Interdepartmental collaboration helps UTD community heal after Pulse shootings

10 months ago
Dev Thimmisetty
Mercury Staff

In the first effort of its kind in Texas, two departments on campus partnered up to present stage plays to spread awareness and support the LGBT community at UTD and around the nation.

The theater department in the School of Arts and Humanities and Galerstein Women’s Center came together to organize a reading of 15 short plays on Oct. 9 in the Jonsson Performance Hall as part of a nationwide response to the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando on June 12.

These plays, called “After Orlando,” were one piece of a three-day event at UTD to commemorate National LGBT History Month.

Shelby Hibbs, one of the chief organizers of the event and a clinical assistant professor in the theater department, said that the program was inspired by the efforts of Caridad Svich, a New York City playwright.

“When the Pulse nightclub shootings happened this summer, (Svich) and her company … decided that they had to do something about this. So they gathered 50 playwrights from all around the world and they asked them to write a play about whatever they wanted in response to this, the shootings and LGBT issues in general,” Hibbs said.

After the 50 plays were collected, theater groups around the nation were contacted and asked to host 10 to 15 of the plays as a reading. Hibbs’ colleague, Thomas Riccio, a professor of performance and aesthetic studies, brought the project to Hibbs after talking to Svich personally.

“We are actually the first reading that’s happening in Texas. We are doing 15 (plays) and four of them are actually (written by) local playwrights,” Hibbs said. “The event is open to the public, but geared towards students so we can raise more awareness (here at UTD).

Matt Johns, the assistant director of LGBT programs at the Galerstein Women’s Center, forms the other half of the partnership between the theatre department and the Women’s Center. Johns and other Women’s Center staff members helped organize the venue, hand out flyers and post advertisements. As audience members walked into the theater, they were handed paper slips that indicated random, small things about life that made it worth living. At the end of the performance, they were asked to read what they had on their paper slips to show why that day could be a good day even though the tragedy that happened in Orlando will have a lasting impact.

“Even though (the shooting) was in Orlando, it affected the whole world,” Johns said. “We want to show that whoever you are, whatever walk of life you follow, whatever gender identity, gender expression, whatever it might be, you are welcome on our campus. We support the LGBT community here at UTD.”

Kristen Kelso, a literary studies graduate student, was one of the actors in the “After Orlando” plays. In one play, she played an old grandmother who was trying to collect all the guns in the world so she could get rid of them — a somewhat satirical take on the serious issues surrounding mass shootings and LGBT rights. Kelso said that it was rewarding to be a part of this project that gave back to the community by helping it heal.

“There are so many layers to these series of plays. There are some that are specifically about gay rights and there are others about gun control and then kind of how those two coincide. (This) is an important thing to talk about (as) this is something that happens over and over and over again,” she said.

The plays often mixed themes of sadness and grief with those of recovery and hope. Certain plays focused on how the survivors of the event were deeply impacted while others focused on the effect the shootings had on those related to the victims. Sometimes these were family or significant others and in others they were medical workers who had to listen to all the phones going off on the victims’ dead bodies as loved ones began calling in concern after hearing the news.

Several plays, especially towards the end, had to do with the process of healing. The last play illustrated understanding and getting past the pain by talking about it with friends in the same situation.

“I’m really glad that this is happening all over the country, because it’s (like) one of the plays said – this story needs to change, this story needs to stop and it needs to stop now,” Kelso said. “We never know when the next one is going to happen, and like they said – Will it be you? Will it be me? Will it be on a train? An airplane? The main thing to convey is that this is something we need to talk about, and we have to keep talking about it.”