Bad Manners and Bullets

A debate, not entirely civil, has erupted on my Facebook page over a heart-wrenching incident in Florida. If you’re a regular reader of CNN online you already know about an argument in a movie theatre that left one man dead, his wife wounded, and a retired police officer in jail without bond for pulling the trigger on a man who had refused to stop texting during a movie.

 

According to published reports, Chad Oulson, 43, met up with his wife for a Monday lunch date and a matinee in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Previews were rolling when he began to send a text—to his three-year-old daughter’s babysitter.  Behind him was Curtis Reeves, 71, and his wife. Reeves apparently asked Oulson to stop—how he asked is not clear, but the encounter escalated into an argument and Reeves left to find a manager. When he returned, CNN reports:

 

The man who had been texting, Chad Oulson, got up and turned to Reeves to ask him if he had gone to tell on him for his texting. Oulson reportedly said, in effect: I was just sending a message to my young daughter. Voices were raised. Popcorn was thrown. And then came something unimaginable — except maybe in a movie. A gun shot.

 

Oulson died at the scene. The following day, Reeves was arraigned and denied bail. According to the Tampa Tribune, Judge Lynn Tepper found no basis to believe his claim that he was in fear of attack when he shot Oulson—a potential “stand-your-ground” defense under Florida law:

 

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.

 

The central question this tragedy has raised among my circle is the degree to which the victim contributed to the altercation—and to his own demise—by texting in the theatre and getting into an argument when asked to stop. To me, the bigger question is what this horrible incident says about the lies being peddled by the gun lobby, which pushes all guns, all the time—that an armed society is a polite society, that more guns means we are all safer, that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  This kind of escalation is not rare, but it seldom involves a respected former member of law enforcement.

 

I’ll address the etiquette question first, however, because among some theatre people I know, the use of cellphones during performances inspires an almost atomic level of rage—to the point that it almost becomes  a public safety issue in itself. This incident has inflamed some of those passions. Online I’ve seen cruel jokes about Chad Oulson’s death, and in recent discussions, I’ve been startled to discover how much anger has been reserved for the victim.

 

The argument I’ve heard goes like this: Both men were wrong. And even if Reeves’ reaction was over-the-top, that doesn’t make Oulson’s behavior right. My initial response to that statement was astonishment. And it was hard to offer reasoned reaction. But having thought about it, I have this to say:  “Wrong” is not a uniform concept when it comes to degree or gravity.  Yes, we can agree that texting during a show is wrong. We can agree that shooting a guy in the chest is wrong. Both of these things are wrong, but they are wrong in utterly different ways and in different spheres. One is a breach of etiquette; the other is a criminal act. So they aren’t even in the same universe of wrong, and to demand that we recognize Oulson’s wrong behavior and consider it a provocation for Reeves’ wrong behavior reveals a strangely twisted sense of proportion and causality. Even if you argue that Oulson’s share of the blame is relatively small, it still ignores the fact that etiquette and public safety are two completely different arenas of life, governed by completely different considerations.  They intersect only at the point where bad manners become so extreme that they cross over into criminal behavior. Which is pretty much what happened here—except that it was Reeves, not Oulson, who crossed that line.

Continue reading

The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Break-Through Play

Caridad Svich invited me to participate in the Artistic Innovation blog salon that she is curating for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas). The post below is cross-posted from the salon and can be found at the TCG Circle here.

 

Playwright Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

 

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute.  We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

 

 

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

 

 

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

Continue reading

The Artist as Activist–Take It to the Street or the Stage?

On Jan. 26, after a month of planning that was kicked off by Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, the March on Washington for Gun Control took place—the first major public demonstration since the Sandy Hook shootings to demand a change in our national gun policy. I was in the thick of it, having helped (in a very small way) to assist the organizers and turning out to march and rally—one of more than 6,000 people who showed up that morning.

