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Gun Violence, Greek Tragedy and the Steppenwolf Stage

Education Coordinator Jared Bellot sat down with playwright Caitlin Parrish and director Erica Weiss to discuss the inspiration for The Burials, the connection to Greek tragedy and the process of bringing a brand new play from page to stage.

Jared Bellot: Caitlin, as a playwright, what inspired you to write The Burials? Why tell this story today?

Caitlin Parrish: [Erica’s and my] generation has been defined, for better or worse, by gun violence. I was in high school when the shooting at Columbine High School occurred in 1999, and I feel as though the conversation has always been “What is wrong with this particular of kids? Why are they dangerous?” But no one talks about the fact that we were a country obsessed with guns. Today in 2016, nearly 20 years after Columbine, we are still a country obsessed with guns, and still, no one wants to talk about it. Mass shootings have not gone away, they have only gotten worse. The Burials is my answer to gun violence in America.

JB: What does that answer look like? What is the driving idea at the center of this story?

Erica Weiss: As a nation, we treat these mass shootings as isolated incidents that need picking apart. We ask “Why did this happen? Why was this person specifically motivated in this instance?” And we get different responses based on who the shooter was. Different answers as to why this happened. But those answers are really useful ways to deflect from the question of “What are we going to do about this problem?” We exhaust ourselves trying to deconstruct the ‘why’ over and over and over again without ever addressing the ‘how’, which is the only thing that bonds all of these crimes together. The only thing. The only constant is people are shooting each other. With guns.

JB: Where does the connection to Antigone factor in to all of this? Why were you interested in exploring this issue through the lens of Greek tragedy?

CP: We wanted to take this story, which is a story about young people, and make it epic. We wanted to give young people a voice and elevate it. Antigone is an epic story in which a young person, a young woman, stands up to the state and says, “No. You are party to a tremendous ethical and moral wrong, and I cannot stand by and allow you to proceed. Even if that means sacrificing my life, I have to do what is right.” I’ve always loved the story, and I think it’s as resonant today as it was thousands of years ago. Antigone shows young people it can be their voices that matter. That it can be youth who take a stand.

JB: How was the story of The Burials influenced by the structure and story of Antigone?

EW: Antigone has been the gift that keeps on giving in terms of keeping the story honest and contemporary. Whenever we were trying to solve a structural or dramaturgical question, like how to make a particular scene or conflict more effective, we could turn to the structure of Greek tragedy to keep us moving forward. Finding the voice and tone of the original story and being inspired by it frequently wound up being a solution. We were not necessarily going scene by scene and directly adapting. But we were also profoundly interested in creating true catharsis. And the Greeks had a really good recipe for that.

JB: Will the world that we will see on stage reflect this connection to Antigone?

EW: Yes! The concept visually was how do we create a Greek amphitheater out of a high school? So the visual of the set has the feeling of walking into an ancient Greek amphitheater, but all of the materials and structural elements look like any sort of atrium of a high school but presented in a way that is epic. We’ve also, in the costumes, dressed everyone in contemporary clothes, but with little nods to the Greeks to continue to give the piece a feeling of the epic, which is the whole point, that stories about young people can be epic.

JB: What else did you do to prepare for this play?

EW: We were privileged to get to go to high schools around the Chicagoland area and talk to students about what their experiences have been growing up in a country where gun violence, and specifically school shootings, is a very real possibility. It was important for us to reflect and listen to the way that students experienced this reality. What do they think about the possibility for the future? What are they afraid of? We asked, “Do you think it will get better? How will it get better? What is the problem? And do you feel safe?” The responses were really profound, and you can’t help but feel a sense of immense failure when the answer to the question “Do you feel safe?” is no. But I don’t feel safe either. I don’t know how anyone can. That’s the problem. There are no safe spaces in our country.

CP: These students are looking for more security. What students described time and time again was how easy it would be to bring a gun to school if they really wanted to, and that they don’t feel the current security measures make them feel safe.

EW: And in Chicago, I think it’s important to note that there’s a lot experience and identification with gun violence that has nothing to do with these kind of mass or school shootings. But that doesn’t mean that students are not very familiar with the threat of gun violence to a horrifying degree. That was important to listen to, even though that is not the violence that is specifically referenced in The Burials. The one thing that we can connect is the how.

JB: Thousands of students across the Chicagoland area will be seeing this show. What do you hope that they take away from it?

CP: That their voices matter. That there’s something they can do being the age that they are. That it’s imperative that they do something. They should not make the same mistake that people in their 30s made when they were young and they didn’t speak up.

EW: And that there are some people who hear them and respect their voices and will look to them for leadership. I task this generation more than maybe any other to do something about this issue, because they have the ability to be very effective. And I want the adult members of the community—the teachers and parents—to come away with a broader empathy and respect and understanding for the perspective of young people and how they’re affected. We can’t talk [down] to young people and we can’t assume that we know best. And really, that’s the point. That’s the conversation we’re trying to create.

JB: Thank you both for taking the time to talk to me about the show. I can’t wait for The Burials!