In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, before taking his own life. After the attack, a lengthy document emerged that came to be known as his manifesto, in which he outlined his motives for the killings. It’s this manifesto and his online diaries that inspired Alex Packer to write Ballistic, an original story based on real events.
“Ballistic is a coming of age story with a difference,” explains Alex. “It’s about a troubled young man struggling with masculinity, isolation and his place in the world. It’s about the potential dangers of what can happen if we don’t identify and help people like this.
“Before he committed the horrific mass shooting in 2014, Elliot Rodger published a 100,000-word manifesto about his life. I was shocked, uncomfortable but also very sad when I read it. He also kept a YouTube channel where he filmed himself. I wanted to understand the chain of events that can lead to a young man doing such a thing. After reading the manifesto and watching his videos, I had some answers but many more questions. I adapted, adjusted and created the play around some of the elements in his story.”
The one-man show is performed by Mark Conway, who’s been involved since the beginning. “We’ve been creating it for a year and a half,” says Alex. “I started writing it for Mark and we worked for several months on writing drafts, reading it aloud and adjusting it. The final piece in the puzzle was working with Anna Marsland, who’s been a fantastic collaborator. I feel it’s important to work on something as sensitive as this as a team in order to look at it from all angles and perspectives. As collaborators we’re always looking for the most effective way of telling this story.”
Has it been difficult to work with such chilling material? “It has and it hasn’t,” says Alex. “Because the play is a careful mix of truth and fiction, we’re able to find moments of lightness in the story too. Even though Elliot’s story is a dark one, as a writer I have to have a certain amount of empathy in my character in order to try and convey all the parts of his life sensitively. Reading about his life in his manifesto, I’m particularly curious about the near-misses – the what-ifs. He wanted friendship, wealth, love – normal things that normal people want. If key moments in his life went slightly differently would the ending have been the same?”
Alex believes the play has a message for everyone: “We see and read about characters like Elliot all the time. I think we all need to heighten our awareness and sensitivity with vulnerable and troubled young people. We need to avoid labelling them and pushing them away. Instead, we should ask the right questions and work together to prevent them going down the wrong path.”
Three years on from the events that inspired Ballistic, similar attacks continue to dominate the headlines. “I’m not sure the world has really learnt anything from Elliot Rodger’s story,” says Alex. “My catalyst for writing this play was the seemingly unending reoccurrence of violent attacks that were being reported. The media crave these dramatic stories and by giving them such prominence in newspapers and TV, I feel it’s extremely precarious. We need to ask why we broadcast these stories like this.
“The world seems to be filling up with fear, alienation and anger. The expansion of these ideas combined with lonely and troubled individuals are a toxic mix. It’s becoming easier and more comfortable to avoid real human interaction and put the blinkers on. I feel we need to notice this and be aware of its dangers.”
Above all, Alex hopes that Ballistic will prove thought-provoking. “The play isn’t about answers. I think the best theatre asks questions of its audience and keeps them thinking about it long after the curtain call.”
Ballistic is at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33) on 6th-13th and 15th-28th August.