“Faculty Portrait is mostly about strength – strength in the face of disaster, strength to be optimistic after a tragedy – and it’s this strength we can all tap into, but it’s hard to talk about the why’s and how’s which is why I wanted the discussion. The story of the play follows a group of students, a teacher, and a custodian before and after a school shooting,” remarked Sean DeMers about his play, FACULTY PORTRAIT, opening this week at IRT Theatre. Ariel Francoeur, the production’s director, says it’s a story that must be told. She quoted “Dr. Joe Dispenza, as saying “…stories serve a great purpose: to reinforce information in a practical manner. Hearing about someone else’s experience makes it more real for us,” shr them elaborated. “It’s one thing to read or watch the news, but to see a real issue unfold in the life of a character in whom we’ve become invested – this drives the real issue home. Theater, documentary, film, and television have the power to grab our attention through our hearts.”
While Sean has never had a family member involved in such a tragedy, he does note that the shadows of such a tragedy are very long and “there but for the grace” as he mentions his own daughter. “I taught in a building where there had been a shooting and I thought quite a lot about how to exit the classroom–which was actually a large lecture hall–and how vulnerable we all are when we don’t expect the unexpected. When I was writing the play, my daughter was in high school and as more shootings were reported the reality set in that I could absolutely receive a phone call someday.”
His play is not about the gunman but about the “absolutely selfless courage it takes to stay and try to rebuild a community after a devastating tragedy.”
This prompted Ariel to elaborate on the surreal accessibility of inappropriate firearms. “First, we need more regulation of firearms because currently access to high powered weapons is a complete joke–making the ‘well-regulated’ part of the Constitutional Amendment stick would be a start. We also need to help people. People are desperate for help and attention. We have the means to take care of everyone so why can’t we do it?”
Her passion was infectious as heads nodded and there was visible electricity in the air.
Focusing on the production-at-hand, Ariel further spoke about what was needed to bring this to reality: “A show containing this subject matter requires more mindfulness at all levels of production. In rehearsal it’s important to create a secure space, take the time to explore the subject matter and not rush through it, and allow for some levity and positivity when wrapping up the intense scenes. It’s also important to have an intent for the show – a specific message the audience is leaving with. In this case, we want to show that violence leaves ripple effects of trauma that are too numerous to be measured, but most importantly, recovery can happen by reaching out a hand for help, or to help, another person.”
Again, the connecting energy was very strong. Jessica Nesi, a member of the company, a prominent film actress, she was thrilled to return to live theatre with such a piece. She complimented Sean’s writing by mentioning that what her character (Amy) says things that she would find herself saying in reality. She too feels the burden of playing such a role. “Whenever dealing with heavy content, especially when it is a prevalent issue in society, there is a bit of trepidation. The last thing any actor wants to do is undermine someone’s experiences by making light of incomprehensibly tragic events. However, this play refuses to fall into any of the tropes you might expect from exploring this type of content. Instead, it focuses on the lesser discussed parts of gun violence, which are so important. The audience gets to see what it’s like for the people who survived, but are forever changed, and are actively working each day to keep surviving-while never forgetting the people who were robbed of their lives. I think everyone in America has been impacted by gun violence, to some degree. Many of us, thankfully, don’t know what it feels like to be directly affected, but it seems now like it is no longer if, but when. And frankly, that needs to change.”
Russ Cusick, a working actor, found this play deeply moving – as he has three children. “From the first time I read this script, I wanted passionately to do this role. The writing is deeply rich and honest. So, in FACULTY PORTRAIT, my creative process is in Sean DeMer’s text. If I remain true to the text and lift it honestly, I think I will do the script justice and deliver the words as intended. Ariel, the director, is an Actors’ director, so her guidance makes sense to me, and the whole process is very organic. I have a lot in common with Mr. Y, so his truth is easy for me to touch. I too have survived tragedy, been deeply in love, and felt the responsibility of loss. It is a gift to make the journey of this character in this play,” he then contunied. “I feel the responsibility to be honest on a basic human level, and to not sensationalize the subject of the shooting. The horrific event speaks for itself, so I can trust that. Also, I feel responsible to listen during the show, to the text, and to be a humble “everyman” in my responses.”
Just as this play explores the aftermath, what, I asked, do these two actors hope the aftermath of the show will bring. Jessica chimed first with “I am hopeful that they [the audience] will take part in the lighter, more joyful moments as well. So much of this is expressed through the lens of children, and it highlights the unique bond these kids and teachers have, having lived through an event no one should ever have to experience. Overall, I hope the audience is able to tap into the strength and sense of community that is woven throughout the entirety of this play. If we can get people thinking about this major issue in a way they haven’t before, even if it is just for the 90 minutes we share with them, I think we will have done our jobs” she said with a deep smile. Russ cited his character as what should happen after the the curtain falls. “Mr. Y says, “It’s okay to feel bad. We all feel bad.” When he says this, it is not self-indulgent or self-pitying, it is reassuring and comforting. I hope audiences walk away with a sense that the only way through pain is through it. 9/11, school shootings, catastrophic weather, the death of a loved one, the violent attack of a loved one… one day at a time, we get through them, and hopefully are of service to one another in the process.”
“I worked for a philanthropy for over a decade and one of things I would write often about the work was that we need to stop thinking everything is far away,” replied Jay Michaels after the interview. “Just because there is a tragedy in another country or even state, that is don’t affect us. That is simply not true. We are all connected and when one of us falls, we all fall. Looking through a brighter lens, when one of rises we all rise. Maybe sitting in the theater and seeing this play will connect the audience to the actors, to each other to the subject and eventually to a solution,” he concluded as we left.
Can’t do it if you ain’t there.
Prime Number Productions – as part of the 3B Development series at IRT Theatre presents a powerful new play by Sean David DeMers about a school shooting. Faculty Portrait; running March 6 – 23, 2020.
A year after a school shooting claimed the life of his wife, Mr. Y finds himself teaching in the same classroom where the tragedy occurred. As he is interviewed for the school yearbook, Mr. Y and his students revisit the memories of life before and after the shooting. Faculty Portrait examines the strength it takes to face tragedy and pick up the pieces for the good of the community.
“While being emotionally moved by the gun violence and tragedies occurring at an alarming rate, I became fascinated by those people who stay in a community and take a stand against fear,” says the emerging playwright. “With Faculty Portrait, I wanted to create a story that talked more about that strength as opposed to sensationalizing violence or anyone’s specific experience.”
This production is directed by Ariel Francoeur and features a cast that includes Phoebe Holden, Julie Thaxter-Gourlay, Russ Cusick, Shammah Speed Waller, Molly Schenkenberger, and Jessica Nesi.
At IRT theatre, 154 Christopher Street; NYC #3B (third floor). Tickets $15 SHOWTIMES:
Opening March 6th, 730pm with a run that includes: 3/7 – 730pm, 3/8 – 3pm, 3/11 – 730pm, 3/12 – 730pm, 3/13 – 730pm, 3/14 – 730pm, 3/15 – 3pm, 3/18 – 730pm, 3/19 – 730pm, 3/20 – 730pm, 3/21 – 3pm , 3/21 – 730pm, 3/22 – 3pm