by Tammy Ryan
After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I felt like I’d felt after 9/11: grief stricken, traumatized and voiceless. In all the categories I fall in: woman, mother, playwright, human being, the events of that day, remain unbearable. The blessing and the curse of the writer is her imagination. At every mention and at random moments of every day in those first few weeks, I would begin to imagine what occurred in those classrooms, what was waiting for the first responders, and for those children’s parents. Even now, I have to harden my heart to put these words onto paper. While I avoided most of the news on cable, I did venture onto Facebook where I discovered some of my “friends” were anti gun control. I do not understand this position, so I started reading (and posting) all the articles I could find on gun legislation. I read some very cogent, practical and common sense articles like New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s, op-ed. Then I read Porochista Khakpour’s essay, “Why Did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?” In it, she describes her personal journey of love and obsession and ultimately rejection of guns: guns made her feel safe, guns made her feel powerful, guns were sexy, guns were fun.
I met Khakpour when we were both fellows at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008. I see her standing at the podium, tall and beautiful, throwing back her long dark hair as she read from her novel with a mischievous and joyful spirit, and now I can imagine her shooting a gun.
I have never owned a gun, never touched a gun, never even ever seen a real gun. I don’t share Khakpour’s obsession, but the characters in my plays do. Not in all of them—just the most successful ones, the ones that have been sanctioned by the powers that be as “good,” the plays that receive professional development, multiple productions, get published, and win awards. In each one of those plays a character either, has a gun, shoots a gun, is threatened by a gun, threatens someone else with a gun, is afraid of guns or is somehow traumatized by the violence of a gun.
This is a deeply disturbing revelation for me for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think of myself as writing about guns. I think I’m writing about family, communication, the power of forgiveness and healing. But the presence of guns in my writing is undeniable. In my first play Pig, written straight out of grad school, a troubled sailor goes AWOL and takes his family hostage. He shoots his neighbor’s dog (which was for audiences the most disturbing thing that happens) shoots his uncle and them himself. (note: I called it a comedy, okay, a black comedy) At the first talkback an audience member expressed disbelief that I’d written this play. The moderator chimed in, “Seriously, you look like you’d write something like Mary Poppins, where did this come from?” To be fair, at the time, even at thirty, I did look like I was twelve years old, but I was offended by the implication that a woman, even a seemingly innocent young woman couldn’t write a play with what I then imagined as real world action in it. I wasn’t going to be put in that woman ghetto box, thank you very much. After giving birth to my first daughter, my plays began to evolve. I knew I’d write different kinds of plays from that point on, and no matter how dark I’d go, always strive to “reach for the light.” But, the guns kept coming back, emerging seemingly organically in play after play.
Now, I am not a careful planner of my career. My ideas show up like orphaned babies on my doorstep that cry out in the cold until I cave in and let them in. Besides guns, there is also a lot of war (often as backdrop): the First Gulf War, Bosnia, the Hundred Years War, Sudan, Iraq. Once early in my career, my mother asked me “Why don’t you write happy plays? I answered “I don’t choose these subjects,” I told her, “they choose me.” I do enforce some practical parameters, like maybe don’t put eleven characters in your plays unless you can double, but do I ever think, even subconsciously: better put a gun in your play if you want this one to get produced? Isn’t there always an exchange, a feedback loop between artist and potential producer? The fact remains that it is my most commercially successful plays that are the ones with the guns. Marsha Norman said something to this effect in her article “Not There Yet.” Says Norman, “People like the plays in which the women act like guys, talk like guys, wave guns around and threaten to kill each other…The critics have liked my “guy” plays—the ones with guns in them—and pretty much trashed the rest.”
I’m not advocating for self-censorship. I’m not saying never write about guns or violence, since writing about it is a way of standing up against it. As a student of mine said recently, “There are three hundred million guns in this country. We are clearly a gun culture. How can art not reflect that?” My husband is a good, gentle and kind man and his favorite movie is Pulp Fiction. Whenever it is on television (which is actually very often) he will stay up until two in the morning watching it again and again. “It’s funny,” he says. Is violence different when it’s combined with humor? Does it make it more palpable? Or does it desensitize? I once wanted to walk out of a production The Lieutenant of Inishman because I found the combination of butchery and comedy too much to take. Is it a matter of degree? I know I probably won’t stop writing about violence in my work despite these questions I have. In my current play, Soldier’s Heart, a mother points a gun at her own child. It’s integral to the action, to the theme and the whole point of the play. I’m not going to take that gun out of her hands. Despite Chekhov’s rule, though, the gun does not go off, so maybe that’s progress?
At Point Park University where I teach, the Cinema and Digital Arts Department has a “no weapons” policy for its Introduction to Screenwriting and early production classes. It is explained as a way of providing parameters for screenplay assignments, but it also addresses a “production and liability/risk management issue,” according to chair and screenwriter, Nelson Chipman. “With such prevalence of weapons in current fictional shows, reality, news and gaming we look for ways to help students create work that is more ingenuous, creative…tasked with creating a story without any weapons…students create more meaningful work, and actually get much more creative with violence and its repercussions.” My students balked at this rule at first and found myriad ways to hide all manner of weapons in their scripts, reminding me of a story a friend told me about her toddler, who faced with his mother’s strict no toy gun policy, bit his peanut butter sandwiches into the shape of pistols. But my insistence (points off for weapons) led them to discover that while guns can easily complicate a moment, create tension, lead to their climax, shock an audience, they are not necessary to good storytelling and in fact can limit the deep, surprising, complex and original conflicts that emerge in their work, finally. Without the guns, they were forced to imagine something new.
I read somewhere that after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Bertolt Brecht went back and revised the plays that came before. He felt it wasn’t the same world anymore, and that his plays, even the ones already written had to reflect that new reality. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has done that to me, it’s altered my view of reality. I’m not Bertolt Brecht, so I won’t be revising those plays with guns in them, but going forward I’m going to be more mindful of what Brecht also said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The gift of imagination that the writer has been blessed with is sometimes a curse, but it can also be a tool. We as writers can reflect society or reshape it, but we also have the opportunity to more completely re-imagine it. And in that re-imagination, I believe, lies all of our hopes.
Tammy Ryan is a playwright. Her plays have been produced or developed at such theaters across the country. “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” was developed at the New Harmony Project and was a featured play at the National New Play Network and will be published by Dramatic Publishing Company this year.