Episode 3 | On Guns: Bridging the Divide on Stage


By: Jonathan Perloe, Russ Rowland and NYCityLens

Gun violence is an issue that divides many Americans. But a theater company in New York set out to build a bridge by helping people with firsthand experience with guns tell their own stories on stage. What happened was not what they expected.

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TRANSCRIPT

Will Coley [00:00:00] Twenty-three years ago, Elaine Lane lost her teenage son David, to gun violence. Each year on the anniversary of his death. She thinks about the bullet that took his life.

Elaine Lane [00:00:10] That bullet continues to move. It's not only that it's killed my son, but the hopes and dreams that his life each year could be different. And each year that bullet comes in and destroys that because each year that doesn't happen, can't happen.

Will Coley [00:00:28] Ever since David's death, Elaine has been on a mission to share her story to prevent other children from being killed. This activism led to a storytelling theater workshop where she met people who had a much more romantic view towards guns.

Elaine Lane [00:00:42] It was truly a learning for me because I didn't think I could ever care for anybody who could pick up a gun. And then I had to learn that people who may like guns, they're not all bad people, you know? So boy, I've got to learn all this and at old age. So it made me grow as a human being. It made me grow as a human being.

Will Coley [00:01:09] I'm Will Coley reporting for The Opportunity Agenda.

Ellen Buchman [00:01:12] And I'm Ellen Buchman, president of The Opportunity Agenda, we're a Social Justice Communication Lab that works to advance the impact of the social justice community. We do this by shaping compelling narratives and messages and building over time the communication capacity of leaders through resources, training and the like. You are listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series about what it means to shift the dominant narrative around critical social and cultural issues, the issues of our time. Now, when we say narrative at the opportunity agenda, we're simply referring to it as the big story, the explanation for a topic that we carry around in our heads, all of us, and sometimes more than one. And these narratives shape culture and they contribute to policy. So in this episode, we're looking at competing narratives about guns in the United States. For decades, the gun debate has been between two opposing camps. On the one side, there are Americans who believe that the Second Amendment grants the unrestricted right to bear arms. And then there are those who believe that guns should be controlled and not easily accessible, especially to potentially violent people. Now, this divide is what compelled a small theater company called Houses on the Moon to tackle the issue through a storytelling workshop and a series of public performances.

Will Coley [00:02:45] We're going to consider how the lessons they learned from this experience actually connect to similar approaches by policymakers. To do that, we'll hear about a US state which is known for its support for gun owner rights, but has also been the location of mass shootings.

Ellen Buchman [00:02:58] Both stories show how it is possible to bridge narrative divides by finding points of agreement in order to break out of the impasse on guns in the United States.

Will Coley [00:03:15] For many years after her son's death, Elaine Lane did her own part to stop gun violence long before she joined the Houses on the Moon Theater project. She started a nonprofit in her son's memory, David's Shoes, to promote love of self and community. She told her story to students and schools and asked them to take a pledge to stay away from guns for the sake of their parents. Elaine wears big round glasses and close cropped hair. She has that poise and presence that teachers possess. You know that kids listen when she talks.

Elaine Lane [00:03:47] I try to get them into a conversation as to what does it mean to analyze? What does it mean to value yourself, you know, and why is it important to value yourself? And how do we know that we are valuing ourselves? I just want them to think, why do we carry guns?

Will Coley [00:04:03] Over the years, Elaine saw many flashpoints in the debate around gun violence and Second Amendment rights. One grim milestone was the horrible attack on Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

News Clip [00:04:15] It is an almost unimaginable scene. What we know so far is that inside this elementary school was a group of young kids. They were protected by their teachers. And there was one deranged man who decided to take it all away.

Will Coley [00:04:29] Like most Americans, Elaine was shocked and saddened by what happened. But she also noticed how this story about a mostly white elementary school made the headlines, unlike the shootings in African-American communities.

Elaine Lane [00:04:41] It was frustrating things have happened before then where there had been a mass shooting and and you notice that that the attention is given there, not realizing that daily at that particular time, 12 kids were being killed a day. I don't think anyone cares about what happens in our cities. A portion of our society do not see me as being human. They do not see me as being human.

