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Suicide "musical" an insensitive and incorrect protrayal

Original post made by Two anonymous Gunn students, Gunn High School, on Jun 24, 2016

Hello, we are two anonymous Gunn students. Recently, we watched A Theatre Near U's original play "A Beautiful Glass." According to its blurb, this production is a "surprisingly uplifting musical tale of suicides, supernovas and super foods." Sounds great already, right?

"A Beautiful Glass" is a musical about teens exploring the root causes of different cases of teen suicide. Our two lead characters do so by attempting to dive into the minds of their peers who committed suicide, as well as investigating Shakespearean suicides, suicide bombers, and many other cases. As the play progresses, the two leads fall in love and not only uncover some truths about suicide, but truths about themselves, including an unclear and very sudden implication that one of the leads suffers from schizophrenia.

Overall, we felt that this musical is infuriating, saddening, and incredibly problematic due to its treatment of the subject of suicide. We do not blame the actors at all; rather, we blame Tony Kienitz and Tanna Herr, the authors and directors of "A Beautiful Glass."

First of all, some of the show's content was directly based off of real life events. After one of the deaths at Gunn, the person's friends covered the Gunn campus with chalked messages in the person's memory. "A Beautiful Glass" opened with students writing "RIP" and "We Miss You" on the ground with chalk; during this scene, one of the characters even has the audacity to say, "I can't believe I have to do this again." To drive this parallel to real life home, the fictional high school is called "Cannon High School," a very clear reference to "Gunn High School." This obvious parallel to real life is disrespectful to both the person who died, and to the grieving process of the person's friends.

Additionally, the opening song, "This Town's Kids," finishes with the line "this town's kids are blazed on weed," after which all of the actors lie on the ground, coughing. This is an almost-hilarious example of an adult's idea of what teens in Palo Alto are like. No, not all of us are high all the time, and no, lying in a big pile of peers, coughing, is not a relatable situation. This portrays Palo Alto teens in such a negative light: we are not two-dimensional, naive drug addicts.

Throughout the first act, different actors portray the stories of different fictional teens who have committed suicide. All of these monologues are built upon the utterly incorrect premise that every suicide has just one root cause. For instance, one of the characters claimed that his medication to treat the acne on his back caused him to commit suicide. Another character seemed to imply that he took his own life simply because his commercial agency neglected to communicate with him properly. Suicide is an INCREDIBLY complex decision, and implying that every person who commits suicide is propelled by one concrete cause is disrespectful and infuriating to everyone who has ever lost someone to suicide (including the authors of this article). This play is indirectly telling us that the people we've lost all had one concrete motivation, and if we could have remedied that one thing, everything would have turned out okay.

There is also a scene in the play where a student asks their physician for treatment for their depression, and is told, “Good luck with that / I don’t have time for you.” Although we understand that this is supposed to be a satirical scene, it has some extremely dangerous implications. When someone in the audience who is hoping to get treatment for their mental illness sees this, they might become wrongly convinced that their doctor will also tell them "I don't have time for you." In reality, every person with an MD degree MUST undergo training in psychology, and will NEVER disregard someone seeking mental health treatment. This scene could be interpreted as actively trying to discourage teens from seeking out professional help, and that is incredibly harmful.

In the second act, the actors portray all of the Shakespearean suicides, which totals to nearly twenty. Not only is it jarring and sickening to show this many suicides onstage, the acting and directing gave the audience permission to LAUGH at these suicides. By the end of the scene, much of the audience was chuckling at the stupid, overdramatic portrayal of these completely not-funny deaths. That is very, very inappropriate, and brought one of the authors to tears (and not tears of laughter).

