Human Race’s “26 Pebbles”: From Sharing Tragedies, Hope Ripples Out
Posted On February 2, 2017
Sneak Peek by Ken Stern of 26 Pebbles: Human Race Theatre
Ahead of the world premiere opening of 26 Pebbles at the Human Race Theatre in Dayton this Thursday, February 2nd, playwright Eric Ulloa, director Igor Goldin, and actor Caitlin McWethy sat down to discuss the play.
Ulloa, a New York actor and playwright, couldn’t get the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the murdering of 20 small children and six adults on December 14, 2012, out of his head. “I was so angry and couldn’t shake that anger,” he recounts. “I realized I wasn’t doing anything about it but that I had a voice as an actor and a writer. I determined to go to Newtown.”
With a poet’s perspective, he recalled how he went to Newton May 1st, having given folks time to breathe and process and “letting the season turn from the barrenness of winter . . . to spring: the skies were blues, buds were blossoming.” Ulloa sought interviews to learn where townspeople were at in the moment. He spoke with over 60 people in conversations that lasted 90 to 120 minutes. Those transcripts became 26 Pebbles, a 90 minute play with six characters playing 24 roles, each capturing the “arc of character,” explained actor Caitlin McWethy, who has two parts. For one, “by combining both of their experiences [we made] a full journey for a character as they process this whole event and hopefully something that the audience can latch on to as well. They can see how you go from shock to grief to anger to acceptance, the full process.”
The 60 people interviewed ranged from parents whose children were in the school to a pair of Australian transplants newly settled. Eric saw the varied positions and beliefs people held. “There was tension in town and disagreements. Movements started” but not everyone shared the same one. He realized the “overwhelming thrust for the people of Newtown was to endure.”
Director Igor Goldin is a friend of Ulloa’s. The two had many discussions as the script evolved. Goldin knew words can be stagnant, needing to be “cracked open for conversation and action.” The stage setting is a town hall, so there are “six entities with everyone in the theatre” and the audience is drawn in as the townspeople “acknowledge and come to terms with the aftermath of the tragedy.”
Goldin noted, “it is interesting to create dramatic structure from a real situation because life doesn’t have dramatic structure. That is what Caitlin is talking about. How do you take these words, these experiences that people lived, these dramatic moments that people have lived and somehow organize it? Eric did a brilliant a job of this so that there is dramatic structure without veering from the truth of the matter. Once the words were on the page it is our job to interpret their meaning,
McWethy shared that the words “resonated in ways we didn’t expect . . . . we found connective tissue, their words are true, and real.” The audience “can see how you go from shock to grief to anger to acceptance, the full process.” For her, “it is an honor to say their text and their thoughts.”
Ulloa spoke to the complexity as well as fragility of being human, for the audience as well as Newtown’s residents. “As odd as the term may seem I would say the show in a way is a 90 minute experience because it is not like a regular play. We have to build it because of the subject matter. We are treating the audience safely. We know that the subject matter can be tough in some parts but we know that there are tremendous amounts of joy and hope and moments of sheer laughter that are just funny. And so you go from moments of tears to moments of laughing out loud in the show. That was the hardest part of structuring it.
“I understand the overwhelming thrust not only to present these words, that the people of Newtown gave me permission to tell their story, but also I have to remember the care I have to have, that we all have to have, for our audience, so we never feel that we are making a sensational statement or we are giving them sadness for sadness because we are going to make you feel terrible. We know we are giving them the true form of theatre.”
Again and again Ulloa returned to the theme of hope, saying, “Come to the theatre for 90 minutes of hope. We all need hope. There is no better time than this for this story of hope.” The playwright and actor ended with this reflection: “Come support local theatre. Theatre does what it did in ancient Greece: comments on society. For a theatre company to take this on is awesome. Come support them.”
Catharsis is an 18th century term amalgamated from the Greek words for purge and cleanse. That is Ulloa’s gift to the citizens of Dayton, Newtown, all of us.