Park across the street from the building. It’s 100 degrees out, so be sure to crack your window. Go up the stairs and knock on the first door on your right. Say hi, quietly, to playwright Jennifer Haley, who is on the phone when she answers the door. Take a seat on her couch while she finishes her call in the kitchen. Notice the Willem de Kooning print on the wall, situated conveniently across from her desktop computer. (That’s what she received for winning the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for The Nether, her Olivier Award–nominated play.)
“Nice to meet you,” Haley will say to you when she gets off the phone, giving you a hug. “I just got back in town yesterday and I don’t have any food.” The rapport is instantly familiar. Haley invites you out to lunch, but you have to drive. You happily accept, if she agrees to give directions and coach you through parallel parking. Off you go.
After seeing Haley’s mind-bending plays—not just the creepy cyber-procedural of The Nether but also the role-playing game gone wrong of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom or the fractured fairy tale of Breadcrumbs—you might have a tendency to process reality, and the tiny everyday choices and exchanges that make it up, from a slightly skewed angle, as if you are a player in a choose-your-own adventure game. But those works—suspenseful, cerebral, dystopian—stand in stark contrast to Haley’s personality, which is warm, inviting, entirely genuine; there’s nothing virtual about it.
If Haley could stand behind a computer screen and watch herself, she might be surprised at how fast she’s leveled up. After its world premiere at Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group in 2013, where it won seven Ovation Awards, The Nether played last spring at London’s Royal Court Theatre while simultaneously receiving a thrice-extended run at MCC Theater in New York City. And this season it will be produced all over the country, from Houston’s Alley Theatre to Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, at San Francisco Playhouse, the Village Repertory Company in Charleston, S.C., and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. It’s also receiving productions in Istanbul, Munich, and Madrid.
The play’s popularity might partly be explained by its familiar setup: It opens up in an interrogation room (Haley admits she was partly inspired by “C.S.I.”) where a female detective is questioning a middle-aged man about his involvement in the Hideaway, a virtual Victorian-era world in which pedophiles can have sex with avatars of pre-pubescent girls. Though the play’s most graphic scene involves little more than a child actress taking off a dress to expose frilly undergarments, it’s a dark, twisted, get-under-your-skin kind of play.
Admits Haley with a laugh, “If a man had written The Nether—if I were, like, Joe Haley, everyone would think I was a big freakin’ perv. I feel like The Nether could have only been written by a woman.”
But hot topics aren’t the only reason Haley’s work seems to be catching on. All of Haley’s plays hone in on the moral quandaries raised by technology, role-playing games, and the seduction of virtual worlds, while making audiences question the little ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives 24/7. In Neighborhood 3, teenagers addicted to a video game start to live in it for real; the play had its world premiere at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and is currently running through Dec. 20 at New York’s Flea Theatre, directed by Joel Schumacher (Flatliners, The Lost Boys). Breadcrumbs, which premiered at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2010, borrows fairy-tale iconography to explore human connection and Alzheimer’s.
These last two plays have been produced by a number of midsize and small theatres around the country, and for much the same reason The Nether seems to have struck a chord: because younger theatremakers and their audiences are primed to see stories told through the lens of genre.
“My stuff is narrative, but I don’t feel like I’m spoon-feeding people,” says Haley. “I draw them in using genre—in Breadcrumbs, using the essence of a fairy tale; in Neighborhood, using a video game; in The Nether, using television procedurals. These genres provide a great sense of shorthand. If I want to sound evil and crafty, you just sort of lull people in.” She finishes with a chuckle.
This kind of work may be familiar to many audiences, but it still stands out from the fare that crosses most artistic directors’ desks.
“I remember reading [Neighborhood 3] and just going: Oh, this is really cool and really different,” recalls Marc Masterson, who was artistic director of Actors Theatre when it produced Neighborhood 3. He now leads California’s South Coast Repertory, which has commissioned a new play from Haley. “It wasn’t just the science-fiction aspect of it,” says Masterson. “It was also kind of scary; you don’t read a lot of plays that are frightening. When you read something that just comes at storytelling from a very different perspective than 95 percent of the plays that you’d been reading, it kind of makes you want to do it.”
Haley’s road to playwriting was a long one. In a sense, it’s a third career for the 44-year-old writer. Raised in San Antonio, Texas, she started acting in high school in plays like The Elephant Man and The Miracle Worker. She was especially enthusiastic about the latter.
“I love that play,” Haley says. “I thought I was going to be cast as Helen, but [the director] cast me as Annie Sullivan. I was so shrimpy, but there was actually a shrimpier girl than me.” She went on to pursue a liberal arts and theatre double major at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was there that she wrote her first play, though she’d never taken a playwriting class.
“So many of the roles were just dopey stuff,” she says over salads at Four Cafe near her apartment in Eagle Rock. “So the first play I wrote, I just wrote something with a great role for myself.” The piece in question was a magical-realist two-hander called Sabbath Days in a Hot Pickup, about a woman preparing lunch for guests while her abusive husband is passed out on the kitchen table. She admits that it was inspired by Sam Shepard’s work.
“That’s where the magical realism comes in: She keeps trying to get him off the table, she’s preparing lunch on his back, and finally she throws a tablecloth over him.”
After graduating, she worked as a company member of a commedia dell’arte performance group called Troupe Texas, which performed in nursing homes and housing projects. In the late ’90s, she moved to Seattle and became a web designer. Though that was just her day job—she was writing plays at night—the two worlds started to merge in her mind.
“As technological media was changing, I felt like I was in the thick of it,” she recalls. “It was being a tech person and being in that world, it really started influencing my work.”
