Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life was influenced by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, that killed 26 people in 2012. Our son was only a few months old at the time, and we found that as brand-new parents, we were affected by the event in unexpected ways. Even speaking about the tragedy suddenly felt wrong — or maybe it was too real to know. We longed for words when there were none. And that event, along with others around that time, left an impression on us and a void. We felt the need to honor the struggle of someone who has lost a child. We wanted to stop bad things from happening. We wanted to do something that was respectful, powerful and true. Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life grew out of that desire.
Dean Poynor wrote the play and had the chance to develop it as part of the Ingram New Works Lab at Nashville Repertory Theatre during its 2013-14 season. For the first draft, the script called for eight actors to play 27 different characters. It was driven by the individual fragments that came out of a single experience.
About halfway through the Lab season, Dean changed the play completely. He decided to focus on two characters, a husband and wife, and adapt the storytelling to fit their shared experience. The results were visible immediately. The piece gained power and momentum, and the audience was able to fill in the gaps more effectively. This really helped bring the audience “in the room” with the characters, something Dean was searching for the whole time. This production of the play features the two of us — Dean and actor Monica Wyche, his wife.
In times of tragedy, we sense that the mystery of “togetherness” holds some vital clue for our healing. When real life is full of masks, cynicism and distraction, we feel electrified when we stumble into authentic, human-to-human connection — and often for good reason. There are precious few moments when we are allowed to express our human vulnerability, or to celebrate our creaturely passions, or to bear each other’s heartfelt need. Our goal with the play was to recreate this possibility of connection in a theatrical way.
The setting of a support group allows the two characters to grapple with their own tragic experiences openly in front of us. At the same time, they are forced to maintain a level of public restraint for their own self-preservation. The rhetoric of group therapy reflects our collective American psyche. This is what happens after “hopes and prayers.” This is how good people “pick themselves up again” and keep going. No matter how much we want to help, we rarely keep the camera rolling on the slow, messy process of healing.
As it turns out, the language we use also makes a huge difference. Finding the right ways to remember and to share our experiences with others is crucial to our ability to move forward. Whether in public discourse, in therapy, or in a marriage, we are telling our stories all the time. Our language makes our world. As active storytellers, not just passive participants, we become aware of our responsibility to each other for our collective healing.
In this production of Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life, the audience is never asked to participate in the conceit of the support group. The show is intimate — seating is limited to 20 people sitting in a circle of chairs at each performance — but it is not interactive beyond occasional eye contact with the performers. We’re careful not to “ask” anyone else to share, or to impose a history or reality on the audience that might be rejected. We know it’s still theater: we have not suffered the same losses that other parents have endured. But simply by enacting the story and allowing an audience to hear it, we have a chance to be changed and enlarged.
This is the power of “theater with the lights on.” With each aesthetic choice, everyday elements like folding chairs, coffee cups and a small room become something more. By reducing the distance that the audience has to travel — metaphorically, physically — to engage with the performers, we hope to offer an experience that allows them to bear witness to the characters’ journeys, and ultimately engage their own capacity for empathy.
The show then becomes a container for something impossible for any of us to imagine on our own. It becomes an invitation. And a warning. And a poem. While we’ve tried to make every choice in honor and service of real human loss, at the end of the show it’s still a story. When we leave the room, we have the choice to react to the world around us just the way we came in, or somehow grateful and changed.
Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life, directed by Joshua William Gelb, is presented by The Salvage Company through Oct. 28 as part of the 2018 New York International Fringe Festival. For information and tickets, click here.