In today’s divided and politically-charged environment, activism percolates in contemporary theater productions. Think: San Francisco Mime Troupe, Teatro Compesino and Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project, among many.
“Natural Shocks,” a new theatrical work by the San Francisco-based playwright, screenwriter and author Lauren Gunderson, takes on this mantle inspired by the March/April school walkouts and the bravery of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Parkland, Florida who are now speaking out.
Gunderson, named in 2018 by “American Theater” magazine as the most produced playwright in America, was spurred into activism in 1999 while a high school junior, the year of the mass school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, happened.
“Nineteen years later and here we are, another school shooting,” she said. “But finally, a freshly invigorated and seemingly unstoppable movement is brewing. And I saw how brave and tireless and convincing these kids were in saying ‘no more gun violence.’ And then I read that the most vocal of them were theater kids.”
On Sunday, April 22, Valley Players will present one of 44 staged readings of “Natural Shocks” around the country. The show begins at 4 p.m. with both actor and audience on the stage of Lincoln Theater. Suggested donation is $20 at the door with proceeds benefiting Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
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“A staged reading is a presentation without full costumes, sets or props,” said veteran actor, director and Valley Players’ member June Alane Reif. “The actor reads from the script with little or no memorization. However, the material is rehearsed and fully thought out.”
Reif is the only character in the 65-minute play directed by Richard Pallaziol. The work is based on Hamlet’s famous line, “To be or not to be,” and springs to life when we meet “SHE,” a 40-ish woman in her basement waiting out an imminent tornado. She is funny, smart, thinks fast, rambles and is self-deprecating. She feels everything as it happens, tries not to lie and is just attempting to survive. The work is part confessional, part stand-up and part reckoning.
“Of course, to contradict Hamlet, the play is not the thing,” Gunderson said. “You are — your community, your company, yourself. Any play is just the metal that attracts the lightning. We are the lightning — actor, artistic team, audience, community. We are the undeniable force of nature that will light up this darkness and change it forever.”
Reif concurred: “Theater can promote activism by inspiring the audiences and engaging them emotionally in a topic that would normally remain a dry issue debate. It can move them to try to change local and national policies.”