Kindle Lynn Cowger, who plays the leading role of Veronica Sawyer in the new Fresno State production of “Heathers the Musical,” never did any of the following things while attending Liberty High School in Madera Ranchos:
1) Kill anyone.
2) Say “What’s your damage?”
3) Get involved in a plot to blow up the gym.
Which is no surprise, because that’s pretty much the definition of acting: playing non-autobiographical characters. (Besides, the revelation that Cowger was guilty of murder would so shock the Good Company Players audiences who watched her grow up on stage from age 8 onward that it would likely cause a few heart attacks.)
Still, any good actor tries to find something in common with her character.
That’s where I came in. The 1988 film “Heathers,” starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, is a fiercely dark, satirical, hip-lingo-infused comic look at an Ohio high school and an era in which “social message” after-school TV specials wallowed in teen suicide, drinking, pregnancy and bulimia. It is one of my favorite films, which means that I – like any good semi-obsessed fan – have a number of lines from the film so deeply ingrained on my consciousness that I occasionally blurt out “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”
When Selma Arts Center opened “Heathers the Musical” last year, I wrote a piece that gives a lot of background on the era and the cult status of the film and now musical. This time I wanted to take a different approach.
I figured it would be fun to meet up with Cowger, who graduated from Liberty in 2013, and rehash some famous “Heathers” lines that we hear in the musical and see how they relate to her own high school experiences. And perhaps learn a little something about her in the meantime.
The quotation: “They’re solid Teflon, never bothered, never harassed. I would give anything to be like that.”
The context: Veronica, a social nobody at the beginning of the show, is referring to the three most popular girls at Westerberg High School, all of them named Heather, and none of them very nice people.
“I definitely wanted to be one of the popular girls, of course,” Cowger says.” I wouldn’t say I was one of the girls that didn’t fit in, but I also wasn’t one of the girls that was so popular. I just stayed in my own box, until senior year when I kind of ventured out to do cheerleading and a show at school. All through high school, I’d always done Good Company Players shows.”
The quotation: “Welcome to my school / This ain’t no high school / This is the Thunderdome.”
The context: Veronica is referring to the rigid hierarchical structure of Westerberg, ruled by the Heathers and the jocks, with the rest of the students (brains, theater kids, burnouts, geeks, etc.) fighting for scraps.
“My high school was like that,” Cowger says. “You were either in sports, or you weren’t. Sports is the biggest deal at Liberty High School. They don’t care about the arts, they just care about the athletes. You either did football or softball or whatever sport you did, or you didn’t. The theater people were not the cool people. In a sense, the show is saying you never really leave high school. You just go into a bigger high school, and that’s the world.”
The quotation: “Why when you see boys fight does it look so horrible / Yet feel so right / I shouldn’t watch this crap, that’s not who I am / but for this kid, damn.”
The context: Veronica is reacting to the arrival of J.D. (played by William Aaron Bishop), a new student who shakes things up with his smoldering attitude.
“My school was such a small school,: Cowger says. “We all grew up together since first grade and kindergarten. Everybody knew who everybody was. We never had a new kid who just showed up who was like J.D.”
The quotation: “A hot guy smiled at me / without a trace of mockery.”
The context: Veronica, who has managed to break into the inner Heathers circle, is attending her first raging high school party.
Cowger, alas, has no stories of puking on her friends’ shoes to share. “I did nothing in high school,” she says. “My mom would always yell at me, ‘Kindle, you need to go to parties.’ And I was too scared to except for theater parties. I didn’t start going to parties until college.”
The quotation: “Dear diary: My teenage angst bull----” has a body count.”
The context: After Veronica, under the sway of bad-boy J.D., starts killing popular kids (and pinning the blame on suicide), she starts having second thoughts.
“No, I haven’t killed anyone,” Cowger says with a laugh. “But I did keep a diary. I had a crush on someone from seventh to 12th grade, and if you’d look at it today, you’ll find that’s what I wrote about.”
The quotation: “Thank you, Miss Fleming. Call me when the shuttle lands.”
The context: The high school principal is making fun of the “hippy” teacher, who is eager to get students to talk about their feelings but comes across as insensitive and goofy.
Did she have a Miss Fleming on campus? “Yes, totally,” Cowger says. “Not necessarily a hippy, but she was so out there. We would have these spirit days, and she always went the furthest. She was also … I could say so much, but I don’t want to.”
The quotation: “Great paté, Mom, but we gotta motor if we want to be ready for that party.”
The context: Veronica’s parents, well-meaning but a bit inept, try to help Veronica work her way up the social ladder.
“I didn’t even know what paté was until this show,” Cowger says.
Quotation: “If you were happy all the time, you wouldn’t be human, you’d be a game-show host.”
The context: Veronica is speaking to one of the Heathers, trying to keep her from swallowing a bunch of pills.
Cowger’s favorite game show in high school: “Wheel of Fortune.” “If my Mema ever missed it, it was the end of the world. She always guessed the words, too. I grew up watching “Wheel of Fortune” with her.
The quotation: “How very.”
The context: The cool way at Westerberg to say “that’s cool.”
Cowger’s memory: “My word definitely was ‘swag.’ I said that all the time in high school.”
The quotation: “This is an excellent forgery. Who are you?”
The context: One of the Heathers is impressed when Veronica is able to produce a forged hall pass.
“I used to forge my mom’s signature all the time,” Cowger says. “I don’t know if my mom knows this. High school was a long time ago, kind of! I remember in P.E, every week we had to have this form that said I did 20 hours of something at home, and I never did that. I would just forge my mom’s signature.”
The quotation: “I think I’m a good person. I believe there’s good in everyone.”
The context: At the top of the show, Veronica introduces herself this way. But she falls (and much farther than she would ever expected) in an effort to fit into what society demands. Watching her fight her way back up again is what gives the show meaning.
“I think I’m a pretty good person,” Cowger says. “But more important, I do believe there’s good in everyone. That’s the way I want to live my life.”