In the ten years since The Amish Project was written, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of gun violence. The message of The Amish Project — a one-act play based on the real shooting of an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA — is now perhaps more relevant than ever. We sat down with playwright Jessica Dickey to discuss her play in retrospective:
What is it about the Nickel Mines shooting that drew you to it? Why did you decide to write about that particular shooting?
First of all, I’m sad that we can say “that particular shooting.” But, I think because it happened near my hometown in Pennsylvania, and the fact that it targeted this very specific separatist spiritual community, the Amish. The target being this group then directed how events played from the shooting to the Amish response, which centered on forgiving the gunman, and embracing his family as fellow victims. I think the way the story shifted from being one of horror to one of transcendence was very mysterious and fascinating and felt like it was worth meditating on further in the night of theatre.
Did you speak to any of the survivors or families directly?
I started writing the play maybe six months after the shooting. Maybe a year. I did go to Nickel Mines and looked around to find the spot where it happened, and I have had contact with people that were close to the events, but I did not interview them when I was writing the play. I just felt that was almost the instinct to go the creative fiction route. I just did not want to ask anything more of people that were carrying something so large, something I couldn’t fathom carrying. So I took the initial facts of the crime and then created fictional people and a fictional world for the play. At the time, the story was always in the news and the survivors and families were begging just to be left alone. Creating a fictional world let me give them the peace they were asking for, while also allowing me to write the story through the lens of my own heart; I was a new writer and that ended up being an important stroke in the play and how it came forward. Of course, I researched a great deal about Amish culture. It was very interesting to visit the site of the original shooting, which is not easy to find actually.
When you were researching, what are some of the things that stood out to you the most?
What’s interesting is I actually didn’t feel like I needed to research anything about the crime because I just remembered so much from it being in the news, and I wanted the play to be a separate. It’s like the way “Law & Order” will take something from the news, but they’ll completely spin it in a fictional way. That was my aim at the time. Researching Amish culture was very important to be. I grew up in Pennsylvania about an hour and a half from the exact spot. My hometown had Amish around it, but mostly Mennonite populations. So I would say reading a lot of the works of Don Kraybill. There’s a lot of scholars — also Hostetler is another guy that proceeded Don Kraybill, but he wrote a lot of books on Amish culture. I interviewed people like Don about the Amish and I found it really interesting the contradictions that are present in Amish culture. It’s almost like the contradictions were an interesting way to understand what makes the Amish, Amish. It seemed like a good inner line to their thinking and mindset as they approach their ethnic identity as Amish. It went from there.
Research is something that’s always a part of what I write. Now that I’m many, many, many plays later, I see that that’s clearly something that I love and enjoy and find to be a privilege of being a writer is that you can learn about whatever you want to learn about. That just strikes me as the most wonderful opportunity in writing. I don’t really get the impulse to just write about being a writer in Brooklyn. I don’t understand why that’s such a thing. I really enjoy the journey and learning about something new.
Also I tend to do researching in a dovetail style in that I’ll research until I feel a strong instinct to write and then I’ll start writing. Then when I burn through that fuel, then I go back to researching. It’s a sort of pendulum back and forth between the research and the writing. At some point I have a really clear idea of what I need to know, what I need to figure out in order to write this next event in the play. In the case of The Amish Project it certainly had most to do with Amish culture.
You paint such an effective picture of the shooting affecting every facet of the community. What significance do you have to make sure that the shooter’s family was really included in this conversation for victimhood?
Yeah. I think the character in the play that most touches on what you’re asking is Carol, which is what I named the character of the gunman’s widow. The play started with this triangle of Carol and the Girls and Zelda. I felt there was just a very intimate relationship between those three figures. That’s where the writing really began. I experience Carol as spiritually bankrupt which was the phrase that kept occurring to me. Bankrupted by the events. In some way, she ended up being very central as the figure through which the Amish forgave the gunman. The Amish in the play go to Carol’s house, as they did in real life, and embraced her and her children as fellow victims in the crime, and therefore, forgave the gunman through her.