Ellen Buchman [00:05:14] Now, Elaine is expressing a common frustration among many black Americans regarding the gun debate. Why do mass shootings receive that attention while at the same time gun violence that happens on a day to day basis in urban communities does not? When considering the location of the shootings and the profile of the victims, it becomes unavoidable to think that the nation simply cares more about some people than it does others.

Will Coley [00:05:49] Emily Weiner and her friend Jeffrey Solomon also saw the news about Sandy Hook and watched how it stoked the gun violence debate.

Emily Weiner [00:05:56] You know, we were saddened by what we were seeing and hearing going on, but also because it was so obvious that all of a sudden everyone was paying attention because of how much that particular incident brought awareness to people in terms of the gun violence epidemic or crisis we have.

Will Coley [00:06:17] Emily and Jeff founded Houses on the Moon Theater Company in New York. Emily is from Massachusetts and didn't grow up around guns for many years. She was a teaching artist in New York City schools where she had seen the impact of gun violence.

Emily Weiner [00:06:30] I had been seeing so many young people and older people whose lives were affected by guns and gun violence in so many different ways that had never gotten that same kind of attention. Not to diminish what happened, you know, in that town at all. But this has been going on for so long in so many different ways. And the gun violence epidemic was becoming something everybody started talking about in a much larger way at that time. It seemed like the time to collect a group of people from all different walks of life, you know, all who live in this country, different ages, different races, different circumstances, different cultural backgrounds and start to listen to each other. And that was how the idea of formulating this workshop started, which is called Gun Country.

Will Coley [00:07:19] I've known Emily for many years and seen several of their performances

Emily Weiner [00:07:23] We're a, you know, not for profit theater company, almost 20 years old, with the mission of amplifying unheard voices and creating new work that tell stories that we don't often hear as a society. We do so through a lot of close community partnership and through a develop...a research and development process that we've slowly developed over the years.

Will Coley [00:07:45] I first met Emily and Jeff through one of these community partnerships when I was working for an immigrant rights nonprofit organization. Jeff was the playwright and Emily was a cast member. Their theater company Houses on the Moon takes an almost documentary approach to nonfiction stories. In many of their productions, the story is drawn from primary sources like the actual lived experiences of other people. The company then structures the stories for dramatic effect for the theater. This was a new performance piece called Gun Country. This time, Emily and Jeff would make the owner of the story part of the final live performance. Sorry to back up a little bit. Like, can you tell me a little bit about, like, your theater's theory of change? Like, what is it about theater that's unique to telling these stories versus like other forms of -

Emily Weiner [00:08:32] Of storytelling? Yeah, well, you know, I can speak from my personal experience, but, you know, I got involved in theater at a really young age, and I remember...being a child and seeing people on the stage that would say, say things, you know, that was as well as I could process it at the time, would say things or emote things, you know, feel things that I I was able to connect to. I think there's something about seeing a human being in front of me and watching them experience the moment that they're talking about. That affected me deeply from really early on, you know, and I think that that's true for a lot of people. There's something about being in...in a room with somebody, the live experience, you know, different from watching a movie or television show, different from reading a book or reading a news article. It's just it's right there in your face. You can't deny that this is a human being.

Will Coley [00:09:30] And it was that human connection that they wanted to bring to the gun violence debate. Emily wanted audiences to understand the perspective of people not like themselves. She wanted to take a step back from preconceived notions, from opposing camps. And after performances, Houses on the Moon organized talkback sessions between the cast, community activists and the audience to spark conversations. The big difference in this production was that the individuals on stage would tell their own firsthand stories, not actors retelling someone else's experiences. After Sandy Hook in 2013, they started looking for storytellers.

Emily Weiner [00:10:05] You know, Houses on the Moon works closely with a lot of different community groups and community partners. And through that, through those relationships, we put a call out to individuals whose lives have been touched by guns in one way or another, and that would be interested in participating. You know, we're a theater company with the goal of really exploring true human stories from all walks of life with our work so we don't have an agenda. So it was important to include, to find stories, you know, for this project, for Gun Country, of folks who may have different experiences and even potentially, you know, political views on gun reform than the more stereotypical, you know, liberal view on gun reform.

