Over the past month on the Alexander Stage, the cast of Ripe Frenzy has been thoughtfully and diligently working to create a production that offers an empathetic exploration of mothers and high school students implicated in an episode of gun violence. In an interview below, student Melina Waldman interviews student cast members Lucy Evans-Rippy (Whitman 2022) Ruby Daniel (2020) Rose Heising (2020) Eva Sullivan (2021) and student stage manager Alyx Kruger (2022), where they discuss their experiences approaching such heavy material, and how they find a lightness in dark times through community.
Melina Waldman: Because this play deals with such heavy topics, what preparation did you do individually or as a cast before engaging with the material?
Ruby Daniel. Pretty early on, we had a read through and then we had a few weeks and then once we started having full rehearsals we began with a lot of character work. It’s like working on a grid as your character, so we’d start most of our rehearsal, especially in the beginning, doing that for up to thirty minutes and then talk about it so you’re able to explore who your character is… without always having to talk about the really intense subject matter. Personally, I make a playlist for my character every time I’m in a show and I listen to it before I come to rehearsal every single day and I know that those songs for this amount of time means this role to me and not anything else. So, I use that to separate from who I am before I walk in. And also, Emily has been an amazing director and our rehearsal environment is really light and fun and inviting and obviously we’re having to deal with such intense stuff but we don’t attack it head on every single time, we really build up to it and that’s a mark of her direction and how she wanted to work on the show.
Lucy Evans-Rippy.We’ve done so much, it’s been really intense. Our director has been reading a bunch of stuff, so she’s sent us a bunch of stuff just about school shootings and all the history behind it. I’ve been reading a book…it’s a really, really incredible book and it’s just her perspective talking about losing her son in this way… which is really helpful and also really hard.
Rose Heising. Most days at the start of rehearsal, we’ll do some Viewpoint exercises, which is actor lingo for entering the physicality of our characters through a more abstract exploration of gesture, movement, and relationships with the other characters in space.
Eva Sullivan. Something we do like day-to-day is just warming up together. We did a lot of viewpoint/grid movement work and that, on one hand, was to do character work and find gestures and relationships but I think it really helped us ground in the mindset in a very relaxed way… But I mostly I’m just really grateful for Emily because… she’s just so lovely to work with. Even though my character is a lot of times the comedic relief of the show, it’s still heavy stuff so it’s really nice to work with such good people.
MW. How has the rehearsal process for this performance differed from other shows you’ve been a part of?
RD. I think it’s one of the most professional processes I’ve ever been a part of here in that we’ve been very on top of things like lines, and being off book, and tracking all the elements of the show really clearly the whole time, that’s due to Emily and our really excellent SM and ASM team. We’ve gotten to work with technical elements really early… and that’s another thing that’s been different, I’ve done shows here that have worked with things like projections and it’s always felt really challenging to reconcile the forms as one thing. And this is a play where they have to be really connected and I feel like we’ve really treated it that way from the beginning and that has been really helpful and different. There’s a sense of like, I don’t know, this is a show that has been a really big commitment from the start and obviously, everyone has been putting in a lot of time but it’s felt very energized and like a serious working environment where people aren’t necessarily taking themselves too seriously.
LER. Definitely, the grid. I hadn’t done that before and I think that’s really cool and really helpful. I think for me personally, I’ve had a hard time letting it go when I leave and we rehearse for hours and hours and… I’m carrying it in a really heavy way that I feel like I usually don’t. I always feel connected to the roles that I play but I think this one specifically, it’s hard to leave her here and be like ‘none of that’s happening’ because it is, it’s real, it’s not like a fantasy play that you can just push off when you’re done, so that’s been different… maybe not in terms of the rehearsal process, but after the rehearsal.
RH. What has surprised me most about this process is genuinely how much laughter and joy I find in rehearsals. Mental health is definitely a concern in grappling with atrocities like school shootings, but I hope that the loving and humorous atmosphere we’ve cultivated as an ensemble shines through in our performance. Being able to find moments of lightness, I think, keeps the current state of the world from hollowing us out into apathy and inaction.
