The day after a gunman massacred 49 nightclub revelers in Orlando, actor Robert Dorfman went onstage in Minneapolis to play an armed, distressed father seeking vengeance in “And So It Goes.”
Dorfman’s character addressed the audience directly, deliberating about suicide, murder-suicide and mass murder. The week before, the dark comedy by George F. Walker — a regional premiere, staged by Dark & Stormy Productions — drew a lot of laughs. But post-Orlando, the audience was quiet, tense, heavier in spirit. So was Dorfman. During the scene in which he first produces a weapon, the actor froze.
“We perform in an intimate space, and how quickly or gingerly I pull the gun from my pocket is affected by the temperature of the audience,” he said. “I was still for five to 10 seconds. I could feel their fear.”
Theater is often regarded as a place for escape, but that is difficult when tragedy strikes. Theatergoers and theatermakers alike carry with them the news from the real world — news that now is delivered swiftly and amplified by social media.
“That was always a fantasy, that we get away from the world through art,” said Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy. “I think that we engage the world more deeply through art, not escape it.”
At a time when mass killings occur with regularity, deploying firearms in a play has become trickier than ever, said Bellamy. He recently staged Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” a drama in which a drug dealer pulls a weapon from his waistband.
“I chose for the actors to never point it at anyone,” Bellamy said. “My mother ran a bar when I was a kid. I’ve seen people who’ve been shot. You don’t have to point it at anyone to have the desired effect.”
Actor Regina Marie Williams, who wielded a rifle as a distraught mother in Christina Ham’s new drama “Scapegoat” at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, said she tried not to make audiences feel threatened, especially after Orlando.
“I point it at the aisle, and when I’m putting it away, it’s down and to the back,” she said. “There’s enough for us to worry about.”
Last November, Williams was playing the lead in “Sister Act” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres when terrorists killed clubgoers in Paris. She remembered that when she got to the theater, she “looked for all the exits and all the ways out, just in case anything happened,” she said. “As actors, we’re up there, under the lights, looking into the dark. I felt very scared and very vulnerable.”
Twin Cities actor Sarah Agnew is appearing in “Roe” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, playing an attorney who argues an abortion-rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her character is interviewed by a reporter, who asks whether women should be legally required to look at pictures of a fetus before getting an abortion.
Agnew’s character responds: “Gee … does the law require a man to look at pictures of dead children before buying a gun?”
“This line usually gets applause,” said Agnew. “But since the tragedy in Orlando, the response is much more passionate — longer, louder, angrier. It’s palpable and powerful.”
Taking ownership of fear
Sometimes, the effect of real-world horror seeps into theater in unexpected ways, all the while heightening the import of the work.
Twin Cities actor Sun Mee Chomet was in graduate school at New York University at the time of the 9/11 attacks. She was cast in a staging of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” which features the sounds of firetrucks.
“We didn’t need any sound effects,” she said, as firefighters worked around the clock at the nearby ground zero. “The actors and audiences were weeping every night.”
Attacks such as that, or Orlando, can cause artists, ever questioning, to agonize over the worth of their work.
“After our whole school was shut down for a week, Zelda Fichandler, the head of our program, came in and told us that what we were doing may seem ridiculous, but it is what we should be doing,” Chomet said. “The firemen and doctors are trained to do what they do, and so are we. Our job is to give people a forum where we see, onstage and in the room, that are all struggling to make sense of things.”
Minneapolis director Jeremy Cohen is staging the area premiere of Philip Dawkins’ “Le Switch” at the Jungle Theater in south Minneapolis, a show that includes a bachelor party set in a gay nightclub. Staging that scene after the Orlando attack felt like a “reclamation of the joy and the light” that people normally feel in such a celebratory place, said Cohen.
“The greatest of our work, whether classical or new, reflects our society, and our relationship to fear,” Cohen continued. “Fear is inherent in a lot of dramatic writing, and the question is: Are we going to own it, or are we going to let it own us?”