Interview: Actor Sara Barker Discusses Upcoming Performance of Lauren Gunderson’s New Play Against Gun Violence (1st Stage April 23)

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On February 14, 2018, a gunman entered Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 students and teachers. On April 3, Playwright Lauren Gunderson made her new play involving gun violence, Natural Shocks, available for royalty-free performances the weekend of April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. And on Monday, April 23, Sara Barker of WSC Avant Bard will perform the one-woman Natural Shocks at 1st Stage, directed by Stevie Zimmerman.

Actor Sara Barker, starring in Lauren Gunderson’s Natural Shocks April 23 at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

For Barker, who’s a fixture of the DC theater scene (she’s a member of four companies: Avant Bard, Factory 449, Rorschach, and the Klunch), putting on a reading of Natural Shocks felt natural. She’s the one who pushed for it: when she saw that Gunderson had made her as-yet-unpublished play available for staged readings, she knew right away that she wanted a performance that centers on the effects of gun violence for the DC area.

“After Parkland, we all wanted to do something. Anything,” Barker said. “There was this energy to get involved. And Natural Shocks was a way to respond.”

All donations collected at the reading will go to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nonprofit dedicated to creating common-sense gun reform.

The phrase “natural shocks” comes from what’s maybe the most quoted speech of any play in English: Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in which the character puzzles out what it means to be alive, and what it means to be dead, if it means anything at all. He asks himself if it’s better “to die, to sleep/No more; and by a sleep, to say we end/the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/that Flesh is heir to” (Hamlet, III.i).

Playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose new play Natural Shocks will be given 107 readings in a nationwide weekend of theater activism against gun violence.

The only character in Gunderson’s one-woman show is obsessed with this speech. While waiting out a tornado in a basement, she meditates on the connection between Hamlet’s words and gun violence in the United States. Making a political point using a well-written story inspired by the classics is something that suits both Barker and Gunderson’s talents. Gunderson, the most-produced playwright in the country, often writes plays rooted in the works of Shakespeare. Barker, on the other hand, said that Shakespeare was one of the reasons she became an actress.

“I always knew I wanted to be an actress,” said Barker. As a shy girl in elementary school, she soaked up moments in the spotlight. Later, when she was old enough to understand the impact of Shakespeare’s plays, she became obsessed. “I decided I wanted to be a Shakespearean actress,” Barker added, momentarily pitching her voice into a deeper, serious cadence.

That’s not quite how Barker’s acting career has unfolded—which isn’t a bad thing. She realized that she needed to train her body in addition to training her voice. Since then, she’s appeared in shows that demand all kinds of acting skills, from physical comedy to gender-swapping to high-flying, fast-paced dialogue. Barker appeared most recently in another Gunderson play with Avant Bard, as Emilie in Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. In May, she’ll play Lyubov in Faction of Fools’ Commedia dell’Arte take on The Cherry Orchard.

Barker doesn’t separate her acting from the reality of making art in the nation’s capital, though. “Ten years ago, I would have said that acting in DC wasn’t any different from acting anywhere else,” she said. Since the 2016 election, however, Barker has seen a shift in offerings from local theaters, both in DC and elsewhere. “Even theaters I work with that don’t address politics much felt like they had to do something [after the 2016 election].”

Seen in that light, Natural Shocks is an extension of the DC theater community’s fresh political awareness. Not least on the list of topics that political awareness includes: gun reform. “It’s a shame that the issue is politicized,” said Barker, who added that her own life has been touched by gun violence. “Gun reform should be about common sense.” She cited banning assault weapons, conducting background checks, and placing guns in locked safes as measures that lawmakers can pass to prevent individuals from harming both themselves and others.

The connection between Shakespeare and gun violence might not seem as obvious, but it makes more sense than you’d think. Shakespeare’s tragedies deal with the kinds of pain the characters have trouble grasping: a child’s betrayal, a father’s death, a husband’s rapid descent into insanity. They speak their grief in intense bursts of speech, which isn’t so different from the way many of us respond after each mass shooting (although, unlike us, they have Shakespeare to shape their words into eloquence). The fast-talking, numbers-obsessed protagonist of Natural Shocks embodies that connection.

Ultimately, the nationwide readings of Natural Shocks are about action. (To date 107 readings of Natural Shocks have been scheduled across 45 states and DC.) Barker hopes that those who see her perform in the April 23 reading will remember to feel empathetic towards their fellow citizens—and will act on that feeling.

“It only takes an honest consideration of human frailty to realize that we need to start voting into office individuals who will legislate evidence-based gun safety in our country,” she said.

See Natural Shocks at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean, VA 22102, on April 23, 2018, 7:30 pm Donations will support Moms Demand Action.

You can also see Tonic Theater Company’s reading of Natural Shocks, starring Lise Bruneau and directed by Kelsey D. Phelps, Friday, April 20, 2018, at 2:00 pm at The Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC 20024.

And Natural Shocks will also be read Monday, April 30, 2018, at 6 pm at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy, Bethesda, Maryland 20814, starring Beth Hylton.

Donate to Moms Demand Action here.