Re-enacting the Response

Just about everyone who was in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, had something to say about the shootings that day that killed six people and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Michael Fenlason, of Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, decided to write down some of those responses—and the result is the play Word Clouds.

Last Jan. 8, "We were going to get together and talk about what we were going to work on ... for our March show, and then this happened. And we really couldn't talk about anything else," said Fenlason, who co-authored Word Clouds with Tomas Ulises-Soto. "We decided it might be an interesting idea, and useful, to take those different stories and points of view we were hearing, and keep the stories—not make them political or anything, but just keep the stories in response."

Beowulf Alley will perform its response to the Jan. 8 tragedy again this weekend with its second production of Word Clouds, with music by Tristyn Tucci. Written in the two weeks after the shooting, the play focuses on responses to the shootings in the immediate aftermath.

"We really wanted to time-capsule it," said Fenlason, who also directs the play. "These are really responses right after (it happened). There were a lot of things we didn't know about that came (out later)."

The responses in the play are diverse, Fenlason said, to mirror the variety of the actual responses.

"For example, we have an older man who is a little more of a Democrat, or a younger man who is a gun enthusiast. We tried to create real conversations, and in some cases, these were at least part of the conversations that actually happened," Fenlason said.

Fenlason said the point of Word Clouds is not to make a political statement, but rather to "make the conversation happen. We're just writers and actors; we're not politicians. But we still want people to think about these things so it doesn't happen again."

The company decided not to add anything new to the second production, leaving the play "very true to the moment when Tucson came together," he said.

"In some cases, it's a little prescient; in other cases, it reminds you of how amazing people were—nurses, doctors, even politicians," he said. "People really stopped yammering stupid stuff. That's what I was really shocked by, the people coming together in such an amazing way, so honestly and so powerfully."

One object of the play was to go beyond the responses of people who had personal connections to the victims, Fenlason said.

"We just didn't want it to be about people dealing with so much carnage," he said. "We wanted to put it in perspective by putting characters around these stories. We wanted to make it more about who they are. We wanted to make characters you could attach yourself to."

The play's premiere occurred last March. Fenlason hopes the new production, like the previous one, will prompt people to ask questions and consider the long-term impact of the shootings on Tucson.

Fenlason said the play doesn't pigeonhole characters. "We didn't want to cast gun-owners so they all came off like Jared Lee Loughner. But we needed to ask the questions: How does a guy walk into a Walmart at 5 a.m. and buy a couple of magazines for his Glock? We are trying to ask, 'What is a reasonable response to this?'"

Fenlason hopes the play will move people to action. "How do we look at what happened and look at sensible decisions about what we can do?" Fenlason asked.

He said he hopes that taking a look back can help Tucsonans look forward with the same kind of togetherness the city experienced after the shootings.

"Ultimately, we're celebrating a fantastic moment where people came together in Tucson in the wake of something awful. People were doing amazing things almost all the time. We don't need a tsunami or shots fired to do amazing things. Maybe we can just do them all the time."

Fenlason also hopes the performance will encourage playgoers to share their own responses with each other.

"What theater does that movies and video games don't do is: Afterward, you go and have a beer and talk with your friends, and maybe have your own Word Clouds moment," he said.