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The Lida Project Takes Aim With Happiness Is a Warm Gun

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In the debate over gun safety, regulation and ownership, people keep firing off their partisan politics without giving the conversation a whole lot of thought. The LIDA Project wants to change that, says Tommy Sheridan, director of the troupe's latest production, Happiness in Warm Gun, a six-part series of abstract plays examining issues of mental health, domestic violence and gun ownership. Instead of asking patrons to come to the theater, though, Sheridan is asking people to sponsor salon-style shows in living rooms throughout the Denver metro area.

The shows will run Friday, October 10 through December 13, when the series will culminate in a performance of all six plays at work|space at The Laundry. In advance of the two-month run, Westword spoke with Sheridan about the plays, the salon style performances and gun issues. See also: Shana Cordon Is Dancing With Demons This Weekend

Westword: Talk about the new project.

Tommy Sheridan: It's called Happiness is a Warm Gun. It's in six parts. We've referred to it as an epic style, as opposed to what we might normally do, because it is such a large piece. We reserve the epic format for projects that we feel deserve a lot more attention than we might be able to give in ninety minutes. When we did this three years ago, healthcare was the topic. It was right on the heals of the Affordable Healthcare Act going into effect, so there was a lot of back and forth going on around the country, a lot of dialogue. We felt like so much of the important stuff we lost and conversations were lost because of the politics. Things we weren't talking about were what is health care? What does it mean to take care of one's self and each other and our families?

So we produced six plays that were all meant to tell a big story, and it was very successful. We knew we wanted to be able to do it again. We can only do something like this every couple of years. It's huge on resources and time. So we gave ourselves a little more time and we batted around a few topics.

It was right around the time of the Sandy Hook shootings that we decided that maybe gun culture's something that should be discussed on a broader scale. We decided to choose gun culture and gun violence in the Untied States for this format. We started doing research and gathered a handful of directors and some local actors. We sat down in a room for the better part of three months, and we surrounded ourselves with all things relating to guns.

We read articles online and in other journals, periodicals, a whole bunch of Guns and Ammo, The Rifle Man and other periodicals. Our goal, ultimately, was to transcend the bipartisan arguments that go back and forth and to find a way to have a conversation with regular people and folks who weren't so heavily invested in the emotions of it and see if we can figure out a way to create a new dialogue, a new perspective. That was the goal of our research. That was a good three-month process, two or three months.

We felt like we had a handle on the material and an idea of the type of stories we wanted to tell. We did another casting call and came up with twelve amazing performers who came in. We broke up into six groups to start working on our six stories. We spent the last month-and-a-half working on those stories. That's the nutshell of how we got from May to today. How do those stories challenge the way the conversation goes down in the United States?

One of the first topics we tackled in the circle, doing our research, was to explore the statement, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." It's often thrown down as a statement to end a conversation. Once you say that, you've pretty much made any and every point that you can. We wanted to take it a little bit further. What we realized is that there are all kinds of things that kill people and that the guns truly are just, kind of, a prop in all of this madness. It really is just a really well-designed machine.

Looking at the things and the scenarios and circumstances in people's lives that make them end up using a gun or using this machine in a violent way we found to be missing from all of these conversations. We decided to tell stories about depression and schizophrenia and mental health. We decided to tell stories about domestic violence. We decided to tell a story about the news media and how they sensationalize stories and don't really go in-depth in all of these topics and kind of linger along the surface. We're telling stories about regionalisms and the politics of it, because it's hard to have a discussion without the politics coming into it. That's the direction we went with these stories, opposite of what people might perceive as being the drivers behind the debate.

Read on for more from Tommy Sheridan.

Have your own politics or thoughts around gun issues changed throughout the production? If so, how?

I think yes. I would make the statement that I think is true for most of us involved in this process. Our politics informed our opinion coming into this process, but the process has shown us that it's far more complex than what it seems and that you can't rely on a single perspective to inform you about it.

I would say that it made me look at the situation a little more three-dimensionally. I just don't see this as a left or right issue anymore. But maybe going into it, I found myself on one of those sides and now I don't think it is. I don't think either side should actually claim a win.

You can't pass laws and expect everything to change. This is a very rich culture that we have. It's very diverse. I think this topic certainly has its regionalisms. People who live in rural Colorado certainly have a different opinion on the importance of firearms than people who live in Denver or in Boulder, for that matter. I think to make it all black and white and to assume there are only two perspectives -- I don't think we're doing the conversation justice. I would say that, yeah, my politics haven't changed in general, but my opinion of this particular topic has certainly been expanded.

Give me a bit of background into the LIDA Project and your background with it.