Will Coley [00:10:50] And Emily was adamant about not telling stories from a liberal viewpoint. That's what audiences would expect from a theater company in New York City. She wanted the performances to be complicated and thought provoking, not preachy. Emily hadn't grown up around guns, but had seen their impact in black and brown communities in New York. The Newtown tragedy may have stoked a national conversation, but many were missing the larger picture.

Emily Weiner [00:11:14] And I didn't want the project to be the cliché, stereotypical project. I joined the NRA as an experiment. I mean, it wasn't that...I didn't join the NRA because I wanted to be a part of the NRA. I joined it because I wanted to find people to talk to that had very different stories from the ones that I was hearing. I had never in my life before this been really that interested or curious about guns. But during this process of spending so much time thinking about and learning and listening about stories that involve guns, I really wanted to learn how to shoot.

Will Coley [00:11:56] This experiment didn't pan out for Emily. They didn't find any storytellers that way. They did find several storytellers in the metro New York area. Some were transplants from North Carolina and Georgia. For 10 weeks, the storytellers met together in person in a studio space in midtown Manhattan. Emily and Jeff led a workshop series for the participants to shape their story to perform on stage.

Emily Weiner [00:12:17] We'd start with, you know, really sort of simple, noninvasive, warm up, get to know you exercises. And we'd move into figuring out what is the story like my story that I need to tell that brings me to this group and it's trying to sort of unpack that through a series of improvisations, some creative writing, some, you know, just pairing off into pairs and talking and sharing and listening. And we sort of built up over the first few weeks doing group exercises of those sort until each individual was able to really nail down: this is the story that I need to tell.

Will Coley [00:13:05] Elaine Lane, the woman who had lost her son to gun violence was part of that original group. The Newark Star Ledger had written about Elaine's antiviolence work and that helped her connect with other activists. And because of that, she met Houses on the oon. And what interested you in doing it?

Elaine Lane [00:13:21] THis tapped into another area of me that I totally enjoyed. I just remember the exercises and the fact that those exercises just helped me to bring out some portion of the story that you may want to share you would be able to share. But mostly it was to make us familiar with each other, to make us feel comfortable with each other, to make us feel comfortable sharing our stories and inspire us to want to share these stories with others.

Will Coley [00:13:52] But Emily wasn't sure how Elaine would feel about another one of the storytellers, a man who had served 17 years in jail for manslaughter.

Emily Weiner [00:14:00] They were both in this workshop series together, yet coming in from totally opposite experiences in some ways in terms of like the role of guns in their life. As they got to know each other, you know, the most extraordinary thing happened. They just connected and they needed each other and it was just a direct, immediate, you know, and necessary, like, connection and conversation that started between the two of them and continued.

Will Coley [00:14:29] Emily was grateful to have a lane in the group,

Emily Weiner [00:14:31] Elaine brought tremendous grace and wisdom and an enormous amount of care and love and support for everybody.

Will Coley [00:14:42] Also in the group, there is a woman who grew up shooting guns with her father in North Carolina. She told a story about one night when she came close to shooting a teenager who had made the drunken mistake of entering the wrong house. A police officer talked about his relationship with his gun and what he'd seen in the communities where he worked as they shared and shaped their stories over the 10 weeks. The group bonded and became an ensemble.

Emily Weiner [00:15:04] People were really, it was raw and there was...it was challenging. And I think ultimately it was a really positive experience for those involved to be able to...to tell their story and also to listen to other stories in order to be heard. We had a therapist in the room with us for most of the sessions because...because there was a lot of things coming up.

Will Coley [00:15:27] Sometimes Emily would question the project,

Emily Weiner [00:15:30] Should I be doing this? Is this fair? Like, is this right? Like, you know, some of the stories were just so hard to tell. And so having those moments of saying, "Why am I doing this to these people?"

Will Coley [00:15:46] One storyteller in particular, a high school principal, struggled to tell the story of his nephew killed by someone with a gun.

