“PLEASE DON’T COME to our town. Your intentions may be pure, but we don’t want any more of this here. A documentary film-maker was run out of town last week for doing something similar.” I read that email again, and again, then stared at my planner and the week I had blocked out in May 2013 to go to Newtown, Conn.

But let’s start when this journey began: December 14, 2012.

I was bartending a holiday party for an online company, mere hours after 26 people were killed a two hour-drive north of where I was. People at the party were drunk, flirting with each other, laughing, complaining about drink orders. On this same night, 20 children lay dead in Sandy Hook Elementary School, leaving behind families that would never be the same.

I felt sick, distracted, and disconnected, and I knew the questions I had about the shooting were going through other peoples’ heads across the country. How could this have happened? What are we going to do about all this?

Dan Stewart and Isabella Fedele of Thespian Troupe 439 perform 26 Peblles at Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa.

Dan Stewart and Isabella Fedele of Thespian Troupe 439 perform 26 Pebbles at Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa. Photo by Frank Mitman.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the country watched two federal gun control bills fail in Congress and the news vans pack up and leave Newtown. All I could think was, “That’s it? We’re done with this community?”

I did what any rational human in 2013 would do and posted incessantly on Facebook about how angry I was and how we deserve better as a country, and all my friends who think as I do agreed with me … and I accomplished nothing.

I don’t remember when the idea hit me, but I found myself on the phone, telling my agent that I was going to Newtown “to use my art and my voice to help in whatever way I can … but I’m not sure what that is yet.” He showed support for his client and then hung up, probably thinking, “He’s finally lost it.”

After some thought, I sat down with a small group of trusted friends, and we devised five open-ended questions we hoped would help us understand the magnitude of what happened to this community.

What things do you love about Newtown? Traditions? Locations?
What was your day like on December 14? Take me from waking up in the morning to your head on the pillow at night.
Does this shooting shake your faith? Can (any form of) God exist when tragedies like this happen? 
What are your thoughts about Adam Lanza, the shooter? Do you blame him?
What is the one word you’d want Newtown to be remembered for?

With questions set, the next puzzle was how to approach people and ask them to speak with me without seeming crazy, intrusive, or opportunistic.

For that, I turned to the master of this type of theatrical storytelling, Moisés Kaufman, with the help of a friend who knew him. In 2000, Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project created The Laramie Project, a play that draws on interviews, journal entries, and published news reports to tell the story of the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Kaufman invited me up to Tectonic Theater Project offices to share insight on how he went about connecting with residents of Laramie, Wyo., and developing their stories into a script.

“You know what we didn’t have back then that is an incredible resource for this?” he said. “Facebook.” The social media site I had shunned for my useless posting became the key to making initial contact with the community of Newtown. I began by searching for organizations that had sprouted in response to the tragedy. I reached out to explain what I hoped to accomplish in coming there, something that was still vague, even to me. Some replied, some didn’t, and I began to compile a list of people I hoped would sit down and allow me to interview them.

I booked a hotel, set up a car for the journey, and continued to grow my potential contact list, interpreting every response as a sign that I must continue, that I was doing something noble and helpful in the grand scheme of life and art. You can imagine the shock as I read that email again, and again. “Please don’t come to our town.”

The world premiere of 26 Pebbles at Human Race Theatre Company, Dayton, Ohio.
The world premiere of 26 Pebbles at Human Race Theatre Company, Dayton, Ohio. Photo by Scott J. Kimmins.

Then came the questions. Are my intentions pure? Why am I doing this? Will this help? Am I just obsessed with the misery of the moment? Worst of all, rather than helping people heal, could I be senselessly adding to the noise? These questions flew through my mind, fueling new doubts. Eventually I calmed down. I did my best to remind myself of the place artists inhabit in this world, how we navigate a path where our talents can be employed not only to help individual healing but also to initiate societal change.

And it started to work. I began to listen to my pep talk and feel a bit reenergized. Then words of Nina Simone blew into my mind and eliminated any last utterances of doubt, as I repeated to myself: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Like Simone, I would reflect the situations in which I find myself. It was, after all, my duty.

