In the wake of recent mass shootings, many may feel helpless about creating change. But Arizona State University graduate student Marissa Barnathan believes that doesn’t have to be the case.
Barnathan, who is pursuing an MFA in theatre directing in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, said everyone can use their skills to raise awareness.
“I have five nieces and one nephew, and that’s who I think of when things like this happen, especially at schools,” she said. “I am trying as best I can to use the skills I have as a theater artist to move us toward positive social change.”
In spring 2022, Barnathan worked with ASU’s student-run theater organization Binary Theatre Company to put on a series of plays highlighting gun violence in America.
“My hope is that if more people can connect on an emotional and psychological level, they will be moved to take action,” Barnathan said. “It means activating and empowering people to feel they can make changes toward gun safety.”
The performances were part of #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence, the creation of #ENOUGH Artistic Director Michael Cotey. Each year, the national organization issues a call for original 10-minute plays by young playwrights that confront gun violence. Theater organizations can then apply to present the selected submissions. Readings are held across the country at the same time — in April — to commemorate the Columbine High School tragedy. This year, 58 readings were held in 29 states, featuring the work of eight playwrights.
Barnathan first heard about the #ENOUGH project in Philadelphia at an online rally run by Students Demand Action.
“I have always been interested in using theater to tackle social justice issues, so I was really interested in what Michael Cotey was doing,” she said.
Barnathan felt the project was a good fit for ASU, so she applied for the rights and proposed the project to Binary Theatre Company. Her proposal was accepted.
The ASU readings extended over several days and included seven directors, including both graduate and undergraduate students. Barnathan said having students directing was important.
“I like working with lots of different people. For me, it’s important to have those one-on-one experiences,” Barnathan said. “And as an educator, it was an important part of the process.”
Along with Sam Briggs, second-year student in the MFA Theatre for Youth and Community program, Barnathan implemented concepts from their class in participatory governance and civic engagement with Daniel Schugurensky, professor in the ASU School of Public Affairs and in the School of Social Transformation.
The project included a focus group that generated questions for audience members. Audience members then shared their responses in several ways — participating in talkbacks after a performance, writing on notecards or scanning a QR code that directed them to a website about local gun safety efforts.
It also meant involving local decision-makers, like Jennifer Longdon of the Arizona House of Representatives. She participated in one of the sessions about community safety. Longdon, who was shot and paralyzed in 2004, was interviewed as part of PBS NewsHour’s coverage of #ENOUGH.
“I found it really very intense, really true to life. I found myself holding my breath several points along the way,” said Longdon in the interview. “I think that it provides an outlet for the creators and the performers, and I think it’s educational to the audience.”
Barnathan said she hopes the performances motivate as well as educate.
“Our goal was to have deliberative dialogue with audience members and move them toward action: Write to their local representatives opposing harmful bills or to our state senators to advocate for proactive gun laws,” Barnathan said. “I want people to feel empowered to take those steps. Let’s think about what it would look like in five years if we have made positive change around gun violence.”