Emily Weiner [00:15:52] We had several points where I would say to him, you don't have to do this. He was like, no, I have to do this. Like, it was a tribute to his nephew and he had to do it. So everyone sort of had their own reason of why they had to be there and do what they did, you know?

Will Coley [00:16:08] Emily and her colleagues work with the storytellers to hone their stories.

Emily Weiner [00:16:12] They'd go home and write and we do, you know, exercises in the room together that would just help further the...the nugget of the story that they were trying to tell. And then, you know, myself and Jeff as co facilitators would, just sort of steer the stories into...in a creative process of like how do you how do you even formulate a good story with a beginning, middle and end and figuring out what is the juice of the piece that I'm getting at and what's...what's unique about my story and my experience and what is so not unique that so many other people can connect to it.

Ellen Buchman [00:16:47] What Emily's talking about here is a classic approach to storytelling, which can lead to narrative shift. Drawing parallels to a person's own individual story helps us reflect on our own experiences and share mutual understanding and growth. This is one of the reasons why theater can be so impactful in opening hearts and minds.

Emily Weiner [00:17:08] So trying to figure out those things until each person eventually had their own written five to eight minute story that we then curated into a performance piece that's just first person storytelling. And we presented this piece for the first time in March 2014.

Will Coley [00:17:34] That was at Dixon Place?

Emily Weiner [00:17:36] The first performance. Yeah. You were there right?

Will Coley [00:17:38] I think I was. Yeah I was there.

Emily Weiner [00:17:39] Yeah, I think you were there.

Houses on the Moon Performance [00:17:41] My body shakes uncontrollably. I wonder if they can feel me shaking. I'm a pretty good bullshitter at nine years old, but there's o way I'm gonna talk my way out of this one. They know I'm scared. I'm gonna count to three.

Will Coley [00:17:57] Emily and I remember that performance and how the high school principal had trouble finishing his story.

Emily Weiner [00:18:02] He's not an actor. And that experience for him. Of writing that story. Telling it just just to our group in our private safe setting and then actually presenting it at the opening, it was so difficult for him to tell the story because it was so, he was going through so much pain, you know, in the loss of his nephew and the particular way it all happened. And he cried his way, you know, really, really cried his way through the story. And that audience sat there and was with him, you know, every step of the way,

Will Coley [00:18:41] Because the experience of telling the story was so difficult for the high school principal. That was the only performance that he did. Since then, an actor has told the story for him. As the show progressed and developed over several performances and iterations, the theater company hired a director Jenna Worsham.

Emily Weiner [00:18:58] I had known Jenna for a few years in the theater world because she's a director and a friend. And, you know, I knew I knew a little bit about Jenna's upbringing, you know, growing up down south. When I told her about the project, she was, you know, immediately interested because she had a relationship with guns from a young age. And it wasn't...it was a story that wasn't in our piece yet.

Will Coley [00:19:23] As the director, Jenna curated the order of the stories and provided staging suggestions. But somewhere in the rehearsal process, Jenna felt inspired to contribute her own story. Here's Jenna Worsham.

Jenna Worsham [00:19:35] I think because I was talking so much about my own experience growing up with guns, you know, they said, well, why don't you write a story for the show? But they wanted the perspective of someone who had a really different relationship to guns.

Will Coley [00:19:47] Jenna wrote about growing up on a small farm in north Georgia. Both her dad and stepdad love guns.

Jenna Worsham [00:19:54] I grew up shooting and hunting and they taught me a lot about them. And I. I really liked guns personally, and that's how I ended up writing a love letter.

Will Coley [00:20:03] Here's a clip of Jenna's story.

Jenna Worsham [00:20:05] When I think of a gun, I think of the country, romance, home. And before I moved to New York City, that's all they were to me, like the oak trees or the way my mom's old perfume smells, just another part of home. When I was 16 years old, all I wanted was a 12 gauge to call my own and Christmas morning, 2004, my dreams came true. My point is I was more excited for that Berretta than anything else. I mean, my God, she was beautiful. We're talking single barrel semiautomatic improved cylinder beautiful with that black matte finish. It was love at first sight.

