Speaking their peace

Students in Damonte Ranch High School’s Performing Arts Center explore empathy in a challenging Japanese play




Students will perform Hiroshima: Crucible of Light by Robert Lawson at Damonte Ranch High School Theatre, 10500 Rio Wrangler Pkwy., 7 p.m. Feb. 16-18 and 3 p.m. Feb. 17. Tickets are $10 for adults, or $8 for students, seniors and WCSD employees.

Nine seconds isn’t much time. You can’t even chew a bite of food or read an email in nine seconds. But on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and only nine seconds later, a significant portion of the city’s populaion died. (The exact number was never determined. Estimates range from 60,000-100,000, with many more severely injured.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are historical lessons we’ve all learned—abstract concepts, facts and figures that must be memorized and tested later. But truly understanding the devastation wrought upon the Japanese in only nine seconds is another matter entirely.

And this matter is something Rod Hearn and his students at the Damonte Ranch High School Performing Arts Center are taking seriously as they work to present an ambitious production of Hiroshima: Crucible of Light, a play by Robert Lawson about the first atomic bomb dropped.

Atomic stage

“The play presents a certain perspective that, yes, dropping a bomb is a bad thing for people, but it does so in a way that I think is really thought-provoking and not preachy,” said Hearn, a drama teacher who’s spent the last 14 years building and leading the PAC at Damonte Ranch.

Hearn said he selected Hiroshima a year ago but finds its themes of political and cultural division remarkably timely now. Exploring what such division can lead to and what it means to “otherize” can be deeply moving for both the students and the audience.

“Regardless of what your political leanings are, this is about the decisions that humans make that affect other humans, life and death choices,” Hearn said.

Told in a mosaic or collage style, rather than a chronological story with a traditional Western story arc, the play takes audiences quickly in and out of lives, times and locations. The members of the 37-person cast each play a variety of roles, from ensemble to dancer, or even the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, or Albert Einstein, who joins Oppenheimer for a wholly fictional scene in which the two have tea. You’ll see Marie Curie discovering radium and meet Icarus, who used his waxen wings to fly too close to the sun and fell to earth. And you’ll meet average folks, too, including a paraplegic woman bound to a wheelchair and a typical “nuclear” family of four living in a fallout shelter.

The show incorporates 2-D/3-D mapping software, thanks to Kent Vizina of Reno’s Vizmo Productions, who is working with students to create video projections to translate metaphors and moods during the vignettes.

Other production aspects are brave new frontiers for students as well. Though the play originated in America, Hearn felt it important to incorporate Japanese performing art styles here. These include one character, “Boy,” who is played by a bunraku puppet—a large, complicated style of puppet operated by three people manipulating its face and appendages. Another troupe of five students will heavily draw upon butoh dance throughout the show. Butoh, a contemporary style of dance that originated in Japan following the atomic bomb, is noted for the way its dancers are painted in ashy gray and move unpredictably and even convulsively, almost as if they are rising from the ashes.

“It’s a really challenging piece for the actors and audience members both, but by the time you get to the end of it, what you’re left with is empathetic feeling for what a nuclear bomb does to people,” Hearn said. “That’s really the message here.”

The case for empathy

Joining Hearn in directing the show is L. Martina Young, Ph.D., a longtime artist and educator in Reno whose exploration of movement in capturing and highlighting empathy became the foundation of her doctoral thesis. As co-director and choreographer for Hiroshima, Young has emphasized what she calls a “somaesthetic practice”—“soma” being the body and soul, and “esthetic” relating to perception.

“This is the heart of the philosophy I’ve been working on, developing experiences that bring people to an understanding of how empathy can be active in our lives day to day,” Young said. “To experience empathy, to be empathic as human beings, that’s the call worldwide.”

Zoey Mendoza, a junior in Hearn’s technical theater program at Damonte Ranch and one of the students handling the projections, described the work with Young as helping her to be centered and connected with her body and how it feels.

“We learn that it’s not necessary that you have to go through the same experiences as someone else, but you can have empathy for them,” Mendoza said. “I’m learning how to bring your body into a performance, not just your voice. To create a feeling with movement.”

“The first thing [Young] talked about with us was that we should have elegant, smooth movement,” said Alex Chacon, a junior in the program who plays the woman in the wheelchair. “Everyone has to devote themselves to the movement. It can feel a little strange at first, but if everyone really applies themselves, it can be very moving for the audience. … Martina tells us in pretty much every class, every movement we make matters.”

Young said she strives to make students aware that all humans are capable of empathy, that we have it in us, but it must be exercised, as any muscle.

“The technology that we are means we are deeply feeling, deeply responsive, deeply perceptive intelligences, and we should harness that and direct it toward cultivating empathy,” Young said.

A leading program

Damonte Ranch’s PAC is one of the Washoe County School District’s Signature Academies—conceived by former superintendent Heath Morrison as an approach to getting high school students invested in completing high school by enabling them to pursue career and technical training in subjects of their choosing. Each high school in the district was designated a Signature Academy focused on a specific subject area: Reno High’s Red House Project emphasizes graphic design, video production and web design; McQueen’s Global Studies Academy concentrates on international studies and fine arts; Hug High’s Health Sciences Academy focuses on medical careers, and so on. At Damonte Ranch, the Performing Arts Center has drawn students from all over the district.

Though overcrowding has put a temporary end to variances, making attending the PAC virtually impossible for any student not already zoned for Damonte Ranch, Hearn hopes the passage of WC-1 will bring back the opportunity in the near future.

The PAC’s students have opportunities they might not have elsewhere, including technical theater, directing, and extensive instruction in dance and music.

Hearn, whose students nominated him for the Nevada Theater Educator of the Year Award that he won in March of last year, is always exploring ways to increase opportunities and rigor at his signature academy. He feels that providing them with an opportunity to do challenging pieces such as Hiroshima is critical to helping the program stand out.

“It’s a really tough play, one of the hardest I’ve worked on, because of its lack of a story arc and the need to make it feel like a cohesive whole,” Hearn said.

But despite its challenges, he can’t imagine a more important lesson for his students to be learning at this point in time.

“I think in public high schools,” Hearn said, “there’s so much testing going on that teaching a theater class and putting on plays is really the pinnacle of being able to teach kids about empathy.”