EVEN WHEN PLAYWRIGHT JENNIFER BARCLAY isn’t doing theater, she’s well … doing theater. Jennifer — playwright, educator, onetime actor, wife, mom — teaches acting and playwriting at the University of Maryland, a gig built to give her plenty of time for writing, workshops and rehearsals.
In any “free moments,” she’s with her 3-year-old son, 5-year-old daughter and husband Andrew Barclay Newsham, a British-born fiction writer. Even her parents are artists. Mom is a potter, Dad a photographer. Together the four have their own website: barclaystudios.com.
RIPE FRENZY, the drama that brings Jen to Synchronicity, tells the before and after of a mass school shooting. As director Rachel May says, “It’s about what got us here and what we do afterward.” The script won the 2016 National New Play Network Prize for Political Theater and is in the midst of a three-city rolling world premiere (Atlanta comes between New Rep in Watertown, Mass., and Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles).
Jen’s kind of theater hits her simultaneously in the brain and the gut, inspires her, shocks her, gives her chills and takes her on a wild, empathetic ride. In the midst of rehearsals for her own wild, empathetic script, she shared some thoughts with dramaturg Kathy Janich.
SYNCHRONICITY: How did you settle on the title RIPE FRENZY?
JENNIFER (cryptically): I like to keep that answer close to my chest, because I’m interested in audiences finding their own personal connection to it.
S: When and how did this play begin for you and where in the history of U.S. school shootings does its genesis fall?
J: This play was ignited by a conversation with video designer Jared Mezzocchi. We were curious about how social and journalistic media in our country may be perpetuating mass shootings by playing to the national audience. We wondered what we would discover if we turned the mirror on ourselves, on our society. TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward had recently been shot live on-air in Virginia by a man wearing a GoPro.
A triptych of his GoPro footage was later published on the cover of the New York Post, and everyone who passed the news boxes and saw the images, was put behind his eyes and inside his mind. Jared and I began to do more research and learned about the No Notoriety campaign, which implores media to stop giving shooters the attention they crave and to stop publishing the plans and manifesto that give the shooter a platform and simultaneously inspire the next shooter.
After our research phase, I holed up on my own to find the specific story and characters and write the first draft. That was when I discovered A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. Motherhood became my personal window into this world.
S: Would you please talk about the role of video in RIPE FRENZY and your partnership with Jared?
J: I’ve been invigorated by early collaborations recently — meaning, I begin my research and world-building with collaborators before I go away to write the script. It’s very unusual for a playwright and designer to work together before there’s a script, and we were both excited by the challenge of making projection design integral to the dramatic arc instead of just being set dressing.
During our first workshop, Jared was in the room listening as if he was the character who is embodied by the design. He used his acting skills to get inside the character’s skin, and we continued to develop the character arc together. A great collaborator elevates a script beyond what the playwright could have imagined, and that’s exactly what Jared does. In fact, that’s what the whole company of this Synchronicity production has done.
S: What kinds of theater excites you?
J: I love theater that is highly physical and irreverent, that opens up new worlds and perspectives. I love female-driven stories that explode stereotypes. And I love theater that is highly theatrical — meaning it demands to be performed live, instead of imitating film or TV.
S: How did you decide to use Our Town as a lens through which to see your play, and could you please talk about your synchronicity with playwright Thornton Wilder?
J: Every night of the year, it’s said, a theater audience somewhere in the country is watching Our Town. It is such an iconic American play that gets to the heart of our country’s identity in the 1930s, and I wondered, “Are mass shootings becoming the new iconic American experience? Something we all go through, in every region, in big cities and small towns?”
I wrote RIPE FRENZY while I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., the same place Wilder wrote Our Town. His cabin was a few doors down from where I wrote, and he based Grover’s Corners on Peterborough. I based Tavistown on a combination of Grover’s Corners, Peterborough and my own hometown of Rochester, N.Y.
After MacDowell, I got to workshop RIPE FRENZY at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California. It was only once I arrived in Ojai that I learned Wilder lived on that exact same plot of land when he attended the Thacher School in 1912. Synchronicity, indeed.
Our Town dovetailed thematically with the big ideas I wanted to explore, including the simultaneity of youth and impending death, and the idea of what it would be like if we could go back and witness our innocence in the midst of a simple, happy day in our past. Zoe compares herself to the Stage Manager and resists the truth that she is really much more like Emily — witnessing her life under the weight of knowing what happens next.
RIPE FRENZY runs April 13-May 6 at Synchronicity Theatre in Midtown. Details, tickets ONLINE or at 404.486.3686.