 

 

It was a first for me, to be in the midst of a movement, rather than at the edge of it, observing it.  Up to this point in my life, the most I’ve ever done for any cause I’ve supported is to write a check. And while money helps, muscle is sometimes more important.  So when Molly issued a call, I decided that it was time to do more than just lament a sorry situation. So I turned out to offer my limited skills at research and writing, helping collect as much information as I could on the issue and, with the help of my friend Cat,  searching out  the names of gun violence victims whose names were carried in silent protest down Constitution Avenue.

 

 

A view from within the crowd.

 

Later that afternoon, there was a demonstration of another kind at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre—where Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich, artistic director of NoPassport theatre alliance and press, had organized a Theatre Action for Gun Control in collaboration with Theatre J and interdisciplinary arts ensemble force/collision and Twinbiz.  The presentation of short works included new pieces by Neil LaBute, Jennifer Maisel, Winter Miller, Matthew Paul Olmos, Svich, and others.

 

 

 

This juxtaposition of street theatre—which this march and rally surely was—and a theatre of protest in a traditional setting invites the question of what role art can play in responding to atrocity. The slaughter of those poor children and their teachers in Connecticut was so awful that any response at all seemed stunningly ineffectual. What can you say in response to such madness? And who is more crazy– the gunman who took the lives of people totally unconnected to his personal hell–or the rest of us, who allow these conditions to persist and go so far as to argue–some of us–that our constitutional right to firearms trumps any reasonable effort to curtail their unlimited availability to individuals unfit to use them.

 

Are there moments when art has nothing to say? Or is it just that I have nothing to say; and for that reason decided to take up an action at Molly’s invitation and do what little I could to make the point. Are there times when the only reasonable response is to put down the pen, take off the costume, and take to the street? These are the questions I put to Caridad and her response is below the fold.

 

 

 

Continue reading

The Metaphor of the Gun

Something happened last night. It got me so fired up I was ready to let fly with both barrels.

Illustration by Mike Diehm

 

So you know it was big.

 

And that is why I had to step back and think about my choice of words.  How ironic that the first thing to come to me was the metaphor of the gun.

 

I’ve been volunteering now for a couple weeks to help bring about a March on Washington for Gun Control. This is an effort by some D.C. theatre artists to call attention to the need for a more sensible gun policy in this country — one that could have prevented the carnage at Sandy Hook. So when an apparent coordinated effort by opponents of the march shut down our Facebook page for several hours last night, I was outraged.

 

I guess when you don’t have an argument, you resort to dirty tricks. And no question it is easier to shut down  the argument you cannot refute than to actually refute it—and that is another irony, that such vocal proponents of the Second Amendment seem to forget that there is also a First Amendment.

 

But there I was, firing off emails (oh yes I know) invoking the metaphor of the gun.

 

Both barrels, loaded for bear.  And it occurred to me how trapped we all are within a language and culture so besotted with weaponry.

Continue reading

A Man Without a Conscience, or How to Stick it to ‘Big Gun’

When I started this playwright’s blog, I wasn’t interested in whining about the reasons why theatres don’t produce more plays by women in general (or me in particular, let’s be frank) or the politics of production or the reasons the whole industry is at once relentlessly P.C. and yet so damn conservative.  I wanted to write my plays and  blog about the impulses that led me to them.  I wanted to understand process and come to a better understanding of my craft. But as the man said, life is what happens when you are making other plans–and in my case, and yours, since you are reading this–life is apparently what happens because you haven’t yet run into the business end of a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle. And so we get to keep on breathing by virtue of the sheer dumb luck that, for now at least, we are not in some lunatic’s line of fire. And this realization, along with my outrage over what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, has stirred me from my petty self-absorption to, shall we say, a vigilant stance.

 

 

Given the insane gun policy in this nation, the chances of any one of us being blown away in a random act of extreme violence is just too damn high. All it takes is for you or me to be at the wrong place–in front of the FBI Building, for example–at the wrong time–the exact moment when the lunatic du jour pops another 30-round magazine into his Glock—for us to be prematurely dispatched to that great big Arsenal in the sky.

