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World-first verbatim play of the Oklahoma City bombing

A pioneering theatre production that draws on real-life interviews was created to mark the 20th anniversary of the deadly truck bombing in Oklahoma City, US, on April 19, 1995. A Northumbria University academic and world-class expert in verbatim theatre was commissioned to pen the play. The high-quality and originality of The Oklahoma City Bombing Project, in addition to its outstanding contribution to arts practice, has attracted widespread global media attention. The initiative continues to explore the universal stories of public anger, tragedy, resilience and recovery, as well as make a valuable contribution to arts education and theatre development.

On April 19, 1995, a truck bomb explosion outside the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured several hundred others. At the time, it was the deadliest terrorist attack to take place in US history. Former US Army soldier Timothy McVeigh was executed for the crime in 2001 and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols was given a life sentence.

The bombing remains the worst domestic terrorist incident to have taken place on American soil. To ensure the incident is remembered for generations to come, it is marked annually and has become part of the state’s school curriculum. For the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Oklahoma City University commissioned award-winning playwright and Director of Performing Arts Programmes at Northumbria University, Steve Gilroy, to create a verbatim production of the incident. Verbatim theatre uses the exact words spoken by real-life people in interviews.

The innovative play, The Oklahoma City Bombing Project (OCBP), was the first documentary treatment of the bombing and the first verbatim production to be staged in Oklahoma City. Based on interviews Mr Gilroy conducted with former Mayor Ron Norrick, Head of FBI, Chief of Fire and Police and Timothy McVeigh’s attorney Stephen Jones, the play explores the impact of the bombing on those involved and the recovery of the city.

Part of the official 20th anniversary memorial programme, the play premiered at the Berg Theatre, Oklahoma City. It was also performed at the Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne in May 2016 and a professional reading was delivered at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. A documentary  of the making of the play was produced in January 2018 and the play is published and available internationally. It will soon be made available at the memorial and museum in Oklahoma and plans for future productions include a special performance for state schools in April 2020.

The production has generated international press and media coverage, including the Times Higher Education and British Theatre Guide, as well as the Huffington Post, who acknowledged the play in its 2015 review of outstanding arts practice in the US. Importantly, the production has made a major contribution to education – the theatre process has been presented to cultural institutions and several schools have incorporated its study and the practical application of verbatim theatre into their curriculum. On a public level, there has been significant engagement, and it has had a major impact on those involved in the making of the play.

Mr Gilroy and the production team are distributing the play and an education pack (including scripts, documentary of the making of the play and a teacher’s resource pack) to schools in Oklahoma. They are also inviting schools and universities across the US to produce and perform the play. Future activities focus on rolling out the performance in the US and more specifically feeding into/supporting memorial activity relating to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the bombing in April 2020. A growing number of schools have committed to producing the play in memory of the tragic incident.

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