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No Refund Theatre Presents: ’26 Pebbles’

No Refund Theatre is back from spring break with another production in its semesterly catalog. This week, the organization presents “26 Pebbles”.

Written by American playwright Eric Ulloa, the production focuses on the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting. Directed by senior Hannah Myers, 26 Pebbles brings the element of humanity in its darkest moments to No Refund Theatre, a differentiating factor of true tragedy and drama for the organization this semester.

Within the title itself, 26 Pebbles speaks to the 26 lives lost on December 14, 2012, in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Featuring six actors portraying real-life victims and survivors of the tragedy, the production reflects reality with honesty unmatched in the face of devastation. With simplistic details and actors’ commitment to craft, the script sheds light on the darkness, focusing on the individual faces and greater community recovering beyond the national headlines.

Courtesy of Ella Bradner

In the second part of the title, 26 Pebbles symbolizes each soul lost as a pebble dropped into a stream, creating a ripple affect against the current. These ripples are natural, unstoppable, and undeniable, representing the loss faced then and now, still affecting society close to ten years later.

Championing the strength of the Sandy Hook community, the script brings the audience into the devastating reality. As actors portraying real survivors speak directly to the audience from a community meeting, the audience is drawn into the scene through an understanding of the individual lives and faces affected by the public massacre. Set in modern times as the community gathers in a church basement, 26 Pebbles challenges the audience to reflect on what it means to truly overcome with a message of hope through the worst of times: it is who we are in our darkest moments that lead us to light in overcoming the unimaginable.

With a bare stage, minimal set pieces, and standard lighting, the simple production allows the story to grab and hold the audience’s attention for the full 90 minutes. In this simplification of other theatrical elements, actors find the ability to express the individuals fully as they are. In doing this, a level of compassion, respect, and integrity was demanded by each and every role.

“They did so much research,” said director Hannah Myers. “It really makes me happy that they are just as invested in this cause and this show as I am.”

In first discovering this show online, Myers was immediately intrigued. As a compilation of human emotion in its purest form, the show was beyond attractive to the director, who knew it must be brought to the Penn State stage and No Refund Theatre organization.

“I knew this was going to be something different for us to do, and that was going to be very special,” said Myers.

With the original production date set for fall 2020, delays pushed the production to the current NRT season. For many, a delay may have deterred a director from tackling the challenge semesters later. But for Myers and fellow NRT members, it’s another chance for honesty and representation.

“This year, when I had the opportunity to do it again, I was like, ‘I have to do it,’” said the director. “It has to be here at Penn State at NRT.”

Echoing the team’s commitment to the script, senior Anna Garman reflected on her creative process for portraying the character fully. Maintaining the integrity of playing a real-life resident of Newtown, Connecticut, Garman reached out and successfully connected with the person behind the role.

“She responded and was so unbelievably wonderful. She answered some questions for me, she talked to me about how the production was created, the interview process,” Garman said. “Being able to talk with the real person was invaluable, and it gave me that perspective and that understanding of who she is beyond the script.”

Continuing this commitment to preserving the integrity of the community affected, the cast and production team took action onstage in another capacity. Choosing to write the name of each victim on chalkboards making up the simple set, the cast pays meaningful tribute to the 26 souls lost in a clear indication of remembrance.

Courtesy of Ella Bradner

“It is so vital to remember the people who are affected,” said senior Jess Raskauskas. “It’s such an honor, and it’s the most special thing that I’ve done with this club, being able to tell this story.”

In making this creative choice, the production allows for full transparency and truth, vividly reminding the audience of the real-life implications and message far beyond the Forum 111 stage.

“To put those names up on the board and to put them back into people’s memories is incredible,” said Raskauskas.

In addition to displaying names as the simple structure of the performance, the chalkboards onstage serve as an interactive display between each character and their current perspective. From humble beginnings as a map of the small town to displaying themes of family, transformation, and strength, messages are written on the chalkboard by characters as they develop and process the tragedy.

