Eastern Washington University’s Theatre program is launching their 2022-2023 season with a powerful exploration of how the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings reverberated across the wider Newtown, Connecticut community that the victims and their families called home.
On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman walked into the elementary school and killed six adults and 20 children before taking his own life. These 26 deaths, like pebbles thrown into a pond, created ripples and vibrations that were felt far beyond the initial impact. 26 Pebbles is the story of those vibrations.
Working in the months following the tragedy, playwright Eric Ulloa, who is also an actor and activist, conducted interviews with members of the community in Newtown and crafted them into an examination of how a small community sought to cope with the unthinkable.
“That was his response to that question that I think we all feel, which is ‘I need to do something, what can I do?’ So his version of that answer was to go to Newtown and interview these community members,” says Sara Goff, professor and program director of theatre at EWU.
Stylistically, 26 Pebbles is a docudrama, which means it is compiled of interviews from members of the town, which are included verbatim.
The production’s 19-member cast tracks the community before this tragic event happened, and then six months afterward as the town tries to process, heal and move forward.
“They’re very interested in Newtown, their town, not solely being defined by this tragedy,” says Goff. “It’s a complex exploration of a grieving process and a community finding hope and love and a way to move on, right? How do we move on after something unspeakable?”
Although there are no first responders or family members of victims who lost their lives in the play, “it illustrates how the whole community was so profoundly affected. It’s those voices, you’ll hear,” she says.
“I think that’s an important distinction because what you’re not going to see is in-depth depictions of violence,” she continues. “It’s incredibly difficult and heavy material, but it’s done in a way that’s responsible. It really is a play about love. It is about finding hope in darkness. It’s about family. That is the message of the play,” says Goff.
Nathan Pichette, an EWU junior theatre major and cast member, admits he was dubious at first about the production’s prospects. “This is a big event and to put this on a stage and to do this with a bunch of actors who might not have any sort of connection to it, I didn’t really know how that was going to play out.” But after going through the rehearsal process, and listening to Sara Goff’s take on the production, he realized how the play and its message are truly meaningful.
It became clear to Pichette how tastefully the play handles everything, and on top of that how important it is to keep the conversation going. “We can send that message and send that love to as many people as possible,” he says.
Another cast member, Eastern senior theatre major Melissa Wilson, says the play has been a powerful experience for both actors and audience members. “It’s been a really cool show to do because — not only from an acting perspective but from a viewing perspective — it just dives so deep into the fact that people and circumstances are so complex and no person is just one thing.”
Wilson found that Newtown community members had so much more to them than this tragedy. Her favorite part was “getting to watch them from before this happened to during this [event] and then through the recovery; seeing that there’s so much joy and appreciation for their community and moments of laughter that they get to share that are so healing and cathartic to them.”
Goff hopes people will take that message from the play and be inspired “to keep telling the story and keep talking and more importantly to keep listening,” she says.
“I’m trying to expose students to different kinds of styles and I want our students to understand the power of the artform. All creative arts have an incredible opportunity for social change, right? To talk about the hard stuff and to shine light into the dark places. It’s not just for entertainment,” she adds.
Tickets are available online and cost $5 for students and $10 for general admission.
- 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11
- 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12
- 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13
- 5 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17
- 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 18
- 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19