In Newtown, the Power of the Arts Sets the Stage for Healing

The documentary ‘Midsummer in Newtown’ reveals how a Shakespearean production transforms the lives of kids and parents.
Tain Gregory auditions for ‘A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ (Photo: Courtesy Participant Media and Vulcan Productions)
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Apr 17, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The news trucks have all driven away, and the national debate over gun control continues to simmer. But nearly four years after the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, how do the family members, friends, classmates, and colleagues of the 26 people—20 children and 6 adults—gunned down pick up the pieces and move forward?

Midsummer in Newtown, a documentary premiering on Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, shows us the transformative power of the arts and its abilities to help communities heal. (Disclosure: The film was produced in part by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.)

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“The arts are one way to channel certain feelings that you have,” the film’s director, Lloyd Kramer, tells TakePart. “In the arts, it allows you to express yourself. There’s a kind of catharsis.”

Kramer’s film follows the experiences of Tain Gregory and Sammy Vertucci, two Sandy Hook Elementary school students, as they audition, rehearse, and perform in a pop-rock version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It also explores the heartbreak and resilience of parents Jimmy Greene and Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, was one of the first graders shot by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012.

The documentary has its roots in a conversation that took place between Oscar-nominated producer Tom Yellin and theater director Michael Unger outside a ballet class in New York City during the summer of 2014. As the two men waited for their daughters, they began talking about Unger’s upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s play for NewArts, a Newtown-based foundation. The organization was formed in the community after the shooting and uses the performing arts to teach life skills to the kids.

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Yellin, intrigued by the concept, asked Kramer to film Unger’s production of A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, which incorporated kids from Newtown as well as trained actors. Kramer and his crew started off just watching and filming the auditions for the play. “We didn’t have any angle. We were there as observers, just talking to people, and we let the story kind of reveal itself,” he recalls.

Two students, Tain and Sammy, stood out to him right away. Tain, who was cast as Snug the Joiner, hid under a table during the shooting, and Sammy, who was cast as Mustardseed, is best friends with a girl who lost her sister in the shooting. “You saw that they were conflicted, that they were shy—especially Sammy, who at the beginning was in her shell,” says Kramer.

“They’re a lot more aware of life’s fragility. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” Kramer says of the kids. “Once they’re touched by this, there’s a kind of loss of some innocence. You just hope that they—as Tain’s mother says—you just hope that they’ll figure out that the world is not against them.”

As Kramer and his team got to know the parents and kids in Newtown, they were “very transparent about everything,” he says. Inevitably, people would ask them, “ ‘Well, have you talked to the families?’ And by the families they always meant the families that had lost a child,” he says.

The crew hadn’t intended to do that, but eventually, it connected with Greene and Márquez-Greene. “Jimmy had been so devastated by what happened to them, and the fact that he was a musician and also trying to find something positive [made their experience a natural fit for the film],” says Kramer.

Jimmy, a respected saxophonist, poured all the pain and joy he felt when he reflected on his slain daughter, Ana, into his music. “It’s amazing that [Jimmy] can say, ‘You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you respond,’ ” says Kramer.

The film also shows how Márquez-Greene, a marriage and family therapist, initially focused her energy on curbing access to guns but transitioned her efforts to founding The Ana Grace Project, which fosters empathy and love between young people. “It becomes a reflection in her mind of who her daughter was and is because empathy was how they raised her, and it’s a reflection of who she was,” says Kramer.

Given that arts education budgets have been decimated nationwide, it’s increasingly tough for students to learn empathy and express their creativity. Only 4 percent of elementary schools offered drama or theater instruction during the 2009–2010 school year, down from 20 percent a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Kramer acknowledges that schools may “have their own priorities,” but if they can afford arts programs, they should add them. They are “very meaningful in terms of character formation,” he says.

The producers screened the film for families in Newtown in advance of its premiere at Tribeca. “We were just so aware of all the sensitivities in the town,” Kramer says. “We didn’t know what to expect. They’re all coming to the premiere. So that’s a sign, I think.”

But making a “political film about guns” wasn’t the focus of the project, he says. “Our goal was to follow the kids, and so things grew out of that.”

However, when he began filming in Newtown in 2014, Kramer realized it would not be easy to gain the trust of the community. “There was so much anger at the media, and here we were coming in. We were just going to follow the play, but it didn’t matter, because a lot of people in Newtown are wary of any kind of coverage,” he explains. “You can imagine when the shootings happened, it was just like locusts. The media comes, and then they go.”

The kids in Newtown were defined by the shooting “in a lot of people’s eyes, and they didn’t quite understand it, but they sensed that there was something they didn’t like about it,” Kramer says. “But when they came together in this production, there was an energy, a kind of gaining of trust and confidence.”

Along with being moved by the vulnerability and depth of Tain, Sammy, and the other kids who participated in the play, Kramer says he often reflects on a question Jimmy would frequently ask: “How do you reflect love and beauty in the face of so much trauma?”

“We all go through life being tested by various things that are hard. You have to keep in your mind that you have the ability to choose. You can choose to be empathetic. You can choose to have your life reflect love and beauty,” says Kramer. “Not to be overly sentimental, but you can use that as a guiding principle, and when you hear it from Jimmy and you see it reflected in the other parents and the kids, it’s a reminder that life has so much joy in it.”