Jennifer Barclay on Writing, Seeing, and the Functions of Ripe Frenzy

Below, Playwright Jennifer Barclay kindly answers questions regarding the fears, lessons, and functions of her show Ripe Frenzy.
Visit further coverage of her show: 
Boston Globe, Synchronicity Theatre,LA Times

Ashlyn Quintus. What fears did you have when writing this play about such a difficult subject, and how did you contend with them?

Jennifer Barclay. I intentionally set out to interrogate one of my greatest fears, because, as harrowing as it is, that can be where you find truly raw and personal writing. I have two young children, who were 1 and 3 when I started the play, and I can’t imagine anything much more terrifying than to lose a child in this way. It seems like the grieving process would be so conflicted, and it would be so hard to feel like you might have never known who your child was after all.

AQ. Which productions of Ripe Frenzy have you seen? What did you learn about your play after seeing it performed?

JB. I was involved in the first 4 productions, which were in Boston, Atlanta, L.A. and New Hampshire. I was part of casting and design decisions, rehearsals, and got to see each of the productions. I learned a lot from the Boston and Atlanta productions in particular, since they were the first. Through the actors and audiences, I learned about a couple of key puzzle pieces of information that were missing. I was able to rewrite the night before opening in both cities, and my collaborators were open and flexible to the changes, and we got the immediate satisfaction of feeling those final missing pieces fall into place. I had the pleasure of collaborating on every one of the productions with projections designer Jared Mezzocchi (whose images will also be in the Whitman College production), and so we also learned from each other as we balanced the visual storytelling that he was authoring along with the verbal storytelling that I was creating. Then, in the New Hampshire production, Jared also directed the play and brought in an ensemble of 11 high school teenagers, which helped us to crack the play open even further and find new levels of meaning with ensemble-generated movement and authentic young voices on stage. It’s been a joy to allow the play to be a living, breathing thing that continues to evolve and reveal itself anew.

AQ. This play has already been on its feet for nearly two years now. Have you witnessed the conversations around its material evolve already?

JB. The conversations have been impacted by which mass shooting has happened most recently. There are too many, and they keep coming. For the Boston and L.A. productions, a major mass shooting happened days before each of the openings. The conversation has also changed depending on where the play has been produced: one was a professional theatre housed at a college, another was a professional theatre in residence at a high school, another was at a theatre in the Red South, which pointed out that the play was not partisan. At Whitman, this will be the first time that student actors are playing the three 40-something mothers, and I’m curious to hear what impact it has to have a full cast of college students performing this on a college campus.

AQ. Walla Walla is a town in rural Washington with a population of under 50,000 people. As a way to engage with the community, our production’s director and dramaturg organized an off-campus community reading of Our Town in order to explore the sort of triangulation of parallels between Grover’s Corners, Tavistown, and Walla Walla during a guided dialogue afterwards. Did you anticipate this sort of community engagement when writing Ripe Frenzy, and what are your hopes for this sort of engagement?

JB. That fills me with joy. I think one of the great things theatre can do is create in-person conversation within our community. I think it’s a fantastic idea for each producing company to imagine what context their community needs, how to open up conversation, and how to expand the experience beyond just one night in the theatre. What a great idea to prepare both audiences and collaborators by revisiting Our Town, and also to do it in a small town like Walla Walla, which must bear some resemblance to Grover’s Corners and Tavistown.

AQ. What are the limits of empathy? How did you want Ripe Frenzy to explore this question?

JB. I create theatre because I believe it has the power to create bridges of empathy. I gain empathy through the research I do in preparing to write so that I can truly place myself in the characters’ shoes.  My collaborators then need to do the same, and the final step is to invite the audience to truly empathetically understand the characters and their journeys and conflicts as well. I’m often drawn to characters who create challenges to empathy; I’m drawn to their flaws and to our own struggle that might toggle back and forth between understanding and condonement. 

AQ. You said in an interview “‘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.’” yet it won the 2016 Smith Prize for Political Theatre. How do you define Political Theater and its functions?

 JB. This play is absolutely political; most of my plays are. I believe that the best political theatre opens up new windows of empathy in people, incites conversation and rumination long after the performance ends, and might even cause a shift in thinking and action. I’m interested in writing plays that are personal and specific first and foremost, but then on later reflection expand out into a larger context with an urgent socio-political question. I would love to see theatre opening up opportunities for bipartisan conversation, but that is tough because most audiences are liberal. The play is not about gun control because that’s not a topic where I can understand both sides of the issue. I am emphatically, urgently in support of sensible gun control– but that makes for a didactic lecture, and not a compelling work of theatre. I’m excited to write a play when I can see both sides and all the gray area in between, and so that’s why I focused this play on Zoe’s point of view and her internal struggle.

Ripe Frenzy opens this Thursday December 12-14 @ 8 PM and December 14-15 @ 2 PM at the Alexander Stage, Harper Joy Theatre. Buy your tickets online here  or @ the HJT Box Office, open 12-4 PM M - F (509)527-5180. 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.