The Baylor theatre arts department explores heavy subject matter this week with “The Amish Project,” the story of a community that found the strength to forgive the gunman who changed their lives.
Although the characters are fictional, “The Amish Project” is based on the 2006 West Nickel Mines School shooting in Pennsylvania, which resulted in the deaths of five girls and the injury of five more.
Mahomet, Ill., freshman Autumn Hodge plays 6-year-old Velda, one of the victims. She said the play focuses less on the incident itself than the response from the Amish community as they attempt to forgive the murderer.
“For a year, they would bring flowers to his grave every week and pray for him,” Hodge said. “The whole story is just showing how it wasn’t easy to forgive, but that’s just the Amish way of life.”
Hodge was one of several cast members to perform in Chapel on Monday. Dr. Gregory Jones, executive vice president and provost, also spoke on the topic of forgiveness and shared his personal connection to the Nickel Mines Amish community. He was a keynote speaker at the 5th year anniversary of the shooting, and has written several articles detailing the lessons he’s learned from the Nickel Mines Amish community.
Houston senior Lauren Salazar-Galicia said she usually works behind the scenes as a stage manager but is excited to play the mother of a 16-year-old girl named America. She tried out for the show because she felt a special connection to the theme of grace in “The Amish Project”.
Salazar-Galicia said she thinks audience members will be shocked by how quickly the Amish community reached out to the family of the shooter.
“That very night they’re over at the widow’s house, making her dinner,” Salazar-Galicia said. “They’re loving on this other person even when they don’t really have a reason to.”
Guilherme Almeida, the music director for Baylor Theatre, composed several hymns for the Amish characters to sing at pivotal moments in the show. Both Hodge and Salazar-Galicia said they believe the musical additions to the play help underscore the emotion of each scene.
John-Michael Marrs, assistant professor of acting and director of “The Amish Project,” said he first connected to the story after seeing it was performed as a one-woman show by its author, Jessica Dickey. When he later discovered a version for a larger cast was also available, he chose to put on “The Amish Project” as his first main stage production at Baylor.
After each show, the actors will return to the stage out of costume for a “talk back.” This gives the audience the opportunity to ask any questions they have about the show or the events that inspired it.
“It deals with some pretty heavy issues, so we really felt the need to help our audience process and unpack that,” Marrs said. “It’s the kind of play that’s all about community, so we felt like the unpacking of the story should also be communal.”
According to Marrs, even the set design symbolizes the theme of creating order out of chaos. Marrs collected chairs from schools and churches all across Texas for a sculpture that spans the entire stage.
“It’s basically an assemblage of 275 chairs that are swept up in this double-helix pattern over the stage,” Marrs said.
Marrs said that because the chairs come from so many different places, they represent the stories of other communities within the larger story of the Amish Project.The seats in the Mabee Theatre have already been sold out for each performance. However, standing-room only tickets can still be purchased through the Baylor box office by calling (254) 710-1865.