By Mark Evan Chimsky
Actors are shaped by the plays they perform in.
When tragedy struck, drama club students were ready.
As a young man, I was an unabashed theater geek. And I haven’t changed much since I corralled the neighborhood kids to act in my production of The Sound of Music in my family’s garage. I felt a special kinship with the Parkland students when news reports started appearing that many of them had been in their school’s Drama Club.
As an out gay teen, bullied relentlessly in my Cincinnati high school, I found a safe harbor in our drama club. It was the first time I felt accepted, part of a community. Being different wasn’t seen as a liability, but as an asset. We were taught to express our individuality and not worry about “fitting in.”
Drama club not only wanted us to be different, but to make a difference—to be creative, break new ground, and yes, even disrupt the status quo.
It suddenly made sense how—in the aftermath of the harrowing tragedy that took place on February 14—the Parkland students were able to speak out with such fierce determination and eloquence. And when Internet trolls tried to silence them with death threats and outrageous accusations, they refused to be silenced.
And something else seemed fitting. I was interested to learn that just three months before the shootings, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Drama Club performed Fiddler on the Roof, a beloved musical about Jews in a tiny village in Eastern Europe in 1905. As their daily lives are threatened by a hostile government, their long-held traditions begin to fray.
This monumental sea change is viewed through the hardscrabble life of Tevye the Dairyman, who sees his long-held beliefs upended as his daughters make matches of their own with young men who range from unexpected (a poor tailor) to unsuitable (a Russian who is outside the faith).
At one point in the musical, Tevye ponders what will happen to tradition after he himself begins bending the rules:
One little time I pulled out a thread / And where has it led?
With this musical in their blood, the Drama Club kids were ready to question tradition as well. Like Tevye’s daughters, they knew the center of a hidebound system could no longer hold. They knew and felt that current gun laws were woefully inadequate and they needed to speak out for change. In a way, performing in—or even seeing—Fiddler on the Roof may have primed these young people to push for change in their own lives. When tragedy struck, they were ready.
Drama club teaches all of us to find our voice—to express ourselves in ways that we can’t or may not feel comfortable doing otherwise. By finding our own tribe of other theater geeks, we gain strength to be who we are.
These courageous students had an undeniable sense of conviction that was given urgency by coming face-to-face with death. But I believe their passion and presence was forged in drama club.
Much has been made of this affiliation. Some on the extreme right have even used this fact against the kids, making up stories that they are really “crisis actors.” This has forced some of the students to defend themselves, while others refuse to dignify such slander with a response. But their association with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Drama Club could be seen as contributing to their self-awareness and activism.
I believe that young people are somehow shaped by the plays they perform in. It’s true for adults, so why shouldn’t it be true for children? In particular, a show with serious themes can teach its actors lessons that become internalized through the mere process of repetition.
In Fiddler, persecuted Jews from another time and place taught these students a lesson about the need to challenge the old order. Taking up the call, the kids are demanding commonsense legislation that would protect them and society at large.
May the Parkland students keep inspiring all of us, as they dare to be different, and to make a difference. May they create new and better traditions, despite all the obstacles and opposition they face.
May they draw strength from their own resolve, and like a fiddler on the roof, may they play a new melody, maintaining their balance as they lead us forward.
About the Author
An award-winning poet, Mark Evan Chimsky is an editorial consultant based in Portland, Maine (markchimskyeditorial.com). He was the editorial director of Harper San Francisco and headed top imprints at Little, Brown and Macmillan. In addition, he is the editor of a number of bestsellers, including Johnny Cash’s autobiography, Cash.
This essay originally appeared in The Good Men Project. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.