Making any artistic project that deals with someone’s lived experience is a challenging endeavour, especially when it touches upon trauma and hurt that one continues to live with every single day. Between remaining true to the testimonies that drive the story and holding a safe space for an audience to explore the subject area, it calls for a dramaturgy of care and empathy. Piccolo Theatre’s new verbatim show Screen 9 succeeds in doing precisely that. Based on the 2012 mass shooting incident that occurred in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, the show uses the real-life testimonies and interviews of survivors to reconstruct the gruesome July night which left 12 dead and over 70 injured. Focusing on the life of these survivors in the years since the shooting and their attempts to deal with loss and grief as they strive to move forward with their lives. The show is written and directed by Kate Barton, assisted by Jennifer Lane Baker and is designed by Matthew Jennings. It’s presented in partnership with Survivors Empowered, a US-based charity that supports survivors of gun violence.
The show begins by introducing the four different people whose voices and experiences are used in the show. From a working mother and pop culture enthusiast to a medical worker in training and a young professional, these are people whom we can recognize in our neighbourhoods. All of them are eyewitnesses to the heinous act and have lost someone they knew in the violence. As they get ready to be interviewed, they exchange pleasantries, nervous laughter and a collective realization that talking about what happened that night isn’t going to be easy. One by one they begin to share their story, starting from the decision to attend the premiere of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and the build-up to the time of the incident. They address the shooting, offering their first-person perspective on how the shocking incident played out and the nerve-wracking period immediately afterwards as they struggled to figure out what exactly happened and ascertain the whereabouts of friends and family who’d accompanied them that evening. Each person’s individual voice is layered and interspersed with each other, sometimes finding common ground in their anecdotes and anxieties whilst in others, comparing their different perceptions and opinions about the shared experience to comment on the larger contradictions of public opinion on gun violence. As the conversation shifts from a narratorial reconstruction of events to their individual journeys in the days following the shooting, we get a glimpse into the larger imprints the event has left on their lives.
The ensemble, consisting of Hannah Schunk-Hockings, David Austin-Barnes, Sabrina Wu and George Rexstrew, deliver strong, grounded performances that neither patronize these voices nor imbue them with self-pity. Their heart-warming, honest portrayal brings forth the complex emotional and mental state of these people as they relive their memories. Barton’s direction has the performers rely on spoken voice and direct audience address to draw the audience’s attention towards the raw, gripping testimonies. There is a deft use of stillness and silence in the scenic composition whilst there is a deliberate layering and repetition in the textual composition. Jennings’ minimal set design and precise light design helps us contextualize the time and space the voices allude to – from a waiting room, a conference hall and outside of the cinema to inside the hall – and keeps our attention drawn to the spoken dialogue. Some on stage moments are particularly striking, such as the carefully controlled release of smoke and the deadly hissing sound of the machine that builds up gradually during the description of the shooting to the awkward, almost uncomfortable break taken by the group after a particularly intense discussion. These deliberate choices towards an aesthetic grounded in theatrical realism, with a representation of how things really are, allow us to appreciate these voices for who they really are, humans, not characters of a playtext.
To summarize, Screen 9 offers a nuanced, emotional commentary on gun violence in America through its focus on survivors and their words, unfiltered and unedited. With strong performances and gripping scenographic choices, the show serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to find the light in the dark.
You can read more about Screen 9 and find information about upcoming shows on Piccolo Theatre’s website: www.piccolotheatre.co.uk
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 13th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★