A group of students, staff, alums and faculty members at Santa Clara University will rise with the sun on Monday, April 16, and gather to commemorate those who lost their lives in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. The daybreak tribute—in the form of a play by Erik Ehn called “What a Stranger May Know”—involves 76 members of the SCU community, acting in concert with colleagues from at least 13 other universities around the country.
Ehn, an internationally known artist-activist, is the director of playwriting at Brown University. He also taught playwriting at SCU and has appeared multiple times on campus as a speaker in the Guest Artist Series, hosted by the university’s Justice and the Arts Initiative (JAI). His latest work is a suite of 32 plays—one for each of the shooting victims—to be performed at 7:30 a.m. across the U.S., on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy. The SCU production takes place on the St. Ignatius lawn near the center of campus.
“Erik Ehn is deeply connected to Santa Clara University,” said Kristin Kusanovich, a lecturer in the theater and dance department and co-director of JAI. “He contacted me directly last summer to see if the university would be interested in participating in this project; we’ve worked together before on a number of other events.” Kusanovich is serving as co-artistic director of the SCU performance, along with Michael Zampelli, S.J.
According to Kusanovich, SCU’s production will follow Ehn’s ambitious, plays-within-a-play format: the student, alum and faculty actors are scattered in different stations across the lawn. They read their scripts simultaneously. Another group of witnesses sits before the players, watching and listening. The “real” audience is also witness to the action, as visitors are free to move about, wandering through the scenes, or staying with one drama as the stories unfold. Out of respect for five of the families of those lost in the tragedy who declined to participate, SCU will be performing 27 of the 32 plays that were written, and holding the other five victims “in our hearts,” as Kusanovich noted.
“Erik wrote witnesses into the script to create the feeling of a memorial shared by many people,” said Kusanovich. “Within this setting, you get a sense of time stopping as you come to know each of the victims. There is cacophony, but there is logic too.”
She explained, however, that listeners may not immediately understand everything they are hearing. “The scripts are drawn from public record, from the facts that each family wants us to know about their loved one—that’s ‘what a stranger may know.’” Ehn used the public record when he wrote the scripts, but he “infused it with poetic ideas,” she said. “He took a single word from the record and created scenes of imagery from it, expanded on it in the form of an imaginative journey; these ideas are woven into the entire text.”
The monologues are about 90 minutes in length, and Kusanovich said, “At the end of the cumulative text, you’ll have a surprisingly holistic sense of the person—their character, their interests, what their plans were for the future.”
At certain times throughout the performance, the SCU memorial will feature singing and live music, conducted by SCU music teacher David Duenas. Among the cast and crew are seven assistant directors, each rehearsing with a small group of actors. Kusanovich said many students were eager to participate, and some were chosen because of their ability to handle French or German or the other languages found in the scripts. There are references to these languages, as well as to the subject of hydrology, in the scripts because most of the shootings at Virginia Tech took place in a hall where languages and engineering were taught.
Following the event, audience members and participants may gather in a designated area to talk about the play, write their reflections in journals, meditate or pray. SCU’s Campus Ministry will be on hand to provide spiritual counseling for those who want it.
“The play can be very powerful, not only because of the Virginia Tech victims, but for anyone who has felt a personal loss,” said Kusanovich. “The plays came to us borne out of this particular tragedy, but by a playwright deeply immersed in discerning the position of art in the post-genocidal reality of Rwanda and many other global conflicts. They are about Virginia Tech but also about the unknowable nature of lives lost and our asymptotic journey to only get closer to knowing. The space for mourning the kinds of deaths lost in non-war related violence is, however, the focus. We don’t know what it will stir up, what sort of an impact the play will have, but we want support to be available if it’s needed.”
Other universities that will perform “What a Stranger May Know” on April 16 are spread throughout the U.S. They include Brown University, City College of New York, Brandeis University, University of Ulster, The New School, University of Texas at Arlington, Whittier College, University of Minnesota, Brooklyn College, and Whitman College.