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A Fighting Chance: The Boston Marathon Project

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Key Art Design by Senior Matthew Eriksen

As they near the end of their rehearsal process and go into tech, the cast and crew of STRONG: The Boston Marathon Project are ready to share their inspiring real life portrayals of some of the victims and first responders from the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. The project started as a way for seniors Paige Monopoli and Alexa Costa to round out their time at Suffolk University, however it grew into something more. A celebration of life, growth and the unbreakable spirit of the City of Boston. Centered around eight individuals who were impacted by the events of that day, Monopoli and Costa conducted in person interviews last year which would eventually translate into the script of their show. Set in an MBTA car, the cast interacts with each other and the audience throughout the one act, hour long production. Starring all Suffolk University students, one alumni and Monopoli and Costa themselves, the actors/characters are as follows…

– Beth: A runner who now suffers from anxiety and PTSD after shrapnel cut through a tendon in her leg. Played by Monopoli.

– Jen: Works for 9-1-1 dispatch. She took the first 9-1-1 call. Played by Costa.

– Jose: Married to Jen. One of the EMTs who was working a medical tent and helped survivors of the blast. Played by Senior Raphael Roy.

– Mike: Married to Beth. He blew his ear drum. Played by Freshman Andrew Agnes.

– Carlos: The famous man in the cowboy hat who was seen helping a man whose legs were blown off in the blast. Played by Freshman Jack Aschenbach.

– Melida: Wife to Carlos. Sat in the risers across from the first bomb at the finish line with families of Veterans. Played by Junior Elainy Mata.

– Adrianne: A Ballroom dancer who lost her leg. Played by Junior Shelby Somelofsky.

– Lynn: Actress and Student at UMass Boston. Was sitting at Charlesmark at Copley. Suffered damage to her frontal lobe. Played by Senior Stephanie Rubino.

– Michele: A Nurse in one of the Boston Medical Tents. Works regularly in trauma and used to dealing with chaotic situations. Played by Senior Katie Gast.

– Student: Involved in a short but pivotal scene in the production. Played by Freshman Matt Bittner.

– Woman: Involved in a short but pivotal scene in the production. Played by Sophomore Sarah Vasilevsky.

– Alumni Brian Bernhard is also present on stage with his guitar as he supplies live music throughout the show.

Before the show goes up April 17th and 18th, I had the opportunity to sit down with Monopoli and Costa to discuss the conception of the play, their process throughout production and their thoughts leading up to opening night…

When did you know you wanted to do this project?

Paige Monopoli: End of sophomore year Alexa and I had been talking about doing one last big Senior capstone to get people outside of Suffolk to come see it and to potentially find people to work with after graduation. A lot of conservatories have showcases where agents and directors come and watch them do scenes and monologues and they can get hired that way and since [Suffolk] is not a conservatory we wanted to find our own way to do it. Our first idea wasn’t the Boston Marathon, but [following the events of the marathon bombings] we kind of went with it and here we are now.

When did you both decide who was going to write and who was going to direct the show?

Alexa Costa: It kind of, by some miracle, fell into place like that. Paige is more confident in writing and I am more confident in directing so over [Winter] break when we started to re watch the interviews, she started writing them and I liked her voice in it and I was also worried about reading her work, [then] me writing something and it sounding like two different voices and it not sounding like one show. I felt confident in her and had seen her work before that, and I just asked “do you want to write it all?” Paige gets kind of inspired and she had already been writing her ideas and I really wanted the show to seem connected.

What was the process like?

PM: Well [Alexa and I] had been talking about it and I really wanted [Senior] Erica LeBlanc to be our stage manager, because she’s wonderful, and when we told her about it she wanted to.

And this was before you knew it was going to be the Marathon project?

PM: We asked her before we knew and she wanted to do it anyway and then she asked us what we were thinking of and when we said the Boston Marathon she said we needed to do that as she has so many connections to people involved that day such as people from the One Fund and family and friends who were there that day who we got to interview and through them we met more people, so a big part of it was Erica.

Were people apprehensive to talk to you?

PM: Well the One Fund sent out an email saying we were looking for people to interview and whoever responded did and those who didn’t want to be a part of it didn’t. I was surprised how willing [those who responded] were to open up. These people let me into their homes and told me about the worst day of their life and they don’t know me from next tuesday, so that was a big thing.

How did the interviews go?

