School shootings seem to grace the headlines of newspapers far too often in this country, with the Virginia Tech and Columbine incidents springing up every few years. But, when the otherwise unknown community of Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania experienced a killing spree in 2006 leaving five young girls dead, more than just shock came over the country. That’s because the schoolhouse in question was located in an Amish community, and the shooter was a local milkman that had intentions of raping the young Amish girls before killing them. More than two years later, New York theatergoers have an opportunity to go inside the minds of those affected by the killings. Playwright and performer Jessica Dickey has crafted a one-woman play in which she takes on seven distinct characters involved with the tragedy, including the gunman and some of the students.
“The Amish Project” opened in workshop form earlier this year at the Cherry Lane Theater, kicking off the 2009 season at New York’s oldest continuously running Off-Broadway house. Dickey first staged the play last year in the New York International Fringe Festival, which ran from August 8-24, garnering critical praise. The first-time playwright crafted the piece as a fictionalized account of the Nickel Mines shooting in order to tell the story in a theatrical way. “I was very careful not to learn anything about the real people because I wanted full creative license to explore wherever the creative process took me,” she said one recent afternoon over coffee in a West Village café. “I really didn’t start working on the piece until about a year and a half after the event happened.” After writing most of the play while riding the subway to and from her Brooklyn residence, Dickey submitted it to the Fringe Festival. At that time the play only had four characters.
“Shoot me first,” cries a young Amish girl as the murderous milkman points his gun towards the 10 students. “Shoot me second,” whimpers another. These lines are delivered not only by Dickey each night, but were actually said by two sisters that day, according to local reports. Most of “The Amish Project” is told through flashbacks, with the action alternating between a nearby press conference and the schoolhouse. Dickey quickly jumps in and out of each character with ease, switching from a frightened 12-year-old to the dark gunman and his distraught widow, as he ultimately turned the gun on himself after shooting the schoolgirls.
At the Fringe Festival, Dickey experienced what she gladly refers to as “gorilla” theater, joking that she felt almost “primitive” having to set up and tear down her set in 15 minutes each of the play’s seven performances. Dickey, in her early 30s, admits to feeling terrified throughout that initial run blaming a lot of those nerves on her struggle to memorize “The Amish Project.” “Part of the acting process is that you learn the piece within a space,” she said. “And at Fringe you never had time to learn the space… there was never a rhythm I could pick up on.”
Morgan Jenness, a literary agent at Abrams Artists Agency, caught Dickey’s play at the Festival and decided to usher it down to the historic Cherry Lane Theater. “She knew right away that the [theater] would be the perfect home, and she was right,” said Dickey. Under the guidance of Cherry Lane’s artistic director Angelina Fiordellisi, “The Amish Project” played a workshop on the 179-seat main stage at 39 Commerce Street. The production’s minimal set design, a single chair and three painted window frames on stands, and its nature as a one-woman show, allowed the Cherry Lane to invest very little money in order to get it up and running.
Following the Cherry Lane run, “The Amish Project” struggled to find a new home, thanks in part to the Off-Broadway community struggling in the economic downturn. But, after multiple pleas for funding assistance from Dickey, her play is making its world premiere in the West Village at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. “The Amish Project” will run through July 12th.