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Arts & Culture

A Topic “Ripe” for Exploring

Theatre Professor Pens Play About School Shootings

By Sala Levin ’10

Theatre Professor Pens Play About School Shootings

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

What makes a shooter kill? Can a mother tell when her child is on the verge of violence? Can tragedy be prevented, or are parents helpless to stop disaster even with the ferocity of their love?

In “Ripe Frenzy,” theatre Assistant Professor Jennifer Barclay’s new play that feels almost uncomfortably ripped from the headlines, characters grapple with questions they’d rather avoid as a small town deals with the ramifications of mass shootings nationwide.

“I feel like this has been such a five-alarm, urgent issue in our society for a very long time,” Barclay says. “I hope this play will help bring to light more bipartisan conversation since it’s not a partisan play. It’s not about gun control.”

Set in the fictional Tavistown, N.Y., “Ripe Frenzy,” which opened in Boston in February and is having its Atlanta debut this week, follows local historian Zoe as she tells the audience about her town, especially the high school’s tradition of producing Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town.” Zoe takes the audience through this year’s production of the play, which finds the cast and crew on edge after a shooting at a university in Michigan. It soon becomes clear that violence lurks in seemingly innocuous Tavistown, too—and even closer to Zoe’s family.

WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, praised the production in that city as “sensitively told and deeply affecting.”

Barclay was inspired to write “Ripe Frenzy” after the 2015 shootings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, Virginia journalists who were killed during a TV broadcast. The shooter filmed his actions on a GoPro camera and posted the video online—behavior that’s echoed in the play. Stills from the video published in newspapers “were available to anyone walking through the streets,” says Barclay.

She and Jared Mezzocchi, an assistant professor of theatre at UMD who specializes in projection design, began to wonder whether social media and traditional media were somehow perpetuating mass shootings by creating notoriety for the shooter, potentially making violence “appealing to the next person—it becomes this sort of contagion.”

Working with Mezzocchi, Barclay began to incorporate video projection as a core component of her storytelling. GoPro video—which Mezzocchi has changed for each production by filming each new cast in their new location—is projected onstage throughout the play, its content changing to show the audience characters’ darker dimensions, even as Zoe tries to pretend the darkness doesn’t exist.

Part of Zoe’s blindness—willful or not—comes from a source Barclay knows well: a mother’s love, and the question of whether that can change a child’s nature. Reading “A Mother’s Reckoning,” the memoir by Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, gave Barclay insight into how a mother can reconcile her love for a child with the truth of his violence—while never being able to “have a conversation with him about it to understand the disparity,” says Barclay, who has two young children.

Barclay hopes that the play will inspire audiences to “have real conversations about what we as a national community are doing to perpetuate these shootings and what we could do to change it,” she says. “One thing playwrights can do is imagine the scariest thing and then start there to write a play that’s really honest.”

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