Thawed Out and Fired Up: Columbinus looks back on 19 years of school shootings, and how today’s students have changed

Aquinas College’s free reading of Columbinus is, of course, a direct response to the recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

This event is largely organized by Aquinas Professor and Director of Theatre Randy Wyatt, who is hoping to open a conversation with the public about the issues around school shootings, as well as stand in solidarity with the high school in Parkland.

The play Columbinus — a combination of the words “Columbine” and “us” — was inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre, where two high-school seniors murdered 12 students and one teacher at their Colorado high school. The play is largely based on interviews with those affected and then filled in with fictionalized ideas as to why that day went the way it did. It’s written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli with the United States Theater Project.

The play gives each character a label, like prep, jock, freak or loner, with the latter two being the students who become the school shooters.

“It stands out to me because it’s very much about the voices of high school students and how they tend to be subverted or downtrodden, and the pressures of being in high school, and not in an after-school special sort of way,” Wyatt said.

The writers of the play shine a light on how bullying pushes already troubled kids into dark places. Wyatt said the writers wrote this under the impression that the event was the pinnacle of its kind, that another school shooting couldn’t or wouldn’t happen again.

Nineteen years later, here we are, a country fired up with grief, loss, anger and confusion surrounding the many school shootings and acts of gun violence that have taken place over the years. The voices on the issue have changed and after Parkland, many high school students stepped up and let their voices be heard on social media and at rallies urging gun control legislation.

“The way high school students are reacting to Parkland is a testament to the strength of these high schoolers, because I think with Columbine it wound up kind of paralyzing the school in a lot of ways,” Wyatt said.

While at the time, the 1999 play served as a tool to give voice to the “frozen,” it is now being used as a reminder that we have been here before, a message of solidarity and a conversation starter within our own community.

“I felt like doing a reading of this would be not only in solidarity with the high schoolers down there, but just encourage the general public simply to listen to the insane pressures that high schoolers go through, and what that’s actually like from their perspective,” Wyatt said.

A couple years ago, Wyatt was spearheading the creation of a new program at Aquinas: Theater for Social Change. The name speaks for itself, in that the works put on by these students are meant to inspire and start meaningful conversations and social change. Wyatt said a big issue that has left him “struck” has been accessibility.

“It’s about how many people in our society actually have the money to go see theater,” Wyatt said. “When you put money as a factor, you are excluding certain segments of society, just in general. And theater has always been an art form of the people, all people.”

That’s why it was decided the staged reading would be free to the public. The performing arts center can hold 418 people.

Eric Hand, 29, is a theater performance and directing major at Aquinas College. A little over a year ago, he started the Theater for Social Change intramural group Alternative Acts.

“The first meeting was born out of a sense of powerlessness stemming from multiple factors, including the increasingly volatile political climate and the realization that the progress being made towards human rights was less effective than we had hoped,” Hand said. “We knew we had to do something as artists, but we weren’t entirely sure how.”

Over the months, the group developed itself into a theater troupe, and a few weeks ago was able to stage its first production about different mental health stigmas.

The group is excited to present Columbinus and they even have plans to stage a full production of the show sometime in the next year.

“We want to encourage and engage in conversation about mental health issues and stimulate active change to prevent tragedies like Columbine from continuing to be commonplace,” Hand said. “The decision to move forward with the production was finalized after the incident in Parkland, Florida, but part of the reason we are so passionate about doing it is trends indicate that (Parkland) will not be the most recent event by the time the production does go up.”

Aquinas Performing Arts Center
1703 Robinson Rd. SE, Grand Rapids
April 21, 2 p.m.