Another horrible scene dealt with suicide bombers. Now, this cast has very few people of color to begin with. However, the worst part about it is the fact that the directors cast an incredibly talented and wonderful Middle Eastern actor as a suicide bomber. This character's blatantly racist song includes choreography that culminates in primate-like dancing and chanting, a horrifically offensive and insensitive portrayal of several different cultures scrambled together. Even if this song were somehow made to be less problematic, the white authors and directors of this play are NOT allowed to make any statements about racial minorities, period. It is not their life and not their experience to reflect on.

There are many more problems with "A Beautiful Glass" that we could go into, but in general, when dealing with such difficult emotional material, A Theatre Near U needs to be MUCH, MUCH more sensitive to how this would affect people who have lived through the suicides of their peers and friends. It is absolutely NOT okay to show that many onstage suicides, and then never directly and explicitly address what someone in the audience should do if they've ever contemplated killing themselves.

Even though this show is unfortunately likely to continue playing through to its closing night, we need to get through to Tony Kienitz and Tanna Herr to effect some changes. First of all, there needs to be a trigger warning and several different suicide hotlines, in bold print, all over the program, as well as posted in the lobby. The content of the show is bad enough as it is; it is extremely dangerous to let someone feeling emotionally volatile and raw leave the theatre without having easy access to information about mental health resources. In addition, this show definitely needs to be donating some of their profits to KARA, Project Safety Net, or some other local suicide-related organization. At the very least, the ushers should should have donation jars. Finally, they need post information about mental health resources very publicly on their social media pages.

As two students who have struggled with mental illness ourselves, and been directly affected by the suicides at Gunn, "A Beautiful Glass" was triggering, insensitive, and, in general, not okay.

Please share this article on social media, or contact Tony Kienitz and Tanna Herr directly at [email protected]

Comments (29)

Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 24, 2016 at 9:59 am

Sarah1000 is a registered user.

Wow. I have tickets to see this play on Saturday. Thank you for the words of caution and thank you for taking the time to get involved.
Let's post some resources here: text anything to 741741 to start a conversation with a counselor; in Santa Clara County, EMQFF provides free youth crisis intervention services- just call 4083799085 or (toll-free) 8774127474; thetrevorproject.org has hotline, text and chat resources for LGBTQ youth.


Posted by A Former Gunn Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 24, 2016 at 11:01 am

I am so proud of my fellow Gunn students. Not only is this wonderfully written, it speaks to so many issues about this production. Thank you for having the bravery to talk about this issue. Suicide is so complex, and has unfortunately affected so many people, especially the students, in our town. All my love to both of you


Posted by Concerned Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2016 at 11:22 am

As adults, we have a responsibility when we create art that is aimed at teens, particularly this vulnerable population at Gunn High School. The writers of this play have not only created disrespectful depictions of various races and cultures, they have shown how far away from being teens they are, because they clearly have defaulted to the most mundane stereotypes. As a side note, this play is funny when it should not be and drab at the parts where you are supposed to laugh, but of course this is not the most important aspect of critiquing this work. We can forgive them for making something amateurish but we cannot and should not let them off the hook for producing something offensive.


Posted by WOW
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2016 at 12:10 pm

First of all, I want to let you Gunn students know that you have done a REAL SERVICE to our community, which displays a lot of maturity and sensitivity to others! I am VERY proud of you!

Second, I don't know if it was intentional on the part of the writers, but it sounds like a "roman a clef" account of Palo Alto and Gunn. Besides being libelous/slanderous, it was a very thoughtless, rude, and irresponsible thing for those writers to do! Also extremely insensitive, even cruel, to the relatives of the suicides here in recent years.

It is really egregious of them to make money off of the pain and grief of others!

Thanx so much for the heads-up!


Posted by Big Kid Pants
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 24, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Great art usually creates great emotion. Sometimes the emotion is not happy though. I will never tell someone not to write a play or not to write a song or not to paint a picture simply because it may make people upset.

I will also never point blame at someone trying to be creative, even if it falls flat. Societies that have gov't censorship make sure nothing "offensive" is produced. Welcome to liberty and freedom; it can get kind of messy sometimes.


