The latest production of the Raven Players is not from the established canon of small-town theater sources. It has not one playwright but several—nine to be exact—and it’s presented not on one night but over two, with each one-act play a little over an hour long.
But that’s only unusual until one finds out why. If I Don’t Make It, I Love You is based on a 2019 book of the same name whose meaning becomes all too apparent by its subtitle: “Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings.”
And as one might expect, the experience of sitting in a dark theater, on stage with the actors, listening to their first-person accounts of a school shooting that they somehow survived, can be emotionally draining.
“It’s devastating,” admits Steven David Martin, the artistic director of the Raven Players and the director of this production. “It crosses a line many times into being uncomfortable. But that, I think, is the point of this.”
If I Don’t Make It, I Love You created its own stir when it was published, but it was Martin’s idea to turn it into a stage presentation. “I’ve always been interested—I guess that’s sort of a weird word—in school shootings,” he said. “I read about this book when it came out in 2019, and I thought, well, that’s right up my alley.”
The editors, Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman, compiled 60 first-person accounts of school shootings dating back to 1966. That’s when Charles Joseph Whitman, a 25-year-old University of Texas student and ex-Marine, climbed to the observation deck of the campus clock tower in Austin and methodically shot and killed 16 people and an unborn child, injuring 31 more before turning the gun on himself.
A grim story, but what makes it unspeakably tragic is that it may have been the first time, but it wasn’t the last. The book covers 21 school shootings, though when it came out the most recent was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018.
Since then, the tragic shootings have come with such alarming frequency, one can only suppress the horror. But that’s why the Raven Players are putting on the play, the first dramatization of Archer and Kleinman’s book.
“I was thinking, wow, these stories would be really valuable to put on stage so more people can hear directly from people who were affected by it and still are affected by it,” said Martin about his first reaction to the book.
“So I reached out to the two women who put the piece together, Amy Archer and Lauren Kleinman. Lauren responded almost immediately, and said, ‘Yes, this is a great idea. We’ll do whatever we can to help you,’” he continued.
Martin and his literary agent, Tony Sciullo, contacted nine playwrights and asked them to translate the stories into short scenes. Many of the collaborators are from Sonoma County, some from a wider net.
“Each of the writers got to put down the top three choices of the stories they wanted to adapt. And remarkably, nobody picked the same one. So everybody got their first choice,” said Martin.
“The people who wrote these stories originally had a connection; they were there,” said the director, “or as a parent, or as a teacher, or as a victim.” In many cases, text messages from survivors of school shootings form the basis of the dramatizations, most with a single actor on stage, though some with two.
The school shootings explored in the scenes include Sante Fe High School in Texas, Sandy Hook in Connecticut, the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and Columbine in Colorado. Some of the stories are first person essays and remembrances, said the director. Others are poems.
The stories, woven into two separate one-act plays by Martin and Sciullo, prove to be a direct experience of the tragedies, which can be draining. When Martin first read the book, he thought he’d finish it quickly. “It soon became apparent that I could only read three or four stories at a time; they were so gut-wrenching.”
That led him to build the play as two separate one-act plays, on alternating nights.
As if to make it even more emotionally challenging, Martin stages the play with the audience sitting on risers on the stage itself. “Because this is just such an intimate story, I wanted the audience to be as close as possible to the storytellers,” he said.
Seventy-two seats will be available for each performance, each part on alternating nights from March 24 to April 9. Said Martin, “And I should also emphasize too that the two parts are not interrelated. You can see them on their own. I think it enriches the experience.”
He added, “It’s not necessarily something you’re going to enjoy, but I think it’s something that is going to affect you. And that’s what we do in live theater.”
‘If I Don’t Make It, I Love You’ plays on Thursday through Saturday nights at 7:30, and Sundays at 2pm. Sunday matinee performances—March 26, April 2 and 9—will be followed by a discussion session with the cast and crew of the play. Schedule and tickets available at raventheater.org.