Will Coley [00:20:47] Jenna says that she wanted her story to show the connection between guns and culture, especially in the South.

Jenna Worsham [00:20:53] because they're a part of our identity. They want to be able to own the guns that they like and use them for hunting. And they want to be able to feed their families and they want to be in a safe neighborhood, kind of like, you know, everybody up here.

Will Coley [00:21:09] Whenever Jenna told her story, she wasn't quite sure what to expect from the audiences. They performed at community centers and different schools and organizations in New York State and Connecticut, as well as off Broadway in New York City.

Jenna Worsham [00:21:21] I sort of always expected to be, you know, to be the black sheep, so to speak. But what was overwhelming was how many people would come up to me after and say thank you. And I really was touched by your story. And your story made me think about things in a way I hadn't before. And to think about, you know, the people where I come from and why they believe what they believe about guns.

Will Coley [00:21:49] Elaine Lane remembers how she felt after getting to know Jenna and then hearing her story

Elaine Lane [00:21:55] Before Jenna talked about her story. I really liked her. I said, "Oh, my God, she was such a warm and wonderful person." And I really connected with her then I found out that she likes guns and I...I said, "Well, do I hate her now?" And I just realized I can't do that. She's a human being and she has a story. And her story brought her to where she was. This is my story, brought me to where I am. And I have to connect people to who they are now. It made me grow a little bit, made me be just a little bit of a better person.

Will Coley [00:22:33] This is a testament to Emily's goals for Gun Country. She resisted creating a preachy, one sided show. She did not want to push a particular political agenda.

Emily Weiner [00:22:42] My objective for the project was to not make it a liberal narrative. My objective was to make sure that that didn't happen.

Ellen Buchman [00:22:51] Instead, Emily wanted to focus on building empathy across the narrative divide and this empathy hinges on a sense of another's humanity and their core values, like family. This is actually one of the recommendations that we at The Opportunity Agenda propose in our Shifting the Narrative research, that tapping into basic values works. It speaks to the empathetic sense of shared humanity at the heart of gun country. The storytelling shows that houses on the moon produced, and that others can produce, by using values. What happened in the gun country workshop and performances demonstrated what we at the Opportunity Agenda have often found, speaking from shared values is the place to start. Another recommendation in our Shifting the Narrative research is establishing one's own frame to tell the affirmative story, the positive story,

Will Coley [00:23:48] The frame created by the storytelling show Gun Country was just one piece of evidence that there was a larger shift in the national narrative on guns. Emily Weiner and Houses on the Moon didn't collaborate with gun control activists, but they were arriving at the same place.

Ellen Buchman [00:24:03] That's what narrative does. People speak from the same shared story without any coordination, without even realizing it, or without any planning. They just know it by heart.

Will Coley [00:24:13] In 2013, activists against gun violence began telling a story about common sense gun reform. They may have taken a cue from a phrase that President Obama used in his 2013 State of the Union address when talking about the Sandy Hook tragedy.

President Barack Obama [00:24:29] It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans, Americans who believe in the Second Amendment, have come together around commonsense reform like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators...

Will Coley [00:24:59] Two interconnected advocacy campaigns, Every Town and Moms Demand Action distilled this into gun sense. I ask Emily what she thought of this.

Emily Weiner [00:25:09] I think sense is a much more likable word than control. You know, they can control. Nobody wants to be controlled. The conversation has over the years, you know, turned a lot to like safety and how to take care of a gun. The word sense has a connotation to like just using your brain and how to use it. I think it's it's, you know, more digestible, I guess. I don't know.

Will Coley [00:25:35] Here is Jenna Worsham again, the show director.

Jenna Worsham [00:25:38] I love that. I mean, words are important. I think gun sense makes a lot of sense and is not something that people will associate with, you know, elitist liberal culture that they think, you know, looks down on them and is condescending and doesn't understand anything about what they believe. The majority of people, at least where I'm from, support reasonable regulation and just...just want to be left alone. You know, I sort of remember what my dad always says. He's like, you know, handguns only good for one thing and obviously that's killing someone. And that's not what guns were to us, you know?

