Bullying, suicide, violence, homophobia, troubled families… As parents, we try to protect our teenage children from many of these issues which are painful, difficult, and all too real in the lives of many children today. So when the Indian Creek Upper School theater department announced that this year’s spring musical is Heathers the Musical (High School Edition), some members of our community were skeptical. While the students were excited about this unconventional choice, the faculty directors heard a few parents ask, “Why Heathers?!?”
Indian Creek Upper School has always embraced shows that are based on somewhat controversial themes that interest students and potentially cause a stir. Theater is one of the most powerful ways to address emotions – big emotions – in teenagers. Some of these are emotions that kids are experiencing; others may be emotions that they will not feel in their lifetimes. As Heathers assistant director Matt McCormick shares, “If we want to raise the more empathetic, self-aware children the future needs, we have a duty to give them opportunities to experience these emotions and process them in a safe space.” Theater of purpose is more than just a phrase at ICS. Our School seeks to create theatrical experiences that will provide our students with an artistic portrayal of ideas and themes that allow for a common experience, focal point, and language to inspire conversations both in and out of school. The theatrical production serves as the impetus for these conversations, and then the school provides additional opportunities for education, discussion, and in the end, valuable lessons in dealing with uncomfortable themes.
So why Heathers, and why now? Heathers the Musical (High School Edition) is a new adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the 1990s cult classic movie. It follows the story of Veronica Sawyer - a brainy teenage misfit who hustles her way into the most powerful and ruthless clique at Westerberg High: the Heathers. But before she can get comfortable, she falls for the wrong boy and finds herself ostracized by the popular group. Adapted to be appropriate for a teenage cast and audience, the show deals with the important issues of teen suicide, bullying, homophobia and gun violence. While the high school version of this musical has removed much of the language, sexual situations, drinking, and drug use found in the original, the author chose to leave in some language that can be shocking to some. The Directors of the Indian Creek production have chosen to rate our musical PG13, which means Parents Strongly Cautioned – some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Indian Creek will not market the show to students younger than ninth grade. As always, parents are advised to do their own research on the show and make a decision about attending that they think is most appropriate for their individual families.
To return to the question about why Heathers was chosen for our school, Director Jill Woodward refocused on the purpose of high school theater. “This musical tackles universal social hardships faced by teenagers today – and always – questions like ‘Where do I fit in?,’ ‘Who am I?,’ ‘How will I survive high school?’ While the play brings up these questions in sometimes absurd, overly exaggerated ways, it provides an impetus for us to have these conversations not just with the cast, but school-wide.” Through the show and supplementary educational resources that the theater department is providing, we expect these conversations to happen in human development classes, class meetings, and at home. “We are finding that students are especially eager to talk about these issues over the past year.”
How are we facilitating these conversations?
While the show provides an entertaining forum for these questions to be inspired, the School realizes that it is necessary and important to bring in experts to help process these ideas for our students and their parents. Indian Creek has partnered with The Society for the Prevention of Teenage Suicide
(SPTS) to provide supplementary information and facilitate conversations for our school. Throughout the run of the show, SPTS will host an information table in the Grindrod Atrium for students, parents, and all show attendees. This table will provide basic information about suicide prevention including (But not limited to) the warning signs, help seeking behavior, and local resources. SPTS Clinical Director Phyllis Alongi will conduct performance debriefs of “Heathers” for audiences after Saturday’s show and before Sunday’s show. (Ms. Alongi has run these sessions for “Heathers” at high schools around the country.)
Additionally, Ms. Alongi, will join together with SPTS Executive Director Dawn Doherty, and Operations Manager Colleen Corbett to present a parent education session called “Raising Resilient Teens in Challenging Times” on Sunday, April 22, at 1:00 p.m.
The purpose of this presentation is to provide parents with the knowledge and information necessary to feel more comfortable and competent in having those difficult conversations with their children. The presentation will include information on suicide prevention, common myths about suicide, risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, and local resources. The presentation has been developed from the Evidence-based, Best Practices Lifelines curriculum.