I've been with the LIDA Project off and on for two or three years. One of our founding members, Brian Freeland, who's our artistic director, ended up moving to New York back in December. He had a great opportunity to do that. When he and his family made that choice, we just kind of looked around and asked ourselves, well, what do we want to have happen to this theater company that's been around for twenty years. We all decided that we didn't want it to go away.

I stepped up and am managing our space at 2701 Lawrence Street. I've always been slated to direct this production, so I've just taken over the reins in Denver for the time being, and it's been a joy. I love the company. I love creating new work. I love taking ideas that are mainstream and deconstructing them and creating a new perspective for people to absorb information and to tell stories. Where are you performing the show? This is a salon-style performance. What does that mean?

The intention is to perform these pieces in people's homes. It's a salon piece. The inspiration for that -- obviously, it's very popular in Eastern Europe. In Poland, as an example, there is a lot of underground theater, theater of a political nature that you can't necessarily perform in public for fear of persecution. It's a way to get your message out without getting in trouble. And we thought, particularly, when we did the healthcare piece, it was a really neat format.

We're kind of losing that level of intimacy in American theater. The fourth wall is becoming a fourth cinderblock wall where that connection with the audience isn't as tangible as it used to be. I don't know if that's based on the entertainment world where we live now, where we're all kicked back in our living rooms, where we don't feel like we need to emotionally engage with what we're seeing.

We kind of missed that and felt that if we're going to do a piece that's this intimate, quite honestly, it's important. We want people to be able to really absorb it. And we don't want people to feel like you just come in and watch it and then leave. It's a little harder when you're in someone's living room and there are only 10 or 15 of you.

With this piece, in particular, it will be challenging, just because it's hard for people in the same family to sit down and have this conversation. But we feel like our work is abstract enough that it is something that people can kind of sit down and have a conversation about, that we can talk about guns with a different perspective and make it more about human beings and less about the machine.

This format, I think, is particularly suited to this topic. We really are excited to get in there and literally perform in a six-by-eight square in somebody's house. When the house lights go down, they're really house lights, not some big theater. It's somebody's home. When we're done and we turn the houselights back on, we can all sit down and have a conversation about not just what we just saw, like you would any other play, but it's a talkback that maybe has a little more to it. That's the goal.

We had that experience with the healthcare piece, and it was wonderful to have people open up about their experiences and feel comfortable about doing that because they weren't in the room with 50 or 100 people. They were in the room with ten other people and maybe they knew two others or maybe the whole crowd was a group of strangers. But it made the conversation really real, and I think it gave people a way to have the conversation beyond the living room. I think that's the goal.

Read on for more from Tommy Sheridan.

How can people find out where this is taking place?

In a perfect world, we'd have 42 individual homes host a performance. It's hard enough to get patrons in the door at the theater let alone get patrons to open up their own doors. We're hoping that people will open up their homes to multiple parts, which makes it easier for patrons to attend. But, you know, we're literally relying on the kindness of strangers to take a chance and bring a play into their house. To that end, as we figure out seating capacity for each show, we ask each host family to seat ten to twenty people. Those houses exist all around the metro area. What we'll do is we'll sell that number of seats for the performance, and then the week of the performance we'll email all the patrons and let them know what the location is.

With a topic like this, we feel like it's important to honor people's privacy and not just say, "Hey, we're going to be at Joe Stevens house out in Lakewood at this address," and have that out there. You never know who's going to respond and in what way to a piece like this.

If Westword readers want to get involved in hosting, should they contact you through the website? Yeah. That would be perfect. When we did, Now I Lay You Down To Sleep a couple of years ago, we were adamant about keeping the performances in the city of Denver proper to make it more accessible to everybody. I think we're moving on from that with this particular performance. So far, we have houses both in Lakewood and Littleton and Arvada and Cherry Creek and Thornton. At this point, we're all over the metro area. We still have performances scheduled in Denver. So long as we're not driving out two hours, we would love to perform anywhere in the Denver area and give anybody a chance to see a performance.

The capstone for this particular event is going to be December 13, and we will perform at work|space at The Laundry, and we will perform all six pieces consecutively. We'll start around two o'clock in the afternoon, do two pieces, take a food and beverage break, do another two, take another break and do the final two performances. It will be a nice, daylong theatrical event, and we're really excited about that.

What do you want viewers to know going into this?

I think the most important part of this piece is that stylistically it's very unique, very abstract. We're doing that on purpose because we want people to shed their preconceptions about guns and what this debate is when they walk in the door.

What's most important is that of course we want to talk about process and the research and all the technical stuff is fun to talk about in theater, but we want people to have that discussion about mental health. We want people to have that discussion about domestic violence. We want people to think differently when somebody wants to talk to them about guns and the second amendment, because it's about the human condition. It's not about the issue.

To reserve seats or offer your home as a venue for Happiness Is a Warm Gun, go to the LIDA Project website. Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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