As a veteran director of countless indie community theater productions, Anne Drecktrah is the ideal person to spearhead La Crosse’s contribution to the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence.
“I’ve spent my life asking people to do things for little or no money,” Drecktrah said with a laugh.
About six weeks ago, Drecktrah saw a post on Facebook seeking organizers for local events to be part of Concert Across America, an event launched by the Boston-based Stop Handgun Violence organization that has since drawn participation from more than 100 other groups.
The mission of Concert Across America is simple: “Bring together a network of organizations, activists, and artists with the dual goals of keeping guns out of dangerous hands and making the issue of gun violence prevention top of mind for members of Congress, the presidential candidates, and the American people as they go to the polls in November 2016,” according to a recent press release.
The driving force behind spreading the word about the event has been social media, and the method has worked in La Crosse. Drecktrah posted a Concert Across America link on Facebook, and the first people who “liked” her post — Diane Breeser and Susan Fox — were drawn in as event co-chairs.
Drecktrah, Breeser and Fox have been fast friends since they all worked on a production of “Becky’s New Car” at the Pump House Regional Arts Center about five years ago. With help from a core group of other folks, the three women have worked up what might be the most ambitious Concert Across America event in the country. La Crosse’s event will take place at four sites over the course of more than eight hours. Entertainment will include more than a dozen musical acts, dancers, theater, poetry and storytelling.
In addition, the day will feature a wide variety of speakers, including experts in social work and mental health, university professors Richard Breaux and Keith Knutson, and elected officials, including La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat, state Rep. Jill Billings and Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, who lost her parents to gun violence.
The day will start at The Root Note with Blind Baby Olin and the Workbenches as the host band. The event will then move to Stolpa’s Stein Haus with Mr. Blink as host. Next up will be the Pump House with the Pigtown Fling String Band. The event will end with a candlelight vigil, choir and group singalong in Riverside Park.
The music won’t necessarily be related to gun violence, said Kit Mayer of Blind Baby Olin, who has helped to recruit musical acts and organize the event, but the power of music will play a key role in the La Crosse event and others across the country.
“There’s just something about creating that sense of togetherness and peace. It doesn’t necessarily have to be gun-related so much as human-related,” said Mayer, who noted that recruiting fellow musicians to help out was pretty easy. “I didn’t find anybody who wasn’t willing to jump in and help. I just think a lot of people have a concern about this and also enjoy performing in front of people.”
Drecktrah, who described herself as an “old 1960s activist,” agreed that the musical element of the Concert Across America could help move the needle on the issue of gun violence. “It’s been very true forever that music is a great way to raise social awareness. People (in power) are always more scared when artists get involved,” she said.
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“Music and art and dance are so much more meaningful than words. Sometimes words just don’t quite do it,” Breeser added. “Through these different forms of expression, it will resonate in people more deeply. I’m really excited about it and so thrilled at the lineup we have.”
Among the well-known musical artists who will take part in the day’s events across the U.S. are Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross, Carnie Wilson, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Don Felder (formerly of The Eagles) and Kate Pierson of the B-52s, and there are more musicians joining up all the time. Just last week it was announced that Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder would join the New York City concert at the Beacon Theatre, which also will include Jackson Browne and two artists who have been directly impacted by gun violence, Marc Cohn and Roseanne Cash.
The date for Concert Across America was chosen to coincide with the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, which dates back to a Congressional declaration in 2007. But Drecktrah, Breeser and Fox agreed it’s important to remember that gun violence goes beyond murders. About 60 percent of the more than 30,000 annual gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, and gun violence has an impact on many people beyond just those who die from gunshots.
In addition to music, La Crosse’s Concert Across America event will include something no other city will have: a sneak peak of a brand new play, “26 Pebbles.” The play was inspired by the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in which the gunman killed 20 first-graders and six teachers before killing himself. The world premiere production of the play, written by Eric Ulloa, opens Oct. 14 at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and UW-L actors will perform a selection from the play at the Pump House for Concert Across America.
The organizers of the La Crosse event all cited the Sandy Hook shooting as something they thought would bring about changes in gun laws, and the disappointment that changes didn’t come about in the aftermath of that tragedy lingers.
“Everybody thought that this would be the point where our country would step up and it wasn’t,” Breeser said. “This is crazy. I mean, we should have background checks. There’s a reasonable way to do this.”
So can a one-day, nationwide awareness event like Concert Across America really help bring about change when a heartbreaking tragedy like Sandy Hook didn’t? Maybe not, but Drecktrah said it should be “the first step in an ongoing conversation.”
Fox had her doubts about whether this event will bring about “lots of massive big change,” but she also saw it as a good step in that direction. “I kind of look at it as cracking the window and letting some fresh air in,” she said. “I know I sound like a peace loving hippy, but we just need to try to understand each other and be kind.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” Fox continued. “I think I’m going to meet a lot of new people and see a lot of old friends. I hope a lot of people come out. I’m excited to have people feel that kind of impassioned spirit of ‘we can make a change if we do this together.’”
Like Drecktrah, Mayer suggested that the Concert Across America will open a dialogue, but he said it might be a dialogue that continues as an annual event, gaining strength. “It’ll be interesting to see if this is a continuing thing here from year to year. It seems like it could be and should be,” Mayer said. “And even if it turns out to be a rather smallish kind of thing this year, you know, we gave it a shot.”