For the first production of their 2018-19 season, Hart House Theatre presents Heathers: The Musical, based on the 1988 film of the same name. Directed by Jennifer Walls and with a backdrop of an 80’s high school social scene, the musical deals with themes of bullying, mental health, and violence in schools while relaying the importance of treating each other with compassion.

The Medium sat down with Paige Foskett, who plays Heather Duke, and Becka Jay, who plays Heather MacNamara, to discuss the ways in which every character in the show is complex and layered, as well as how the message of the musical is more relevant now than ever.

Both Foskett and Jay’s characters, the Heathers, are your typical mean girls. “For me, what I’ve had to realize and accept is that Heather Duke is the constant wedge. She doesn’t have redeemable qualities until the last 30 seconds of the show when she gets to take it all in and change for the better. We needed her toxic energy to tell the story,” Foskett says in regard to the antagonistic nature of her character. In the beginning, connecting with the Heathers was difficult for Jay as well. However, she says that “Heather Mac has a lot of insecurity and trauma of her own. The message behind the show on bullying is very clear and helped me [resonate] because I could say yes, I stand behind our message.”

Jay describes the plotline as students trying to find community and a safe place within the bubble of aggression and oftentimes suppression that is high school. “The show allows people to recognize trauma and lets that trauma surface, so we can all swim through and deal with it together.” Foskett adds that “everyone is lonely and on the same journey of finding home in people, all the while fulfilling their need to belong. I hope viewers will leave reflecting in some way on how they’ve been treated in the past or on how they treat people.”

On exploring darker topics in a lighthearted manner and the murderous storyline, Foskett says that the script is well-written in that “it doesn’t poke fun at these issues. In the world of storytelling, rarely are you taking on stories that are every day. Everything is supposed to be heightened: that’s how you get the story across. The murders highlight the point being made.”

Arguably the dark shadow and glue of the whole story, JD (Justan Myers) is a love-interest for Veronica (Emma Sangalli), the character caught in the middle of it all. Foskett describes him as the “manifestation of all the pain that everyone in the school feels. All the genuine fears young adults have are just heightened within him and this story. You might refer to him as a monster, but we have to acknowledge his struggle.”

The emotional arc and relatability of each character is what audience members will internalize and remember. “You really think about why we are the way we are and how we only have each other to get through it all,” Jay concludes.

When asked what success looks like for her as an actor, Foskett replies, “getting to tell stories that impact people the way stories impact me.” It seems as though Heathers will do just that.

Heathers: The Musical will run at Hart House Theatre from September 21 to October 6.