Putting the High School Voice in the High School Story
Who could forget the iconic lines of the movie Heathers? In 1988, the movie premiered to surprisingly giant audiences nationwide and garnered a cult following for its harsh attack on the reality of high school life. Along with many others, I grew up with this dark comedy as a kid, but it’s shocking to see that this eighties cult classic has gained even more relevance in 2018.
Upon creating our Florida Rep Education Season for 2017-18, we felt a vehement need to seek out at least one title that could teach our older, college-bound students two objectives: the importance of not only how to tell a story, but why that story needs to be told. High school students constantly approach me with play titles that excite them — the stories they feel connected to or hold a deep passion for. I was finding that many of the titles contained questionable material, mature language, and other adult themes. Spring Awakening, Bare: A Pop Opera, American Idiot, and Heathers, just to name a few, kept circulating to the top of the list. Heathers The Musical was always the top choice. All of these titles contain similar themes. More importantly, they all contain young people voicing their coming-of-age journeys and all of the obstacles in their way. The students want a voice. Heathers would be the vehicle for this voice and allow every student to speak out about the issues that were important to them.
Many of our societal norms tell us to hide what’s “bad” from us or sugar-coat the “dangerous” instead of broaching the issues head-on. The rehearsal room offers a platform of learning and understanding for students with worries or questions about current issues. By utilizing high school students in performing productions like Heathers, we are giving them a familiar world to tell familiar stories. In telling these stories, we can offer a safe learning environment in which peer discussions can happen organically and comfortably under the leadership of the director or dramaturge. His or her responsibility would be to steer an open conversation that answers questions about the subject matter for students as it pertains to their characters and the world of the play. Personal self-discovery, and even revelation, can happen for young actors during this process. This development will often initiate truth in their storytelling onstage and aid in their understanding of the world around them. Trained professionals from partnering organizations that deal with suicide awareness, drug abuse, and LGBTQ issues can also be brought into table work and group discussions.
In educating young actors about the relevant and current themes of productions like Heathers, we are also creating a platform for safe discussion and education on serious topics. This type of platform may prove essential for young adults who feel they are struggling to have a voice. Additionally, it can provide a space to learn about issues that are affecting them on a day-to-day basis. With the objective being character development and research for the themes of the play, the young actor is given a mask or shield when discussing these topics, making them feel more comfortable and prone to opening up; that openness allows them to join a discussion of important topics with the purpose of learning them for the show without the vulnerability of asking as themselves. I tend to see that protection shield of comfort dissipate quickly as the actor starts to feel safe in the new environment and around new peers. It’s important to allow young actors to be their own guide on this journey and travel at their own pace. Additionally, in keeping the focus and objective on the character and the story, teachers and directors who are not trained in counseling can allow a journey of self-discovery to be just that. With Heathers, we could explore bullying, teen suicide, and gun violence, and our students could discover that theatre is far more than solely entertainment. Theatre is a vital form of communication that can help enlighten and educate not only the people involved in the production, but our audiences and our community as well. Our job is not to make decisions on debated topics, but to present them to our community with honesty and truth. In doing so, we bring focus to specific issues, allowing everyone involved to make their own decisions and value the topics at hand.
This appears to be a wonderful outlet for students to express themselves and learn about the vital importance of topical themes within our stories, but most high schools and some youth theaters are deterred from producing such works because of the material. Much like the abandonment of sex education in our schools, we’ve become afraid of the real-life obstacles our children are facing. In turn, we are denying them the right to learn about these obstacles in a safe atmosphere and to voice their own struggles with and observations of depression, teen suicide, bullying, gun violence, sexual orientation, race, and sex. Being sensitive in how we deliver this type of material, especially with young actors, is a must, but there is a fine line between sensitivity and maintaining the integrity and purpose of the material. With Heathers, I was asked if I was taking out “I Love My Dead Gay Son” because it may offend some patrons. My reply was simple: Wouldn’t it be more offensive to remove a satirical song promoting unity and love? Whose sensibilities are we protecting by trying to remove something like this? What is that teaching our students and community? There were also questions of removing the promiscuity from “Dead Girl Walking” or the guns from the performance. We cannot be blind to the issues happening all around us. I firmly believe that removing these things in order to avoid offending anyone is damaging, not only to the integrity of the playwright’s words, but the social change the production could be affecting. These problems are still happening and we need to be reminded of them so change can occur, versus hiding problems so we don’t have to address them. Let the students safely learn about the issues, and then put them in the driver’s seat. Let them take charge of presenting an effective piece of theatre that shines light on the problems in our world. As members of the next generation, these students will be the ambassadors of change and the young artists who fix, shape, and mold the future, both fundamentally and artistically.