Photos by Hillary Ehlen
“Heathers 101: High School Edition” is a PG-13 version of the off-Broadway show. Considered a “dark comedy,” “Heathers” revolves around serious issues that students continue to face today, including bullying, homophobia, mental illness, sexual assault, suicide and unhealthy relationships. Between the humor and the upbeat music, this show will definitely entertain you, but it will also bring an awareness to the struggles of students, inspiring others to reach out and help.
In a Q&A with the director, Tom Gillen, we bring you a preview and behind-the-scenes look at the process of Fargo North’s production of “Heathers.”
Visit fargo.k12.nd.us/boxoffice to make your ticket reservations.
“Heathers 101: High School Edition”
December 7-9 at 7:30 p.m.
December 10 at 2 p.m.
Fargo North High School
801 17th Ave. N, Fargo
How was the play chosen?
Tom Gillen: We’d heard about a high school edition last winter, but it wasn’t yet available to produce. I contacted the publishers who said, “No, thank you for your interest, but it’s not available.” I continued the conversation with them and, much to my surprise, they reached out and said they’d like to grant Fargo North early access to this show. It’s become publicly accessible since then, so we’re not one of the first high schools to produce it, but we’re flattered that we were granted access to the show before it was released.
That said, this show grabbed our interest right away. The iconic lines from the movie with Winona Ryder, the story of high schoolers whose revenge spirals violently out of control and the rock & roll style of the music — all of this appealed to us. We knew our students would have a blast and would stretch their artistic muscles in a very different way from previous shows, like last year’s “The Sound of Music.” And at a time like now when violence and mental health are so prevalent and the divide between people feels so huge, a show like “Heathers” can help our students and audiences feel a little light, a little optimism. It’s a dark comedy with a body count but also shows ways to come together with people who are different from you.
How many people are involved in the cast, crew and orchestra pit?
TG: We have a cast of 31 and a pit of 15. Altogether, we will have over 60 people working on this production.
How has the process been?
TG: It’s been amazing. We’ve had several groups come in to speak with our cast. Our kids have had great conversations with a representative from FirstLink about suicide prevention, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center about dating violence and sexual assault and Fargo North counselor Dr. Janelle Stahl-Ladbury about mental health and self-care. We wanted to equip our cast and crew with the tools to be a positive change in school and in the community. We started, even at auditions, saying, “This isn’t just a musical; it’s a movement.” The cast and crew bought into that and it’s been such a blessing to see how they’re grown.
As director, what is your specific and/or unique vision for the show?
TG: The vision for this production was the fact that no matter where you are in life, in high school and beyond, there will always be “Heathers” around, people who are using their power to bully, intimidate or hurt. Our cast needed to focus on creating a world where they have the power and skills to stand up to the “Heathers” and make life beautiful. “Heathers” is a dark comedy at its core but we hope that the positive message will shine through.
How will it be different than other renditions?
TG: The off-Broadway version earned its R-rating, no question about it. The creators of the original made all the changes to the high school edition, which takes out language and simulated acts that would make it inappropriate for a high school to do. However, what we are left with, honestly, is a clearer message. The struggles don’t change; the heart of the story doesn’t change. One of the first questions I asked the entire cast was, “Can people be horribly cruel to one another without swearing at them?” The response was, of course, “Yes.” So you see, the message can stay intact even if we take away some colorful expletives.
What has been your favorite part of working on this show?
TG: So many things. We have an amazing production team that always puts the kids first. Our team is extremely positive and we do our best to create a family atmosphere at North. We work to grow our students both as artists and as people.
I had a moment just the other day that made it all worth it. A student in the cast approached us and said (paraphrasing here), “I’m so glad we’re doing this show. I’ve been able to talk to so many of my family and friends about issues like suicide and mental health. I wouldn’t have done that without this show.” We have students who are speaking up about these issues in their real lives, some who are now volunteering with the groups we’ve spoken with. Power of the arts is on full display right there.
Why should people come to see it?
TG: First, I need to toot my own horn, we do really solid work at North High. We’ve built a reputation over the past decade of putting on high-quality productions. Second, this show really highlights a lot of the dark that consumes our teenagers these days. No one bats an eye when Shakespeare tackles issues like suicide, but there’s something really powerful seeing a 17-year-old playing a 17-year-old who is struggling with suicidal thoughts. Finally, fans of the cult classic movie should experience this iconic story, the 80s fashion will be on full display and the music is just so cool.