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Professor's play explores themes around school violence

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

LAWRENCE — The Columbine High School massacre that involved two students opening fire and throwing pipe bombs in the Colorado school in 1999 touched off heightened attention on school security and safety. But several other school shootings have occurred in the 15 years since, including the 2012 tragedy at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

A University of Kansas professor explored themes on school violence from the student perspective in a play he wrote for Topeka Highland Park students who performed the work over summer in Scotland. Playwright Darren Canady composed "Play It 'Til We Get it Right" for the nine students and Scott Kickhaefer, the Highland Park theater director.

"It's all about how it changes and forces them to confront so many things about themselves, about their network, family, about what they think of each other," said Canady, assistant professor of English. "It is all about defying expectations or asking the next questions, not taking anything as it is on the surface or for granted."

The shooting incident in the play that results in a student's death does not happen on stage, making the play about how the group of students — also a theater troupe in the play, making the play "metatheatre" — responds to her death.

As Canady, a Topeka High School graduate who studied under Kickhaefer in high school, talked more with the students to draft the script, he noticed how passionate students were in discussions about a foiled school shooting plot last year at a more affluent school in the area.

"It wasn't that they wanted to gloat about it, but this idea that the more upscale, richer school was the one that had this problem, and yet everyone assumed that Highland Park was the place that would be the dangerous school," Canady said.

That led him to steer the script around school violence and defying expectations by race and social status, which Canady said is important when considering the social issues surrounding school violence.

"It's interesting because they are resistant to the idea that there are boogie men or weird kids who will come into Highland Park with an arsenal," Canady said. "That's not what they're concerned about. If there's going to be a problem at Highland Park, they know it's going to be a fight or something along those lines."

Canady said in his view the country in many respects hasn't made much progress on policy related to school violence since Columbine.

"We are discussing the exact same things in many respects from a policy standpoint that we were discussing in 1999," he said. "And then there have been so many incidents of school violence since then."

While the play features the student actors' response to staging a school shooting that went horribly wrong, Canady said the play's dialogue features more about how students today address school violence.

"In particular in this play, there are explicit lines about 'our school isn't a danger zone,' because what I've noticed is that students talk different now about violence in schools than they did in the wake of Columbine," Canady said. "I think students are more attuned to the fact that their school is not like another school. Whether it's a richer school or a poorer school, the problems the one school faces are not going to be the problems that another school faces."

Another key theme that Canady wrote the play around was how the students tend to function as a family as well, whether it's to fill a void they don't have at home or naturally something that teenagers create in whatever setting they're in.

"It's the idea that family members will do bad things to each other. You know that you will get hurt by your family," Canady said. "But there must be a ritualized coming together of members' of the family acknowledgement of what has been done. An open admission to that was wrong, and then the unit agrees to move on. And that, I think, is what actually the students in the play are trying to do."

He said that idea of a de facto family and defying expectations in the face of a violent incident at school was important because it was indicative of how the students from an inner city high school came together to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, considered one of the largest arts festivals in the world. The students and Kickhaefer raised more than $65,000 to cover travel expenses for the group.

Canady said the international audience's responses to the performances for him seemed to vindicate the students in that not only were they tapping into important themes and ideas related to school violence, but the students were defying expectations about inner city schools.

"It's important to them to not be treated as if their school is a war zone," Canady said, "just because they were black or working class."