ROBERT FALLS: From the beginning of your career, you’ve been labeled a Southern playwright, if not a Southern Gothic playwright. How do you feel about your legacy as a writer and your connection to the South?
BETH HENLEY: Well, I feel that, as hard as I try, I can’t wrench the South out of my bones. It keeps reoccurring in my work. Being the place I grew up it left a deep imprint.
This is the first play of yours, though, that’s centered in Jackson, Miss., where you grew up.
Yeah. I’ve never been able to write about that particular town. I’ve always written about places on the outskirts.
What made you avoid Jackson? Was it conscious or unconscious?
I think it was unconscious. I don’t know. I thought it was too close to write about Jackson.
Too close to you? Your family?
To me and my family. And also, the vibe of Jackson is different. This play has a different vibe than that of Crimes of the Heart.
What would you say the different vibe is? Is there a particular vibe to this play as opposed to Miss Firecracker or certainly Crimes of the Heart or The Wake of Jamey Foster?
Well, it has a vibe of violence that’s not kidding. In Crimes of the Heart, a character shoots her husband, but he lives. In Wake, a character gets kicked in the head by a cow and dies. But in this, I knew was going to incorporate murder, and I didn’t want to do it in a surreal or theatrical way, like in my play Control Freaks— this felt terrible and hard, tragic not ironic.
Was a murder or a death always the centerpiece? Was there an initial image that made you work on this?
I’ve always wanted to write a play where a young girl brings in a Christmas tree for her father’s motel room. The sadness of that image has haunted me for a while. And I knew somebody was going to be murdered, but I wasn’t sure who it was when I started writing the play.
I read once that you keep a notebook and record images. Can you talk about your process of building a play over a period of time?
I work from a lot of notebooks. I write down bits of dialogue I hear that may or may not even fit in this play, and I write down tone. Tone is so important; I think that’s the soul of the play. If you can get the tone, that’s for me the most difficult thing. And I write down character images. I knew, for instance, there was a bridal dress that matched the bone ivory shoes—images like that. I wasn’t sure whose dress it was. So it’s images. It’s dialogue. It’s ideas for scenes.
One of the things that’s unusual about the play is that it sits on top of a larger social and political background. It’s set in 1964. Do you want to talk about your own experience of 1964 Jackson that might have led somewhere into this play?
I was only 12. It’s so incomprehensible—the young civil rights supporters who were working for voter registration, [James] Chaney, [Andrew Goodman] and [Michael] Schwerner, were brutally murdered and people weren’t exactly upset about it. It was such a schizophrenic atmosphere of gentility that just kind of accepted racism and ignored murder. It took its toll on everyone who lived there, and I didn’t even realize how bizarre it was until I left. I just thought this was normal life, and the national culture was not very enlightened at that particular point in time. It was very twisted to grow up in a culture of apartheid with people you love.
Younger members of our company, and even some not-so-young members of the company, had a little difficulty remembering that sense of what 1964 was like, particularly in Jackson, Miss. Could you tell me that story about your sister’s teacher and her involvement?
There had been a lot of violence against Jewish leaders and bombings of synagogues in Jackson and Meridian. The Jewish community went to the FBI for help. Through an informer the FBI knew a bomb was going to be planted and they planned a set-up around this man’s house. My sister’s fifth grade teacher Kathy Ainsworth was in the car with the bomber, and she was wearing hot pants. The guy put the bomb in the driveway, and then as he was running back to the car, they shot him, and she ended up getting shot and killed. The man survived though he was shot nineteen times. That was also around the time when the National Guard had to be sent down to get James Meredith into Ole Miss. The Freedom Riders were getting off interstate buses and going directly to Parchman Penitentiary. There were sit-ins at drugstore counters. It was really bizarre just to try to be growing up and living your life and figuring out how to do homework with all of this in the background, because you’re trying to put the world together.
Clearly that found its way into the play, and in our productions, we worked really hard on intertwining the personal and the political. That evil is built on top of this swamp of the blood of slaves and of African Americans, and out of that swamp comes a pervasive sense of evil that informs the world of this motel, and some of the characters within it.
That sense was better incorporated in the New York version of the play than at the Geffen. I was just seeing the pattern, and I was able to reinforce it more in the second production.
You also develop your plays in somewhat unusual ways. You’ve always been very closely aligned with a number of brilliant actors who’ve been loyal to you over your career. It’s almost a Beth Henley rep company. Can you talk about that?
I’m on my third draft before I give a new play to anybody, and then I try to give it to one or two people to read, and then do revisions from that. I ask actors that I know to come to my living room and to read it. I don’t give them any direction. It’s very safe. The characters just come out of my heart and into the universe when I hear the actors speak the lines. It’s exhilarating. If there are big bumps in the play, I generally know it’s my fault, because the actors are so good.
What’s wonderful is that all these actors—Glenne Headly, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, Ed Harris—have worked with you.
I’ve not worked with Ed before, except on a skit with him. I mean, he’s done readings often in my living room.
That’s what I was saying—you have this extraordinary cast that obviously ended up deeply committed to the play. And you and I have known each other for many years, although we’ve never had the opportunity to work together. Do you want to talk about how it came together? It’s a little unusual.
It is unusual. Glenne Headly thought you would be great to direct this, and were you doing The Seagull and were hard to get a hold of. I was so terrified and thought you would not want to do it, but I wanted to work with you so much. You read it and you called me and I was actually in Mississippi because my uncle had just had a heart attack. You said you wanted to do the play, and I was so happy.
We have a very similar belief in how theatre works. For better or worse, you and I studied acting together and had similar experiences with an acting teacher, Edward Kaye-Martin. You write brilliantly for actors, and I do my best work with actors from an acting point of view, having studied it.
We got really lucky that all the actors and you were available. And the Geffen was available.
It just kind of came together. We did it at the Geffen Playhouse, which was a wonderful experience. We were tremendously supported, and the audiences were really terrific, and it was never as if we thought about bringing it to New York. We were just concerned about doing the best production we could. Although once it opened, we thought, “Well, this could be kind of successful in another venue,” and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm out of New York. Then it was just kind of a wonderful memory for all of us, until Scott Elliott and the New Group got a hold of it and said, “Wow, would you guys like to do this in New York at our space?” And once again, it was just amazing synchronicity that all of us were available to jump in and work on it again.
Ian Morgan, the associate artistic director, read the play and sent me this great e-mail letting me know how much the theatre wanted to make the production work. It was stunning how all of the pieces fell into place.
Let’s talk a little about working with the actors, particularly Amy and Ed, who are married in real life and playing a married couple onstage. Ed and Amy are two of the great American actors. There was just this amazing openness and comfort and safeness that they had as actors to go into the darkest possible places with each other but also to experience love. Love is at the root of these characters’ relationship, and something goes terribly wrong in that relationship. It was just terrifying and beautiful and deeply moving to watch them, and I think a lot of it was just was because they’re brilliant and also because they just trust each other. What was your experience?
They just—the connection could be so terrifyingly deep and there was such an ease. It was a joy to watch great actors work.
It wasn’t a collaborative process in terms of the play—you at all times were the author of this work and everything sprung out of you, but there was a sense of family and love. I know that seems like a weird phrase to use in the theatre—oft used but often not really meant—but this experience really was sort of driven by love on everybody’s part.
Everybody put their heart and soul in it, and they stuck their neck out for me and for this play, and I’ll be forever grateful. It was just one of the greatest times of my life.
Robert Falls directed the premiere of The Jacksonian at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse in 2012 and the production with the New Group in New York in 2013. He is the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He currently directs the premiere of Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman at the Goodman, running through Feb. 23.