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August 31, 2017

Knowing the People of Newtown: 26 Pebbles


I remember standing in my kitchen, looking at the television screen in horror on the morning of December 14, 2012. That was the morning the terrifying attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School was broadcast as the world stood helplessly by. I couldn’t help but think of my own daughters. I knew they were safe so far away from this, yet the unease of a world where even small children are not safe from mass shootings set in. Almost simultaneously, my thoughts were for the families at Sandy Hook. They were caught in a parent’s worst nightmare. I felt so helpless and powerless against such violence. I remember saying through my tears, “This is enough!”

Eric Ulloa’s response to this horrific tragedy was to turn his emotions into action. His impulse to “do something” led him to Newtown, Connecticut six months after that terrible day, where he interviewed community members affected by this horrible tragedy. Those interviews evolved into 26 Pebbles (US/UK)

26 Pebbles provides a unique glimpse into the Sandy Hook shooting. It compels us to rethink our perceptions of mental illness, gun control, and safety in our schools and public arenas and does this in a way that ultimately translates a message of hope and healing. It provides a perfect opportunity within the community to have talkbacks and forums with honest, thoughtful discussions addressing issues that continue to divide us as a nation.

This play makes a significant contribution to the theatre community as well. Theatre by its very nature has the power to take its audience to new levels of awareness and understanding. With 26 Pebbles, Eric Ulloa has created a profound and impactful play that allows theatre to do what it does best; truly touch its audience in a powerful way.

26 Pebbles has a unique docudrama format that’s structured to forge an equally unique relationship with the audience. We are immediately drawn in to the small, sleepy town with its quaint history, tradition, and charm. We are quickly jolted out of the comfort zone of a community where “nothing bad ever happens” when the play takes its sudden and shocking turn and forces us to revisit the day of the tragic shootings. We hear first-hand the testimony and stories of that day from community members of Newtown. The remainder of the play focuses on the community’s struggle to cope and move forward, struggling, grieving, taking action, healing, and ultimately, loving their neighbors. It offers a rare and beautiful message of hope. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that we are somehow different after seeing this play. We are humbled by the words and actions of the people of Newtown and see ourselves in the people of this town in so many ways. We are all simply trying to live our lives without the fear of this type of massacre happening, and we often naively think it could never happen in our communities.

After seeing 26 Pebbles, we leave the theater compelled to learn more, do more, talk more, and, hopefully, listen more.

I also learned valuable lessons about the rehearsal process in producing a play of this nature, particularly with college-age students.

The subject matter can be emotional and at times, difficult. We were able to bring in a grief specialist to preemptively discuss with the actors the emotional triggers they might encounter, as well as tools to help them cope with those emotions. My advice in producing this play is to allow time in rehearsal to talk, and to take some time to decompress afterward. We also had Q&A panels following selected performances that included mental health professionals, law enforcement, educators, and local political leaders, among others. These panels provided some understanding and context to this complex, emotional subject matter, and gave audience members the opportunity to respond with questions and observations.

It was a great honor to have been involved in the collegiate world premiere of Eric Ulloa’s 26 Pebbles – truly one of the most profound shows our department has ever had the opportunity to produce. My advice to any future director or producing company is to make sure to honor the souls who lost their lives that day and reflect on your purpose for performing this play. Most importantly, make sure you give reverence to the voices of the play. They are real people who have shared very intimate stories. They refuse to be defined by this tragedy.

I am deeply humbled to have been given the occasion to “know” the people of Newtown, people who have unknowingly transformed my life.

“It’s all about how you ripple out,
and what those vibrations can be.
We are love. We are Newtown.
That message says it all.”
– Yollie, 26 Pebbles

To learn more about 26 Pebbles visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.

Header Image: 2016 Production of 26 Pebbles at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.