Here emerged a key word that shined almost iridescent against the blackboard: family. Written in bold letters by actor Anna Garman, the word represented community discovered both on and off the stage.

“That was a word that was very meaningful for me to write,” Garman said. “Both about the town and about this group of people.”

In historical fashion, the cast also bonded as family to overcome the complex and demanding toll of emotions required to perform the script as it was intended. Within this close group, first year Gaia Togni simplified the dynamic with a lesson learned in her first NRT production.

“Everybody helps everybody,” Togni concluded as the biggest lesson learned.

Echoing themes of family bonds in the production, first year Joshua Ostach spoke to the experience of his first NRT production.

“That really ties together with this NRT show because it’s such a tight group and tight cast,” Ostach said. “Working on a show about community and within a cast community just made that experience of togetherness really prominent.”

Adding onto this theme of community ever present in the production and process, assistant director Alexis Dauley revealed another piece of the puzzle present within the costuming of the show and connected to classic NRT values of personalization and teamwork for the common love of theatre,  

“A lot of them are just from people’s own homes,” said Dauley.  “If they didn’t have something that fit the character, we all shared stuff with each other if we needed it.”

Adding onto the organization’s values in creating meaningful productions, the use of media including sound effects shaped the overarching result of honesty and reflection on stage. One key aspect from the second act included a recording of the speech given by President Barack Obama directly after the tragedy. In this included recording, Obama reads the first name of each victim.

“It was really important to reiterate the names of the victims,” said assistant director and third-year Armand Zeibari.

In this incorporation of historical elements, the production once again challenged the audience to not only remember the individuals affected, but their own connection to the tragedy as a universal feeling of loss and need for change.

“The inclusion of that monologue was important to understand, not just from the town’s point of view but the audience’s point of view as well,” Zeibari concluded.

Prioritizing these elements of individuals behind the characters, the production also includes a quote from a survivor of the tragedy. Spoken by the role of Jen, played by senior Riley Herman, the line reads from her 6-year-old son’s words in the aftermath of losing his beloved best friend in the tragedy.

“Every day there are shadows, and every day there is also light,” says Herman within the story.

Reflecting upon these powerful words, Herman shared her amazement when delivering the impactful line.

“[It’s]the fact that these kids are so resilient,” she said, “and can still see the positive. [It] is just so profound.”

Adding onto impactful elements of reality, other theatrical elements also play a role within the production in creating deep emotion in Forum 111.

“There’s a glass shattering sound effect that happens several times that represents a big change that’s coming,” said Myers, the director. “That really represents a big change that affects all of their lives.”

As a signal to the audience, the glass shattering effect once again preps the audience for change and tragedy portrayed onstage. In a final method, a single poignant sound effect is utilized for a concluding commentary on themes of community, conversation, and loss.

“At the end, there is a sound of a pebble falling into water,” Myers said.

A nod to the play’s title and the original message behind the symbolism of pebbles, this final sound effect makes an impact far larger than a small stone dropped effortlessly into water.

“In the end, the whole cast is in a line together, [and] the community is getting back to what it once was,” said Myers. “But, there are still always going to be ripples…that ripple out forever and ever.”

Within this idea of the ripple effect, first year Charlie Plante provided their message for the audience.

“How you are affects others…A small act that you do has a really big impact on others, especially when they are mourning and going through other things,” they said.

Concluding this idea, senior Riley Herman shared a final hope for each person within the community, viewing the ripple effect of a single pebble in a vast lake as empowering for change.

“I want audience to take away the idea of hope,” said Herman. “People can come together and help each other out in the darkest times of life.”

Two more performances of 26 Pebbles are slated for 8 p.m. on Friday, March 18, and Saturday, March 18. Both will be performed in Forum 111.

As always, NRT performances are free of charge. However, donations will be accepted for Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families facing loss from gun violence. A trigger warning is also emphasized for gun violence, death, and post-traumatic stress.

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a junior majoring in Marketing and Psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 18-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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