Will Coley [00:26:23] For Elaine Lane, whose son was shot and killed, her ideal world is still one without guns. But she sees the value in the idea of gun sense.

Elaine Lane [00:26:32] When I first started this, I said to myself, for me personally, I don't want anybody to have a gun. Nobody should have a gun, but nobody is going to listen to me. So the best thing that I can do is to join the people who said, OK, if you're going to have guns, let's think very seriously about how do we do it, how do we make sure that it's used properly or whatever. And that's the best I can, because I know that nobody is going to listen to...nobody is going to say no guns.

Will Coley [00:27:11] A frame like gun sense is the product of an empathetic or values based approach to gun violence. This, after all, is what Houses on the Moon set out to create with their storytelling project. It's just one example of a larger narrative shift. The same approach was emerging in other places, like in the state of Virginia, which is considered a gun friendly state. It's also home to the National Rifle Association's headquarters. But over the past decade, the narrative about guns in Virginia made a 180 degree turn. Families that lost loved ones in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting played a dominant role in the gun safety movement in the state. As a result, Virginia went from being a state with virtually no restrictions on gun ownership to being the harbinger of a new gun sense in the United States.

Governor Ralph Northam [00:27:59] By the power vested in me by the Constitution of Virginia. I will summon the members of the Senate and the House of Delegates to meet in special session for the purpose of passing common sense public safety laws.

Will Coley [00:28:13] In April 2020, Governor Ralph Northam signed a package of five gun control measures into law, all of them priorities of the gun violence prevention movement. Jenna Worsham happen to go to college in Virginia, so I ask her about these developments.

Jenna Worsham [00:28:27] I was surprised and excited and I was like, maybe things really are changing.

Will Coley [00:28:31] Before the 2020 election, Everytown and Moms Demand Action led a campaign registering millions of gun sense voters and their own survey. Research of more than 15000 voters, 70 percent agree that gun violence is an urgent issue that the federal government needs to address quickly next year and 68 percent agree that our nation's gun laws should be stronger than they are now.

President Joe Biden [00:28:53] There's a whole range of simple, basic things that can be done that could significantly reduce the amount of gun violence.

Gun Sense Ad [00:29:00] And we'll do everything we can to help them advance the bipartisan life saving gun safety measures that Americans have been demanding for years.

Ellen Buchman [00:29:10] This message of gun sense creates a bridge across competing narratives that seem, at first, to be diametrically opposed to one another. The experience of the Houses of the Moon Theater Company shows us the telling firsthand stories that connect to values and emotions are the cornerstone of a new narrative about guns in this country. By centering empathy in the performance, the storytellers also demonstrated how gun violence affects everyone, everyone. We've also seen how establishing one's own frame, telling one's own story like gun sense is vital to shaping narrative.

Will Coley [00:30:40] You've been listening to shifting the narrative, a podcast series from The Opportunity Agenda to see photos from the Gun Country performances, listen to Jenna Worsham's story "Love Letter" and read more Shifting The Narrative case studies. Please visit the website OpportunityAgenda.org. Also learn more about Elaine Lane's antiviolence work at DavidsShoes.org. Hear even more stories in the Houses on the Moon podcast wherever you listen to them. I'm Will Coley the producer. Ellen Buchman is the President of The Opportunity Agenda. Our research and production team includes Elizabeth Johnson, Julie Fisher-Rowe, Lucy Odigie-Turley, Loren Siegel, Charlie Sherman, Lashaya Howie, Christiaan Perez, Brian Erickson and Rachel Reyes. Our editor is Allison Behringer. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions for more shifting the narrative episodes. Be sure to follow us or subscribe wherever you listen to podcast and please rate and comment so others will find and hear these stories.

Ellen Buchman [00:31:38] Together, we can shift narratives and create greater opportunity for everyone.

Jenna Worsham [00:31:45] Some of the best people I have ever known live in rural Georgia. What they imagine for this country may involve gun rights staying as they are, but it also looks a lot like what we imagine. Peace, opportunity, safety for their family. I wish I could put some of those good people in a room with my chosen family, my dearest friends here in New York. I know in my bones they would have so much in common. If they could only have the means to meet the means to listen.