When 6-year-old Kayla Roland was fatally shot by a classmate in Flint, Mich., last year, the community had already started focusing intently on school violence.
Its ninth-graders were 70 percent more likely to get into group fights than their peers nationwide, and 400 percent more likely to use a weapon to get something, a 1995 study had found.
So the Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) gave an outlet to hundreds of children by creating a play based on their writings about violence in their daily lives. Its national tour in 1997 included a stop for lawmakers in Washington.
But when another round of soul-searching began after the mass murder at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999, FYT leaders felt compelled to do something more.
Artistic director Bill Ward and then-executive director Sue Wood teamed up with Americans for the Arts to create an "Animating Democracy Initiative." Funded by the Ford Foundation, it is one of 16 arts-based civic dialogue projects in the United States.
"Our goal is to reach beyond the usual cast of characters who show up for public discussions, into classrooms and boardrooms and living rooms, where real people grapple with these issues in their own lives," says Ms. Wood, now a consultant at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, based in Flint. "Ultimately, it will take each of us, exercising our individual responsibility and our collective will, to curtail the violence."
The centerpiece of this initiative is an original performance piece entitled "... My Soul to Take." But its effectiveness is as much about what happened offstage.
Before writing the play, Mr. Ward observed from the sidelines as theater teacher Gillian Eaton led improvisation sessions with middle- and high school students. Artwork and stories became springboards for revealing their feelings.
Adults from neighborhood groups also participated in "process dramas," considering questions like: What makes a place safe or unsafe? What does it mean if a community loses its children?
Capturing the swirl of opinions surrounding a school shooting, "... My Soul to Take" surprises and confronts audiences. It was performed in February for school groups and the public at Flint's Ann D. Elgood Theater (which was named after FYT's founder).
The performance collage is deliberately nonprescriptive, weaving together the roles and perspectives of the media, politicians, government workers, parents, classmates, and victims.
Young actors ask in plaintive voices what everyone in the audience is thinking: "Can't somebody do something?"
Audiences also meet the mother of a slain child in a moving series of monologues, each of which begins, "After the shooting, it seemed like there was always someone from the media coming up to me and asking me 'how it felt.' "
She describes her son as a youngster full of imagination and love, a precocious, increasingly private adolescent with a passion for music.
It is only toward the end of the play that audiences realize this son was not a victim of the shooting, but the shooter himself, a victim of another kind of violence.
Silence reigns when playgoers file out into the lobby, where they enter their thoughts in notebooks and gradually begin talking about the scenes they had just witnessed.
Four thousand people have seen the play, and there have been requests for additional performances. A documentary by the University of Michigan Public Television is expected to reach up to 200,000 viewers.
"There was a point in that story that touched us because it was personal, regardless of our experience, how close we are to it, how far," says Patrick McHugh, a teacher of at-risk students who attended "... My Soul to Take" with his classes.
Melissa Robinson, a teen actor in the play, says of her experience, "It's wonderful being able to touch people in such a way that it makes them want to step in and do something."
Teachers who brought students to the show received a detailed study guide to use in classes. And audiences took home discussion guidelines in their programs. Following the school performances, students participated in drama activities that drew out their responses. The citywide dialogue will culminate with a student conference in May.
Even before the play was performed, though, about 100 community members - from churches, nonprofits, government, the general public - gathered in small study circles to discuss school violence and suggest practical responses.
Fran Frazier, a study-circles trainer, offered participants this challenge: "Give this experience away so that somebody else can be connected. The children in your community expect you to do something after this."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor