A Journey of Self-Empowerment: Heathers at Drew University
As I walk onto the Drew University campus with my friend/licensing colleague/resident badass, Kate Karczewski, to see Heathers the Musical, I almost immediately grab her hand. The memories of this place have already started flooding into my brain. I look to my left and I see the building where an all-student-run cafe called "Toe" used to live. I used to skateboard for hours in its parking lot. It's where I used to drink “Poo Bears” (apple cider with vanilla ice cream, delicious) and talk with my friends. It's where I had my first reading of my play, Glenhawk, a project I hold very near and dear to my heart. At that same reading, I was able to raise $40 for playwrights involved in the Going to the River Festival as an intern for Ensemble Studio Theater. I realize as I am standing there that it was like little me was working toward helping future me.
I became myself on this campus. I met great friends that I still have to this day, and I figured out a bit more about who I was, and how I wanted to express myself. Doing theatre on campus and writing play after play there had a big hand in that. And as I pass by the front of the Dorothy Center for the Arts, where Heathers is playing that night, and I see the big tree out front, I realize I'm holding back tears: I can't believe I'm back on this campus. I can't believe I'm back for this reason. I work at Sam French; I pitched Heathers to them, and they said yes. College Becca would be so happy.
Throughout the night I have been telling Kate stories of College Becca. The reoccurring theme seems to be a deep, deep passion for plays. My sophomore year I became a co-producer for a student reading series of new plays on campus called Plays in Process. On days when readings would go up, I taped my knuckles with white medical tape and would write “P.I.P.” on three fingers to remind my fellow students that it was a Plays in Process day. At one point in the night Kate high-fives me, “A passion for plays,” she says with a smile. Still, it's hard for me to believe that all of this passion has led to right now. I have an inkling that it might have been a similar sort of push for Kevin Murphy.
Kevin Murphy and I are both alums of Drew University, ranked by The Princeton Review as one of the best B.A. theatre programs in the country. When I saw that my undergrad, a female-heavy theatre program, had not done Heathers yet, I pitched the show to my former chair, stating plainly how cool it would be to have the work of a former alum inside those walls. The dark, quirky, heartbreaking material that is Heathers also seemed like a perfect fit; the thought of it inside the DoYo black box made my heart jump.
I have a theory that when playwrights start writing plays in college, they will write with their college venue forever in mind. I guess the same rule applies for licensors. One of the fantastic performance venues that is contained within the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts includes the Thomas Kean Black Box Theater, a flexible bunker-like structure that can hold almost two hundred people. When I was touring Drew, the center was still under construction, but I remember the tour guide telling me that the musical Ragtime has already occurred in the theater space, utilizing all the levels and entrances the black box had to offer.
These same levels and entrances, I reasoned, might work very well for Heathers. And indeed, when the director of this show, a remarkable student named Emily Dzioba, staged the production, she utilized all of these nooks and crannies. When the Heathers enter for the first time, “above it all,” they literally saunter across the second level of the black box, above everyone around them. When JD is seen for the first time by Veronica, he was placed to the side of an audience riser, barely visible, his voice popping out of nowhere until the audience is finally able to find him, masked in that black trench coat. The entire production was swimming in dry ice with rains of colored lights shining down on the marvelous cast of young performers.
If it sounds like I was swooning, it's because I was. It occurred to me watching the show that had I been in college or high school when this show came out, I would have fallen into a pit of complete obsession with it. (Who am I kidding? I have been listening to the album nonstop since seeing the show.) I don’t know what I loved the most; the rocking score; the combination of humor, grit, and heartbreaking accuracy that Murphy and O’Keefe used to paint these characters; or its killer female lead.
Watching Veronica fight tooth and nail for what she believes in felt like a crucial element of what makes Heathers so successful. It's not often we get to witness heroines like her. She messes up, messes up big time, but she literally fights other characters, male characters, until the curtain falls; watching an ingénue have active choices is incredibly empowering, even now as an adult watching the show.
Again, it occurred to me that the idea of College Becca would be thrilled by this. It would have fit right into my journey toward self-empowerment. And now, maybe I — albeit not as a writer or teacher, but as a licensor — was helping to plant something into students’ minds that might have a positive effect on their lives and how they view themselves. It's not something I expected to feel, but it was with me as I sat with the sold-out crowd.
A few days after the show, still thinking about the experience, one of my professors told me that Heathers was the most successful musical Drew had done in years, with sold-out or nearly-sold-out shows, every show. And as I was scrolling through the Drew University Dramatic Society’s Instagram page to relive the experience, I stumbled upon a picture of Drew’s Veronica, Emma Barakat, standing next to Kevin Murphy. Seeing her beaming face made me smile, too. It takes a village to put on a show, and I like to think that I had a little part in that smile.