A school-shooting play lets theatergoers feel the trauma first-hand. Here's why it matters.

RISE from HERO Theatre examines gun violence in schools. (Photo: Jenny Graham)
The immersive theater experience, RISE, examines gun violence in schools. (Photo: Jenny Graham)

How does it feel to survive a mass shooting?

With more than 400 such terrifying incidents this year — 28 of them at schools — it is a question too many people in America can unfortunately answer.

But for those who cannot know the trauma of survivors, who often describe it as "unimaginable," a Los Angeles theater company is attempting to convey the experience through immersive theater, a stage-free performance from HERO Theatre that places viewers into the scripted action in order to foster empathy and understanding.

“Something that really resonates with me personally is that students are expected to deal with so much and school is supposed to be this place that is safe, but it really isn’t,” Jack McCarthy, who devised and directed RISE: An Immersive Exploration of Gun Violence in Schools after being commissioned by HERO Theatre, tells Yahoo Life. “This a place that's filled with a lot of fear and filled with a lot of uncertainty…" In fact, a majority of U.S. teens feel anxiety over the possibility of school shootings, leading to higher levels of fear and of being on high alert, according to recent findings.

"I think people don't fully realize what kids are expected to go through — and then come back to the same place where they have ended the trauma happens, you know, a week or two later, and carry on like everything's normal,” McCarthy adds.

The lingering trauma of what these kids go through, says Melissa Brymer, Director of the Terrorism & Disaster program at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, is a part of the school violence conversation that isn't often addressed in the media.

"There's a perception for those who haven't experienced an incident like this that the reactions are short lived," she tells Yahoo Life. "But when the media goes away, so doesn't the impact to the community … A proportion of community members are going to have longer-term reactions, and we need to provide support and resources for them."

RISE, which closes on Sept. 18, intends to foster just that sort of understanding — to address not just the trauma of the day of a shooting, but its aftermath. Held in an L.A. elementary school classroom, the production places attendees in the middle of a mock school shooting at the fictional “Silver Lake High School,” where a normal day turns tragic when a student opens fire.

RISE puts audience members in the middle of an act of gun violence. (Photo: Jenny Graham)
RISE puts audience members in the middle of an act of gun violence. (Photo: Jenny Graham)

The opening scene features students in a history class who are given the assignment of creating a “safe space” within the context of medieval times. On first glance, it seems like a relatively normal day— but if you peek into the journals available for reading, it's clear that perhaps not all is well with some of the students, one of whom is fascinated with a shooting at a nearby high school, another of whom shows hints of suicidal ideation.

The shooting occurs in a scene that takes place after this class, forcing the students to create a barricade with chairs and tables, all while arguing over whether it’s best to hide or run. They call the police, and their siblings. They hold one another and cry. One of the most harrowing moments is when a student pounds on the classroom door, begging to be let in.

RISE puts audience members in the middle of an act of gun violence. (Photo: Jenny Graham)
In RISE, from Los Angeles-based theater company HERO Theatre, viewers become part of the classroom scene. (Photo: Jenny Graham)

In the aftermath, participants can observe in real-time what's so often seen on the national news: students being shocked that the shooter could do such a thing, the teacher sobbing and saying he hadn't signed up for this, and then, a week later, with students processing their grief and trauma and arguing over what could've stopped the violence — fewer guns or more?

For McCarthy, having the shooter be in the first classroom scene was also important in creating a realistic depiction of what survivors go through. He also has the student who is the shooter change from night to night, throughout the run of the show — something meant to drive home the point that while there are “larger trends” about who can commit such violence, there’s no one specific type of person who is capable.

“[We did not] want to other or distance the audience so much that it felt like something completely outside of the realm of our world — quite literally if they never existed in the room at all," he says. "This is hopefully a more truthful, more honest, more big picture overview of what different instances at different schools have looked like, and the different stories that have happened.”

As kids are heading back to school all across the country, that understanding is something needed now more than ever, says Brymer. While she points out that over-exaggerating the statistics on school shootings can bring about more anxiety and fear at a time where students need the support of schools, plays like RISE, when shown to people who want to bring about change, can be a helpful tool.

"Many people can avoid things that are happening," she says of the ongoing reality of violent incidents. "We have to create change to make sure our schools are safe," and start to really understand the consequences of not doing that. So when it comes to productions like RISE, Brymer adds, "there is a definite utility that is important."

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