What happened in Parkland, Florida, Littleton, Colorado, Virginia Tech University and Newtown, Connecticut, and other sites will be symbolized on the Clarinda High School stage 6 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 30.
As part of the high school’s annual Backward Theatre presentation, a collection of short skits and acting, students will perform “Clowns With Guns” a one-act play written by Christopher Evans. The 20-minute presentation takes a thought provocative and sarcastic look at school shootings which have reoccurred in the headlines for years.
“I’m not going to deny this is controversial,” said Kennon Balster who is directing the play. “I’m sure someone who would walk in, watch and walk out would say that.”
But Balster wants more than just what the kids will do that evening. Balster said the plan is to have a discussion with the audience after the performance.
“It’s a mean play,” he said. “There is sarcasm all the way through. You might think they are making fun of school shootings, but it’s sarcastic for a purpose. It will make you stop and think. There might be a time where you laugh, but you will stop and wait and say, ‘It’s not funny.’”
Balster said the play was written in 2016 by a speech teacher in Montana.
“It was inspired by a school shooting. He was angry afterward and compelled to write,” he said.
Balster said the performance was held in Montana with mixed reactions.
“We are expecting that as well,” he said.
After the school’s fall performance of “Clue,” Balster and Susan Lauritsen were reviewing samples of scripts for large group contests and found “Clowns With Guns.”
“We read it and fell in love with it. It’s an amazing script with a subject that is important to talk about. I knew it would be risky. School shootings are very sensitive and a conflict in itself,” Balster said.
Balster acquired a copy of the entire script and shared it with school administration.
“After a few days, they said ‘We will trust you with this,’” Balster said. “But we want some sort of educational aspect. Just don’t do the play and walk away. Make it a learning piece for the kids and the community.”
Balster is working on a moderated question-and-answer session with the audience after the play.
At the same time, he’s also working with the 16 students in the performance.
“When the kids read it, they were more excited than we were,” Balster said. “It affects us. We see it in the news.’ They have gone through the lock-down drills. I walk down the hall and say, ‘Is this the day?’”
Students involved were strongly encouraged to share the script with their parents.
“One kid said his dad is fine with it, ‘but what’s the point,’” Balster said.
Since rehearsals, which started before the holiday break, Balster said there have been multiple times when there is more discussion than practice.
“We always look for the message, the theme. It wasn’t so much school shootings are bad, we know that. It’s not we have to get more guns or take guns away. The theme is pretty evident. It is to talk to each other. The kid in the corner, if you want to think of stereotypes, troubled, outcast, that is who we talk to. We welcome them in the student body. Kids said we understand that. Kids all say the shooter is already here and knows the lock-down drills.”
Those discussions go beyond the play.
“Knowing how much money the district has spent on security, they are glad we have better security,” Balster said about the students. “These are discussions we have had more than rehearsals. It’s important we have these discussions. Kids don’t know of any other school around here with the security like Clarinda. It’s money well spent. But kids say, ‘What if we spent half that with families to help them cope?’”
Four of the characters in “Clowns with Guns” represent a stereotype; a cheerleader, drug user, bully and a shooter.
“Each tells their story. The shooter represents every shooter and he has nothing but excuses, simple things that cause him to go off like his cheese wasn’t melted on his cheeseburger,” Balster said. “The cheerleader does a little cheer. It’s funny, but the last line is not.”
The four characters will be in clown makeup adding to the title and reflect how circuses are big and loud forms of entertainment. The four will stand on elephant stands, like what is used in a circus. A master of ceremonies, who introduces the performers, is part of the play.
There is a sound effect of gun shots.
Portions of the script allude to homosexuality, politics and its relationship with gun rights.
“Nobody is unscathed in this,” Balster said.
The play will also be performed at the Large Group district contest Saturday, Jan. 25 at Creston High School.