An experimental dance theater piece based on the horrific: a 56-year-old gunman walks into a South Florida school board meeting with a gun. He fires off several bullets without hitting anyone; a security guard shoots him. Then the gunman shoots himself dead.
“I think it’s kind of outrageous that we would try to make a piece out of this,” admits Seattle choreographer Dayna Hanson. But it’s exactly what she’s done.
“The Clay Duke” — Clay Duke was the name of the gunman — is a 90-minute heart-and-head trip about the Panama City, FL. school board shooting of Dec. 14, 2010.
It’s a harrowing quilt of vignettes — some decidedly real (a school board discussion about dress codes), others outrageously not (a bunch of animals dancing in a nightclub).
Hanson, who’s been creating dance, theater and film for the past 26 years, says it’s the hardest art project she’s ever created.
“Because of the realness. When my son showed me the video, I just couldn’t look away.”
That video is the YouTube video of the shooting. Local TV news crews recorded the event. Back in 2010, Hanson had just finished premiering her dance-driven rock musical about the American Revolution, “Gloria’s Cause.” She wasn’t exactly looking for her next project. But then her son showed her the video.
“And I saw this really strange drama playing out. And everything about it surprised me. Everything from Clay Duke’s body language to the responses of the board members to Ginger (a woman who tries to beat off the gunman with her purse; he lets her leave). I felt like I was seeing a dream. No! That can’t be real! That can’t really be happening.”
Hanson says it wasn’t like she woke up one day and thought, Yes, it’s time for an artist to respond to this epidemic of people taking guns into public places. But it was the humanity that drew her in. The vulnerability, the weakness, even the banality of what she saw.
And then, empathy took hold.
Hanson and her group of performers — dancers Wade Madsen, Peggy Piacenza and Thomas Graves; actress Sarah Rudinoff; musician Dave Proscia — were doing a residency in South Florida when they decided to go to a Panama City school board meeting.
“And all of the same board members were still there,” Hanson says. She and the performers never told them who they were. The group just sat there and took in the proceedings and the mannerisms and the language and the space and it all deeply informed the piece.
The thing about YouTube, Hanson says, is that even when it’s real, it doesn’t always feel so. But that visit to the meeting and then, all the other research — the legal documents, the TV stories, a news interview with Duke’s wife — fleshed out the story about a broke ex-con whose wife had been fired by the school board.
In the video — and in Hanson's “The Clay Duke” — you hear the gunman’s ranting. In “The Clay Duke,” a 7-minute YouTube video becomes a pastiche about gun violence and economic injustice and mental health. And, because it’s the work of the expertly creative Hanson, Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” and Chekhov, too.
“This sounds corny, but I am called and I am compelled to render an honest reaction to this thing that happened,” Hanson says. And when she says this, it doesn’t sound corny. It sounds honest. An explainer: This is how powerful art gets made.
If you go: "The Clay Duke" at On the Boards, Dec 5-8th, 8 p.m.