Why are we doing Heathers? A play about murder, suicide, sex, drugs, bullying and school violence — what could go wrong?
At FAME, students have input in deciding which shows we produce. Before choosing, the students meet to discuss possibilities and give us, the production team, their three top picks. They have input, but the adults have veto power. It is kind of like having a super power, except we still have to pay the bills.
When rumors started that some of the kids wanted to do Heathers, we had a plan. The adults did not want to do Heathers. Dark, disturbing, and uncomfortable. Triggering. Could our team of young actors, as talented as they are, pull it off with the maturity needed? Was the student enthusiasm about the depth or the raunchy and risqué? Would the audience buy in, or just find it distasteful? We feared it was too much. Our plan was to listen to their top three choices and then pick one that wasn’t Heathers. The plan was perfect — they get input, we get the final word.
A downside of raising kids to think independently is that they routinely outsmart us. After their meeting, they told us that they didn’t have three choices — they had one. Heathers. Then, they sat us down and told us why. They spoke for over an hour. They were serious, articulate and thoughtful.
“You say FAME uses art to explore contemporary issues. Let us tell you what these issues are for us.”
“We think about school violence — it’s part of our life — if we have to live with the threat, you should help us talk about it.”
“FAME creates an environment where we get close — it is a safe space where we can get real.”
“Adults want to pretend that kids aren’t having sex and doing drugs. But this happens, even in Flagstaff, and in our schools. Pretending everything is fine doesn’t help.”
FAME includes students from most every high school in Flagstaff. All of them relayed specific incidents when the police came to their school because of a threat. All of them spoke of people in their lives that committed suicide, attempted suicide, or contemplated suicide. All of them. We listened on the couch and fought back tears, unsuccessfully.
FAME is not doing this play for the shock value. We are not looking to offend. The students requested a venue where they can use theater to talk about the issues that concern them the most. As parents, teachers and leaders, we like to think that we are cooler and more insightful than our parents. Unfortunately, we are not. One of the most poignant lines in Heathers is when Heather Chandler says: “This is their big secret. The adults are powerless. They can’t help us. Nobody can help us.” There is no short cut to growing up. Every generation faces its unique social circumstances. Heathers is a cry for help- and our cast members had the brilliant insight that FAME could use the play to help.
In preparing for our show, we do more than rehearse songs and block scenes. For Heathers, we spent time talking about each character — why some bully and some get bullied. We talk about the kinds of stress that might cause someone to hurt themselves or someone else. We talk about JD, the protagonist, who has suffered his own tragedies and believes that hurting the bullies will make the world better. We talk about how we can simultaneously love and hate characters, reflecting the complex feelings we have for real people. We had a licensed family therapist spend an afternoon with us talking with the students about the content and whether they were prepared for how the audience might react. We have suicide and crisis prevention counselors available during most of the shows, recognizing that scenes may be triggering.
We are doing Heathers because we can’t solve our teens’ problems. We can, however, create a forum to talk openly and support each other. We invite you to join our conversation.