Don’t let its title fool you. Girls! Girls! Girls! has nothing to do with the 1962 Elvis Presley movie.

Inspired by the murder of Victoria teen Reena Virk and the Columbine High School shootings, Greg MacArthur’s drama is a hard-hitting and violent look at teen life.

Set in the cutthroat world of high school gymnastics, Girls! Girls! Girls! follows the Friday-night exploits of four teenage chums who will stop at nothing to find their place back on top as they seek revenge for a loss on the vaulting horse.

In this Q&A with Excavation Theatre‘s artistic director, Jessica Anne Nelson, we find out more.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

1Tell us about the show.

Girls! Girls! Girls! is a heartbreaking and dark look at teenagers and the truth of what they are experiencing and struggling with at that time in their lives.

Within MacArthur’s play, we examine five different teenagers, a rag tag group of friends and the one ‘outsider’ who has seemingly stolen something that the leader of the group of friends wanted so badly and believed that was owed to her.

When I first read the play, I found it was like I had fallen down a rabbit hole into the world of teenagers. The problems these characters are facing has elements that all teenagers go through when on their path to adulthood, and unfortunately, when things don’t go their way, these characters decide to go that step too far to do something about it. And while the characters may think that they are all very different and that no one will really understand the issues they are dealing with, the distressing and heartbreaking part of the story is that they are all actually quite alike. They are all struggling with feelings of powerlessness, loneliness and a sense of being unloved. I find it a shame that they in the end aren’t able to find more solace in each other and their similar experiences.

Within the play as well, MacArthur has created a world where these characters are directly exploring the world of pop culture, and we can see those influences on them throughout the script. This is a journey that every youth goes through in one way or another – from powerless child to powerful adult – and as such it is a story that everyone can relate to. We are just seeing how our society currently is teaching youth that they are invincible, can have and take whatever they want, and that violence has no real long term outcomes or consequences; they are just like special effects in the movies. As Peter Hinton says in the introduction to the play, “far from being a social-issue docudrama, Girls! Girls! Girls! is a poetic tragedy that examines degrees by which violence can occur and the socially enforced regulation of behaviour and desensitization to experience.”

This is a dangerous play, meant for a brave and bold audience, and I’m thrilled to help bring it to the community.

2What was it about Girls! Girls! Girls! that attracted?

I wanted to do Girls! Girls! Girls! for several reasons.

First, this play speaks to me from a very immediate and dangerous place. As a teenager I was a lot like the character Jam. I was quiet, thought it was easier to go with the flow of things at times, and was cautious about sharing how I was really feeling about things, or what I was really thinking – even with my closes friends – due to the fear of being rebuked, ridiculed, or abandoned. These struggles are very real for all teenagers I believe in some way, and feel that there is an opportunity here for even some healing by experiencing these teenage characters struggles and strengths.

Second, I find it ridiculous in our society that so many families feel fine about showing violence to children and youth in movies, tv shows, and video games, but showing human sexuality is not. More and more I see families that take their young children to see superhero movies – packed full of violent fighting/battle scenes from start to finish – but let the kids watch or hear about healthy sexuality is still seen as taboo. It is backwards. Sexuality is a perfectly natural and beautiful thing and yet there are those who believe it is something dirty, impure, and must not be shown to younger people, but with no thought as to how all of these violent images are impacting kids as they grow up.

So, with this play, I hope to shine a bit of light on a world where want to help bring to light the hypocrisy that exists in our society. That we sell video games that encourage children to be violent and ‘kill other people’, but we still discuss sexuality in hushed tones in private rooms. It is not openly discussed enough, and violence seen in media is not being conveyed to children as something that has a lasting effect. That our actions have consequences, you can’t start the movie over again and make those actions disappear.

