The Pulse massacre in June raised many troubling issues, and a new batch of short plays, to be read at theatres nationwide, set out to dramatize them.
Queer breath is precious….but some people don’t think so.
When I first started performing as a Chicana lesbian comic way back in the day, every time I stepped onstage I thought: If some homophobic dick wanted to shoot me, all he has to do is show up at this club….The more visible I am, the more unsafe I will be.
But I went onstage because…I had to tell my stories. My queer familia needed to hear them.
49 breaths…49 souls…were taken from this earth. But we will honor them and love them. Just like all the other angels who left too soon. We will rebuild with a stronger foundation.
The queer kiss will never die!
—from Say Their Names by Monica Palacios
On June 12, 2016, 29-year-old Omar Mateen entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It was around 2 a.m., last call. By 6 a.m., 50 people were dead, including Mateen, and 53 were wounded. The tragedy quickly made headlines around the world as the deadliest mass shooting by a single perpetrator in American history. But in Orlando, Pulse was not a statistic; it was personal.
“There’s no individual in this town that was not affected by this tragedy,” said Jim Helsinger, artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theater. For 16 years, he lived around the corner from Pulse; he only moved last year. “When I had an opening night party for the cast at my house, a few people escaped the party to go dance at Pulse for a while.” For him, though he didn’t lose any close friends in the shooting, “It feels like that happened in my backyard.”
For Helsinger the predominant question after Pulse was: What can artists do? In New York City, Blair Baker and Zac Kline, the co-artistic directors of Missing Bolts Productions, had the same question. They called playwright Caridad Svich, the founder of NoPassport, a company dedicated to advocacy using wide-scale theatrical events. Previous initiatives have included the Climate Change Theatre Action, which commissioned short plays about climate change and presented them at 100 venues worldwide. “My logic was that I needed to do something—we needed to do something,” recalled Baker. “And the only thing I really knew how to do was create art.”
Their idea was simple: Invite playwrights to write short works in response to the Pulse shooting. They started reaching out to writers in July. The only criterion was that the plays should be around 3 to 5 minutes. By mid-August, 70 short plays had come in from the likes of Lindsey Ferrentino, Neil LaBute, Mia Chung, and Nathan Alan Davis. The plays will be presented in readings around the country under the collective header “After Orlando.” Theatres can choose to read as many of the plays as they want, as well as supplement them with their own selections.
So far more than 40 theatrical institutions and universities nationwide and abroad have signed on, including Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City, the Theatre @ Boston Court in Los Angeles, Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Round House Theatre in Maryland. Broadway producer Daryl Roth has also committed to producing four “After Orlando” events in New York City, and Finborough Theatre in London will present all of the plays. The coordinators also plan to publish all 70 plays in an anthology next year.
According to Svich, this represents the most institutional theatres that have ever signed on fpr a NoPassport event, and new partners are contacting NoPassport and Missing Bolts every day. “We want to try to get a reading in every state,” said Baker.
“We’re pretty close, actually! I think there may be about 15 or so that are outliers,” added Kline.
I go to clubs where I feel accepted and feel free to mingle.
Where the DJ spins til we drop. Til the DJ quits playing,
I own it.
And no one can stop me.
No matter what.
— from ‘Til the DJ Quits Playing by Brian Quijada
The Pulse shooting happened the morning of the Tony Awards, and the evening’s broadcast was dedicated to the victims. The coordinators of “After Orlando” also felt the shooting’s deep effect on theatre people. “The LGBTQ community is in direct and important alliance to the theatre community,” said Kline. “The Latinx community as well. I think the broad and multifaceted angle of it, the national importance of it—I think we all woke up in June 13 and felt that in the pit of our stomach.” The Pulse shooting hit on a number of issues that are particularly relevant this election cycle: LGBTQ rights, gun violence, Islamophobia, anti-Latino prejudice.
Indeed, that last element is what struck actor and playwright Brian Quijada most: that 90 percent of those targeted were Latino. “I watched the news bulletin and I saw the names, and holy moly, it became so clearly evident that that could easily be you,” he said. “So adding my voice to this collection…I’m honored.”
Quijada’s contribution to “After Orlando” is rooted in hope.’Til the DJ Quits Playing is a monologue from the point of view of a gay Latino about how dancing can be a defiant act of freedom.
The works in “After Orlando” don’t all directly address the Pulse shooting. At the Store With My Daughter by Rohina Malik is about a Muslim woman and her daughter, who are accosted at a grocery store. Neil LaBute’s Fun Fact is about how tragedies are simplified by the 24-hour news cycle—and how quickly they’re forgotten.
“So much happened here in Orlando, there’s so many stories to be told,” said Helsinger. “’After Orlando’ manages to give you so many different insights and experiences, that very few plays can actually do.”
Orlando Shakes is hosting two After Orlando events: One was held Oct. 17, in association with local theatre company Kangagirl Productions, and featured plays from the collection by Orlando-based playwrights. The next event will be Nov. 5, as part of Orlando Shakes’s annual PlayFest; it will feature 16 plays from the collection. Proceeds from the evening will go to the onePULSE Foundation, which provides financial assistant to the Pulse victims. Many of the “After Orlando” events are benefiting local LGBTQ charities.
This isn’t the first Pulse-related event that Orlando Shakes has participated in. Immediately after the shooting in June, when the theatre heard that the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest at the funeral of Pulse victims, Orlando Shakes teamed up with Orlando Repertory Theatre to create wide-winged angel costumes that would block mourners from seeing the protesters. Helsinger said that project, “was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
The “After Orlando” effort demonstrates that theatres don’t need to wait to respond when tragedy strikes. In contrast to a typical play development process, which can take years from concept to production, “After Orlando,” like other NoPassport “theatre actions,” allows artistic institutions around the country to respond more quickly to the headlines. “It’s another way to make theatre,” said Svich. “We don’t have to wait 5 years or 10 to speak to the moment.”
And by responding when the news is still fresh, theatres can make a safe space for their communities to come together, to be beacons of support. “We’re currently in a society where we’re so disconnected yet connected,” said Baker. “We hear about all of these things but it’s all through Facebook and news feeds. To actually get in a room with each other, to have a conversation—I think people are really hungry for it.”
And maybe, just maybe, coming together as a community this way can do more than simply gather people. “I don’t know that I can be so bold as to use the word healing, although I hope for that,” Helsinger said. “I think that one of the things that theatre wants to do is to provide catharsis, and I think catharsis leads to healing.” He acknowledges that the pain from Pulse runs deep, though. , “We’re not going to be healed as a community for a long time. But we are knitting together and we are united. And we need to share our grief in order to do that.”
Though it’s a coincidence that the next event at Orlando Shakes is happening just three days before the presidential election, Helsinger also hopes that this unity will inspire action, especially in a swing state like Florida. “What can we do about Pulse?” he posited. “Well, you can vote on Tuesday. There’s something very active you can do. You can vote so that our Latino brothers and sisters are not treated with disrespect. And particularly, if gay rights are important to you, there are clear voting choices.”
Here are some dates for future “After Orlando” events. More dates can be found here.
Oct. 22-24, Theatre Offensive (Boston)
Oct. 24, Kenan Theatre Company, Department of Dramatic Art, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Oct. 25, The Theatre @ Boston Court Performing Arts Center (Pasadena, Calif.)
Oct. 28, Taproot Ensemble (Charlotte, N.C.)
Oct. 30, Carthage College (Kenosha, Wisc.)
Oct. 31, Finborough Theatre (London, U.K.)