Posted by re: "Big Kid Pants"
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 24, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Dear "Big Kid Pants,"

I fully agree with you that unnecessary censorship and restrictions on artistic freedom are wrong.

However, in this case, this musical could have devastating consequences. Suicide is an extremely sensitive topic, and dealing with it incorrectly could contribute to the epidemic, which needs to be avoided at all costs. Protecting local teen lives is infinitely more important than protecting freedom of artistic expression.


Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2016 at 4:19 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


Posted by Gunn grad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 24, 2016 at 4:44 pm

john_alderman, I think it's clear from the perspective of the two authors of this article that this musical triggered a very intense, negative emotional response in them. They would not have gone to the trouble of writing this article if this was not seriously troubling to them.

Palo Alto teens have had to deal with unimaginable grief that no one, especially high school students, should have to experience. They deserve to feel safe, respected, and valued in their community, and this musical achieves none of those things. Many messages in the show are unambiguously harmful and dangerous.


Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 24, 2016 at 11:32 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Friday evening, June 24

Hi, Onliners,

Blessed is Palo Alto in its youth!

What I saw, in reading the passionate piece above, then saw again at the show tonight, is deep commitment and concern on all sides--everyone making a contribution according to their lights, without a drop of cynicism, and fully engaged with difficult matters of great importance to our town.

Out of their struggles with their own illnesses, the anonymous Gunn writers have given deep consideration to this theatre piece from multiple angles, investing careful thought and warm hearts. In the ensemble onstage tonight I saw the same, in an evening full of life and music, talent and commitment--in a town where extraordinary events have knocked us all sideways.

I hope the contribution of Save the 2,008 (an initiative to lower high-school stress) is at least at the level of commitment and sincerity of these artists--Town Square writers and Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts performers alike. Bravo, bravo to all, I say! I'm proud to share a community with these young people.

Best,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator, savethe2008.com


Posted by teacher
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 24, 2016 at 11:56 pm

To the two who wrote this-

I feel for you. The community has been reeling with the not so hard to figure out determinants of the clusters in the past 10 years with a panorama of well credentialed "experts" making a financial bonanza farm off your bubble.But I sincerely suggest you grow some armor because the real world will dictate that not only you accustom yourself to thousands of triggers per day but the coping mechanisms to be offended on almost a daily basis. [Portion removed.]


Posted by The Real World Awaits
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 25, 2016 at 10:13 am

[Portion removed.] The authors of the play have a fundamental right to free speech and artistic expression. You are calling for them to be silenced because you do not agree with their point of view and the manner in which they express it. Think about the implications of that for a moment. If you are sensitive to issues around suicide, perhaps it would be wise for you to avoid plays and other expressive art forms that address it, rather than demanding that the world change to suit your needs.

If what I am saying is hard for you to hear, I understand your frustration and pain. But the real world will most definitely NOT accommodate itself to suit your particular sensitivities. This might be a first difficult lesson for you along those lines, but it may also be a necessary one. [Portion removed.]


Posted by FundamentalMidunderstandings
a resident of University South
on Jun 25, 2016 at 10:53 am

A lot of the commenters here fundamentally misunderstand both what the Gunn students are saying and the concept of free speech.

The playwrights have the freedom to write a creatively bankrupt, insensitive, laughably out-of-touch play, the Gunn students have the freedom to air their distaste and criticism. Where in the column did they call for the playwrights to be silenced? They are merely suggesting additional measures be added.

I personally don't agree with trigger warnings. I think they oversimplify and misunderstand PTSD and are overused in many cases. But how do they in any way silence the playwrights? How does adding suicide hotline numbers silence the playwrights? It's not abnormal for resources pertaining to suicide to be added when such a topic is addressed.

Not to mention the playwrights' intention appeared to be to address the issue of teen suicides in a sensitive, representative, and knowledgable way, which they failed. The Gunn students' suggestions are intended to remedy their failures in a way that corresponds with the playwrights' intention.

