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Santa Fe High theater students present ‘26 Pebbles,’ about aftermath of Newtown shooting

March 2, 2018 GMT

For theater director Reed Meschefske, Thursday night’s opening of the Santa Fe High School production of 26 Pebbles may be a little too timely.

Eric Ulloa’s play, presented in docudrama style, focuses on the emotional reaction and interplay of the residents of Newtown, Conn., in the aftermath of the December 2012 mass shooting that took place in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life that day.

But in the wake of the recent mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which a gunman killed 17 people — as well as an array of recent threats both real and fake at Santa Fe High — Meschefske wonders if the world is ready for 26 Pebbles.

“It’s almost too topical of a play,” Meschefske said during a break in a recent rehearsal. “People may not want to see it.”

The pressure surrounding the production is building backstage, too, given all the talk and concern and fear about school shootings. For example, following Friday’s social media threat targeting Santa Fe High School, student actress Kat “Snickers” Eilerts, came to rehearsal with one thought on her mind.

“I came into the theater looking for places to run and hide,” she said. “That’s not the way I wanted to start my Friday.”

Ulloa’s play is based upon interviews the actor-playwright conducted with residents of Newtown about six months after the shooting. “I was angry at what we had just endured and was tired of finding myself once again not able to do anything about it,” Ulloa said in a 2017 interview with Broadway World. When he arrived in Newtown to start the project, “the only plan was to be open and to listen. I was just interested in the real stories of how human beings deal and process an unimaginable moment like this.”

He spent several weeks in Newtown, interviewing more than 60 people about the tragedy. The result is a man-and-woman-on-the-street type of theatrical journalism, with real people — faith leaders, police officers, mothers, students, gun owners and business leaders — expressing their dismay that something so devastating could tear their community apart.

The play makes it clear that the safety of the small hamlet of Newtown, defined by its old-fashioned Main Street events, holiday tree lighting and display of American flags, was immediately shattered by news of a school lockdown, the sound of police sirens and the fear the town’s children were in danger.

The Human Race Theatre Company of Dayton, Ohio, premiered the play last year. Meschefske said he decided to put on the play at Santa Fe High in November, about a month after a mass shooting that took place at a concert in Las Vegas, Nev.

He ran the idea by school Principal Carl Marano, who read 26 Pebbles and said: “Let’s do it.”

That was before two back-to-back shooting threats — one directed against Marano — occurred on campus later that month. But Meschefske said he hasn’t had second thoughts about going on with the show.

“The best theater is theater that makes you think and that makes you uncomfortable,” he said.

Nor is this atypical fare under Meschefske’s eight-year tenure as the theater department director at the school. He also produced such dark and relevant fare as The Laramie Project and Macbeth there.

For senior Sophie Colson, who appears in the show, the play has an honesty that comes from “the lives and thoughts and experiences of the people of Newtown.” She said that while the names of the students and schools and towns may be different in every school shooting case “it’s all the same. How similar they all are is haunting.”

Meschefske and some of the actors in the show agree that 26 Pebbles offers no solutions to what appears to be a increasingly deadly sociological problem.

But actor and ninth-grader Ben Goeller said 26 Pebbles — which runs a tight 75 minutes — offers something more important: hope.

“It shows how a true sense of community in the wake of tragedy can bring people together to fix what is broken,” he said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.