The Pulse Nightclub tragedy touched every walk of life, but theatrical artists were uniquely impacted, thanks largely to the intersectionality between Orlando's theme-park performers and gay population.
"Our theater, entertainment and art community is very close with our LGBTQ community," says producer-director Margaret Nolan, who presented last October's After Orlando, an international project responding to the shooting. "We're usually about one degree of separation or less."
As a consequence, in the hours and days after the attack, Orlando's theater community "promptly came to the front lines in solidarity with the attack on our LGBTQ and Hispanic friends," says Beth Marshall, producer of Play-in-a-Day 2016, which raised funds for the onePulse Foundation. Marshall, along with dozens of other volunteers, also participated in Orlando Shakespeare Theater's "angel wings" project, which created costumes that worked as human shields. Volunteers donned the billowing wings to protect mourners at victims' funerals from abusive anti-gay protesters. The angel wings gained national attention, but they were only the most visible of Orlando's many artistic efforts to address Pulse's aftermath.
"Initially, I think we were all just in 'fight or flight'," says Blue Star, owner of the Venue, which became a hub for volunteer response efforts. "The reaction was, what do we do? We know how to create art, and art is going to help us heal." The attack "spurred the theater community into taking action by creating theatrical expression of the loss, as well as to shine a light on related issues of gun violence, inequality and political actions," according to Nolan, and resulted in "art that is mournful and reminiscent, and makes you dive deep to a place sometimes you don't want to go," as Blue says.
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Pulse's impact was especially evident in the tone of Orlando's 2017 Fringe Festival, as writer-director David Lee (whose award-winning anthology, O-Town: Voices From Orlando, will be performed June 11 at Orlando Shakes) points out. "The work at the Fringe this year has been more introspective and celebratory of life," says Lee, while "putting out on the table what we need to work on, personally and socially." Blue observes that "it's definitely been a heavier Fringe, but a healing Fringe too," adding that she sees "a lot of broken people trying to heal themselves through art."
Beneath the surface, the trauma of Pulse had a silver lining in that it stimulated solidarity within the arts community, with numerous troupes cooperating on fundraisers. One year later, Nolan says, "The synergy is spawning creative collaborations to further the discourse on the impact the tragedy had on our collective consciousness." Lee concurs that the event has "made the collaborative spirit tighter," saying that the theater community's usual "interpersonal drama has completely dissipated, because everyone wanted to work together. ... We all realize a little bit more how precious life is."
"Pulse will be with us forever," Marshall says, and so will "art that aids in healing, education and societal change." Orlando's theater community "is a microcosm of Orlando in general," says Lee, and "a lot of the theater community are also activists and responders," so it's only natural that a year after the event, artists are still immersed in its echo.
"We are a unified community that is standing strong, as strong as we said we would on the day of the attacks," asserts Blue. "It's a promise that we have made as a community, and that we have kept as a community."