Lastly, I know not everyone was like this as a child or youth, but I was also a bit of a violent child at times growing up. It was something I eventually grew out of and really only ever occurred between my brothers and I, as smiling rivalry happens and we learn what is morally ok and not, but it is interesting how children and youth will resort to any method to regain power and control, even violence because they may not be able to see the full ramifications of their violent actions. And to ensure that in the end, we are able to see how these were relatively normal, good kids, but made some wrong decisions – they weren’t inherently evil; for us to find ways to put ourselves in their shoes and not cast them in one light as monsters. I wanted to explore all of this, shedding light that we may be sending the message to children and youth that being violent to get what you want or believe is right is okay, but being vulnerable is not; and to open our eyes and see the world with more compassion and sympathy.

3Why this show now?

I believe this show needs to be seen now because we are currently living in a world, specifically North America, where intolerance and violence seems to be the growing trend. We are neighbours to a country that some believe, and I believe, is doing everything they can to ensure that they’re place of privilege stays intact while keeping everyone else down. It is not right. I believe that a show like this is important now because we need to be shaken out of our complacency; to question our own sense of privilege, to see the world through more understanding and empathetic eyes, and to fully grasp that our actions have serious consequences, that this isn’t just fun and games.

There was also something about the Reena Virk story that really pulled me into this play. When that tragedy occurred, it touched the lives of so many families and people in British Columbia and across Canada. I’ve had many actors say that those events had a huge impact on them as a teenager, and I think there is a desire for communities to look at this issue of teen violence again. To address and try to understand what it is that causes children and youth to solve their problems with violence; to try to understand what those people must be experiencing that makes them feel that violence is the only way left for them to deal with their problems and unwanted emotions.

4It is based on the murder of Reena Virk and the Columbine shootings. Are these two events explicitly mentioned in the play?

While the play is indeed based on the murders of Reena Virk and the Columbine massacre, MacArthur mentions them in the first few introductory pages of the script, the two events are never explicitly mentioned in the script.

This is what MacArthur says in the introduction: “Although fictional is its narrative, this play was written in response to the events surrounding the brutal death of Reena Virk in Victoria, British Columbia, and by the Columbine Massacre in Colorado, USA.”

5The press materials talks of the play performed in a rap-meets-nursery-rhymes style. Can you explain? What does this performance style add to the play?

Absolutely! There’s an aural experience being shared with the audience. The language is delicious and is actually my favourite element of the script. I have never worked with a script like this and it has been incredibly challenging but so rewarding to explore, examine and work through with this team of artists. The script is written in such a heightened, poetic and stylized format where the lines of text that the characters speak have a very clear rhythm, melody and sometimes rhyming sequence to them. It is truly beautiful language to work with. This kind of careful creation of the lines, mixed with the pop culture references that the characters mention so casually in their lines gives the feeling that they’re more tuned into the superficial world of celebrity gossip, and fictional characters than reality at times. It provides a skewed, but beautiful, view into the troubled lives of these teens and allows us to see their flaws but still feel empathy and care for them.

6What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing the show?

I hope audiences will walk away with the sense that these are normal kids, and unfortunately due to the circumstances they found themselves in, and the lack of tools within themselves to deal with their feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, injustice, idleness, anger, and being unloved, they turned to a course of action that they could understand. That they felt would right all of the wrongs that had happened to them.

I want the audience to experience the helplessness that these youth face and see how easily it was for them to turn to violence to get what they want through compassionate eyes and not judge the characters. I find the pain and struggle that the characters are going through heartbreaking at times in the play.

And so, I want the audience to not blame the characters for what happens, but to leave the theatre and think about how they can positively impact the people they know so that situations like this don’t happen again. And hopefully, ponder some of these questions: What is our society doing that youth are thinking violence has no lasting effect? How are youth that are well loved turning to such violent acts to feel a sense of power and control in their life again? And how can we help our youth today feel loved, safe, appreciated, and not feel that desire to resort to violence to get the things they want?

Girls! Girls! Girls! plays Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) from July 19-29. Tickets are available online. Find out more on the Excavation Theatre Facebook page.