PM: I was there for almost all of them, we did a precursor with a release statement and just said if you’re not comfortable with any questions just say pass and we’ll move on or just talk as much as you are comfortable with talking to create a safe zone. We started off with questions to ease into it like what’s your job, what do you do to relax, what are your hobbies, what is your biggest fear, what makes you happy and then we eased our way into the marathon questions. It was very clear at first that some of them were uncomfortable, you know its just a stranger asking you all these personal questions, but each interview as it kept going you can see, we recorded them all on tape, you can see the walls coming down and them opening up and giving you details and feeling comfortable which is really beautiful and important for our rehearsal process, because all the actors we cast as these people, they’re able to see their true colors on screen so they could infuse that in their performance.

Did anyone say anything from any of the interviews that really stuck with you or inspired you?

PM: The biggest thing was the difference in perspectives between the victims and the first responders. Because while the victims are positive, they are still hurt and jaded, not saying they aren’t working hard to get better, but they are all still upset but the first responders just say “its my job, it could happen today or tomorrow, if i die thats it, thats what it is” and I was like “wow, alright”.

AC: (pauses for a moment and smiles) Yeah. One, not specifically, but a lot of people talked about the trial and what not and a lot of people didn’t put as much blame and anger on [Tsarnaev] as I would have thought. They said “I can sit here and be angry but that’s not going to help. I can be as angry as I want and mad at him as I want but that’s not going to help.” A lot of “I forgave him, not for him but for me so I could move on.” So just seeing these people who went through such a terrible thing, the positivity they still have and the struggles they deal with and you think you have those bad days where you think “my life sucks”, and then you think about what they’re going through and you think “just kidding”. So that was the most amazing thing for me, just seeing how positive everyone was.

Did you change any of the names of the people you interviewed?

PM: No, we kept first names but not last names. We weren’t like “Hi my name is Paige Monopoli and I live at blah blah blah st.” We tried to keep it truthful but not abrasive. Because they are coming, which is the scariest part, but I don’t want them to [feel uncomfortable].

Switching topic really quick, did you ever doubt your ability with writing/directing a show like this? You both have written and directed at least a couple of shows in the past but this time, with such a sensitive subject matter and having it be real life and in this city, did you ever think “am I going to be able to do this and do these people justice?”

PM: Yes, I was really nervous for a long time and still am even though the script is done, just because I met these people, they are coming to the show, so I wanted to do them justice and I also want to give the topic justice and didn’t want it to be this exploitative gimmicky thing like “lets all cry”. One of the other things, right from the beginning, was I didn’t want [Tsarnaev’s] name in this show at all. I don’t want it to be about him, I don’t want it to be, not necessarily about that day, I just wanted the [show] to be about what happens after the cameras turn off and were not hearing about these people any more who live with [the after effects] every day. It could so easily have been about the media and explotive about their experiences, but I wanted it to be more about them. Like you’re sitting in their kitchen and listening to the interviews.

AC: Before I got into the studio I was worried because not only was I directing, but I was going to be in it. I think that was the biggest thing. You’re really vulnerable, because not only are you trying to direct a scene but you also have to be in that scene, which was something new. I was worried because I wanted to make sure that the message I was sending was what [Paige and I] wanted. That it wasn’t going to read a different way. So before getting in the studio I was nervous. But when we got in with Paige’s script and the actors we got I got really comfortable in it. It’s just the nerves you get before doing something, especially a project like this. I want to make sure I’m telling the story right and what not.

What do you hope people get from this show?

PM: I mean Boston already has an incredible sense of community, but I hope this strengthens it even more and I really want to open the doors for people to keep talking about it. To be aware that people who you ride the subway with, deal with the trauma of what they went through every single day. In terms of talking about it, even if you weren’t there that day, like myself, your problems aren’t lesser than anyone else’s. Just because you weren’t at the finish line and you’re not missing a limb doesn’t mean you weren’t affected by it and that you should keep quiet about it, its just something that we should always keep talking about in terms of growing and strength.

AC: A couple of different things. I hope they see the struggles of people who may or may not have been in the news everyday and stories that may not have been as vocal as other ones. I hope they see that other people did go through something that day and kind of realize that everyone has a story from that day. Like I have a story, Paige has a story, [everyone in the cast] has a story. Granted we may not have been right there but just to show how Boston came together and how this terrible event has brought people together, has helped them overcome and the biggest thing after rewatching the interviews is people are still trying to keep going and be positive, they aren’t being held back. So trying to take that positivity of this event and moving on with your life but still recognizing these stories.

STRONG: The Boston Marathon Project opens Friday April 17th at 8 p.m. and continues on Saturday April 18th at 3 and 8 p.m in the Studio Theatre in Archer. Tickets are free and can be reserved here.

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