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Broadway's Eric Ulloa Talks Newtown, Our Town, and His New Play

26 Pebbles weaves a story of hope and community from a national tragedy.

On Your Feet! veteran Eric Ulloa is the playwright of 26 Pebbles, running at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, February 2-19.
(© Daryl Getman)

"How are you out of vodka? Ugh!"

Those were the words that set me off on this journey. 

On December 14, 2012, I was bartending a holiday party for a large corporate company trying to scrounge together some last-minute holiday cash in a year that was less than fruitful when it came to performing gigs. Earlier that morning, a mentally disturbed young man walked into an elementary school and killed 20 small children and six adults, yet here an inebriated woman was berating me on the lack of vodka as she simultaneously checked her text messages. I know the world has to continue spinning no matter how dire a moment it just endured, but my god, can't we stop for a moment and reflect on the atrocity that just happened? 

The holidays came and went, as well as the dark, short days of January and February, and still this horrific tragedy clung heavily to my heart. I watched as the media unplugged their cords and packed up their trucks as the Newtown story was no longer a ratings surge. I watched as the hope for gun reform peaked to an all-time high and then watched as hearts broke all over again due to its failure to pass any form of legislation. 

By late March, everyone had moved on and yet my mind couldn't let go of a number of questions. How do people of this town go on from here? Can they erase this mark? Does an incident like this shake your entire spiritual bedrock? I did what we all do when we feel flustered and have no control over a situation: I posted on Facebook…incessantly. I made so much noise on social media that at times it was even deafening to me. And there lay the inherent problem: It was all just noise. What was I actively doing to create change about something that hit me so hard? 

It was at that moment that the idea came to me. I had a voice, I had questions, and I had the ability to go to Newtown and talk with these people and see what exactly was going on. When I first arrived, I had only one interview scheduled and a hotel room booked for a week. Joanie (my first interview) met me on a bench right in front of the library. After a few awkward seconds, we finally got to talking like two people in search of something, her to unload some of this pain and me hungry to understand and accept what had happened here.

Eric Ulloa with Joanie, his first interview in Newtown.
(provided by the Human Race Theatre Company)

She then picked up her phone and reached out to some friends about the experience we'd just had, and soon that one interview became three…then nine…then 15. By the end of it all, I had returned to Newtown on multiple trips and held just over 60 interviews with people from all walks of life within this community. I had been given a home to stay in (someone actually gave me their house one week), fed multiple meals in many different kitchens, and even had dog sitters who watched my dog Bastian while I held these interviews daily. I had become a part of their town, and they had become lifelong friends. 

During the initial week, I noticed how quaint and beautiful Newtown was, and how it reminded me of "Grover's Corners." Everyone and everything had its place and it all seemed almost idyllic until they were thrown this terrible curve ball. 

Mail that Eric helped sort — over 700,000 letters came into Newtown.
(provided by the Human Race Theatre Company)

And that's when it hit me. I would write a play with a similar structure to Our Town and use the words from these interviews to give insight into how people move forward after tragedy. 

26 Pebbles is not a play about the death of 20 young children and six adults. Those are just the circumstances. 26 Pebbles is the story of hope and family and community. It is the story of the human condition.

It's hard to say what I hope people will leave with after seeing 26 Pebbles. It's tough stuff, I'm not going to lie. But it's also necessary. We change the channel way too fast in this country and compartmentalize our feelings about a tragedy as soon as we are done dealing with it. We stick a Band-Aid on a broken limb and hope for the best. 

I guess all I ask for is that audiences leave the theater and continue to discuss and tell the story of Newtown. Tell your friends and family and neighbors and have them come experience the incredible true story of these people, and I promise, you will not leave unaffected. I am honored to be the one to tell this story to all of you, and I am humbled in knowing that you will continue to spread its message further. 

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