“American Roulette,” about a school shooting and its effects on a community, sounds as if it was pulled straight from the news.
The joint production of Theater Artists Olympia and Animal Fire Theatre is in its opening weekend at Capital Playhouse.
“Look at the news today,” director Brian Hatcher said Saturday. “We’re getting all of these violent events happening left and right, from Sandy Hook to Aurora, Colo., to Sparks, Nev., and it just happened in LAX yesterday.”
But the play was inspired not by last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but by the 1998 shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore.
Hatcher acted in the April 1999 premiere of “Roulette,” by Christopher Evans and Fredric Hendricks, at the University of Montana in Missoula. He played a construction worker on the job in the school on the day of a shooting.
“This is one of those shows that has always lived inside of me,” he said. “Actors talk about inheriting a role, and once the play’s done, we let go. This is one that I’ve never been able to let go of. I’ve always known that I wanted to work with it again.”
The play, structured as a series of monologues, covers 24 hours during and after a fictional shooting, looking at the way an entire community was affected.
The Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, still the deadliest high school mass murder, happened 10 days after the production closed. And as it happens, Hatcher graduated in 1988 from Columbine High.
“That was my school,” Hatcher said. “That was my hometown. That was where my parents lived still, a couple of miles from campus the day of the shooting. I have a personal connection to this not only as a theater person but as a human being, too.”
The timing came as a shock to those involved with the production, although school shootings were already very much on their minds.
The Jonesboro shootings hit playwright Evans particularly hard, Hatcher said. “Two little boys, 11 and 12 years old, go and pull the fire alarm in their school, run into the bushes outside the doors, and from there start taking shots at the students as they were coming out.”
The shooting in Springfield, Ore., followed soon after. “Chris was sitting in front of the TV, watching the news reports of this shooting, and right between the TV and him was his own little son sitting on the floor playing,” Hatcher said. “Chris had this vision of ‘Oh my God, what about my son?’ He was placing his own son in that scenario. It really hit home for him then, and he knew he had something to do.”
The Olympia performances will be followed by talk-backs, where audience members are invited to share their feelings, and there will be information on mental health services, bullying and more available in the lobby and in the program.
“I truly believe that this is an important play, and I truly believe that people really need to see this show,” Hatcher said.
TAO president Eric Mark agrees.
“One of the things that’s really nice about working with Animal Fire Theatre is that their mission statement is a lot like TAO’s,” he said. “We are kindred spirits doing under-represented shows.
“This one was so strong, and with current events happening as they are, it’s something we wanted to put out there.”