Breaking the cycle of death - Morna Young looks at US gun culture through the lens of murder ballads

In the summer of 2018, I was asked to pitch for Pepperdine Scotland’s 2020 Fringe production. Pepperdine Scotland is a remarkable cultural project that pairs Scottish playwrights with drama students from California’s Pepperdine University, to create contemporary theatre exploring social justice. 

I’d read a lot about ballads travelling from Scotland to the USA, and decided to use this form to explore gun culture and the structures that keep us trapped. With my pitch approved, I quickly became engrossed in the terrifying narrative of mass shootings in the USA. I tied my script around the question “how do we break the cycle?” using balladry to help explore this agonising subject through an alternative lens. 

In November that year, however, everything changed with a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. Known more widely as the “Borderline shooting”, 13 people were killed: one of these being a Pepperdine student. The horror of this imaginary ballad became real: our actors lost a friend, and the context of our story changed forevermore. 

My first inclination was to cancel the commission: some subjects are too raw and too immediate. But the students fought to continue, determined to prompt public discussion. At the heart of the play is a story about challenging structures, and this need for change fuelled a passion for making the work. 

We weren’t without further complication: my original title Active Shooter was changed after an early draft was discovered on a photocopier by watchful campus police, causing a security alert. Those two words sparked the terror of a gunman’s manifesto, colliding the imagined and the real once more. With a new title, Americana: A Murder Ballad, we ploughed onward, but we all know the next significant timeline hiccup: March 2020.

So here we are, in 2022, due to premiere our show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Our actors from 2020 have nearly all graduated, so it’s mostly a new class of students picking up the mantle. 

For these actors, to whom the events at Borderline are less immediate, a different form of activism is brewing. These are young people born post-Columbine, who have never known a world without active shooter drills. The idea that their lives are less valuable than weapons of war is part of their very being. 

A play cannot change the world, but it can provide space for discussion. Whilst our lives have fundamentally changed during this play’s existence, mass shootings have stubbornly persisted. Indeed, they jumped by 65% in the first six months of 2021. Sadly, it seems our story is more relevant than ever.

Related Listings

Americana: A Murder Ballad

Americana: A Murder Ballad

‘Americana is a place of dreams / And our young protagonists could embody this hope / Though soon their fates will be in dire-straits / Imprisoned to the ethereal land of folk. 

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