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Columbine Shooting Inspires New York Play

A scene from the play "The Library."

A scene from the play "The Library."

Welcome to American Mosaic, from VOA Learning English. I'm Caty Weaver.

Americans faced yet another gun tragedy last week in California. In the latest incident, the attacker killed six people and then himself. A play currently on stage in New York City explores the emotions surrounding such tragic events. Christopher Cruise has more.

“The Library” is a new play at New York’s Public Theater. It tells about what happens after a school shooting. It examines the broken lives of survivors.

The play is directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. Scott Z. Burns is the playwright.

Even before the play begins, Soderbergh and Burns create unease among theater goers. As they enter, they see a young woman in a hospital gown in the middle of the stage. She is lying on what could be a bed or a table. She could be in the hospital or in a morgue, where dead bodies are kept for examination. Playwright Burns explains.

"People start having to invent a story, you know, which is: Is she alive? Is she not alive? And so they’re already, before we’ve said anything, experiencing what the play is about, which is, you know, you start assembling facts and truths into stories that support your belief set and allow you to keep going."

The young woman on the stage is playing a teenage character named Caitlin Gabriel. She has survived a deadly shooting attack at her high school. One of the other survivors has accused Caitlin on television of telling the gunman where several victims were hiding.

Seventeen-year-old film actress Chlöe Grace Moretz plays Caitlin.

"And so Caitlin Gabriel wakes up out of her induced coma, basically, and she finds out right then and there that not only is her best friend that she was laying beside dead, but that she’s now being accused of being an accomplice to the murder of six children and one faculty member."

"Then he went over to these two girls, I think he recognized one of them - Caitlin Gabriel - and they started talking. He asked her where the others were hiding, and she said, 'The A-V (audio visual) closet, they're in the A-V closet.'"

That is from “The Library.” As the characters attempt to learn the truth, each of them, children and parents, try to control what is reported about the attack. Director Steven Soderbergh has seen that happen after real school attacks.

"We were fascinated by not only the idea of competing stories that have to do battle, but also another story or another myth that often comes out of events like these is that somehow everyone who goes through a tragedy is somehow ennobled by it, if they survive. And we were interested in sort of proposing a more realistic version of that story, which is: some people that go through tragedies like this are just damaged."

It was the story of one survivor of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that led Scott Z. Burns to write the play. Two Columbine students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher. Burns says shortly after the attack misinformation about victims and survivors began to spread.

"And, so when stories get out - you know, especially now when we have a lot of unfiltered media that finds its way into our eyes and ears very quickly after these things - it’s hard to get it back."

Actress Chlöe Grace Moretz puts it even more simply.

"It’s like the whisper game you’d play at camp, you know, where one person whispers at the other end of the table and then they all whisper the same thing and then by the end of it, you find out it’s a completely different story."

Caitlin (on phone to her friend): "Hey, Brit. Look, are you ever going to call me back? I just talked to the police, and... uh, you didn't tell me you talked to them too. I wish you would have told me that. Can't you just come over? But don’t text, OK? I think they can read those somehow. Just tell your parents you really want to check on me. And if the photographers are still across the street, maybe go around back."

The gunman is not central to “The Library.” The character that could be considered oppositional is the mother of one of the victims. She deals with her loss by writing a book and advising on a film. Both works show her daughter as a hero. The book and movie also accuse Caitlin of leading the gunman to other victims.

Mother: "I don't want to hear it from the paper, Caity. I want to hear it from you. I need to know your story."
Caitlin: "My story."
Mother: "What happened? From your perspective."
Caitlin's dad: "What you told the police."
Caitlin: "Oh, um, okay. Well... I remember he asked me if I knew who he was, and I thought he was worried about being identified, so I said no, even though I did."
Mother: "I see. You were trying to protect yourself."
Caitlin: "Yeah."
Caitlin's dad: "Of course she was."
Mother: "And that meant telling him where the others were hiding."
Caitlin: "No! No, I don't... remember saying that."
Mother: “Ryan Mayes heard you say it. From what I understand he was just a few feet away.”
Father: “That’s not her recollection.”

As new information is communicated about the characters and events, director Steven Soderbergh says audience members begin to question their own beliefs.

"The story sort of comes at you in waves, you know what I mean? Like we experience the news cycle - sort of every scene there’s another shoe that drops and you go, ‘Oh boy, now I have to rethink what I’ve been watching.’”

The advertising for “The Library” says the play is “based on future events.” Sadly, this will probably prove true.

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