Jennifer Uphoff Gray

Forward Theater Company artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray sits on the stage set for "Marjorie Prime" in the Overture Center's Playhouse theater. On Friday, Forward will join dozens of theaters across the country in a reading of Lauren Gunderson's new one-woman play "Natural Shocks," which deals with guns and violence. 

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The new play that Forward Theater will present Friday in Madison will be performed that very same day in Milwaukee.

And also in Waukesha.

And in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Orlando, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Baton Rouge and beyond.

The play is “Natural Shocks,” written by acclaimed playwright Lauren Gunderson.

Its nationwide premieres – with free admission for all – are meant to be held on April 20, exactly 19 years after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 people dead.

And 65 days after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17.

Audiences for “Natural Shocks” will be encouraged to donate to a violence prevention effort. In Madison, Forward Theater will accept contributions on behalf of WAVE, the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort education fund.

Playwright Gunderson was in high school when the Columbine massacre horrified the nation. It drove her to action. She wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “shaming the NRA and their spokesman Charlton Heston, who were holding their annual conference only an hour away from that mourning community,” she says on her website, naturalshocks.org.

“I organized a student protest at the GA statehouse; I went to Washington to speak to my Senators. I was berated by our local conservative radio talk shows: called ignorant, naive, and un-American.

“I was 17,” she wrote, “a teenager like all those amazing kids in Parkland who are taking up the cause of their lost classmates and making the biggest difference in this issue I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Nearly two decades later, in 2017, Gunderson was tinkering with the idea of a one-woman play about gun violence. A story about the main character in “Natural Shocks,” Angela, began to evolve.

With the Parkland shootings on February 14 and the student protests that followed, that story became even more urgent.

“Natural Shocks” will be performed in some six dozen cities on or around April 20. In Madison, the hour-long play will be done as a reading featuring Marcella Kearns as Angela, directed by Forward Theater artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray.

School walkouts are also anticipated that day, following the student walkouts and the youth-led March for Our Lives rallies that took place around the nation last month, calling for increased gun control.

Forward Theater is well-acquainted with Gunderson, and in recent years has produced two of her full-length plays – “Silent Sky” and “I and You” — which proved to be audience favorites.

“So if there is a nationwide Lauren Gunderson event, it felt like Madison should have the opportunity to experience that,” Gray said.

“This conversation about gun violence has really reached a new peak over the last month or two, so this just seemed like a natural fit for the company.”

A line from Shakespeare

Gunderson provided the script for the nationwide readings royalty-free, and urged presenters to collect donations for anti-violence efforts. Forward Theater will provide free admission (advance registration is required at: forwardtheater.com/show/natural-shocks-play), and will accept donations to WAVE at the door. Forward is absorbing the other costs of the production, such as wages for the union stage hands and performer. Overture Center for the Arts is serving as a co-presenter.

One page into reading the script for “Natural Shocks,” Gray thought of Kearns for the part, she said.

Kearns “is a remarkably gifted and unique performer,” Gray said. “She thinks incredibly deeply about everything that she works on. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an actor who does more background research. And yet when she’s on stage, it seems 100 percent effortless, in-the-moment.”

Kearns also was immediately attracted to “Natural Shocks” — from the moment she saw the play’s title, which references Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy by William Shakespeare.

She was also eager to work with Gray, she said, “on a play that is so topical, and is so urgent in our national dialogue.”

Kearns, who has performed with Forward Theater in the past, is the associate artistic director at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and also teaches at Carthage College. So she and Gray have had to meet on Sundays to discuss and rehearse “Natural Shocks.” The reading will be performed in the Overture Center’s 330-seat Playhouse on the set for “Marjorie Prime,” a play that Forward Theater is performing as part of its mainstage season.

A tornado approaching

The character Kearns plays is described by playwright Gunderson as “funny, smart.”

“... She thinks fast, she rambles, she is self-deprecating. ... She can be any race, from any region, with any accent,” Gunderson says in her introduction to the play. The audience is allowed to “pre-judge” Angela, as long as they “come to empathize with her even if they first assume they wouldn’t.”

Angela is in her basement in “Natural Shocks” as a tornado is approaching. Forward will evoke that setting with lighting effects, Gray said.

“And she describes it,” Gray said. “She describes it early in the play, where she is, and as in any staged reading we hope the audience in attendance will just kind of go there in their imagination.”

In “classic Lauren Gunderson fashion, it’s first and foremost a well-told story,” Gray said of “Natural Shocks.”

“This is not ‘sit in the audience and let us lecture you about gun violence.’ In many ways it’s not going to feel like a play about gun violence at all. It’s a play about this character and her life.”

Gun violence “is obviously not an issue that came into existence with Parkland,” Gray said. “It’s one that the country has been wrestling with, and playwrights have been trying to figure out ways to address it.

“I don’t think there’s yet a play that’s taken the country by storm on this issue, but I think we’re going to see that in the future. Theater is a very powerful tool to help us wrestle with big topics. And this is obviously a very big, very important topic.”

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.