‘26 Pebbles’: Parkland High School student play about Sandy Hook in state contest
A Parkland High School production of “26 Pebbles,” a play about a very difficult topic, the 2012 shooting of 20 students and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., will get a statewide audience Dec. 1.
Mark A Stutz, Director of Visual and Performing Arts, Parkland School District, is hoping the student production could even reach a national audience.
“We felt it was a message that needed to be brought to as many people as we could,” Stutz says of the Parkland production, which he directed.
The play, “26 Pebbles,” performed in October at Parkland High School, will be performed at the International Thespian Society Pennsylvania State Conference the weekend of Dec. 1 at North Penn High School, Lansdale, Montgomery County, where adjudicators could send the production on to be performed at the national conference. The performance is not open to the public.
Parkland drama students present a play in the fall and a musical in the spring, which is typical for Lehigh Valley high schools participating in the annual Freddy contest for high school musicals presented in May at the State Theatre Center for The Arts, Easton.
Stutz says he picked up a copy of “26 Pebbles,” written by Eric Ulloa, “by accident” at a New York City bookstore.
When he read the play he was struck by how the piece addressed a mass shooting, and thought that maybe his Parkland students could tackle something “not a Shakespeare or Neil Simon comedy” this year.
“Theater’s purpose needs to be to educate and make people think,” says Stutz. “At its base, theater is always about community and advocating for social change.”
He says the Parkland students had gotten very involved earlier this year when there was a deadly school shooting at a school with the same name in Florida.
“It seemed an opportune time to take this topic and really start studying it,” Stutz says.
He says the Lehigh Valley’s Parkland students didn’t just perform a play, it became an “immersive” experience and they learned a lot from it.
The play, written in 2017, is based on interviews Ulloa did with residents of Newtown after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The title, representing the 26 victims, comes from the concept that when pebbles are thrown into a pond, they create ripples and vibrations beyond the initial splash.
“It’s not a docudrama,” Stutz says. “There is no blood or kids screaming. But everything we hear was said by someone.
“It’s the story of a nice community that was rocked by disaster and how they try to come back together. It’s positive even though the story is quite sad.”
He notes that the play was written prior to the school shooting at Parkland High School in Florida.
“There have been hundreds of shootings since then, which is sad,” Stutz says.
The play allows the audience to get to know some of the people from the Newtown community, but Stutz notes none of the characters are parents of the victims.
“We meet people whose child lost their best friend or lost a neighbor,” he says. “That’s what makes this play so outstanding. He did it beautifully. It just would have been too painful to have parents who lost a child.”
Stutz says the show has elements of “Our Town” and “The Laramie Project,” the latter about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.
Since there were 20 children killed, Stutz cast 13 students and each was assigned two of the characters to research and make memory boards for.
The Parkland High School cast includes Olivia Behr, Mackenzie Lynch, Aubree Williams, Isabella Fedele, Alyssa Yocum, Jenny Delorimier, Aylor Scandola, Daniel Stewart, Noah Erlemann, Dylan Buckner, Carter Sachse, Taylor Shortell and Nate Cowling.
The Parkland students interviewed a second-grade teacher from Sandy Hook and one of the students did a dramaturgiucal study. They talked to a grief counselor and raised money for Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that trains students and adults to know the signs of gun violence. Stutz says there is nothing in the play that talks about gun control.
“It was very emotional for them,” Stutz says. “They took things very seriously and never forgot our mission that we were honoring the children.”
Because of its powerful message, the students decided to perform the play for the senior class at Parkland, in addition to its regular run of four performances, Oct. 12, 13 and 14, before a total audience of about 1,750.
Stutz entered the play to be performed at the International Thespian Society Pennsylvania State Conference.
He says the state conference usually only chooses three full-length performances and Parkland has never had a play performed there before.
“It’s quite an honor to get that far,” Stutz says. ”There’s a lot of competition.”
He says the play will be performed at 9 a.m. Dec. 1 and will be adjudicated.
His hope is that the Parkland production will qualify to be showcased in June 2019 at the International Thespian Society National Conference at the University of Nebraska.
“26 Pebbles” had its world premiere at The Human Race Theatre Company in Ohio in 2017. The play was featured in American Theatre magazine and received the Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Award for 2017.
Stutz says a lot of schools and communities are performing the play, with more than 100 productions so far this year.
“The show doesn’t need a lot of special effects, “ he says. “You could do it in a basement and still get the message across.”