‘After Orlando’ unites theatre companies around the country (and here in RVA) to honor lives lost in the nation’s largest mass shooting
Deejay Gray heard about the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in the morning when he saw the news on Facebook. That morning was the first read-through of a show that he was directing at the time.
“For the entire first read-through… it was kind of in the back of my mind, and it dictated my feelings all morning,” said Gray, who identifies as gay. “Afterwards I just remember having this release with it and was able to address it for the first time.”
Once he was able to focus on it, Gray, the Founding Artistic Director at TheatreLAB, felt an immediate wave of terror. He realized he had friends in Orlando and before long he was scrambling to check in on those who could have been in the crossfire.
“It just felt very personal,” he said. “It felt very up close. Even though we’re here in Richmond, Virginia, it still felt like it was happening right next door.”
“After Orlando” is an international initiative, organized by NOPassport and Missing Bolts Productions, which compiled an international collection of plays written in response to the June 12th Pulse Nightclub Shooting.
Pieces from the collection are being read across the country to fundraise for gay organizations local and abroad over the span of several months. The collection includes contributions from playwrights such as Neil LaBute, Caridad Svich, and Israel Horowitz.
TheatreVCU personnel worked closely with Richmond Triangle Players to select 20 plays from the NOPassport collection and secured a production of “After Orlando” in Richmond.
Dr. Noreen Barnes of VCU’s theatre department was a leading participant in that process, which ultimately drew on about five actors and eight directors.
“We wanted a diverse group of directors,” Barnes said. “Some actors are local actors, some are students here in our program. It’s a script in hand reading, but they are blocked or staged at least minimally.”
The plays were written to reflect how the Pulse Shooting affected different vulnerable groups in different ways. “Some of that might deal with issues in the gay community, issues about acceptance, how the Latino gay community in particular was affected,” she said.
Also leading the organizational process and directing a few of the plays is Josh Chenard, a faculty member at TheatreVCU. Chenard is particularly happy about collaborating with Richmond Triangle Players for a production addressing the LGBTQ community.
He called the partnership a great chance to work with some of RTP’s staff as well as connecting the two theatre companies. “It’s been a symbiotic, easy relationship,” he said. ”I think they’re excited about it, I know we’re excited about it, I hope the community’s excited about it.”
Underneath the excitement of working with different artists lies a note of urgency about how critical it is to memorialize the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. Chenard said he’s had conversations with people recently who have already started to forget details about the tragic event that took 50 lives and injured 53 others..
“It was six months ago,” he said. “And I don’t know if people realize that these are still concerns and even moreso now with a real shift- a huge shift- in the political climate.”
The production of After Orlando is focused on the Pulse Shooting, but it’s almost impossible to view it without the context of the intervening six months and, especially, the US Presidential Election.
“This is not a political protest piece, this is a reaction, a theatrical reaction to something,” said Chenard. “But you cannot help but go through this process of directing, of thinking about it, of putting this thing together, without the underbelly of a really difficult and scary political season.”
Chenard worries that people often respond to tragedy by burying their emotions and leaving their distress unaddressed and unresolved. He hopes, through the language of theatre, that some of those feelings can be let out.
“It might allow people, in an abstract way, to explore how they’re feeling, or their fears, or their hopes, or maybe there’s something they can’t talk about or don’t know how to talk about,” he said. “They see a sculpture, or they hear a piece of music, or see a piece of artwork, and they say, that’s exactly how I feel.”
Meanwhile, Gray maintains an earnest optimism about the community’s ability to come together and heal.
“I think we’re really lucky to be able to utilize the theater arts to share these stories and to have this healing process and this moment together,” he said. “In a lot of ways it’s very difficult to discuss this subject matter, but it’s also really beautiful to be able to utilize our art form in a way that can help people, and give voice to people, and give opportunities and space for healing, and creating something beautiful out of something awful.”
The After Orlando theatre action will be performed on two subsequent nights, December 12th and December 13th, at Richmond Triangle Players. There is a $10 donation fee for admission, with all proceeds going to Diversity Richmond.
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