During and following the run of the show, Indian Creek counselors Dotti Lang and Christina Bachenberg will cover these topics in Human Development classes. While these topics have always been part of the HD curriculum, Heathers will provide illustrations for some of the topics. Lessons will focus on emphasizing why telling adults about trouble is so important, signs of depression, and mental health awareness. The cast of Heathers has been conducting exercises on bullying and holding intense discussions throughout the rehearsal process.
OK, I get that the show will be educational, meaningful and important, but will it be fun?
Of course! With songs like “Prom or Hell?,” “Candy Store,” “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” and “Yo Girl,” families who choose to attend the show will be laughing, crying, and uncomfortable in a good way.
The Indian Creek production also provides several ways for families to connect and have fun with each other in conjunction with the show:
Heathers Croquet Tournament
Saturday, April 21, 3:30 p.m.
Totally radical fun for the whole family! For beginners and experts alike, come support the performing arts at Indian Creek and have a great time doing it. Tailgaters will watch as you navigate the wickets and stakes of our course. Afterwards enjoy a showing of Heathers the Musical: High School Edition (Tickets sold separately for $5 per person).
Heathers Tailgating Contest
Saturday, April 21, 3:30 p.m.
Come support the performing arts at Indian Creek School by purchasing a totally radical parking space to view the Heathers croquet tournament. More importantly, everyone will get to see your gnarly tailgating setup for the competition. Croquet tournament tickets and Heathers performance tickets are purchased separately. Prizes and categories and can be found on our website. (Prime parking for tailgating and croquet entry - $20)
So do I take my kid to see Heathers?
As always, Indian Creek strongly believes that parents should do their own research on the content and themes presented in the musical and make the best decision for their individual families. The Washington Post article “The school play is about WHAT!? Controversy on stage and why it matters
” by Valerie Strauss, shares one mother’s account of her emotional journey from balking at her school’s production choice, through her research about the musical and the purpose of high school theater, and finally to her experience with her decision about the musical for her family.
Howard Sherman, Director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama, gave a rallying keynote speech to the Florida Association for Theatre Education in October, saying, “If students have the chance to tell stories that engage with what is difficult in the world, indeed with what may be wrong in the world, alongside telling stories that bring joy and entertainment into the world, then their work in theater makes them better actors, writers, directors, designers and technicians. But it also makes them better people and better citizens, with knowledge, gifts and understanding that will be of value to them whatever they may be in life.”
“You could argue that the purpose of high school theater, as with all theater, is to connect us with the human condition. But once you get past the esoteric parts about the meaning of life and morality, the human condition gets messy and uncomfortable. … My instinct was to turn and run…. For the first time, I realized how the impulse to censor or shut down a high school production could grow from the seemingly good and parental intention to protect young people from uncomfortable or offensive territory. But what was I afraid of? The play? Or the offstage realities it portrayed? To find out, I’d have to face this ethical dilemma with more information.”
“Theater is a window for students to a broader world. Exposure to that broader world may increase their understanding and acceptance of that broader world, which is why we see increases in Tolerance and Social Perspective Taking. Plays may be more effective than movies in helping students understand and accept that broader world because we react differently to human beings acting out a story in front of us than to representations of human beings on a screen. The in-person experience may create greater emotional connections.”
Which prepares students for the larger world, for the world they live in, the world they will face? The vast majority of your students will not become artists, but they are all citizens of this country, of this world. Can the work you do with them be more than just about developing skills and empathy, but about preparing them to look at life both critically and compassionately? Indeed, can school theatre speak directly to their lives as they are now?
“This new version of Heathers
has been created to address the issues with bullies that kids face in high school,” artistic director Tony Marino says in a new release. “It has created this discussion every day with the kids about what they face and how they deal with it. It's been a really moving and cathartic experience for everyone.”Tickets to Heathers can be purchased at this link.