GROTON -- A timely but unfortunate coincidence has made an upcoming production by students at Lawrence Academy a good deal more poignant than its youthful creators had intended.
Students involved with the school's theater program have come up with a show called "Oklahoma! City," which seeks to tell about the emotional toll that was placed on local teens following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
With parts, songs and music written by students, actors will play the parts of local teenagers who are putting on the Rogers and Hammerstein's musical "Oklahoma!" at the time of the bombing.
"The idea for this theater project started as a joke, actually," admitted theater director Joel Sugerman. "My collaborator (dance director) Brian Feigenbaum, who teaches dance at LA, and I have been leaning away from the very typical model of doing Broadway musicals at the high school. We feel like there are more artistically and pedagogically sound vehicles for our students to be working on in theater. We want to make work that comes, to some extent, from the students, where they are actively involved in the creation process instead of just starting with a script and score and deciding how to stage it. A few years ago, before our first devised project together, one of us joked 'Let's do "Oklahoma!"' The other said, 'No, let's do "Oklahoma City!"' and we had a laugh about it. But last spring the idea came back into my head and seemed like something that we could actually explore and make a production around; the idea of a group of students rehearsing a production of the musical 'Oklahoma!' in an Oklahoma City area high school in April of 1995 in the days before and after the bombing. What is the experience of that community of high school students?
"We want to do work that asks questions about the world, and when an event like the Oklahoma City bombing occurs, so many questions arise about who we are, how we endure together, how we become changed as people, and why it takes an event like that to make us really see each other," explained Sugerman. "We wanted it to be specifically the experience of teenagers, so our students could relate to it. Ninety-five percent of our students had no awareness at all that the events in Oklahoma City in 1995 had happened."
Besides coming up with all aspects of the production themselves, LA students also had the opportunity to interview people who were teenagers in Oklahoma City at the time of the attack and gauge their reactions to it, incorporating their feelings into their roles.
"Through friends, I was able to reach out to people who were in OKC as teenagers at the time of the bombing and all of them were willing to share their stories and experiences, some of them with truly generous detail," said Sugerman. "I passed contacts on to my students who began with email contact and then some of them were able to have phone conversations as well, which sounded very rewarding on both ends. People were incredibly supportive of the idea for the project. They were a fairly wide assortment of folks who had that one geographical thing in common. So many details and ideas they shared with us resonated throughout many of the interviews. So many of them kept closely the image of the baby being held by the firefighter, or the survivor tree that still stood after the bombing.
"The students portrayed in the show, who are all fictional with some inspiration from real figures, do engage in discussion after the bombing about the ramifications, about the whys and hows behind it," said Sugerman. "We don't, however, include much at all about the bombers themselves, Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols. Our focus is on this community of students and how they experience it all."
"The whole project is really phenomenal and timely," said Bev Rodrigues, public relations director for LA. "About how the Oklahoma bombing effected people when they went about their daily business afterwards. The production has some really good songwriters who are writing music for the show. I think it will really be a thought-provoking production. Both Joel Sugerman and Brian Feigenbaum are passionate about getting kids involved not just teaching theater and dance but in how to get involved. They've done some pretty intense productions but nothing like this kind of a heavy subject. But the kids always come away saying how they changed them and made them feel. It's a pretty amazing program."
"It was actually not difficult to get the students on board pretty early," said Sugerman. "Despite the fact that some of our students would perhaps prefer a production of 'Chicago,' or 'Guys and Dolls,' most of our students have subscribed to the idea that doing the hard thing, the thing that is unknown when we start out, has great value for them. And they know it is their own and that no one has ever seen it before. Though our students didn't know about this tragic event for the most part, they took the challenge on and were willing to look inside themselves for an experience which none of them could easily relate to, thank goodness."
The "Oklahoma! City" production has become more timely in recent weeks after a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people there.
"Many of the same questions that we hope our production raises continue to be asked or cry out to finally be asked and talked about," said Sugerman. "Newtown is the latest in a too-long line of tragic events since the bombing in OKC and we as a group of theater makers are very conscious of it. We've talked about it in rehearsals and allowed our responses to that tragedy to inform our creation of this piece.
"Again, we're interested in 'mining for material' with the students, introducing an idea or concept to explore and then through the rehearsal process finding the show," said Sugerman. "Instead of just memorizing lines, songs and choreography, students engage in writing exercises, movement creation and verbal improvisations to discover what is in the show. This show has yielded particularly amazing conversations in rehearsal as well. We created two other completely devised pieces with the students in the last three years, the first coming from ideas around dreams and nightmares, and last year's piece, 'The Trip,' stemming from our students ancestors' journey stories. This year, for 'Oklahoma! City,' there is a full original score of student-written music and songs. There will also be a few tunes from the original musical."
Performances of "Oklahoma! City" will be open to the public and held on Feb. 14, Feb. 15 and Feb. 16 in the Richardson-Mees Performing Arts Center at Lawrence Academy.
Those seeking information about performances should contact the school at 978-448-6535.
"Will this be good?" wondered Sugerman. "Well, we never know, and that's an exciting thing, but it will be new, hopefully honest, and we hope that many people will take interest in seeing something which breaks the model of the usual high school theater production and hopefully leaves the audience thinking. It would be effective for young teens and up."