No, the real world won't accommodate your sensitivities. But a play written by two Palo Alto parents intending to address a sensitive issue so important in our community should be criticized for its tastelessness and for failing to do so.


Posted by The Real World Awaitss
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 25, 2016 at 1:13 pm

@FundamentalMisunderstandings:

From the article: "Even if this song were somehow made to be less problematic, the white authors and directors of this play are NOT allowed to make any statements about racial minorities, period. It is not their life and not their experience to reflect on."

If that is not a call to silence the playwrights, I'm not sure what it actually is. It's an ill-informed and ignorant opinion at best; one would hope that as the authors mature and begin to learn more in depth about the world, they would come to see this for the advocation of blatant censorship that it is, and utterly at odds with the vitally important principle of free speech. The authors of this article are calling for action to be taken by others (or that others be silenced) on their behalf because their feelings are hurt. This is simply dodging responsibility and trying to make other people do things (or to shut up) so that the authors are more comfortable. This is not how the real world works.

You state: "Not to mention the playwrights' intention appeared to be to address the issue of teen suicides in a sensitive, representative, and knowledgable way, which they failed. The Gunn students' suggestions are intended to remedy their failures in a way that corresponds with the playwrights' intention."

This is just an opinion, not a fact. As criticism, it's fine, but it's still just an opinion. A differing opinion does not mean that the playwrights should have to take some additional action to satisfy you, or the authors of this article.


Posted by J. Sherwood
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2016 at 1:32 pm

This is a Serious Play and DEFINITELY Worth Seeing

Let me start by saying that if you read this and there’s still time to see A Beautiful Glass, buy your tickets and go see it. It’s a somewhat flawed musical about a very serious subject performed by an incredibly talent cast of actors and musicians.

That said, the authors bring up some valid points. However, it seems that their grief (or anger) may be impacting their perspective. Anyone personally affected by the loss of someone they love – whether intentional or the result of cancer, a car accident, or crime – may find it tough to be “entertained” by subject matter trying to deal with the reasons for that death. Dealing with a friend’s death is never easy, at any age. Struggling with the decision about your own mortality, even tougher. The blog’s authors are missing the point: bringing tough issues out of the darkness and into the light is the first step to dealing with them. And, yes, only the living can do that.

Clearly, A Beautiful Glass was based in part on the suicides at the Palo Alto high schools. At the play’s core, however, was the one of the main character’s quest to understand why these young people, with the world at their feet, decided to end their lives. He never came to a single or simplistic answer. Depression, cyber-bullying, anorexia, and the side effects of pharmaceuticals were some just of the issues explored. While based on deaths of real people, I believe the play was respectful and sincere. It may have opened wounds for some, but for the greater community, it shed light on an issue that might otherwise be quickly and intentionally swept under a rug.

Like all good serious drama, there were elements of “comic relief” scattered throughout the play. This included a hilarious rapid-fire reenactment of all of Shakespeare’s suicides, and a particularly memorable scene between Justin and George, the two main characters, pointing to the constellation of Canis Major.

I believe that A Beautiful Glass, with a little re-writing (and shortening) could play to a much larger audience. I also believe that the play provided a showcase for many of Palo Alto’s impressive actors and musicians. GO SEE IT and decide for yourself.



Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 25, 2016 at 2:01 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@ Gunn grad - There is nothing wrong with triggering intense negative emotion reactions,. The question is are they any worse off for it.


Posted by FundamentalMidunderstandings
a resident of University South
on Jun 25, 2016 at 2:49 pm

@The "Real World" Awaitss

Of course it's their opinion--it's their opinion that as white authors, the playwrights portraying a minority as such is inappropriate. It's also their opinion that these suggestions be implemented. We can disagree about these being "valid" opinions, but that's part of free speech, that they are free to express these opinions, just as the playwrights are free to ignore said suggestions. Calling it censorship is a pretty hysterical response to two high school students criticizing a play and suggesting a few changes be made. They didn't even suggest boycotting the play, which would still be a valid form of protest. You're seeing censorship where there is none.


