Death of the American Teenager, an original musical about gun violence in schools, opens with some sobering statistics—like that there have been 408 school shootings in the last 10 years, or that in 2017 more school-aged children died from gunshots than did active duty police and military personnel.
For today’s students, gun-violence statistics have become too familiar. In addition to a barrage of news stories about shootings, students are reminded of gun violence during regular lockdown drills (Death of the American Teenager cites an average of 16 per school each year) and are aware of the role guns play in climbing suicide rates—in Utah, for instance, the most recent age-adjusted suicide rate is 22.7 per 100,000 people (compared to a national rate of 14.0 per 100,000). Suicide was also the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10–17 in 2018.
It’s no surprise that the stress is taking a toll on young Americans.
Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember.—Noah Schiffman, Class of 2022
“Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember,” said Rowland Hall sophomore and Death of the American Teenager cast member Noah Schiffman. Junior James Welt, another cast member, added, “It's become a huge part of a lot of my day-to-day experiences. Every time I hear running in the hallways or loud noises, I can't help but fear the worst.” Along with Noah and James, Rowland Hall senior Connor Macintosh and alumna Ella Baker-Smith ’19 were in the musical's original cast. Sophomore Amanda Green joined the cast for the 2019–2020 school year.
In recent years, concerned students have channeled their fears through action—the most famous example is probably the organization of March for Our Lives protests and chapters around the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. For the Utah high school actors who make up the Youth Conservatory—a group housed under University of Utah Youth Theatre—that action was researching, writing, and choreographing Death of the American Teenager.
Originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual open access arts festival, Death of the American Teenager was written as a reflection of America. Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood explained that the Youth Conservatory, which is made up of 20 actors from 10 Utah high schools, chose to write a musical because it’s an American art form—and that they focused the musical on gun violence because of its prevalence in America today.
“It's a topic we've all been exposed to at a super young age, and it's something that is on a lot of our minds at every second,” said James.
Research and writing began in January 2019, only seven months before the show’s summer debut in Scotland. “The writing process was an incredible experience,” said Connor. The actors spent time researching topics like the history of school shootings and lockdowns, as well as suicide statistics in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be performing the musical. The subjects were heavy, and the experience was emotional. But the process was also cathartic, giving the actors the chance to examine, confront, and discuss their fears—and helping them realize they weren’t alone in those fears.
“The most important thing that came out of it was the sense that we were all there for each other and the sense that we’re all fighting this fight together,” Connor said. “We all share the same collective fear, and as scary as that fear is, it’s comforting to know that I have people around me that know exactly what we’re going through.”
The musical was cathartic for Fringe audiences too: attendees were so moved by the production that they sought out cast members to thank them and to share their own stories. Other American high school students inquired about performing it in their communities. By creatively addressing their fears through theatre—what Noah called an empathetic art form—the Youth Conservatory found themselves inspiring necessary conversation and action.
“The goal is to tell a story, yes, but also to make those watching believe it to be reality,” Noah said. “Gun violence is some people's reality, and that is not acceptable—but that won't change until everyone understands the extent of the fear those actually affected face.”
Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell, who teaches the school’s Youth Conservatory members, agreed.
“Theatre can crack open conversation in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “There’s something about watching live actors—it somehow becomes easier to put yourself in their place, to empathize, and it affects a person on a very visceral, kinesthetic level.”
Knowing this, Matt wanted to do something in the Youth Conservatory’s home state that would inspire more of the conversations that they started overseas—especially because he knew there was something special about this musical that the local community should experience. “It’s not a piece that’s written by adults trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student—this is written by students who have been born into this culture,” he said. “I really believed the show needed to have a life beyond the Fringe because of its message.”
Matt also felt that offering Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts to a community group—particularly one that creatively connected our students with their peers across the Wasatch Front—would be an important step in building other connections across Salt Lake’s vibrant theatre community. In many ways, bringing Death of the American Teenager to the school was a natural fit, as Rowland Hall values deep thinking and seeks to create spaces in which students can examine hard questions and safely express themselves.
“At Rowland Hall, we believe by challenging students to think deeply, they will grapple with complex issues and recognize different points of view,” explained Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake, who was part of the team that welcomed Penny and her students to campus.
On January 29, Death of the American Teenager came to Rowland Hall for two performances in the Larimer Center. Like Fringe audiences, Salt Lake attendees were deeply touched by the musical. “I was blown away by the performance, which was masterfully written with great insight and sensitivity,” said Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson.
The performers were grateful for the chance to revisit the piece and to present it not only to an audience of peers, but to the adults who care about them. Often, they explained, it can be difficult to make adults understand their very real fear around the topic of gun violence and how deeply it affects them.
“I was so glad that my school asked us to share this piece with the public and gave us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves in the most politically unbiased way—just speaking from our emotions and how we feel,” said Amanda. That message was undoubtedly received, with most audience members staying after the performances to participate in talk-backs with the actors, further emphasizing the need for conversation around this difficult subject—something that Matt greatly encourages parents and caregivers to remember when supporting their teenagers through gun-violence anxiety.
Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue.—James Welt, Class of 2021
“Talk at dinner with them, ask them questions, continue the conversation,” he encouraged. “We need to have these direct conversations.”
Above all, the actors want Death of the American Teenager to help spread among their peers the feeling of empowerment the cast experienced when confronting their fears together—and for teenagers to understand that they can help spur change by exercising their voting power.
“Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue,” said James. “I want teenagers who watch the show to know that they have the power to be heard.”
“We can conquer gun violence if we all work together,” added Noah.
Update: Since performing at Rowland Hall, the Youth Conservatory presented a 12-minute version of Death of the American Teenager at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in California in February 2020. It won first place in its division.
Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood has been overwhelmed with positive comments about the show and questions about packaging it for performance at other high schools and venues around the country. She is talking with local theatre organizations about how to make this happen. We will update the Rowland Hall community on any news we receive about the future of Death of the American Teenager.
Top photo: The Death of the American Teenager cast performing on stage. Photos courtesy Connor Macintosh