“What do I always tell you before we start?” Chris Evans shouts to 10 Sentinel High School students at a Thursday night rehearsal of his play, American Roulette. “Be bold,” he says. “Be bold tonight.”
The students take the stage and Evans takes a seat in Sentinel’s theater. This actor, director, playwright, husband, father, interim Sentinel acting coach—not to mention master control operator for Fox TV—likes to push the envelope.
“Why be safe?” he says. “[Theater] is what I have, without sounding pretentious, devoted my life to. And safe’s not fun. Safe isn’t really enriching. So let’s shake things up.”
This month Evans is directing American Roulette, which he co-wrote with friend Fred Hendricks in 1998, for its second run in Missoula. The play, about 10 high school students during a 24-hour period in which one of them commits a shooting in their school, was first produced by the Montana Repertory Theatre in April 1999—10 days before the infamous shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
“The word I used was ‘devastating,’” Evans says of that aftermath. “But the thing that I saw—and this is what American Roulette is all about to me—is the resilience of a community, the resilience of people.” Evans recalls that the day of the Columbine shooting was also the day that he and the first American Roulette cast met so he could pay them for their performances. “I paid everybody, and everybody pushed the money back, and we decided to do a benefit,” he says. The result: Evans and Hendricks drove a $2,000 check to the Healing Fund in Littleton, Colo., and walked around Columbine, where the slain students’ cars were still in the parking lot, transformed into memorials.
“If you aren’t affected by that, you aren’t human,” Evans says.
Evans says he was inspired to write American Roulette back in 1998 while watching a television news report about the Springfield, Ore., school shooting in which Kip Kinkel shot and killed two of his classmates hours after killing his parents. “It was one of those karma moments where my young son was playing in front of the TV, and the news report came on behind him, and he was at an angle to where he was in the picture, and that scared the hell right out of me,” Evans says.
On a vacation in Washington, he and Hendricks wrote the first draft of the play while riding the ferry between Seattle and Bremerton. “We sat, got coffee, and just rode the ferry back and forth and wrote,” Evans says. “We did the first draft in a couple of days. It’s amazing when the muse sits on your shoulder, and she was a 500-pound gorilla sitting there.”
In addition to the first production at the Masquer Theatre, American Roulette was also performed by a high school in El Paso, Texas, a year after Columbine. That school took the play to the Texas State Thespian Convention, where Evans got to see it performed in front of 2,000 people. “That was one of the most stunning feelings in the world,” he says. “Two thousand kids and teachers, and they were with it.” He says that when you sit down to write a play, “you hear it in your own voice, and the two official productions we’ve done of this, it never matched what I heard. It was always better.”
Evans feels that the play itself has gotten better over the years as well. After his visit to Columbine, he decided to revise the script, and Hendricks (who had moved away) told him to go for it on his own.
“In the first incarnation of this, the shooting ended Act One, and structurally Act Two was all denouement, it was all people dealing with it,” he says. “And the thing that struck me was that nobody wants to see people suffer for an entire act…so I moved the shooting to Act Two, and the play drives a little bit more.”
Evans references a writing workshop he attended in which the workshop leader talked about how to build a script’s tension, while blowing up a balloon bit by bit as he spoke. “After about 30 minutes, the balloon is at maximum capacity, and nobody’s listening to him,” he recalls. “They’re all on that balloon, and he says, ‘This is what you want. This is where you want your audience’…and I believe with this rewrite I’ve blown the balloon up a little bit better than we did the first time.”
The play unfolds in large part through monologues, giving insight into the life of the Jock, the Cheerleader, the Teacher, the Outcast. As Evans says, the play is “kind of Pulp Fiction-ish in its management of time,” such that the scene of the cheerleader Megan Jenkins (played by Sentinel senior Ashley Breza) brushing her hair in front of her bedroom mirror is haunted by an earlier scene of the history teacher (played by senior Aaron Minnick) lamenting how two living, breathing teenagers could be reduced to two victims’ names: Megan Jenkins and Alan Holmes.
Evans says many of the characters were based on real-life people he’d read about while researching actual school shootings. The role of the construction worker, for example, was inspired by a construction worker in Jonesboro, Ark., who held the hand of a shooting victim at Westside Middle School as she died. Likewise, the role of Brian the jock grew out of a story about wrestler Jake Ryker, who had part of his fingers shot off while taking down Springfield, Ore., shooter Kip Kinkel.
Sentinel junior Kris Belleque plays Megan’s sister Ali and says that this play is “really different” from other plays the school has put on. “We usually do comedy,” she says. Sophomore stage manager Erick Rasmussen says being a part of this production has been “incredible, actually, because I think it’s one of the most controversial things Sentinel has done in a long time. It’s pretty big to be a part of it.”
These Sentinel students say they’ve heard buzz about the play both in their classrooms and in Missoula. Getting people talking is one of Evans’ main goals: “The original purpose of [American Roulette] was to get communication going, to talk about it. Something like [Columbine] becomes taboo, and you can’t talk about it…and so what we want to do is talk about bullying, talk about family dynamics, talk about something that was a little controversial. As an educator, I want to give them that experience, something that is extremely visceral,” he says. “One of the connecting threads in this [play] is that somebody slaps a label on these kids, and if you slap a label on somebody who’s troubled, they’re going to think that label’s going to stick, and part of the message I want to get out is that the label does not stick.”
He says he also wants “to let these students know what theater can do. It doesn’t have to be just entertainment. There’s a place for entertainment, but the theater that I was taught, and that I truly believe in, is that if you can make one person walk out of here changed in some way—and theater can do that—then you’ve won.”
American Roulette runs Feb. 16–18 at 7 p.m. in the Margaret Johnson Theatre at Sentinel High School. Talkbacks facilitated by Evans, school officials and mental health counselors follow each show. Tickets are $5, $4 for high school students. Not recommended for children under high school age.