The productions put on by Flagstaff Arts Music and Education have been known to turn a few heads and raise an eyebrow or two. For its inaugural performance in 2018, the youth musical theater company chose Chicago. Then, in early 2019, The Producers. When talks began simmering for its third production, whispers of one play surfaced: Heathers: The Musical.
Based on the 1988 dark comedy directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers follows Veronica (portrayed by Ruby Heinone), who is part of her high school’s most popular clique but questions the cruelty of the other girls. She starts dating JD (Max Hanson), who begins killing students and making their deaths appear as suicides.
The immediate reaction from FAME producers was please, no. But after a meeting with the young actors and actresses, director Gina Byars says something changed.
“They are all very interested in what’s happening in their life, and they all have experiences with all elements of the play, whether it was bullying or school violence, threats of suicide, actual suicide, people being killed,” Byars says. “There are things that they’re worried about every day. Seeing them stand up and say, ‘We are leaders and we’re wanting to be leaders and we’re wanting to bring this forward,’ I had nothing else but to say, ‘OK, I’ll come along and let’s do it.’”
The actors and actresses, many of whom are high school students, spoke of incidents in their lives, at their schools, where they faced issues brought up in the play: threats of suicide at BASIS, school shooting threats at Flagstaff High and others. To help work through these issues and give the characters in Heathers more gravity, the production team brought on a licensed family therapist to prepare for the show. For many of the cast members, the session with the therapist was crucial for bonding and learning the ins and outs of their characters.
“You got to talk about your character and about why your character is that person,” Hanson says. “It helped me get better into that character, but it also helps me get out of that when I’m done, especially when you’re playing such a dark person like JD.”
Nona Hungate, 18, and Sascha Parafinuik, 16, play Heather Chandler and Ram Sweeney respectively, both characters whose power dynamic is that of the bully. In many ways, telling off and insulting their cast mates, although a fictional depiction, became taxing, exhausting on their mental states to be so cruel to such good friends.
“Every time, before we go on stage together, I make sure to hold [the other Heathers’] hands and tell them that I love them, just because my character is honestly a horribly mean person,” Hungate says. “It hurts me inside, but I also try to make sure that everyone who I insult in the show knows I don’t mean it in the slightest.”
Each character in Heathers could quite simply be portrayed as a caricature, some high school trope, but FAME’s emphasis on depth turns them into human beings with history and trauma, perhaps someone with whom we could sympathize. For Parafinuik’s Ram, the reason he behaves in apprehensible ways can be traced back to the relationship with his father, an abusive and corrosive man.
“That conversation with the family therapist helped just talk about what these characters are doing, their thought process and just what’s going on in the show and how we can get out of that,” Parafinuik says.
Cast and crew have cautioned away friends and family members who have dealt with extreme bullying and suicide because of the play’s subject matter. With all this suicide and sex and bullying and school violence and drugs and murder, it’s easy to forget that this play is a comedy. In one way, that comedy comes as breaths of fresh air from the cloud of controversy that could arrive from the content. In another way, it keeps the audience engaged, laughing as they ponder their own high school history.
“To tackle the content, I just feel like we had to do it tastefully. I feel like the casting directors picked perfect people to play each character because they’re not overboard but they’re not overwhelming,” Sheilah Utley, who portrays Mr. Flemming, says.
What the cast and crew of Heathers: The Musical have done, as with their past productions, is start a conversation. And one of the benefits of being a community theater company is the conversation can extend beyond high school and into the greater Flagstaff community.
“We are all connected, and it’s essential for us to bring these conversations forward because when we don’t, all we can do is react, we can’t respond. The more that we have these conversations the more that we can respond to situations and hopefully eventually get to a place of proactively doing something,” Byars says.
Catch the final performances of Heathers: The Musical Friday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 9, at 2 and 7 p.m., at the Coconino High School Mini Auditorium, 2801 N. Izabel St. Tickets are $10 GA, $5 for students, plus fees. More information at www.flagstaffcreate.org