At the top of the script for On the Exhale, playwright Martín Zimmerman includes a note for the show’s director and sole actor.
“As much as possible, she should be speaking to the people who are actually in the theater with her,” his note reads. “She should not be speaking to an imagined audience.”
The play follows a single woman as she attempts to navigate her life after it has been irrevocably changed by an act of gun violence. On the Exhale is the second New Play Workshop production of Chautauqua Theater Company’s summer season, and is sponsored in part by the Roe Green Foundation. It runs at 4 p.m. Friday, August 16 and 2:15 p.m. Sunday, August 18 in Bratton Theater.
And while the show’s character stands alone onstage, both Zimmerman and On the Exhale director Patrick Walsh know the play exists within, and is a part of, a nationwide conversation on gun violence and control.
Walsh thinks the play is a valuable addition to that discussion.
“To me, this piece is right at the center of the conversation,” Walsh said. “It isn’t a play that demonizes gun owners or says that people who don’t own guns are in the right. It draws parallels between the two sides and moves us closer together in conversation.”
Walsh is no stranger to using theater to affect positive change in the world. He has directed three plays at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon, and toured a show that went to 10 state prisons, a federal prison, a youth correctional facility and two homeless shelters, among other places.
By providing access to the arts and creativity in sites that don’t always have it, Walsh said he’s witnessed some amazing things.
“Bringing some light into these places where that is in immensely short supply and watching people heal themselves has been one of the greatest things I’ve had the honor to experience,” Walsh said.
So when it comes to On the Exhale and the difficult conversation to be had about gun violence in the United States, Walsh said tackling the project was an opportunity to broaden people’s horizons and push the discussion in a positive direction.
“If we can better understand what people who own and operate weapons are thinking and feeling, and can better understand what might lead someone to go through with inflicting violence on others, then — and only then — can we move closer to a solution,” Walsh said.
But the topic of gun violence isn’t always easy to stomach, Walsh said. And he said he’s aware that, at a certain point, people start to feel like they’ve heard it all before; that no more progress is actually being made.
Despite that sentiment, he encourages people to come out and see the show. According to Walsh, the play is one that can provide value to even those who are weary of discussing guns in the United States, and not one that beats audiences over the head with its themes or subject matter.
“Although gun violence is at the center of the play, it is not necessarily all of what the play is about,” Walsh said. “I think the things you will take away from these 70 minutes will be vital in understanding, healing and moving forward in this conversation our country is having right now.”
But beyond providing a strong piece of entertainment or making a one-of-a-kind statement on the topic of gun control, Walsh said he just hopes to prompt discussion.
“Honestly, I would love it if, when the lights came up and the talkback concluded, people turned and shook hands with somebody they didn’t know in the audience,” Walsh said. “I’d love to bring this conversation beyond the theater walls.”