Replete with these words, and a generous helping of naivety, I was off to Newtown to face a reality completely different from all my expectations.

The first text came as I crossed into Connecticut — then another and another — from my Newton contacts, informing me that they wanted to cancel their interviews, that maybe it was too soon. By the time I reached Newtown, I had one interview still scheduled. Within a few hours that person canceled too, suggesting instead that their friend Joanie “might want to talk.”

Morning brought the hangover of a half-baked idea deflating before my very eyes. I texted this stranger named Joanie, in hopes that she would revive my idea.

She agreed to talk.

We met on a bench just outside the town library, as she wanted to speak publicly, still unsure of my intentions. What I thought would be a 30-minute conversation stretched to an hour and a half. Joanie began unloading some of the pain she’d been holding in for six months. She kept insisting that it wasn’t right for her to feel so upset, as she hadn’t personally lost anyone in the shooting. I tried to assure her that her pain was valid and she was allowed to mourn for her town, which had been dealt a horrifying blow.

As we parted ways, she told me the conversation had helped and she had friends she thought might appreciate the chance to talk. Within 15 minutes, I had three more interviews scheduled. I pulled out of the library parking lot happy to be back on track and even more thrilled that, by coming here, I had been helpful to someone. By providing an open ear for someone to speak freely about what they had been feeling since December 14, I’d gained insight into how a community member dealt with such a tragedy, through a perspective that would never fit into high-stakes, time-driven news coverage.

My drive through Main Street on the way back to the hotel turned into an aha moment that solidified my approach. The town hall and general store and the white picket fences that dotted the landscape brought to mind another famous, though fictional, town. I felt transported to Grover’s Corners from Our Town. I understood that this would be a play about a small town shaken by the American epidemic of gun violence, and it would all be taken from these interviews I was about to conduct.

The next three people I interviewed also recommended friends, who recommended more friends. From three to nine to 15. By the time I was finished, I had spent three separate weeks in Newtown and interviewed 60 people.

I no longer felt like an observer in the community but instead an honored guest. Strangers invited me to dinner in their homes with their families. A couple I had never met heard what I was doing and offered free board in their home while they were on vacation. A different family began babysitting Bastian, my dog and travel companion, as the interviews piled up. I was led through town hall and shown details of how residents were dealing with the aftershocks of December 14. I spent evenings volunteering at Healing Newtown, a community space set up to house artwork commemorating the victims and survivors, where I helped other volunteers sort more than 700,000 pieces of mail that had flowed into Newtown from sympathetic strangers across the country.

Through this time, I remembered Moisés’ advice: “Don’t feel the need to fill the silences or break up painful or awkward moments with talking.” Most of the time, that silent moment is a necessary pause, to digest what had been shared before delving deeper. The writer’s job is to listen, to take in stories no matter how sad or painful. I reminded myself that I had the luxury of eventual escape from all this.

This wasn’t the place I called home, and the sadness I felt at night in the hotel was temporary and muted compared to how the town’s daily lives were forever changed. The friends who had helped me prepare interview questions even joined me for a few days, and I could lean on them when things got tough. For the Newtown community, there were no such breaks. This had become their new normal.

When I knew I had enough raw material, I left Newtown feeling empowered by this incredible community, whose stories coursed through my veins. Meanwhile, the words of one person echoed in my head: “Please don’t hurt us with what you’re doing. We’ve already been hurt so much.”

My first step was to lean on the generosity of friends to help transcribe hours of audio. After a few weeks, I had hundreds of pages of documents to sort before I could uncover a cohesive story.

I also had a full-time acting gig at Goodspeed Musicals during the next three months.

Once the show opened and my days freed up, I unpacked the 60 transcribed and printed interviews, a package of highlighters, and got to work finding commonalities among them. Using different colors to represent different themes and topics, I soon recognized patterns, and a general narrative began to take shape.

