“It’s always the right time to do a play about forgiveness.”
Are you not sure you want to see a play based on a deranged man’s shooting of ten children in 2006? It would give anyone pause. Before you write it off as sensationalistic capitalization on a horrific deed that could guarantee nightmares, please read this article. Ask yourself why would any self-respecting, sane actor want to perform Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project, a one person play about the aftermath of a school shooting, over sixty times, much less tour with the show? And what normal stage director would want to direct it, developing a deep affection for it in the process?
Nationally respected professional stage director Todd Olson would and did. As Artistic Director of American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida, after much soul-searching and conversation with his Board of Directors, he mounted The Amish Project in 2013. Olson directs the work again for Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (www.cityrep.com) in a short run April 10-12 at the Oklahoma City Civic Center’s Freede Little Theater, before it continues on tour to Columbia Festival of the Arts in Maryland and Banyan Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. The play has been produced over 40 times across North America, from Seattle to Washington DC, from San Diego CA to Tyler TX, from New York City to Vancouver BC.
Olson describes the experience of the play: “It’s not a “disaster play.” It’s an aspirational play about what we’re able to overcome, how we’re able to go forward when we simply do not think we can. The play elicits the best kind of reflection. It spends the least time on the tragic act, and the most time on reverberations afterward.”
He goes on to share how the play is not conventional in structure or style, like a lot of one-person shows with simple linear plot lines. One actor portrays “seven characters, some dead, some living, including the shooter and his widow. Imagine all seven telling their story, then placing the stories in a blender and reassembling them on a timeline as they occurred in relationship to the tragic event…then artfully molding them into eight powerful units over 75 minutes. The actor must change characters constantly: over 140 times in total, sometimes three times in the span of three lines. This is a new kind of one-woman show – maybe more performance art than traditional play… a story during which the audience must lean forward to keep up.” Listening to him speak, I find myself leaning in.
So where does a wise director find the right sort of masterful actor to take this show on, one with the stamina, versatility, memory, discipline and moral rigor to honestly define all characters while integrating them into a comprehensible artistic whole? Olson grins as he knew exactly who to call. “When I first read this play, I thought, “Well, seven characters: a 51 year-old male professor, a cranky woman from the town, two ghost children, a mentally disturbed gunman, a distraught widow, and a Hispanic pregnant girl who works at the local grocery store… this is a job for Katherine Michelle Tanner.” Katherine is among the bravest stage artists I know. She leaps. She’s pretty fearless. She’s an easy collaborator. And she’s generous; I always feel like I am creating with her. ”
Tanner triumphed in the St.Petersburg production, and she continues with the play in Oklahoma City as the first leg of its 2015 tour. Inspired by the 2006 school shootings in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, this fictionalized account of real-life tragedy as seen through the perspectives of seven people connected to the event allows us a unique glimpse into Amish culture. Into a world where a crazed gunman held ten innocent little girls captive in their schoolhouse and shot them. Five died. The Amish Project asks that we search for that deep, quiet place within us that allows us to experience the power of compassion, faith and forgiveness.
What does actor Katherine Tanner have to say about the play and working with Director Todd Olson? “This show is my “best friend” as a work of art. I could just keep performing it forever for what it lets me share with its audience. It’s always the right time to do a play about forgiveness.” She says she has never done anything quite like this play before — changing the voices, the seven characters, while never leaving the stage, wearing the same costume…. “This show is my 4th time to work with Todd, most recently in August: Osage County. We have developed a truly trusting work relationship, totally simpatico. He always asks the right questions of his actors. I trust him to follow the playwright’s vision and lead me through the play’s arcs; he trusts me to develop all the details with honesty.”
How hard is it to play the shooter? She pauses a moment to consider. “I felt from my first reading of the script he exists as a VOID—his physicality, his voice – I feel that he misses a huge piece of humanity.”
Who do you resonate with? “I remain closest to the character of Velda, a six year old girl in the play. The story seen through her eyes is very special part of the play’s journey. People still remember her from our 2013 production, and I carry her with me always. I hope sometime playwright Jessica Dickey will get to see our production.”
How have your audiences responded? “Some have talked about how they liked the “man” playing the professor; one wondered why I left my Amish community to perform this show. Many people have said it convinces them of the true importance of forgiveness.”
As in all properly managed stage productions, Director Olson gets the last word. “It turns out every season is a season to tell a story about how we forgive and move forward after terrible events. We ran The Amish Project for a month in our 182-seat theatre, and had talkbacks every week, some lasting longer than the 75 minute performance itself. Believe it or not, it’s funny too. It’s as if playwright Jessica Dickey understood how, if we can laugh, we can survive.”
Grief and guilt follow the survivors of tragedy. None of us can bring back the victims of the Murrah Building bombing or the stolen lives of the five murdered children in that Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006. Nothing can erase the horrible experience of the five girls who survived. Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre presents this drama in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the Murrah Federal Building bombing as both a memorial and an exploration of one of the darkest moments in our community’s history and the path taken since. Please attend The Amish Project as a way to honor the lives lost twenty years ago in Oklahoma City. May it help bring solace. Peace.
The Amish Project, on stage now at Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (http://www.cityrep.com/#!the-amish-project/c1dgd)
See the Tampa Bay Times review of The Amish Project from 2013: http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/stage/review-american-stages-the-amish-project-is-powerful-theater/2115518
Columbia Festival of the Arts in Maryland: (http://columbiafestival.org/the-amish-project/ )
Banyan Theatre in Sarasota, Florida: (http://heraldbuzzworthy.blogspot.com/2015/01/sarasotas-banyan-theater-company.html?m=1)
Photos of Katherine M. Tanner by Mutz Photography