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'It's a commitment': How PlayMakers' 'The Amish Project' shows forgiveness after tragedy

Kathryn Metzger performing in "The Amish Project." Photo courtesy of David Munch.
Buy Photos Kathryn Metzger performing in "The Amish Project." Photo courtesy of David Munch.

Preparing for a role in a play can be an intense experience. It requires an actor physically and mentally adapting themselves into the mind and body of another person. Even more challenging is performing this process seven times for one show. This is true in seven-character, one-actor play "The Amish Project."

PlayMakers Repertory Company will perform "The Amish Project" Jan. 8-12 at Kenan Theatre.

"The Amish Project" follows the story of a mass shooting in an Amish community and the impact the event had on its people. While the characters in the show are fictional, it is based on a real shooting in an Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October 2006, in which eleven young girls were taken hostage and five killed in a schoolhouse. 

After this mass shooting, the Amish community in Nickel Mines expressed forgiveness to the gunman and his family. Playwright Jessica Dickey’s basis for the plot of “The Amish Project” is not the shooting itself, but rather the radical forgiveness that the Amish community expressed following the event, said director Sarah Elizabeth Wansley. 

“What I think is so powerful about this piece is that it actually doesn't address questions of gun control or political response in the piece — it is neither for nor against,” Wansley said. “It simply approaches the play from a more human point of view, figuring out what does it mean to have to move on after an attack like this.”

While the play contains seven different characters, each with a monologue, it includes only one actor. Kathryn Metzger plays all seven characters, including victims of the shooting, members of the non-Amish community and the gunman himself. 

Wansley said the preparation for seven different roles was a unique experience for her and Metzger. She describes the specificity required for transitioning between such distinct characters as challenging, but is an aspect that makes the play dissimilar from other one-actor shows.

“This is not a production where it's lights up, lights down and one actor standing and delivering a monologue,” Wansley said. “This is a very theatrical approach to a one-woman show, and it will at times feel like certainly there is more than one person on stage, because in a lot of ways the lighting and the sound and the space and the objects actually become other characters for Kathryn to interact with.”

Wansley said that each aspect of the production was taken into account for accuracy and theatricality, from the minimalist set design that transforms into multiple different spaces to the costume that Metzger wears. Costume designer Jennifer Clark worked directly with a dressmaker from an Amish community in Chautauqua, New York, to make Metzger’s Amish-style dress. 

“It was just such a different experience for me as a designer to work with this wonderful woman who, you know, was very excited to be a part of the project, but had never really done anything like this before,” Clark said. “I think it really gave it authenticity.”

Metzger said performing the play nearly 12 years after it was originally showed was a unique experience for her, especially in the wake of so many recent mass shootings. Part of her preparation for the role included reading articles written by members of the community commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

“The thing that has struck me most is that a lot of these articles talk about how the idea of forgiveness is not a singular moment, it's a commitment,” Metzger said. “You know, you wake up every day and choose to work toward a place of forgiveness. It's not a destination, it's not a singular decision, it's a sort of state of being.”

Alejandro Rodriguez, an associate producer for PlayMakers, said that the show is just as relevant now as it was when it was initially produced, and perhaps even more so due to the number of mass shootings that have occurred around the United States since 2006. Rodriguez said that it is easy to be swept up in the division that permeates our modern social climate, and that this is something that is prevalent on the UNC campus.

“Think about what sorts of hyper-polarizing, really seismic events have happened even in the last semester or the last year, whether it was the controversy around Silent Sam or the protests that followed,” Rodriguez said. “With something like a mass shooting, which again, is also relevant, considering our colleagues at UNC-Charlotte endured one not so long ago. But (the play) doesn’t necessarily only resonate for those who have experienced a school shooting, it really feels like it's about a tragic event that separates people, or has the potential of separating people, and how we might respond to that with compassion and with grace.”

Rodriguez said that this production, in addition to providing access to highly-acclaimed theater writing and performance, also provides an opportunity for deeper thought and conversation for attendees. 

PlayMakers has organized discussions with topics like “the philosophy of forgiveness” and non-violence facilitated by scholars and experts following each of the performances of the show as opportunities for the audience to hash out and discuss what they witnessed in the play with their own community members.

“The content itself is so timely, it's like if you want to find a way to engage with the headlines in a more visceral, more emotional, more dynamic way that just reading them on the newspaper,” Rodriguez said. “I do hope on some level people walk away, especially first time attendees at PlayMakers, thinking, 'Wow, that's cooler than I thought. This is definitely worth putting Netflix away for a night.’"


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