“Ripe Frenzy” demands dialogue on school shootings

Rohan Press, A&E Reporter

For senior Miranda LaFond, dramaturge (i.e. literary advisor) for “Ripe Frenzy” — a play by Jennifer Barclay telling the story of a high school shooting in a small town in upstate New York — the violence of school shootings complicates our individuated understanding of “perpetrator” and encourages conversations on how the term might be a broader, shared category. 

Given the fact that 75 percent of school shootings might be preventable, according to Professor of Psychology Melissa Clearfield, LaFond (whose senior thesis focuses on the play) wanted to use “Ripe Frenzy” as an opportunity to disrupt the structures that contribute to this violence.

“For [this] other 75 percent,” said Clearfield, who’s currently teaching a class on the development of school shooters, “it seems there are roots to prevention, to better mental health assessment and care, more knowledge about what to look for, more understanding about who’s at risk.”

In the play, which will be staged at Harper Joy Theatre from Dec. 12-15, the shooting occurs during the opening night of a high school’s rendition of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”; this play-within-a-play aims to comment on the performativity of violence. As LaFond explained, “Our Town” is concerned with interrupting “passive theatre-going,” a theme which extends to “Ripe Frenzy”.

Moral repudiation isn’t the only aim; the performance also cultivates authentic dialogue for how change can be implemented. LaFond, for instance, is organizing talk-backs after the play, one of which will feature Professor Clearfield. 

“The way [we talk about the] community that’s surrounded this issue is not preachy,” LaFond said. “It’s just a space for dialogue; we’re not trying to tell people how to think, we’re just trying to tell people how to talk to each other”.

On opening night, for instance, LaFond hopes to launch a website in which audience members can leave their thoughts in order to engender further discussion. This also comes across in the way LaFond engages with the dialogue of “Ripe Frenzy,” which she’s been working to conceive of as open and self-reflexive. 

“In my approach to the text, I’ve been trying to have an open mind and put my own thoughts as to why this is a problem in the backseat a little more,” LaFond said. 

Sophomore Lucy Evans-Rippy, who will be playing the character of Zoe – described as a “town historian” who narrates the unfolding of the tragedy – agreed that the play aims not only to cultivate conversation, but also to enact conversing itself.

“The entire play, at least from my character’s point of view specifically, feels like one very long conversation,” Evans-Rippy said. “Questions are directed, quite literally, at/to the audience. The show is doing exactly what we should be doing, facing the issue by being direct and acknowledging each other from start to finish.”

“I constantly find myself thinking, ‘how does this moment change for me solely because of the fact that I am talking to someone directly involved with the show itself?’” she added. “It’s so forward, so direct, and yet leaves so much to be discovered and learned.”

In this way, the tension in the boundary between audience and performance becomes the site of dialogue. LaFond explained how questions of particulars — as in “why” a particular event happened — become less relevant than general questions of causality — questions asking “how.” 

“It’s so tricky, because we like to ask “why” really quickly when we get a notification about a school shooting; it makes us helpless. But if you do the research, and you look at these events, and you look at the cyclical violence, you can get a better understanding of the ‘how’… I think the first step is always to talk and to educate — and that’s what I’m going for,” LaFond said.

This education precedes a process of self-reflexivity: a turning inwards to our own communities with the goal of finding ways to immerse socially-ostracized individuals in an environment of mutual care and love. This is an important point for LaFond’s senior project.

“[I’ve been thinking about] trying to find ways to reach out to people that make them feel heard. That’s super important. It’s about opening the door; it’s about making the spaces for talking,” LaFond said. “I’m very drawn to site-specific understandings of theatre making and for that you really have to take into account where we are. We’re in a small town. We’re in a liberal arts college in a small town.”

Community engagement, then, is very important for LaFond; throughout the semester, she has organized staged readings of “Our Town” involving the general public and has also been looking for ways to reach out to local Walla Walla mothers to discuss the topic of social ostracism in family structures. 

These kinds of initiatives are increasingly important especially since, according to Professor Clearfield, small towns like Walla Walla, as well as the town in which “Ripe Frenzy” is set, are the kinds of sites particularly vulnerable to school shootings.

“Small towns feel like they know everyone, and so they don’t necessarily pay as close attention to those who feel on the margins … I think that one thing that communities and schools can really do is to make sure that everybody has a place where they have a sense of belonging”.

At the same time, Clearfield also encouraged thinking beyond the confines of the small town.

“This operates at the individual level, it operates at the cultural level, it operates at the structural level … It’s not an easy thing to eliminate,” Clearfield said. 

One example of such structures is the role of fame in motivating perpetrators. 

“My class has noticed this trend of journalists no longer using the names of the shooters, and that links back to this notion of fame,” Clearfield said. “Because the more that the shooters become infamous around [a] name…the more younger kids idolize the shooter. So by naming only the victims and not the shooters, that takes away from the infamy.”

The “Ripe Frenzy” dialogue actually repeats the name of the shooter, Bryan James McNamara, multiple times, as if to parody this cultural obsession with fame. McNamara is also the only character in the screenplay to have a last or middle name. LaFond sees this repetition in light of a larger commentary on the cyclicality of violence.

“There’s something in the use of repetition that, even in that symbolic gesture, speaks to the cyclicality of violence,” LaFond said. 

The question, then, becomes the identification of ways in which that kind of cycle can be disrupted — and how that can of process can be collectively implemented. “Ripe Frenzy”, then, is the first step in a long process of reparative and preventative action.