Before the lights dimmed and the audience silenced their whispers, Brian Haimbach, faculty instructor for Lane Community College’s music, dance and theater arts programs, spoke to the small room. Holding back tears, he warned of a potentially sensitive topic discussed in “Hell is a Place on Earth,” one of seven plays that make up 2018’s Winter Shorts, written, directed and performed by Lane theater arts students.
“In one of the plays, there is discussion of a school shooting,” Haimbach said. “I understand if you need to excuse yourself before the intermission.”
On Feb. 14, less than 24 hours before I attended the plays, a 19-year-old gunman and former student, walked into a Florida high school and killed 17 people. Like fast food or student debt, school shootings have come to be known as a uniquely American experience. As a student in a campus theater, surrounded by other students expressing themselves through theater, it was hard to imagine feeling unsafe. Yet, the mood felt ominous and foreboding. It hung in the air like a slight breeze, only noticeable within the silence between plays.
“Hell is a Place on Earth” is written by Rebecca Blanchard, and directed by Brianne Orloski. It centers around a drag queen, played by Aiden Christensen, having a conversation with God, played by Sarah Winston. They discuss the daily news cycle with decidedly different ways of interpreting the information. The drag queen, in a deadpan voice and seemingly unphased, tells God about a mass shooting that had just occurred. God, acting as if she knows the dead personally, seems devastated. While there isn’t exactly a “correct” way to respond to tragedy, the polarization between the two characters is the most interesting aspect of the play.
The play asks us to confront the different ways we express empathy in a society that’s becoming increasingly desensitized to random acts of violence. What’s the correct response upon hearing news of a far-away shooting that left a stranger lifeless and a community shaken? Is that stranger not a student like you? An American like me? Should I cry for our similarities, or continue dejectedly swiping upwards on my phone, consuming more news than ever before, yet feeling none of it? At a time when technology has allowed us to be connected like never before, I find myself displaying a certain brand of apathy that becomes an exercise in loneliness. This dynamic is reflected in Christensen’s character, whose disconnected cynicism reveals itself as misery by the end of the play. Being unable to feel and connect with other people robs us of the reward of a truly functional relationship. This vulnerability is required in order to love and be loved in return. Aside from a few clichés, such as a reading from the Christian Bible halfway through, I found this play to be the most thought-provoking in ways the others weren’t.
“Baby Steps” featured by far the best acting of the 7 plays shown. Actors Ashley Johansson and Bella Knoles took less than 10 minutes to introduce fully fleshed-out characters with a wide range of emotion and grief. If the script, written by Adam Nealy, hadn’t been handled with such subtlety and confidence, I may have lost interest before finding out who had died. This is a perfect example of a well-written short story. While many of the other plays felt like small slices of a larger narrative, the neatly packaged and ambiguous nature of “Baby Steps” only added to its charm.
Collectively, the Winter Shorts performances explore themes of mortality and death, whether it was the death of a family member, the death of parents or the death of complete strangers. These are heavy topics that the various writers tackle with elegance and poise. The hard part of writing a captivating short story or play is being able to capture an audience from the moment the curtains are drawn. This year’s Winter Shorts have achieved that, with the added bonus of exploring timeless topics within contemporary narratives.