My next challenge, probably the hardest one, was to pare the number of characters who would appear in the play. How do you strip people from their stories so graciously shared with you? To answer that question, I had to look through the neutral lens of constructing a narrative. What people shared personal connections through family and friends or common experiences and perspectives? What stories seemed to naturally flow in and out of one another? Who spoke on similar themes? Eventually, I trimmed 60 interviews to 21 stories for a cast of six actors, describing events and feelings before, during, and after the seismic shift the characters collectively underwent. These began to shape into dialogue.

The play’s title, 26 Pebbles, references the words of Newtown resident Yolie. During our first interview, I began tossing small pebbles into the pond in front of us. “That’s it,” she said as we watched ripples emanate from where each pebble hit water, expanding to the pond’s edges, intersecting with other ripples. “That’s exactly what happened here.” Each death sent vibrations far beyond the grieving family and friends, affecting every member of the community.

I finished the first draft in a month and arranged an informal first read in a Goodspeed rehearsal room. In the year and a half that followed, two different producers who believed in the material arranged readings in New York City and at Arena Stage in D.C. Each reading tightened the narrative, allowing me to cut more fat and tell a clearer, more powerful story. Due to the painful and sensitive subject matter, I approached the role of playwright as being a guide for travelers, allowing rest when the journey became too intense and proceeding in a way that reassures the audience that they can trust the ride for those 90 minutes.

In early 2016, I received a call from Kevin Moore, artistic director of Human Race Theatre Company, asking me to send him a copy of the play. He wanted to consider the piece for the company’s 30th anniversary season. Soon he and the company’s board agreed the play had a home in that season, and we were preparing for our first full production.

To direct, I enlisted friend and perennial muse Igor Goldin, who had helped in the play’s early development. I knew Igor would not only deliver a solid world premiere but also wring the most authenticity, impact, and heart from this story.

Rehearsals found me tightening even more in response to Igor’s direction and the work of an exquisite cast. I cut pages, swapped sections, and during the final moments of tech, even shed one character who had lost their throughline during the revision process.

The time had come to open the theatre doors and see whether the story worked.

On opening night, I stood in the back of the theatre, reading entirely too much into the audience’s shifting postures. At one point, a young girl began to cry deep, guttural sobs. “Oh, no,” I thought. “We’ve gone too far.” My doubts returned with a vengeance. What were my intentions? Why did I do this? Would this help? Were we senselessly adding to the noise?

When the final scene ended and the lights came on, audience members leapt to standing ovations of love for the cast who had brought them on this journey.

Since audiences rarely know what the playwright looks like, I staked out the lobby listening to what patrons said. “It’s so nice to come to the theatre and feel something and leave with questions.” Even, “Mom, I want to fight for gun safety. Can you help me write a letter when we get home?”

26 Pebbles was soon published and licensed by Samuel French, becoming one of their most produced plays in 2018, mostly among high schools and colleges. I heard stories of audience members who knew nothing about gun laws in their state before their exposure to the play who became more involved, marching in rallies and writing their congressional representatives. Young actors began appearing on local news stations, discussing their personal responses to the story they were telling. The ripples began spreading across the U.S. and around the world.

In the end, we did add to the noise — but not senselessly. This play both echoes and adds to the noise of change, the noise of a movement of people who’ve had enough gun violence. It’s a noise that continues after news vans move on, a noise that actively looks for solutions, a noise that acknowledges pain as a way for survivors to find healing after an event like this.

I am humbled and honored to contribute to a form of theatre aimed at creating change. When we reflect our times, we do what has been done for hundreds of years. We allow ourselves to be affected deeply by something in our society, something that won’t allow us to rest until we can figure out how to help. Some people teach, write letters, or even pursue politics. Others like me turn to what we know best: art.

I tell everyone who is thinking about embarking on something like this: Listen quietly and openly to the stories you hear. Then ignore the fear, and navigate with your heart. It will guide you through and beyond “what if” and ensure that your intentions are right and that what you create leaves the world a better place than you found it.

This story appeared in the August 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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