Zeitgeist Stage's Director David Miller and Playwright Jacques Lamarre Take on Staging a Play about Mass Shootings from the Perspective of the Family's Shooter in "Trigger Warning"

How does a play go from the pages of a script to a full-blown performance on stage? Last February 26, award-winning director of the Zeitgeist Stage Company, David Miller, took a stab at answering that question. Seated in a semi-circle with Miller and playwright Jacques Lamarre, three actors cast in his play, Trigger Warning, read through scenes that took a look at how a mass shooting impacts one family, that of the shooter. Two of the actors were part of earlier Zeitgeist plays: Steve Auger in Vicuna; Kelley Estes in Far Away, Hiding Behind Comets, Cakewalk, and Tigers Be Still. For Liz Adams Trigger Warning will be her first Zeitgeist show.

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Trigger Warning’s genesis was a Boston Foundation announcement that it wanted to award grants to the Boston theatre community for new work, explained Miller, who contacted playwright Lamarre to commission the play. Lamarre had just finished reading the memoir by Suzanne Klebold, mother of Columbine’s High School mass shooter, Dylan Klebold. Lamarre asked Klebold if he could adapt her memoir. She declined. Zeitgeist did not get a grant from the Boston Foundation, either. But the play will open on April 12 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Lamarre lives in Hartford, CT, the town where Colt Manufacturing Company created the town’s gilded age by producing weapons for the Civil War and later, as Lamarre commented wryly, guns for the country itself, including mass shootings. He lives minutes from the site of the Hartford Distributors shooting where nine people were killed in 2010; Newington, where five Connecticut Lottery employees were murdered in 1998; and one hour from Newtown, CT,  the site of the Sandy School Elementary School shooting of 20 students and six teachers by Adam Lanza, who also killed his mother earlier that same day at the home they shared.

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To demonstrate a play’s evolution, the three actors read from two scenes, the first followed by a discussion with the library audience about the main subject of the play, the role of guns in the American family and its consequences. In the scene, the parents of the shooter, Travis, who has fatally shot a number of people, injured his 16-year-old sister and killed himself, are alone for the first time at the home where the shooting took place. The father, a contractor, is a gun owner whose guns, though locked away, had been used by his son for the mass shooting. The injured daughter had left her parents’ house to live with her aunt.  The parents bantered back-and-forth in a manner that at some level felt surprisingly normal, the way any couple will go back and forth, but with comments and questions that alluded to the devastating turn their lives had taken and to their having entered the unknown territory of being shunned by their community, the fictional town of Plainville.

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“What’s going to happen to us,” they asked each other, and “I lost two clients today” and “should we sell the house?”  and “did you love Travis?” and the answer: “Yes, but I wish he’d never been born.” Playwright Lamarre talked about the killers’ families, the other victims of shootings who generally are not acknowledged even though their lives, too, have been destroyed by the shooter.  They become families at war with themselves: What could they have done differently? The mother of Dylan Klebold, for example, went from a well-respected member of the community to someone who had to go into hiding to mourn the loss of her son who had killed the children of families in that same community. At some point, she had to acknowledge her son had become “a monster.” Likewise, the mother of Adam Lanza, Sandy Hook’s mass shooter, had lived in fear of her son. But the fictional parents of Travis in Trigger Warning had known something was wrong, and had taken Travis from therapist to therapist, without finding something that helped their son. No one had an answer. 

Director Miller, whose plays were nominated last month for nine Small-Stage awards by the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE), told the audience that Zeitgeist Stage always produced plays that reflect “the spirit of the times,” so mass shootings was a relevant subject. There had been numerous documentaries, and plays, but never from the perspective of the shooter, he said. The initial title, Thoughts and Prayers, as in the usual comments offered, was determined to be too passive. Trigger Warning is both a general warning for events that may trigger trauma but, in this case, the word “trigger” has a more appropriate duality, he said.

After the cast held a read-through of the play’s first draft in December, followed by an in-depth discussion with Lamarre, the playwright returned two weeks later with a revised draft. “It evolved organically,” he said. “You never see the shooter. He had added several characters who each represented another aspect of the story: A  minister, who asked the shooter’s mother not to come to church anymore to avoid upsetting the other parishioners; and a lawyer, to fend off the lawsuits by enraged parents.  The Klebolds were bankrupted by their son’s ass shooting at Columbine, as was their insurance company. Scenes evolved further with the mother talking to the minister and the father to the lawyer, each describing from different points of view being cast out from the community they were a part of.  The daughter, living with the mother’s sister, moreover, attends a “Never Again” rally in town, multiplying the arguments for a law suit against the parents. 

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Lamarre said he wanted to capture the depth of the rejection by the community of the parents of the shooter: How can you go on when no one is on your side and there is no spiritual comfort or legal protection, and relentless media coverage turning the violence into entertainment? He noted that in Columbine, fourteen trees were planted to memorialize all the students killed, including the shooters, but those trees were cut down.

Director Miller said Zeitgeist Stage had once before staged a play about a school shooting, called Punk Rock. It was 2015 and the company was in rehearsal for it when the Marathon Bombings occurred. When the play went on stage, three weeks later, there were numerous discussions about mass shootings after the performance. “People felt they wanted and needed to talk about it,” Miller said. 

At the library’s Page to Stage discussion, several audience members brought up a 1,000-page book by Andrew Solomon, titled Far From the Tree. Miller and Lamarre had read it as part of the preparation for Trigger Warning as it deals with so-called expectations violation, when parents find themselves in a situation through their children that is not the norm. “No parent wants to be seen as a failure,” Lamarre said, but what do parents do when they experience expectation violation, whether through their children’s mental health issues, dwarfism, or mass shootings?

Trigger Warning will be performed at the Boston Center for the Arts from April 12 through May 4 and will be the last play of the last season of Zeitgeist Stage Company which has announced it will close. The staff and the cast will leave a big hole in the South End theatre community. Lamarre’s next play is an adaptation of Wally Lamb's holiday novella., called Within’ & Hopin.’