Miss Katelyn provides a lesson in the disturbing effects of media focused on violence

To mark the last day of school, Miss Katelyn has prepared a special lesson for her grade threes before she sends them out into the world: safety. Specifically safety during a school shooter situation. Miss Katelyn has been watching the news and researching online and she thinks it’s not just likely, but inevitable that her children will have to face such a situation, and she believes that her school principal’s refusal to run lockdown drills is leaving her students unprepared for what lies ahead. Today is the day she’ll rectify that, with her own lesson plan on what to do when her students find themselves in a school shooter situation.

This is Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable, which plays two more times (February 1 and 5) as part of the Canoe Theatre Festival during the Chinook Series.

Written and performed by Elena Belyea, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable is a literal lesson in surviving a school shooting. The audience plays her class, whom Miss Katelyn might call on at any time as she furiously writes on the blackboard and uses various other teaching tools to get her lesson plan across to her students.

It’s dark subject matter that’s all too relevant, and Elena’s script approaches it with the seriousness it deserves but, through the character of Miss Katelyn, also injects a fair amount of humour into the show to keep it accessible for audiences. The humour is never directed at the subject matter, but rather at Miss Katelyn’s approach to it. As the audience is reminded that Miss Katelyn is teaching this terrifying lesson plan to 8-year-old children and her principal, colleagues, and student’s parents can’t find out about the lesson (after all, lockdown drills are forbidden by the school), the ridiculousness of the situation frequently catches up with audience members. Elena’s use of humour in this way provides the audience at least momentary escape from the very real statistics and information about school shooters embedded in the play.

Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable is one of the most engaging plays I’ve seen. For most of the play, the house lights are up, allowing Elena to engage directly with the audience as her pupils – asking questions, making sure they understand the words she’s using and even more active audience participation that I’ll leave as a surprise (although rest assured, no one gets pulled up on stage or forced to actively participate). It’s hard to describe without ruining the show, so I’ll just leave you with the promise that you can’t help but buy into this world that Elena has created and that active engagement of the audience is one of the most interesting parts of the show. Unless you’ve done your own research on school shootings, Elena as Miss Katelyn is truly teaching a lesson that she has created herself, and you are likely just as scared by what she is saying as her students would be if this were real life.

While the audience is put in the role of grade three children, Miss Katelyn is certainly written for adults. As the play delves further and further into Miss Katelyn’s lesson plan, we learn more about what is motivating her to teach this lesson. Elena’s script is a careful sequence of character reveals, which I won’t ruin here, but suffice it to say the lesson carries more and more weight the more we get to know about Miss Katelyn. At the heart of the character, though, it’s obvious that this lesson plan is created out of both love for her pupils and the amplification of her naturally anxious disposition by the media and the culture of fear media focusing on the violence in the world can create. It’s clear from Miss Katelyn’s comments and the tone of her lesson plan, that she’s consumed by the media she has absorbed and feels it’s the responsibility of the school system, and herself in particular, to prepare students for a world she sees as full of violence and danger.

Miss Katelyn’s reaction to what she sees as the world around her throws into sharp relief your own anxieties – whether they’re about gun violence in schools or anything else. Likely, most people’s reaction is to be thankful that their anxieties aren’t as extreme as Miss Katelyn’s, but for me, it made me think about what are the anxieties I have that I’m constantly “teaching” my loved ones about out of love and fear? How have those been created or encouraged by the media I consume? Are there choices I’ve made in my life out of fear like Miss Katelyn has? Are there relationships in my life that have been damaged by those things I’m anxious, the same way Miss Katelyn’s relationships have suffered? And ultimately – how do we accept that there are scary and disturbing things that happen in the world, and how do we rise above that? In the final moments of the play, Miss Katelyn encourages her pupils that sticking together and looking out for one another is the best life advice she has to give.

Remaining performances of Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable are in the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns February 1 and 5 as part of Canoe Theatre Festival during the Chinook Series. Tickets are $20 for students and seniors and $25 for adult tickets through Fringe Theatre Adventures. Evening passes for all shows in a particular evening are $50 and for $75 you get a Five Pack Festival Pass.

On February 1 at 5:30 in the ATB Financial Arts Barns Lobby Board Room, Workshop West presents a special salon where Elena, a school teacher, a parent and a police officer will discuss safety in Edmonton schools. Attend in person or hear the conversation afterwards on the What It Is Podcast.

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