Stage Right's Play of the Week The Bottle Tree is an honest and powerful look at the aftermath of gun violence. Playwright Beth Kander writes about its path from the headlines to the page and ultimately the stage. Read her thoughts below:
I rarely remember the exact moment I begin writing a play or novel. If you asked me to pinpoint the precise date I started scratching out a particular project, most of the time I’d shrug: “No idea.” But there’s one play for which I do know the inception date.
That play is The Bottle Tree, and the day I started writing it was Friday, December 14, 2012—the day of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
The Bottle Tree is about the little sister of a school shooter, but really it’s about a community. It’s about how one tragedy can impact many people, for many years. More than that, it’s about how a collection of tragedies is impacting us all as Americans, and how we might deal with all this trauma, together.
When I heard the news about Sandy Hook, something in me shattered. Hearing the number of victims, how many were kindergarteners, and all the gut-wrenching details—the quickly-emerging stories of heroic teachers acting to save their students, and of parents returning home to stockings hung by the fireplace and menorahs perched on tables, waiting for five-year-olds who would not be there for the holidays that year—it was too much.
Questions screamed through my mind: Who could do that to children? Why did things like this keep happening in our country? What the hell can we do about it?
I had no answer to any of those questions. But I knew I had to be part of wrestling with that last one, and as a writer, one of the things I felt I could contribute was a script unafraid to look right at this issue.
There were several thoughts swirling through my mind when I began writing the play.
I wanted the script to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one—so I had to push myself to write something that wouldn’t alienate people on “the other side of the aisle.”
I didn’t want the play to sensationalize violence or glorify the gunman, and it was important to me to explore not just the moment of tragedy but the fact that for families impacted by such a devastating loss would be dealing with it for years—so I decided to set the play several years after the fictional shooting.
And I didn’t want it to be purely bleak. I needed there to be laughter, and love, and some element of hope, while not minimizing the gravity of this epidemic—so I had my work cut out for me.
I wrote the first draft of the play quickly. Among my first readers were teachers, and a friend whose high school experienced a school shooting. Their feedback was invaluable. I moved from Mississippi to Chicago in early 2014, and applied for a playwriting residency at Stage Left Theatre. Over the course of the next two years, through the Downstage Left Residency, the Leapfest summer series, and all the way to full production, the Stage Left team helped this script to grow. Director Amy Szerlong and dramaturg Annaliese McSweeney’s insights sharpened my edits. The brilliant actors in the two workshop readings and the world premiere production breathed life into the characters, helping ensure they were fully formed.
And at every stage of the development process of this play, there were more mass shootings.
One example: In 2015, The Bottle Tree was a winner of the Ashland New Plays Festival. I was so excited to travel to Oregon for the event—and the week before, there was a shooting at nearby Umpqua Community College. After the second reading, an audience member mentioned having been on campus during the Umpqua shooting just days earlier. I feared the play may have offended or hurt this audience member… instead, they thanked me for writing it.
Focusing on this issue is something we’re compelled to do, right here, right now, and for the foreseeable future. I wish that this play, which I started writing more than five years ago now, was starting to feel “dated.” I wish the topic felt less urgent. However, in the USA there have been almost 300 incidents of gun violence, in schools alone, since the Sandy Hook massacre. So, much to my heartbreak, this script is not irrelevant. It’s still topical. Urgent. A conversation we cannot avoid.
But here’s where a little hope comes in, too.
I’m writing this blog right after participating in the March For Our Lives. The students at Parkland and across America who are raising their voices in this conversation are inspiring, strong, and not backing down. The schools and theaters that have produced The Bottle Tree have shared heartwarming stories ranging from events and talkbacks leading to significant dialog all the way to survivors of shootings attending performances or engaging with the script and finding reflective, relevant truths in the play.
The time is overdue for us to address in a meaningful way not only school shootings, but gun violence in general. Living in Mississippi opened my eyes to the realities of “proud gun owners” who need to be part of any genuinely meaningful conversation; living in Chicago cemented the tragic truths not only about the dramatic tragedy of school shootings but the exhausting, ongoing daily incidences of gun violence, disproportionately devastating communities of color.
A play can’t solve a problem. But it can continue a conversation, change a mind, open a heart, and help us collectively process our problems. That’s what I hope The Bottle Tree will continue to do, for now, as an artistic tool to help us move forward…
…and I hope that in the not too distant future, it will become something else entirely: A piece performed not as an urgent discussion of an ongoing social issue, but produced instead as a dated but heartfelt play shedding light on the dark truth of how things used to be.
Beth Kander is a writer, performer, and consultant with one foot in the South and the other in the Midwest. Her dystopian trilogy Original Syn debuts in 2018 (Owl House Books), with the first book in the series hitting shelves and e-readers in September. Her other works of fiction include several short stories, some delightful novels pending publication, the novel Was (Available on Amazon) and the children's book Glubbery Gray: The Knight Eating Beast (Pelican Publishing). Her other titles published by Stage Rights include Running Mates (Or, The Family Party), Scrambled, and See Jane Quit.
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