That moment when the Amish are at her door fascinated me and I felt an instinct to create that living room. In the case of The Amish Project, Carol describes Anna and Zelda’s father, Aaron, most as the figure that came to be with her after the crime. I was so fascinated by the mystery of what that exchanged must have been like. It’s one of the deeper, harder, mysterious scenes in the place is actually Carol’s journey.
I think the play is ultimately Carol’s journey, but I felt there was some key relationship between her and the girls that I just intrinsically understood was right. The play onion-ed out from there.
What artistic reason do you have for making sure the audience hears with the voice of the shooter?
When I started writing the play, I did not know that he would be in the play. The character is named Eddie in the Project and I just felt him around as I was writing the play. I felt him kind of hovering at the edges of the psychic space of the play, which is what he ends up doing for quite a bit in the play before he actually speaks. Finally, I remember actually very clearly the night that I just decided, okay, I’ll let him talk to me. I was frightened of that. I was frightened by the idea of calling something like that near. I wasn’t sure what I was allowing to come near by letting Eddie speak. At that point, I was deep in the writing of the play and the scenes and the people of the play and the events as we know them that have transpired through this fictional exploration in the play and it becomes uncomfortably clear there’s this strong tug throughout the play that asks you to consider that Eddie was just a person who did a bad thing.
That is the very basis, the foundational concept of the Amish response to this particular crime (forgiveness). We are all a person and we’re all capable of doing a bad thing and therefore, the agreement in the Amish faith, their contract
that they make with each other and the world, is that we deserve to be forgiven if we ask. That is the deal. The deal is that you’re a flawed human, which is why you need Spirit and that you will make mistakes, you will cause grievances, and you can be forgiven for them. When you really consider that, really sit with the idea, it made me realize that I had to allow Eddie to speak, even if I was afraid.
I was particularly fearful of what that meant to go from Anna and Zelda into Eddie and to let Eddie speak to me next because much of the play is exactly the order that it came to me when writing it. I felt Eddie’s presence kind of like this bruise. I feel there’s a bruise, but very vulnerable quality to Eddie when he speaks. He knows that you don’t want him to speak… It was so complicated and emotional and I never looked back actually. I don’t even know that I decided, oh, cool, I’ll keep that. It just was suddenly a part of the play.
So I guess on a very basic level, it felt like if you’re going to write a play honoring and exploring this Amish response, you have to walk the walk, and the walk meant letting Eddie speak and be heard for his dignity as well as the dignity of the events that occurred.
Forgiveness is definitely at the center of this play, which as you said is a staggering feat in the face of such a tragedy. In dealing with so many new mass shootings, do you feel the audience can forgive Eddie? Or do you think forgiveness is dependent on the time and place?
I think when audiences are watching The Amish Project, it’s a chance for them to consider forgiveness as an option of we can respond to violence on a large or small scale. Forgiveness is not a new idea, but it feels so radical and large to consider, especially in the world that we’re in. The play provides this chance to consider these things, but passively as an audience member. It’s almost like you get to go on a trial run with yourself, but in the safety of your seat which I think is the first step to being able to actually consider doing it in real life. I don’t think that the play necessarily prescribes that forgiveness is the way we must respond to these things. But it gives us a chance to consider that option and to watch how it did play out with these people in the case of this shooting.
What are other elements of The Amish Project that stand out to audiences?
The thing I think surprises people about The Amish Project is how funny it is. It’s not funny like jokes — I don’t really know how to write jokes — but I know that my plays are funny. It’s just because people are so funny. I don’t know a single person that doesn’t have a sense of humor or a way of being that deserves the warmth of a chuckle, you know? For all of its harrowing events, I think audiences are charmed by the people of the play. They’re really quite funny and winning and charming, including Eddie. Certainly including Anna and Zelda. Carol is funny. America’s funny. Sherry is funny. I mean, they’re funny! The humor of the play is such a save because on the one hand, if we can get ourselves laughing then we’ve somehow latched to each other in the play. We know that we’ll physically fair better as we enter the darker themes of the piece if we’ve warmed up our chest by laughing. We will be more prepared and able to feel whatever the play makes us feel. I always want to remember that when I’m thinking about the darker notes that are, of course, in the piece.
