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School Gun Violence Takes Center Stage In 'Columbinus'

Aaron Granillo/KNAU

Tonight, The Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy will put on a production most high schools would never dare attempt. The play, columbinus, is based on the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and a teacher were shot and killed by two seniors at the school. FALA believes this is an important play to perform, especially after the Flagstaff community experienced its own episode of school violence. Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports.

(Warning: The audio version of this story contains some graphic language.) 

Last October, Northern Arizona University had its first and only campus shooting. One student died. Three others were injured. An 18-year-old NAU freshman was charged with murder. A few days later, Mike Levin suggested columbinus to his advanced acting class at FALA.

"I felt given the gun violence that happened on NAU’s campus, I went into that weekend thinking what is our responsibility as artists and human beings and how we respond to the world? And it’s this," says Levin.

This play would be a challenge for any theatre group. Columbinus is graphic, raw, and emotionally draining for adults, let alone teenagers.

17-year-old Jesse Haviland and 16-year-old Will Reddig play the Columbine shooters. On a recent afternoon, they rehearse the infamous library scene, where most of the students were murdered. There are no guns or blood, but every time somebody is shot, Reddig and Haviland bang on the wall – their backs turned to the audience and cast members.

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Student actors at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy rehearse the library scene.

At one point in this scene, 16 year old Casey Santorelli, who plays one of the victims, seems to forget his line. It takes him a few seconds before he continues.

When the scene ends, Levin and the cast discuss what happened. Santorelli says no, he did not forget his lines. Instead, he got caught up in the story that sometimes feels too real.  

"It’s very hard to think about anything else except for what’s going on, and what you want to do is just get under something and cower and be quiet instead of have to clearly say lines," says Santorelli. "If this was science fiction or something, it would be easier, but this happened."

A classmate walks over and gives Santorelli a hug. 

Levin says this is, without question, the most difficult production he’s directed at FALA, and his students have tackled heavy plays before. Last March, they did Origin of the Seasons, which deals with domestic violence.  Two years ago, they performed Next To Normal, a play about mental illness.  Before that, it was The Laramie Project, the story of Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, who was murdered for being gay.

"If I were teaching at a more traditional school, this wouldn’t even be a consideration. It wouldn’t happen.  But FALA has always been an incredibly supportive place artistically," says Levin. "I mean I’ve been in this position for 19-years, so I think there’s a level of trust not only in doing the play, but in the process, we’ll take care of each other."

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Director Mike Levin

Levin says he never takes on such productions without unanimous approval from the school, the student actors, and their parents.  17-year-old senior Hannah Gough plays one of the victims in the library. She says this is a performance more high schools should consider.

"It’s high schoolers that are the victims of this so often, not to ignore the families.  But, how often do you actually hear from a high schooler after a school shooting about how scared they are? I think that it’s really important that on these issues, the world starts hearing from who it’s directly affecting," says Gough.

One of the Columbine survivors was invited to speak at FALA earlier this week. Crystal Miller was one of the students who hid under a table during the library shooting. She told the assembly that day changed her for the better. It taught her to become passionate about reaching out to others who are often bullied or ignored.

"How can I love, honor, respect somebody else? How can I take a stand for others? Because those are the things that will go far beyond anything else," Miller tells the students.

Afterwards, as the room clears, Miller thanks columbinus cast members for taking on such a challenging play.

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Columbine Survivor Crystal Miller speaks to the cast members of 'columbinus.'

"You guys are doing something really important for your community and that takes a lot of courage and bravery to do," says Miller. "It will make a huge impact, and hopefully it will start a lot of conversations in the area."

The NAU philosophy department will moderate discussions with the audience after each performance of columbinus. There are showings tonight and tomorrow night, at the Coconino Center For The Arts.