ES. It’s felt faster, somehow. Which I kept thinking was maybe just an over exaggeration in my head but it felt like we were pushing to get off book really quickly which can be stressful but it wasn’t too much pressure like ‘we gotta get it up on our feet’ and I think that’s really helped us solidify everything and be able to perfect everything exactly how we want to do it because we’re able to get up and moving really quickly.
MW: What has your identity as a student informed your understanding of the play and the work you’ve done on it so far?
RD. I think safety at Whitman is something that most students everyday don’t think about because you feel safe, and a lot of people don’t really have an understanding that like, Walla Walla is a place in the world and that they’re more than just brains moving from class to class. I think that I, as a student, relate very personally to this material… I think that it’s really made me examine how growing up with these concerns about safety has shaped how I move through the world… and it’s made me rethink; how safe do I feel at Whitman? Are people going to feel safe in the theater during our performances? We talked a lot about the shooting that was prevented in College Place throughout our rehearsal process because that’s right here and I don’t think that a lot of people here know about that. Even though gun violence is a national epidemic, it can be really hard for people to personalize it and I think that as a student you can’t personalize it, to a certain extent, because the prospect of it happening is truly so terrifying that you can’t really think about it. Like I’ve never experienced a lockdown drill at Whitman, I don’t know what that kind of safety protocol is, like I’ve never even really thought about it very much before working on this play. And I’ve thought about other ways to protect myself and be safe but it’s never been something that I really considered and that has been challenging to reconcile.
LER. Well we’ve all been talking about that a lot. I just had this horrible thought when we were rehearsing and I said it to one of the members, I was just saying like ‘it’s scary that we could be doing this show and someone could come in and do this’ and that’s the subject matter we’re dealing with and someone could totally do that, it’s so possible. So I think as a student putting it in perspective in that way and being like not only is this possible but it happens all the time. There was a huge incident at college place really recently… so, it’s in our area, it’s right here, and that’s scary. It’s just easy to be like this is so real and what we’re dealing with is so relevant to all of us.
RH. My Dad is a high-school teacher in a rural school district, and I do worry about him. Despite being a martial artist and trained in peaceful conflict resolution, the randomness of these shootings terrifies me. And personally, I didn’t realize how on edge I was in class, or in any public place really, until I studied abroad in Japan, a country with essentially no guns. For the first few months there, shadows outside doors, sudden noises, men standing alone, would send the thought through my mind, before I realized I was safe. I don’t think we can fully comprehend how much our generation has been traumatized by school shootings.
ES. With my roles specifically, I really try to recall back to how I felt in highschool because they’re two very different characters but they have the same general problems, and feelings, and worries… I guess now it’s hard to imagine that kind of awe-struck wonder looking at these tragic things that happen. Being an adult now, it’s hard to feel that but I do remember it cause when this really started to become more of a national thing, I was still in highschool and I remember not even being able to grasp it. It’s the almost feeling so removed from it that you can look at it like ‘oh my god, what even is this? How does this even happen?’… but like we know it could happen anywhere.
MW: Can you name and describe an ‘aha’ moment that informed how you approach your role in the production?
RD. The role I play, Felicia, is a surgeon and she’s very matter-of-fact and clinical… she knows what she wants. And I think that there have been moments in our character work that sometimes, for us, will end up taking place after the events of the play have happened because we’re revisiting the play in the aftermath of what’s going on. So, I’ve had a couple moments where I realize how her very matter-of-fact and clinical demeanor gets broken down by this happening and even though she spent her entire life living on this threshold, her self control wasn’t enough. So, those moments have been really interesting.
LER. I was watching an interview with Sue Klebold, that’s the mom that I feel like my character identifies with a lot, and we’d been rehearsing for a few weeks already, and I just felt very defensive and protective over her and I was like ‘oh, I’m really caring about this person and I don’t know her’. …I have so much compassion for her and feel very close to her. So that was a moment of me being like ‘oh, this is really impacting my psyche’ like what is happening here?
