The Yard’s ‘columbinus’ takes on potent relevance for cast of Senn students

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The cast of “columbinus” presented by The Yard at Steppenwolf. | Krista Wortendyke

When students at Chicago’s Nicholas Senn Arts Magnet High School began planning their production of “columbinus” last September, they knew the docudrama about the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado would evoke intense emotion. The day after auditions, members of The Yard troupe – Senn’s theater for and by young people — began to fathom the continuing impact of the nearly 20-year-old tragedy.

‘columbinus’ The Yard at Steppenwolf When: May 3 – 26 Where: Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted Tickets: $25 Info: Steppenwolf.org

Within a day of auditions for the production, a student opened fire at Parkland Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen people were murdered. For the young artists of the Yard, “columbinus” took on a horrific unanticipated urgency. Like many of her peers, senior Cleo Shine found herself propelled to the intersection of arts and activism.

“This swallowed my life,” Shine said of the play and the issues surrounding it. “We’ve been doing lockdown drills since first grade. We go through metal detectors every day — all that’s been normalized for us. Since Parkland, I want de-normalize it. I want people to stop thinking of it as a liberal issue or a conservative issue or a political issue at all. It’s a human issue. People are dying.”

The two-act drama by Stephen Karam and the late PJ Paparelli marks The Yard’s fourth year at Senn. Teaching artists Mechelle Moe and Joel Ewing formed the company after decades working as theater artists in Chicago. Moe is directing the production; Ewing (who is Senn’s lead theater instructor), is among the play’s cast.

“When we were their age, we couldn’t conceive of world where school shootings happened,” said Ewing. “They can’t conceive of a world where they don’t.”

Both veteran artists who came up in Chicago’s burgeoning Off-Loop theater scene, Moe and Ewing often partner The Yard with the city’s professional companies in order to provide students with an immersive course in both the business and the artistic side of running a theater. This year, more than a dozen students — from freshmen in high school to freshmen in college — are working on “columbinus,” doing everything from acting to sound design to marketing.

Brian Baren, 19, has been involved with the Yard since its 2015 inception. In “columbinus,” the City Colleges freshman and Senn alum plays Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold. Slipping into a trench coat like the one Klebold favored is a task freighted with emotion.

“My story is very different Dylan’s, but there are some similarities. I know what it feels like when it seems like you can’t identify with anyone. When you feel alone,” Baren said.

The Yard co-founders Joel Ewing and Mechelle Moe. | Krista Wortendyke

The Yard co-founders Joel Ewing and Mechelle Moe. | Krista Wortendyke

While Shine was organizing Senn’s April 20 participation in National School Walkout Day for Gun Control, Baren joined students doing the same at Truman College. Baren said a mourner’s Kaddish during the school’s period of silence in commemoration of the Parkland victims. “I think a lot about their faces. And their names. And the fact that they are not on this planet anymore,” Baren said. “A lot of adults seem to think this is about their rights. It isn’t. It’s about ours. We’re doing this show for the kids who will never get to tell their story.”

There’s no avoiding the trauma inherent to telling that story. For Moe and Ewing, that means making the rehearsal room and the stage “the safest spaces possible,” Moe said.

“My job is to make sure everyone feels safe,” Moe said. “To make sure we take care of each other, whether that means facilitating workshops or discussions or lining up legislators to talk to students about gun control measures.

“There have been a lot of tears. There have been a lot of hugs,” she said. “Sometimes, we end rehearsal with a song. Once we all did ‘Build Me Up Buttercup.’

“For me, when the play gets difficult to take, I think of it as a job that’s hard to do, but has to get done,” said Shine. “It’s weird when you realize ‘columbinus’ is old enough to be a period piece,” she added. “What we’re trying to say is, ‘Look, this play is 20 years old. It’s still happening. What are you going to do about it?’ ”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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