 

Realizing their vulnerability after Columbine, schools undertook efforts to protect their students from armed gunmen. They stepped up security, they instituted “drills” so kids could practice how to run and hide. As a teaching artist, I happened to be on hand one day during just such a drill, and I found it surreal—the teacher locking the schoolroom door, the kids quietly huddling in a corner, and h how matter-of-fact the discussion afterwards.

 

But there is just something seriously sick about this, when school children have to engage in “drills” to train them how to avoid a mass murderer in the hallway–instead of the rest of us actually DOING SOMETHING to prevent there being a mass murderer in the hallway.  Back in my day, all we had to contend with in school were the usual bullies, occasional fire drills and predictable Friday afternoon bomb scares—it was the 70s after all—and  for most of us, the bomb scares just meant an excuse to get out of gym class. Today, we have gunmen who shoot their way into the building and massacre six year olds en masse. And if we can’t come up with some way to stop atrocities like that, then we might as well pack it in and return to the cave, because we do not live in anything approaching a civil society.

 

So what to do? Or more to the point, how to do it?

 

Not surprisingly, the internets have been afire since Friday with all sort of posts decrying the horror of it all, lamenting our lame gun policy, lambasting the National Rifle Association (mea culpa) and using Facebook as a public forum to express a general sense of outrage, disgust, and helplessness. (Interestingly, the NRA has disabled its Facebook page.) Vigils have been organized and protests are threatened. But for a truly compelling rant about how to really kick the shins of big gun, read this guy. Drew Magary argues that the real target of our frustration should not be the NRA and its four million dues paying members, but rather, the money interests behind the NRA itself.

 

Continue reading

27 Dead in Connecticut: A Call to Action

27 Dead in Connecticut

 

The headline is too familiar, and yet, despite a culture saturated by gun violence in fiction and fact, we feel absolute revulsion at the senselessness of it all.

 

Twenty-seven dead in Connecticut, 20 of them children. They were kindergartners, five or first-grade students, six and seven years old. In the world of innocence, these were absolute innocents–and they are dead because this nation and its political leaders lack the nerve to stand up to a well-funded and wrong-headed gun lobby.

 

Why? Is the cry that goes out, again and again, when we see these headlines. Why, why, why?

 

 

Why? Because a troubled boy of 20 had access to a Glock and Sig Sauer pistols—two magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons capable of firing off more than 100 rounds within minutes, as well as a .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle – a military style assault rifle similar to the one used by the serial killers that stalked the D.C. metro 10 years ago.  This is the weapon, authorities say, that Lanza used to gun down his victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

 

Why? Because, even though gun ownership in this nation is concentrated in the hands of only a third of its population—our political leaders lack the moral courage to fight for a sensible gun policy.

 

The National Rifle Association’s slippery slope argument is that if the U.S. government curtails the use of any firearm—no matter how lethal—that is the beginning of the end for our constitutionally guaranteed right to gun ownership in the United States. And by their logic, an assault rifle is the equivalent of the shotgun my brother-in-law keeps on hand at his farmhouse in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where bears have regularly crossed into his property. A Glock is the equivalent of the rifle my brother once used to hunt deer.

 

According to the NRA, weapons designed for military use belong in the hands of ordinary citizens like Nancy Lanza. She apparently thought so, too. The shooter’s mother is dead by her son’s own hand, murdered with a weapon she had bought herself. According to news reports, Nancy Lanza was the legal owner of the guns her son used to commit mass murder.

 

This a crime so horrific that some of us wonder if it is not, at last, at very long last, the final straw.

 

And as often happens at times like these, we wonder what we, as theatre artists, can possibly say or do about it.

 

Continue reading

Copyright © 2017 DW Gregory. All rights reserved.  |  www.dwgregory.com