ES. This is kind of funny, in one of those rehearsal days in the acting classroom when we were doing our grid work, I was really struggling, I was struggling for a while, and I’m still working on it— really differentiating those two characters because obviously the dialogue is so different and I’ve been working on tone of voice and stuff but even just like the physical presence on stage, you want to make it really clear that they’re very different people. And I had a moment during one of those grid exercises where I found Bethany’s posture and I just had a moment of like ‘okay, here she is’ And now it’s become like this thing and the way I walk and the way I run and Emily has been referring to it as the Bethany lurch. So, that was a good moment in the rehearsal.
Melina Waldman: Because this play deals with such heavy topics, what preparation did you do individually or as a cast before engaging with the material?
Alyx Kruger. We wanted to make it very clear the type of subject material we were dealing with, and I had meetings with some of the cast members one-on-one to ask if there was anything we could do to facilitate their process. Definitely making tea is a big part of our collective mental health regimine. I think once we got into rehearsals, Emily, our director, is really great at keeping the mood light. This play is about real people whose lives are basically blown apart by this horrible event but the majority of the play, actually, the characters are having a great time, living their lives, finding humour, finding joy and appreciation for each other. So really not blowing over that and really living in those positive moments and then taking the serious moments really seriously, but leaving that in the rehearsal space.
MW. How has being the stage manager for Ripe Frenzy differed from other productions you’ve been a part of?
AK. This is my first time stage managing at Harper Joy Theater, so that’s a big step and also this show has some really demanding technical elements. Projections feature heavily in this show, in addition to lights and sound, and we have some fly system effects that are going to be implemented, and our set is pretty minimal but there are lots of set transitions that need to be choreographed. So technically, even though it is a short one-act play, it is very dense, it’s very compact, there are gonna be queues called all the time. But in addition to that, I think that this is definitely one of the plays that I have felt the most emotionally attached to, it’s a subject matter that I care very deeply about… and our director, and our cast, and our production team cares deeply about telling this story and doing it justice. So, I was excited to facilitate that in any way that I could.
MW. Zoe played the part of the stage manager in Our Town and takes on a similar role in Ripe Frenzy, how accurate are these representations of a stage manager?
AK. She clarifies her position by saying, in her role as a mom, she’s kind of just a mom to help out. So, there are times when the director has to give her a nudge and remind her ‘oh, we’re at a different spot now’ which happens when you’re collaborating in real life. I think it’s interesting too because she refers to the stage manager in Our Town as being a ‘Debbie Downer’ and I think that in some ways there is the stereotype of the stage manager being a bureaucrat, keeping time, trying to keep everybody in line. But really, my biggest goal in this process has been to facilitate an environment where people are working efficiently and feel like we’re making progress… So, my job is not to crack down or to make anybody feel inadequate in any way, my job is to facilitate an orderly working environment so we can make cool art together.
MW. What are you most proud of during this pre-production process?
AK. …The one thing I would say that I’m most proud of is one of our students, Miranda LaFond, is doing her dramaturgical thesis on this show and we were able to put together an Our Town reading at a church in town, and that was a really special moment. We had our cast, and community members, and students from the local highschool came together and we read this play and we had a forum where we engaged members of the community, Whitman community and Walla Walla community, and that was really powerful. And having Miranda’s work support everything that the actors do, everything that I do and Emily does, has been really a cool part of the process that you don’t always get to have.
Ripe Frenzy opens next Thursday December 12 -14 @ 8 PM and December 14 -15 @ 2 PM at the Alexander Stage, Harper Joy Theatre. Note: This production deals with sensitive subject matter and contains explicit references to acts of gun violence in addition to explicit language, sexual innuendo, projections of dead animals, and loud sound. This show may not be suitable for young children, parental discretion is advised. Buy your tickets online here or @ the HJT Box Office, open 12 - 4 PM M - F (509)527-5180.