On november 7, 2018, eight student actors finished their final dress rehearsal of columbinus, a play about the 1999 columbine high school massacre in littleton, co. Their director, brett elliott, gave final notes before the show opened the next day. Suddenly cell phones began to ping with late-breaking news: a gunman had opened fire in the borderline bar & grill, a popular college hangout located just a 10-minute drive from campus. Twelve people died, including one recent cal lutheran graduate. That night, the cast and crew would not go home and shake off the columbine-reality.
In light of the tragedy, the University canceled the play’s performances, however, the cast pushed to stage columbinus on November 17 before an invited audience. “In the wake of the Borderline shootings, we very much wanted to perform the play which we felt had, sadly, become more relevant than ever,” said Elliott, who is also associate artistic director of California Lutheran’s Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.
Although the play had only one performance in 2018, it was enough to merit an invitation to stage columbinus at the Region VIII Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Los Angeles. Acclaim followed. The production won two national awards: a Distinguished Performance and Production Ensembles Award and a Citizen Artist Award.
The cast and crew performed the play again on February 10, followed by post-performance audience discussions. “I learned just how powerful art and theatre can be, especially in the wake of a tragedy,” cast member Gabrielle Reublin ’19 said. “Many people from the Thousand Oaks community spoke to us about how the show helped them process their grief.”
COMMITMENT TO SOCIALLY RELEVANT THEATRE
For millennia, theatre has been a way for people to publicly debate, discuss and reflect upon issues that directly affect contemporary society, explains department chair Michael Arndt. “Because theatre can reach beyond the intellect and move people in deep ways, it is a powerful force for change.”
The Theatre Arts & Dance Department is hardly new to socially relevant productions. Recent plays include Michael Arndt’s Under Fire: Stories of Combat Veterans Across Generations, a piece he assembled from interviews with veterans from World War II,
Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn set after a worldwide apocalyptic event, and presented by students in 2016, a group of survivors tries to recall an episode from The Simpsons in a dangerous world.
I learned just how powerful art and theatre can be, especially in the wake of a tragedy.
“I think columbinus is an important play to be presented across the country,” said cast member Jordan Erickson ’20. “The abstract idea of gun violence becomes a reality on a stage that is mere feet away from its audience. It leaves no room for dissociation from mass shootings, and it holds the audience accountable for everything they feel and see throughout the show.”
This show… has motivated me to look for more ways to make sure my work matters.
columbinus changed the lives of the cast and crew. “This show has reminded me why I do theatre.” Elliott said. “It has motivated me to look for more ways to make sure my work matters.”
“This play and the experiences around it were the most challenging, yet memorable part of my studies here at California Lutheran University,” said Reublin. “I plan on pursuing my Master’s in theatre, and this has just furthered my love of the craft and belief in the power of art in times of hardship.”