Neighborhood Theatre Group’s new play "Thoughts and Prayers" explores what happens when a high school is upended by violence


Neighborhood Theatre Group’s Thoughts and Prayers

Eric Hohnke as Andy Webber in Neighborhood Theatre Group’s Thoughts and Prayers. Photo by Sun Chao. 

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s new play, Thoughts and Prayers -- written by A.M. Dean and directed by Marisa Dluge -- is a story based in fictional but present-day Michigan where a gun and manifesto were discovered in a high school student’s trumpet case. The FBI responds by sending in Agent Sarah Allistair to implement “Project Armored Apple” in which teachers are supplied guns and training to react in the event of an attack at the school.

The story centers on Agent Allistair and Andy Webber, the awkward and ominous 17-year-old friend of Tyler, the gun-and-manifesto student. Andy’s family comprises of his mother, Melanie -- the devoted but anxious parent who is also a teacher at his high school; his father, Doug -- the cringe-inducing dad who thinks Tyler’s motive is related to receiving “too many hugs”; and Uncle Jeff -- a janitor at the high school and the relatable adult the teenager desperately needs.

There's a violent interaction in the play, but writing about it directly would be a spoiler. Trust that it comes as a surprise.

Thoughts and Prayers is directed by Marisa Dluge and stars Mimi Blackford, Eric Hohnke, Mike Sandusky, Debbie Secord, Kate Umstatter, and Craig VanKempen.

The term “thoughts and prayers” has become a common colloquialism within the discussion of school shootings. Playwright A.M. Dean uses this story to explore our reactions to these tragedies, how these tragedies may affect the afterlife, and how we prevail through our thoughts and prayers.

As to be expected, this play did not provide answers as to why these senseless acts take place in our schools. It left me feeling more nauseous about the current state of violence in our schools, more so than anything else. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Dean is the literary manager and co-founder of Neighborhood Theatre Group. He lives in Ypsilanti and received his degree from Michigan State University where he studied theater. 

He answered a few questions via email.

Q: What inspired you to write Thoughts and Prayers?
A: I hear the phrase all the time. It has sort of lost any meaning. It had sort of become an ironic mantra and that intrigued me.

Q: Which of the characters were the easiest and most difficult to find their voice?
A: I suppose Melanie was the hardest, imagining how a teacher articulates the situation could be a little difficult sometimes. I think Doug or Jeff was easier because they are more reactive people.

Q: Why did you decide to have the setting be at Huron Valley High School in Ann Arbor?
A: It's not Ann Arbor. It's a made-up town where we set a lot of our plays called Huron Valley; it is an amalgam of a few different towns, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti being two of them. It really serves whatever we need in a given play. Some plays make sense setting them there, so we do.

Q: Did the script evolve much throughout the rehearsal process? What type of helpful feedback did you receive from the director and actors?
A: Not really. I was surprised how complete it came out in the second draft. The most helpful feedback came in the initial readings from dramaturg Crysta Coburn and Tech Director Greg Pizzino, and Marisa [Dluge] and Kristin [Danko] always have a lot to say, so by the time we really started rehearsal it felt very complete, which is pretty rare. The actors changed it in that they really are the ones who create the characters. So by the time they got a hold of it, it felt as if I hadn't written anything at all, as if it always existed through them.

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away from Thoughts and Prayers?
A: I hope they are disturbed in the proper way. I hope the play helped them create some inner order out of chaotic and complex phenomenon. Catharsis, too, that funny religious experience we have when seeing and hearing good theater.

Marissa Conniff is a digital marketing consultant, yoga teacher, and musician.

"Thoughts and Prayers" runs Fridays (8 pm), Saturdays (8 pm), and Sundays (2 pm) February 28-March 8 at Riverside Arts Center Studio One, 76 N. Huron St, Ypsilanti. Visit for tickets and more info.