MEMBERS ONLY: Don’t Call the Parkland Kids Actors. It’s an Insult to Theater Kids.

by Jeremy Fassler

In the wake of the horrendous shooting at Stoneman Douglas High, the students who began the ‘Never Again’ movement have become America’s conscience, quite literally speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, they’ve also become the target of right-wing scorn, with Facebook posts like this one went viral despite the company’s promise to crack down on fake news:

The video herein, a brief local news segment from last summer featuring Never Again activist and Parkland survivor David Hogg, was uploaded on YouTube with the caption “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR…” and became propaganda for conservatives who believed the Parkland kids were crisis actors, possibly being paid by George Soros to further a left-wing agenda. This idea that activists are being paid goes back to the 1950s, when it was lobbed at the Little Rock Nine for their integration of Central High School. Hogg has denounced this for the bunk it is, and the video was taken down for violating YouTube’s anti-bullying rules, but not before many other conservatives chimed in, including disgraced film critic Armond White:

What makes this conspiracy so abhorrent is not just the assertion that these kids aren’t doing this in good faith, it’s the fact that many of them actually are actors in the Stoneman Douglas drama club. And as someone who was a theater kid in high school and college, this not only makes me proud of my background but reminds me why theater kids often grow up to be the most tolerant, forward-thinking people. 

Roger Ebert argued that movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” and the same could be said of all forms of storytelling, but theater teaches you empathy most quickly because it puts you in another person’s shoes right away and forces you to see things from another perspective. When you’re doing a scene, you may find yourself playing a person you’d cross a street to avoid, but that’s a challenge most actors embrace. Nobody bad person ever says they’re bad, and no actor playing a bad character ever thinks they’re bad either. For their performance to succeed, they must find that character’s humanity so that they and the audience understand them, even if they don’t like them. This goes for characters we think of as good, too.

Last year, the Parkland kids staged Fiddler on the Roof, an extraordinary piece of theater about, among other things, the limitations of our love. We empathize with Tevye the dairyman, the narrator who watches his daughters throw hundreds of years of Jewish “tradition” in his face as they marry who they want, not who they’re told to. But when his daughter Chava decides to marry outside the faith, Tevye reaches a breaking point: so far he has accepted his daughters’ chosen husbands, but there are some lines he cannot cross. “If I bend too far, I will break,” he says before turning his back on her for good. It is a heartbreaking moment because we understand why he does it, even though it’s something we would never do, and this moral ambiguity we feel towards Tevye at the show’s end is a testament to why it has endured for more than 50 years.

This year, they will perform in Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s rock musical of an 1890s German play about high school students whose sexual naivete leads to destructive choices. Like Fiddler, it deals with the chasm between parents and children: overprotective to a fault, the adults are unable to save their kids from the horrors that consume their lives. Cameron Kasky, who bravely questioned Marco Rubio at last week’s CNN town hall, will play the show’s main character, Melchior, who writes an essay for his best friend Moritz about sex that their teachers think led to Moritz’s suicide. In one of the show’s signature moments, when the adults expel Melchior over this perceived transgression, he and his fellow students sing a song called “Totally Fucked,” a scream of anger at the adult world whose sheltering has left them rudderless – as if they’ve pulled back the curtain and realized the Wizard is a feeble old man. In the finale, when Melchior visits the graves of both Moritz and Vendla, the girl he impregnated who died in a back-alley abortion, he resolves not to join them but to carry on in their memories so future generations won’t deal with the same traumas. As Michael Schulman wrote in The New Yorker, “like Melchior, Kasky and his classmates have vowed to remake a world that failed them—a role that no teenager should have to play, especially in the wake of tragedy and trauma.”

The Parkland kids, like the protagonists of Spring Awakening, have had enough with the nonsense that their elders have fed them about tragedies like this one being a regular occurrence. The show’s message is reflected in their activism as they “call BS” on those who have fed them these lies. But, unlike Tevye, they welcome inclusivity in their movement. Kasky, Emma Gonzáles, and others made Never Again a bipartisan movement since everyone should agree that after Stoneman Douglas, there should be no more school shootings.

Kasky’s questioning of Rubio struck a chord because he made an effort to understand the man. Another person might have lost their composure or used their opportunity to flip the Senator off, as some of the protestors did to Richcard Spencer at his University of Florida Q&A. When Kasky told him, “I’ll bet we can get people in here to give you exactly as much money as the NRA,” it was out of a desire to see him succeed at protecting them from future tragedies. As much fun as we make of Rubio and others like him at the Banter, Kasky’s probing reminded us that to really get at those who think the way he does, we have to find their humanity. This reflects how his Kasky’s theater training has prepared he and his colleagues for this moment.

Would Kasky, Emma González and the rest of Never Again be as good activists if they came from the debate club instead of theater? Perhaps, but their arguments might be more clinical, more wonkish, and less effective at gaining momentum. The empathy they have learned from their work in theater may not lead them to careers as actors, but it doesn’t have to. Ten years removed from my high school graduation, I realize now that I didn’t do theater because I wanted to be an actor; I did it because it enriched my life and made the work I do now more valuable. I imagine in ten years, the Parkland kids will feel the same way. You want to call them “actors?” Go ahead – it’s why their message resonates.