Posted by Mom mental health expert
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 25, 2016 at 10:14 pm

Sarah1000
Thank you for posting resources that any one of can readily access. Great job!!!


Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 25, 2016 at 11:44 pm

Sarah1000 is a registered user.

I just saw the play. I'm inclined to agree with J. Sherwood. From my perspective, the gist of the play is that suicide is complicated. I was grateful that the writers emphasized that illnesses of the mind are treatable and deserve the same compassion and access to care as other illnesses. The acting was AMAZING.
Having a teenage son who has been hospitalized during a major depressive episode for having a suicide plan, I can relate to the concerns of the authors of the above article. The young man's speech about depression raised some deep emotions for me. I can definitely see how processing this play would be extremely difficult for anyone personally impacted by the deaths of the students from Paly and Gunn. I also have concerns about the psychological impact on the cast and crew. Having therapeutic support from ACS or CHAC at the performances would have been a responsible addition.
For any young adult who needs support, DBSASF has a free, walk-in, peer-to-peer young adult group every Monday evening (year-round) at 6:45 pm at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in SF.


Posted by Mom
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 26, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Palo Alto is still in a suicide contagion. It's prudent to follow best practices.

When you deal with such a sensitive topic as suicide, it would be good to have a mental health therapist on-hand in case someone needs help. This is in addition to posting the Santa Clara County Suicide Prevention Number on the play's program which is 1-855-278-4204 and perhaps having it on a stand where everyone can see it. If possible, it would be good to have a post-discussion with the support of a mental health therapist.

I also would like to recommend reading/following the guidelines on writing about suicide: Web Link While this is specific for journalists, there are some good tips that are applicable when writing a play based off a true story.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also has some tips: Web Link

Simply, we are all in this together.


Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 26, 2016 at 1:43 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@ FundamentalMidunderstandings - to quote the offended authors of this article: , "the white authors and directors of this play are NOT allowed to make any statements about racial minorities, period."

If you don't see that as a call for censorship, i think are being dishonest.


Posted by Bad judgement
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 26, 2016 at 9:38 pm

In an interview with comedian Billy Crystal who makes pointed fun of all kinds of people and situations, he was asked if any subjects are off-limits. He said probably, and that he gives it a lot of thought.
Perhaps these playwrights weren't thoughtful enough or deep enough in their understanding of human frailties. Or too eager to shock.
Suicide would be at the top of my list of subjects not appropriate for humorous treatment, along with genocide, starvation, and so many human tragedies.


Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 26, 2016 at 10:25 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Bad Judgement - Did you you ever see the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where a Holocaust survivor and a Survivor contestant argue about who had it harder?

Treating kids like delicate flowers is part of the problem. Let them play outside. Let them talk about the real world. No earmuffs.


Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Jun 27, 2016 at 9:09 am

outsider is a registered user.

They should donate some some of their profits to counseling at Gunn .


Posted by Saw It
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Saw It is a registered user.

I saw the play, myself, and I feel I may need to see it again after my shock has worn off.

While I thought the play had possibilities, the timing and location of its release were in thoughtless bad taste. The inclusion of the thinly disguised account of the Silicon Valley Suicides made it a poor choice to perform this in Silicon Valley.

One good point was the inclusion of suicide prevention hotlines, etc, but it was an amateurish script beneath the acting abilities of the players. Only the music was truly enjoyable.

But, again, I think I need to see it again and find out what I missed due to the effect of the palpable shock ( some audience members walked out).


Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 27, 2016 at 8:07 pm

I have to say I'm with John Alderman here--the original posters did say that the writers had no right to write about the experiences of non-white characters. That really is problematic. I'm troubled, frankly, that two kids in high school didn't think that one through a little more--so should female writers only write about girls and women? Should male writers write only male characters?

