The Events

Different community choirs are used for each performance of "The Events." (David Levine / June 9, 2014)

David Greig remembers walking with his 12-year-old son in the Scottish Highlands in July 2011 when they stopped at a remote town, picked up a newspaper and were stunned at the news: 33-year-old Anders Breivik killed 69 people and wounded 33 others, mostly teenagers, on the Norwegian island of Utoya where a youth camp was being held. This followed his bombing just outside the prime minister's office building in the capital of Oslo, killing seven and wounding hundreds.

"Why did he do this," his son asked?

"I could give him a thousand reasons," says the Scottish playwright-director in a telephone interview, "ranging from right-wing politics in Europe to psychoanalyzing masculinity in the culture. But really I had no explanation that seemed satisfying. And yet I also felt an overwhelming urge to understand that was combined with a frustration from not being able to understand."

Greig, with director Ramin Gray, started discussions later in 2011 in what would eventually become the play with music "The Events," a work which tells of a violent atrocity and how people in the community try "to fathom the unfathomable."

The 90-minute piece "that explores the idea of evil and the limits of forgiveness" was a sensation — and emotional experience for audiences — at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It will make its U.S. premiere as part of New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas that begins its two-week run featuring dozens of shows, exhibits and discussions throughout the city on Saturday, June 14. "The Events" runs June 24 to 28 at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Collaborators Greig and Gray decided to travel to Norway, not exactly knowing what they would find or what theatrical expression would emerge. They talked to a wide variety of people but after a few days felt further "depressed and disappointed and just sad," says Greig. "We felt this wall of darkness that we just couldn't get through."

Then one day the Norwegian dramaturge they were working with needed to pick up her mother from a community choir practice and the two men tagged along. "We turned up in this school hall, the kind that has a basketball hoop and filled with plastic bucket chairs, where the group was rehearsing a Christmas concert. And in listening to them sing there was this great feeling of lift. It was like taking a bath of humanity. With that we both realized you have to have something to counterpoint the horror — and a choir seems to be it."

Putting It Together

"The Events" has two principal characters — Claire, a young church choirmaster who survived the tragedy and "the boy" — and a "choir" that not only sings but comments on the action, evoking "the chorus" in classic Greek theater.

The "choir/chorus" in "The Events" represent the community, says Greig, "reacting collectively and representing the opposite of the aloneness [of the killer]. Through the choir we see the way a community heals."

"Claire is bent on understanding the 'whys' [of the mass murder] with a drive that is as ruthless and damaging as the feeling of 'revenge.' The play gives the idea of 'understanding' a pretty hard time. The play doesn't settle the easy answer of 'understanding.' "

The show in New Haven is a co-production of London's Actors Touring Company and the Young Vic Theatre, Vienna's Schauspielhaus Wien and Norway's Brageteatret. (The show will also be presented in February at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop.)

When the show, under the music direction of John Browne, was presented in Norway "people there were understandably nervous that it would be exploitive, mawkish or voyeuristic. And I was anxious because I did not want to create something that added to people's distress.

"But the reaction was very positive and moving. The play provided a kind of catharsis. Many people said the play expressed what had been on their minds. One woman said to me, 'I thought I was going mad [after the killings] and in seeing the play I saw that I was normal. What was being expressed on stage was what was going on in my head.' That was a privileged moment for me — and a great relief."

The show was also presented in Ireland "where the wounds are no less present, but less raw. There was some interesting responses from audiences there. They were less interested in the idea of forgiveness than the idea of 'how do you move on?"

In some places, a community reacts to "The Events" following some trauma it had recently experienced. Last year it was the attempted beheading of a British soldier in London, the first terrorist murder on the British mainland since the July suicide bombings of 2005. In Connecticut, memories are still fresh from the Sandy Hook Elementary mass killing in Newtown that left 20 young children and six adults dead in December 2012.

"I couldn't help but feel that the peculiar pang when I heard the news [of Newtown]," says Greig. "Of another horrific event in another town by another boy. The figure of the lone young man keeps popping up all over the world. All I can hope that is that people find in the play something that is cathartic.''

The Power Of Group Voice

The choir is the key, says director Ramin Gray.

Local choirs are found in each community where the show is performed and they rehearse the music and script of the show on their own, then rehearse briefly when the company comes to town for the performance. They are also requested to contribute a song to perform of their choice, representing their choir.

In the presentations across the globe the local choruses take many shapes, from a women's choir in Soweto, to classical choristers, to choruses made up of the homeless or of refugees or of gospel singers. Each show has a different choir "so whenever you attend it's always different and unique."

But unlike the Greek choruses and plays, Gray says "there is no "deus ex machina" at the show's end, where suddenly there arrives something or someone to make everything all right again.

As it turned out in Edinburgh, a theater-musical group from Western Connecticut State University was in attendance at the festival and was recruited to be one of the choirs performing during "The Events" run there.

"It was thrilling," says Sal Trapani, a theater professor at WCSU, who performed with his 28 theater majors. Their choice for their own uplifting "song of peace and healing" from their production of "Lysistrata." (The group is one of the six choices performing in the New Haven run; on Wednesday, June 25.)

"I think Connecticut audiences will be moved by this powerful piece," says Trapani. "It's difficult but it's also beautiful. It may be too much for some." But it also shows the healing role that theater can do."

"THE EVENTS'' plays the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven from June 24 to 28. The show runs 90 minutes. Shows are at 8 p.m. there is a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, June 28. General; admission tickets are $35 to $65. Student and senior discounts available. There is a post show talk after each performance. Information: 203-562-5666, at new Haven Visitors Center, 1000 Chapel St. New Haven and www.artidea.org.

The scheduled choirs and their performances are  June 24, New Haven Chorale; June 25,Western Connecticut State University; June 26, Greater New Haven Community Chorus; June 27, The Wayfaring Choir and The New Growth & Friends Choir: June 28 at 3 p.m., The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Mass Choir; and June 28 at 8 p.m., West Hartford Women's Chorale.

For a full schedule for all of the activities of New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas, June 14 to 28, visit www.artidea.org.

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