In 2002, Haley says she made a promise to herself: “I’d give myself 10 years and really try to make it as a playwright. If at the end of 10 years I wasn’t getting serious outside feedback that I could do this—I just didn’t want to delude myself.”
Just then entering her thirties, Haley applied, again, to graduate school in playwriting, having been rejected from every program she had applied to in her twenties. This time, she got accepted into Brown and studied under Paula Vogel. It was Vogel who gave Haley a pivotal note on an early draft of Neighborhood 3. “[Paula] said, ‘You should consider using the organizing principle of a video game,’” recalls Haley.
In Neighborhood 3, there is a sense of a quest, with scenes of directions (“walk-throughs”) alternating with character scenes. As the play’s teenage characters fight their way through zombies to the final house on the block, the game takes on a life of its own and the online and real worlds start to blur together.
A typical excerpt from one of the walk-throughs, which is a kind of spoken narration, though it is not assigned to any one character:
when you exit the bedroom
and go back down the stairs
you will notice a pool of
blood on the carpet
you have just moved through
a secret wormhole
in the Neighborhood
As you can see, reading a Jennifer Haley script on the page asks a lot of the imagination; there is no sense of location or description of place. The delineation and/or integration of the real and the unreal in Haleyworld is the director’s job.
“I was blown away by the challenge of that,” recalls director Matt Morrow, who helmed a production of Neighborhood 3 at Bricolage Production Company in Pittsburgh. He’s currently developing Haley’s newest play, the graphic novel–inspired Froggy*. That play, too, mixes the virtual and the real world, and the past and the present.
“It’s not clear how you’re supposed to represent a Jen Haley show onstage,” says Morrow. But that’s a feature, not a bug, he adds: “That sort of challenge for me as a storyteller is really exciting. She’s a true collaborator in that way. She’s game to trust her collaborator and let them interpret her work.”
She may deal with technology, but Haley’s plays don’t necessarily call for a lot of it to be used onstage; with the exception of Froggy, her work doesn’t require projections or computers to pull off.
“It’s one of the ways that, without using technology, she’s making the plays feel technological,” says Neel Keller, associate artistic director at CTG, who directed the world premiere of The Nether. “Life is not experienced narratively anymore, or in a straightforward way. I think that puzzlement of unthreading the narrative—even with The Nether it was confusing in rehearsal!”
And technology is only the frame; within that frame is a portrait of life as it’s lived now. Much as The Nether is ultimately a play about relationships, Neighborhood 3 is more than just a horror thriller; it’s also a critique of the contemporary family in what Haley describes as “the underbelly of the suburbs,” where planned communities and cookie-cutter homes encourage passive conformity, and where child-rearing and human connection have been replaced with video screens.
The play has a trace of the autobiographical. Haley recalls watching her two half-brothers grow up in a Houston suburb as teenagers, as the younger one disappeared into RPGs and the older acted out in typical teenage fashion.
“My older brother was driving drunk through the neighborhood one night in this brand-new truck that my stepfather had bought him,” Haley recounts. “And he drove through a house. Fortunately he didn’t hurt anyone. Six months later, my stepdad bought him another truck!”
A similar scenario appears in Neighborhood 3, with the vehicle upgraded to a Hummer. Haley’s real-life stepfather** and brother are even pictured on the cover of the Samuel French edition of Neighborhood 3, which Haley designed. Laughing, she says, “My parents know that I wrote it as an indictment of their behavior.”
Her plays are never quite that direct. Haley’s own father died of alcoholism five years ago, and The Nether can in part be read as a daughter’s quest to understand addiction; it emerges that Morris, the detective, lost her father to his virtual-world obsession. In the chilling jargon of the play, he became a “shade.”
“Of course I was never going to write a living-room play about a daughter dealing with an alcoholic father,” says Haley, now back from lunch and reclining on her couch at home. “That doesn’t interest me, because that’s too nose-on. But addiction to the Nether is addiction to just about anything—alcohol, drugs.”
So don’t expect an O’Neill-esque family drama from Haley any time soon (though she says she’s started writing a living-room play, just to see if she can pull it off). For her, the heightened genre and nonlinear form are what help her dig more deeply into the content she’s most interested in.
“It’s not really about technology,” she explains of her work. “Ultimately I’m interested in technology because it’s giving us a way to live alternate lives. I’m very interested in identity and how people perceive themselves. The technology for me is just an interesting way to examine these really limitless, long-standing, global questions of identity, and waking life versus dream life.”
Indeed, part of what makes the worlds she conjures so eerily familiar is that they aren’t that far removed from an age in which smartphones are practically human appendages and Internet celebrity is an actual paying job.
“During The Nether, we kept saying this is not the future, this is actually like eight years from now,” says Anne Kauffman, who directed The Nether at MCC. “The future is now.”
Haley’s own future includes not only Froggy but also a deal to develop a TV version of The Nether, plus commissions from South Coast and CTG. And she’s taking her technology/identity theme to the next level with a new play featuring robot actors, with no humans onstage.
“I want to take on the premise that an artificial intelligence would naturally develop the same sort of emotions that humans do, because I don’t think that they would,” Haley muses. “I think biological intelligence would be a different kind of intelligence than that which comes from technology. So that’s the question I’m posing to myself: What’s that difference? What would that look, feel, sound like? I don’t really know yet.”
When the play is ready, you will receive instructions where to go. Be there on time. Find an empty seat. Silence your phone. Off you go.
*An earlier version of this article said that Froggy is currently being developed for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The theatre is no longer a producing partner on the work.
**It was originally reported that Haley’s mother and brother is on the cover of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. It’s actually her stepfather and brother.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!