It just has that whiff of identity politics and self-righteousness that's too common these days. Also problematic was the call for trigger warnings--no one was required to attend this production. If you don't want to watch something on teen suicide, it's on you not to go. That was my own choice, by the way.

Getting upset, by the way, is not the same as having PTSD triggered. We seem to be developing a fear of strong emotions around here--not a good idea. Better off to accept strong emotions and learn ways of dealing with them. In that sense, the letter was actually a good idea.

That said, A Beautiful Glass does seem to be misguided in its basic concept, but artists take chances and sometimes there's a misfire. I think we'd all be better off if we accepted failure as part of the learning and creative process.


Posted by Check your privilege
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2016 at 8:09 am

@OPar Your social privilege is showing.

In this show, the white authors present their PERCEPTION of the experience of people of color. Given the rest of the show, it seems very likely they did not consult with anyone who is actually Middle Eastern. This is problematic, because it adds incorrect information to our mostly-white society's view of Middle Eastern people.

When it comes to racial minority groups, the art community as a whole should be listening to the voices of the people actually from those groups, not the fantasies of white people who dominate media anyway.

In addition, the call for trigger warnings is extremely valid. The show was marketed as a comedy, even though it clearly caused a very negative emotional response in some of its viewers, including the authors of this article.


Posted by High School Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 30, 2016 at 9:41 pm

Multiple people of Middle Eastern descent were consulted, as was a psychiatrist. It was not marketed as a comedy.
According to the press release it was "poignant and often funny." It was a moving and beautiful show.


Posted by mrs lincoln
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 2, 2016 at 1:10 am

Great writing. Until I got to this sentence:

"Even if this song were somehow made to be less problematic, the white authors and directors of this play are NOT allowed to make any statements about racial minorities, period."

Uhhhh, the whole point of free speech is to trigger great writing like yours in reaction to something you found totally inappropriate. The race of the writer is relevant in determining the intent and perspective. That you concluded it was a bad fit is great. But, when you say whites have no right to comment on society based on their skin color, you wipe out any further attention to your argument with your myopia.

Don't conflate a bad script with the right to put out a bad script.

The content of the play is important to react to, not to prevent it from being.



Posted by PeaceLove
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 2, 2016 at 3:57 am

Some interesting points here but I have to say I disagree with the overall evaluation. I saw the play last Friday and I was blown away and deeply moved. Superb acting all around, lively writing, and I was never bored. The play is a very serious attempt to confront a complex, emotionally charged subject. I thought they did a wonderful job of examining suicide through myriad different lenses.

You wouldn't know it from this article and some of the comments but the play also addresses social aspects around suicide, including the misguided glamorization of the tortured artist trope, which invariably glorifies those who kill themselves. In fact, this play filled with high school kids includes guest appearances from Vincent van Gogh and Sylvia Plath (!) and they're not played for laughs. Even the suicide bomber character is treated with dignity. I appreciate that they gave him the chance to explain himself from his point of view, as a freedom fighter whose entire family was taken from him by American bombs.

We all approach works like this through our own experience filter. I can see how this could be a traumatic play for someone who recently lost a loved one. But I don't think it made light of suicide, ever. Even that Shakespeare mass death scene (which I thought was quite funny) is about the way suicide is treated in drama, as opposed to real life. In other words, it wasn't a joke about suicide, it was a joke about historical *depictions* of suicide.

I was with them the whole way and the play made me cry more than once. Kudos to the cast and crew for undertaking such a courageous project, and for pulling it off so well.

To the writers of this article: I am very sorry for your loss, which is obviously devastating. When something like this happens to you it can create trauma and PTSD, which becomes your personal filter. Your reaction to this play is legitimate for you, but may not be shared by others. Over time your raw edges will soften and I hope you are someday able to hold a work like this without so much deep pain.

Peace


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