What makes the theatre the ideal place to discuss and deal with gun violence?
Ever since people existed, there has been this need to congregate, to gather in one place, at one time and do something together. It’s tended to be a right of passage, a celebration, the marking of a moment– whether that’s weddings or a ceremony, a funeral. This is just as old as time. Theatre is one of the ways that we continue that tradition. I think that any time a group of people are present together in one space, there seems to be the promise of healing. That seems to be the nature of being together for something. We all just get together. There’s usually a common task or point of focus and that allows us to meditate on what it is to be together and what it is that we’re here to do and how are we to make a good life. It’s almost like by being next to each other and having to go through something in real time, like a piece of theatre. We can’t press pause and jump into another time when we have a meal and go do something and then pop back into the time we’re watching the thing. We have to stay with it in theatre. It asks for a real body, real time experience. It is because of this intimacy that theatre was the perfect companion for The Amish Project.
The thing that’s so striking about The Amish Project is that it’s still so urgent. What advice would you have for prospective producers who want to tackle this play and talk about gun violence in their community?
So, what surprises me a lot is that so many schools do the play. I’m thinking right now particularly a couple universities that have done the play, and I got to spend time with the students while they were working on it. They asked me something similar, what advice do you have for us as we work on this and we had — just like now — we had this in depth conversation around the themes of the play, and the characters and the writing and all of that. The thing I found myself conveying to them as someone who bore out writing the play and who has performed the play and hopes to perform the play again some day is I think it’s such a privilege to perform the play, but my advice is to take very good care of yourself. The pieces holds this extreme violence and harm that we as human beings can inflict on each other, but the piece also holds the opposite extreme which is the kindness and compassion and strength that we can hold for one another. Forgiveness, transcendence. In the midst of all that, just the way there’s this kind of push/pull in the play between the darkness of the violence and the equally powerful and in this case, more powerful pull of this spiritual call to bind together, to seek spirit, to seek redemption, to seek kindness, to seek love in the face of these things. Just as those two polarities are pulling and tugging in The Amish Project, they will pull and tug inside of each performed while they work on the play. It’s like these core struggle, this tug, seems to be very, very powerful right now in our world. It’s probably always been powerful in our world, but I know for sure it’s powerful in our world right now.
So my advice to the students was be kind to each other. Pay attention to yourself. How are you? What is the play bumping up against in your own life? It might bring up your questions with your father. It might bring up how you treat yourself every time you sit down with a meal. For some reason, it goes deep and of course, we’ve been talking about what theatre means to go and see, but when you also make theatre, it’s always asking you to change your life a little bit. The play asks you to change your life in some way. My advice is to be in dialogue as an ensemble as you work on the piece and to be actively seeking ways that you can embody the ideas of the play with each other and with yourself while you make it.
The other final thing that I think is a mandate is to talk to the audience afterwards. Every performance I’ve ever done of The Amish Project, we do a talk back afterwards which is almost like a gentle act two. The audience, of course, doesn’t have to stay, but they almost always formally do because something about the play makes us need to stay seated and just bear
it out a little longer with each other and talk. The conversation afterwards is, of course, what the play was for. Whether that happens with you and yourself when you sit down at a meal or you and your father or the rest of the audience and yourself and the ensemble that performed the play. That’s the gold that all the work way for. I’d say being in dialogue with yourself and building a space to be in dialogue with the audience would be my strongest encouragement when taking on The Amish Project.
Thank you so much to Jessica Dickey for taking the time to speak with us.
To explore the ensemble version of The Amish Project, click here.
(credit: Geoff Green)