Ridgfield’s ACT to stage musical on Amish school shooting, ‘community’ and ‘grief’

When a new musical crossed Dan Levine’s desk, he knew he couldn’t pass it up.

Levine is the artistic director of A Contemporary Theater of Connecticut, and the show was “Nickel Mines.”  It’s a tender and moving musical, according to Levine, that tells the story of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where 11 girls were shot by a lone gunman. Five of those girls died.

“When the script came across my desk maybe three or four years ago, I was in shock reading it because I just couldn't believe how sensitive and beautifully told this story was,” Levine said. “Telling a story about a horrible, horrific, historically tragic event is very, very challenging and Andrew Palermo, the conceiver of the show and the director of the show, does such a great job at sensitively telling the story and really paying tribute to these [11] girls that were shot.”

The show has been in production for six years and has been produced in the past as a live reading but never as a full-on stage production. That production was supposed to become a reality in March of 2020 but had to close five days before its premiere because of the pandemic. Two years later, Levine has managed to gather all the same cast and crew to finally bring the show to life.

Levine said this first full production of “Nickel Mines” is only the first step for the production. He believes staging the show with Ridgefield's  ACT (A Contemporary Theater) has allowed the creative team to workshop the performance and figure out how it should be staged, which will inform future directors, set builders and even actors on how the performance should play out. 

The show has also been backed by local gun control groups, including CT Against Gun Violence, according to Levine. 

“Easily they could have said ‘wait a minute, you’re doing a show about a shooting? How can you do a musical about a shooting?’ And they’ve seen portions of it, they’ve read about it and we’ve done interviews with them, and they think we’re doing a really admirable job,” he said.

Part of the sensitivity that has gone into the show includes that the gunman never makes an appearance in the production. The show also does not include any kind of violence. There are no gunshot sounds and no visible guns.

Anita Donofrio is a well-known donor and gun control advocate in Ridgefield. She's a big part of the reason this show is happening at all, according to Levine. 

“[She] has an interest in the show because she’s very concerned with all the shootings in the country and our proximity to Sandy Hook and Newtown. Anita and ACT just feel it’s a story that really needs to be told,” Levine said. “We hear about gun violence and school shootings in the news all the time, but where we don’t ever really see it talked about or explored… is in theater, and it’s just another way of exploring this story.”

ACT is offering “community talk backs” after some performances. Audiences can choose to stay and participate in a community discussion with experts. Some of these speakers will include therapists to speak on the importance of community, gun control experts and possibly members of gun control advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise

“['Nickel Mines'] is really not just about [the shooting], it is about what happens after that event. It's about the power of forgiveness and about community,” Levine said. “And it's about how people pick themselves up and grieve and move on in times of tragedy and how they come together as a community to help one another.”

"Nickel Mines" runs Jan. 20-30 with community talk back sessions Jan. 21, 23 and 27 at 36 Old Quarry Road, Ridgefield. Tickets are still available