violence though I don't think I would have to look very far to do so,” said Singh. “I think how gun violence has affected and penetrated our society, it spills over and quite literally bleeds out.”

Since 1998, there have been at least five incidences of public gun violence in Oregon.

Carnes wrote the monologue "Waterfall" from the perspective of a young boy who continues to grow up without his friend who was killed in a shooting.

“I just imagined those mile-markers that the survivor might move through—such as high school graduation,” said Carnes. “Which should be such a jubilant and happy time, but if a cohort moves forward and leaves behind someone who should be with them but isn’t—how does that land? How do you recover from that?”

The play is in honor Emilio Hoffman, a 14-year-old high school freshman who was killed in the June 10, 2014 shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon.

Carnes also discussed how these events impact parents.

“I send my kids off to public school every day and I'm glad when I see them at dinner time,” said Carnes. “I remember after the shooting at Parkland, just really dwelling as a parent for quite a long while about the empty chairs around dining tables that will be forever empty and that's hard to adjust to.”

Code Red actor Chris Esparza said he was brought up with his extended family attending Catholic services and his most immediate family going to a Baptist church. He said he resonated with some of the cultural themes in the play, Velas Votivas, such as lighting candles for the deceased and sitting in memory of them.

When visiting his sister in Washington, D.C. during the 2019 winter break, they heard what was believed to be gunshots outside a friend’s house.

“It was a sense of vulnerability that we felt,” said Esparza. “We had gotten up and went and checked out—and sure enough—somebody who had apparently shot two or three shots in front of a neighbor's house and then fled the scene.”

He said no one was hurt, but the experience allowed him to relate to his character in the play even more than before.

“Rereading this for even today was sort of resonant about, wow, in that moment in talking with a friend in a neighborhood that—could be anyone's neighborhood—it can happen there too,” said Esparza.

National Impact

Carnes said it's been overwhelming how friends and family members of victims have responded to plays they have seen in-person or have found online.

Code Red writer Jordan Elizabeth Henry’s play is about Olga Woltering who died during a mass shooting in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida Airport on January 6, 2017. Carnes recalled the impact the play had on the deceased woman’s daughter.

“The daughter of this woman who died found the play online on Jordan's website and read it and wrote to her and said, ‘None of the content that was generated about my mom came close to capturing who she was as a person, the way that your play has,’” said Carnes.

Originally, she said she wanted to create a collection of plays that addressed every mass shooting in American histoty.

“When we started out, we realized this is a task that's impossible,” said Carnes. “We'll never be able to generate enough plays to ever meet that goal because we could create plays every day, and it seems like there's more violence every day.”

Carnes said she sometimes wonders if the writers are just preaching to a choir of like-minded people. But the plays have also received strong reactions in areas with large populations of gun owners.

“A stage reading that happened in Chattanooga, [Tennessee] in 2018 resulted in the reading organizer’s own dad giving up his NRA membership and turning his guns into the authorities after being a lifelong gun [owner],” said Carnes. “I think that, that turnaround and that sense of shifting priority priorities or shifting community responses is interesting. It shows what the plays could do.”

She said they make sure they are not cavalier about their power to tell a story. Carnes said they wanted to pull the focus away from the grandiosity of the event, and remember victims in a way that does not glorify shootings and encourage copycat offenders.

She said playwrights across the country are encouraged to work with their local Moms Demand Action group to help facilitate the plays. Carnes said volunteers “come in [wearing] their wonderful bright colored t-shirts and with their amazing mom energy,” and they provide onsite counseling if people need to talk to someone after the readings.

Taking Action

As the 2020 election season approaches, Carnes hopes the plays impact people when voting locally and nationally.

“If they can remind people to impress upon their politicians, remind people to get out and vote for the people that are looking at more stringent gun control laws—that has an effect as well,” said Carnes. “It's about trying to motivate change. And, and I don't think that happens overnight, but if we just sit on our hands, it will never happen.”

She said organizations, such as Moms Demand Action, are not trying to get rid of all guns. They just want safety.

“It's not about people abandoning their guns or turning their guns into the sheriff,” said Carnes. “You can be a responsible gun owner. If gun ownership is something that's important to you, you can do that. But it may mean a question of having critical conversations and making sure that you’re taking care of the firearms that you do own in a way that they're not going to be used accidentally.”

Carnes hopes firearm owners will have more conversations about responsible gun usage. With the support of organizations such as Moms Demand Action, Carnes hopes these creative pieces can change the way we view gun policies.