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Terrorism and Theater in Southern California


Flags at half-mast at the entrace to California State University, San Bernardino; Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Flags at half-mast at the entrance to California State University, San Bernardino; Wednesday, December 2, 2015


On Wednesday, I was in the middle of my first Ovation (Award) Rules Committee meeting at the LA Stage Alliance offices in Atwater Village, where I’d just started work as Executive Director. The meeting featured guest speaker, Jonathan Katz, a professor of statistics at Cal Tech who held the room rapt with his enthralling analysis of bias in a seemingly open voting system, such as the Ovation Awards. Katz told the story of the “wine test” when a random selection of subjects is served two glasses of identical wine. The subjects are told that one of the glasses is considerably more expensive than the other. An overwhelming majority of the subjects will say they prefer the “more expensive” wine. (Would the same be true of theater?)


Preventable by a few mathematical fixes – in this case determined by Cal Tech grad students who had analyzed the voting and tabulation for the 2015 Ovation Awards — a small group of people, Katz said, could essentially game the system, corrupting the desired, presumed independence of the votes. Without statistical corrections, a minority could conceivably push through its agenda, overriding the will of the majority. The stakes of an awards ceremony are obviously paltry when contrasted against the tragedy and grief associated with a mass shooting, where a minority imposes its will, with horrific violence, against the majority will for some kind of social harmony and order. Even so, there are similarities in the more general patterns of behavior, starting with the generic nature of bullying.


At about that time in the meeting, the first of three phone alerts on my cell beeped in from the state police at Cal State, San Bernardino, where I teach theater. The first one came in at 12:07 p.m. via a male voice:


“Cal State San Bernardino Police has received reports of an active shooter situation on south Waterman, south of the I-10 freeway. Our officers are part of the initial team of first responders. Early reports are that there are multiple injuries, and that three suspects may have fled the scene. There is no current information that indicates a risk to the CSUSB community. More information will follow. Thank you.”


That information rolled in almost two hours later at 2:02:


“There are as many as three possible suspects unaccounted for in this morning’s shooting incident downtown near Waterman Avenue in San Bernardino. University police are actively monitoring all campus entrances. Everyone currently on campus is encouraged to stay. If you need to leave, avoid downtown San Bernardino. Classes are being held as scheduled as we continue to monitor the situation. Thank you.”


And then, 15 minutes later at 2:17:


“Out of concern for the safety of students, faculty and staff, Cal State San Bernardino will close its San Bernardino campus at 6 p.m. tonight, Wednesday December second. All classes and operations will be cancelled. The campus police will remain on duty. The campus anticipates reopening for classes tomorrow, Thursday December third. For further updates, check the university’s hotline at (909) 537-5999. Thank you”


On Thursday, December 3, around 8:30 a.m., I pulled into San Bernardino to teach my 10 a.m. class. One of my weekly guilty pleasures is indulging in cheese blintzes at the local IHOP, where the server, whom I’ve known for years, regaled me with the terror of learning that her son had been “locked down” inside his middle-school,  located near the shooting.


She was almost deranged by frustration and confusion: “This kind of stuff, they’ve just got to do something. People can’t just walk out of a party and then walk back in and open fire. This is not the world I grew up in. It’s crazy.”


On such a day, I certainly wasn’t going to argue that, actually, it was part of the world she grew up in, from gang-related drive-by shootings, to police abuses, to war atrocities across the seas. In one of his performances, Spalding Gray referred to clouds of darkness that float across the world. Shape shifting and drifting into all corners of the planet — from the Cambodian killing fields to, say, San Bernardino. Violence binds these clouds. The only things distinguishing them are motive and ideology.


On campus, I learned of a just-announced faculty workshop on in-classroom shootings, and how to best cope with them.


“I told my students, ‘If this happens, just remember, I’m your mom,’” one professor said in the hall of the theater building. “‘I’ll stand by the door to protect you. That’s my job. You’ve got to feel safe in a learning environment.’” She then added that her students were jaw-dropped flummoxed by her sentiment. This was not a reality they had ever processed – either the threat of violence or the maternal/paternal qualities of their university professors.


Cal State, San Bernardino has a vibrant international program, enticing dozens of students each term from Saudi Arabia, and other quarters of the Middle East. Many of the Muslim professors were reported to have stayed off campus that Thursday, fearing a backlash against themselves. I noticed many students from the Middle East still on campus on Thursday, but the burkas that pepper the student population were conspicuously absent.


“Backlash is what the terrorists want,” noted a different theater professor. “They want a backlash to fuel their war. It totally serves their purpose. The best way to fight them is to steer clear of bigotry and profiling. Because they, themselves, don’t have any other arguments.”


My students were presenting five-minute, original plays they’d written. Some were very amusing, dramatizing the travails of betrayal and misunderstanding among boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses. One young woman performed a musical she’d penned. She sang acappella, in plaintive tones, in a musical comedy about campus life: “What is it with this Starbucks line?/I got in it at 8, it’s now quarter past 9.” And “As hard as I try, I’m always late/Oh, why did I enroll for a class at 8?”  

At the end of class, a diminutive fellow approached me seeking clearance for his own play, to be presented in the next class. He was probably 20 but looked more like 14. He wore braces and had the beginnings of a scruffy beard. His voice was alto, almost like that of a child. He said he was from Saudi Arabia.


He wanted to set his play during the Paris attacks. “I want three victims to be of different religions. I want to show that terrorism has no religion. All these plays so far, they’re all about boyfriends, girlfriends. It’s like they don’t live in the real world. I want to write something about the real world.”


“Welcome to the theater,” I replied. “Let’s see what you come up with.”