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Licensing of gender-bent ‘Heathers’ from Ram’s Head ‘removes one more barrier’

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Ram’s Head’s gender-bent version of “Heathers” musical will soon be available for licensing by theater companies outside the Stanford community. The script, written specifically for Stanford, is the first gender-bent “Heathers” to be officially available for licensing. While the role of J.D. has been played by non-male actors in the past, Stanford was the first to work with the original creators of the musical to produce an official script.

The fully virtual production was directed by Diana Khong ’22 and Gwen Phagnasay Le ’22 and starred Junah Jang ’24 as Veronica and Emily Saletan ’24 as a female J.D. The gender-bent production was critically acclaimed by Stanford students and community members.

Khong and Le had not originally planned on casting the leading role of J.D. with a female actor. Once Saletan expressed interest in playing the role, however, the directors embraced the idea. And when they reached out to the writers of “Heathers,” Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, they fully supported the idea and worked with students to script the first official gender-bent version.

With licensing, the script can be used by other theater companies that want to produce the show with a female-presenting J.D. in the lead. The directors said the licensing of “Heathers” shows other theater companies that it is possible to reimagine a script to increase representation in a production.

Echoing the directors, Jang said that “having the scripting license just removes one more barrier” to producing “Heathers” and other plays as gender-bent productions.

“Stories can be very limited in terms of who they’re for and what they address,” Jang said, adding that theater often fails to represent people of diverse backgrounds and sexualities.

Kyla Figueroa ’24, a Daily staffer and the Dramaturg for Ram’s Head’s production of “Heathers,” wrote that she also hoped shows would be created with more complex depictions of queer people and individuals of marginalized identities.

“Hopefully, we don’t have to gender-bend shows in the future, and… shows will already have these characters,” she wrote to The Daily.

Ram’s Head’s “Heathers” was more inclusive than the average theater production, according to Khong and Le, with a cast featuring many people of color and the central plot exploring a queer relationship between the two lead characters. The directors said including people from different backgrounds with unique experiences helps bring more depth to the production.

“I came away feeling really satisfied having made art with one of my best friends,” Le said. 

“Heathers” was the first musical that Khong and Le directed. Le explained that the production was a way to build community and connect with more people, despite the challenges of working virtually and with a more unfamiliar script.

Speaking to the changes, Jang said, “It felt as if the script was meant to be that way.”

The feelings of angst and being misunderstood draw characters Veronica and J.D. together, and that conflict is heightened through the added dimension of a queer relationship with a female J.D., Jang said.

“I genuinely think having a gender-bent J.D. makes ‘Heathers’ the show a little bit more believable and complicated and intimate, and in a lot of ways that it wasn’t before,” Jang said.

Figueroa wrote that depictions of queer people are often “stereotypical and rely on their queer identity as their only personality trait.” Because J.D. was not initially written as a queer character, gender-bending “allowed us to retain the traits of the character and also provide the messages that we wanted on relationships and being and feeling like an outsider.”

Other members of the production agreed with Figueroa and Jang — with the change in J.D.’s gender, J.D.’s character dynamic and story increased in complexity. While they emphasized that Veronica and J.D.’s relationship is unhealthy and manipulative in many aspects, Khong said that the changes to the script made the relationship more understandable. As a result, the play felt more realistic, Khong said.

Jang expressed optimism about the potential for more queer reimaginings as a result of the licensing, both of “Heathers” and other shows. Including gender-bent characters in productions is important to the future of theater, Jang said.

She explained that having diversity in theater makes it applicable to more audiences and conveys a broader message.

“There’s a lot of potential there for building on the beauty that a lot of these shows already have,” Jang said.

Dorothy Okoro contributed reporting.

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Caitlin Yang is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.