Supporting creative work by women
Last month, Los Angeles-based playwright Jennifer Haley received one of the most prestigious awards in theater, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, at a ceremony in London. According to its web site, the Prize “is given annually to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre.”
Haley won for her chilling and thought-provoking play, The Nether, which follows a detective in a virtual universe as she matches wits with a criminal who has fantasized about committing crimes about children. She received $20,000 as well as a signed and numbered print by Willem de Kooning.
Works by Women caught up with Jennifer as she returned Stateside and learned how her mentor, fellow Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner Paula Vogel, inspired The Nether and how vital play development programs have been for her career.
WBW: How are you celebrating the award? What does it mean to you?
JH: The award ceremony was in London, so I celebrated by taking a week-long vacation in England with my mom. There have been many toasts over dinner with my friends. But mostly I’m celebrating by giving myself time to think and write, instead of trying to squeeze that in between everything else. I’ve been working on a writing career for many years now, so the award pretty much means It’s Been Worth It!
WBW: The description of your play The Nether is very powerful and intriguing. What was your inspiration for writing it?
JH: My teacher, Paula Vogel, once told me to write what you hate. I despise television crime procedurals, so the interrogation genre had been tempting me for awhile. I was working on a concept for a ten-minute play, and the idea of a man being investigated for virtual crimes came to me. Thinking about what the worst kind of crime would be brought me to child molestation. And then the moral question of whether adults should be allowed to “play” this way – with no children actually involved – snapped the entire backbone of the play into focus. During a month-long writing challenge with my writing group, The Playwrights Union, in Los Angeles, the ten-minute play quickly became a full-length script and took me to emotional places with the characters I had not anticipated.
WBW: What’s next for The Nether?
JH: The Nether will be developed with Center Theatre Group over the next several months and produced in Spring 2013 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. So far the development team is Director Neel Keller and Literary Manager Pier Carlo Talenti. We are planning a summer workshop to get designers involved, as the visual language of the play is an essential element.
WBW: Your work has been developed around the country at some of the best places – Lark Playwright Development Center, the O’Neill, Sundance. How vital are programs like this for your work and playwrights in general?
JH: These development programs have been critical to my work. In fact, I don’t tend to continue with scripts unless I can get other people interested in “playing” with me. One script of mine, FROGGY, languished for two years until P73 in New York offered me a residency to work on it. I brought in a director with whom I’d never worked simply because he was the one, every few months, to email me and tell me how much he liked the play. Matt Morrow has since been critical to the rounds of development that have flowered from the first, and we are now anticipating a production in 2013. The one word of advice I’d offer about development is: Don’t be afraid to undo everything you wrote during a workshop. Sometimes it’s important to go down the wrong road and get it out of your system. It doesn’t mean the time was wasted. Finally, these workshops are fantastic for meeting like-minded colleagues, future collaborators and friends!
WBW: Tell me a little bit about The Playwrights Union, the Los Angeles-based group of which you are a member.
JH: The Playwrights Union is a casual collective of playwrights in Los Angeles. We meet at events a few times a year, like the end-of-summer pool party we’ve started to throw at a members’ house every September. I send out a newsletter of our professional goings-on to Literary Managers and Artistic Directors around the country. And we are right now in the midst of our annual Writing Challenge, where participants write a brand new play over the course of a month, and we read them all back to back in a long weekend that devolves into eating pizza and drinking wine! In late Spring we present some of these new plays in a two-day reading festival. It is this annual push to get new work out, and the community we’ve created for each other in Los Angeles, that are the best points of our group.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
JH: I think it’s tough being an artist of any gender in American theater. Financially, it’s tough. You need to have a flexible side job or a supportive partner – and a ton of determination – to make it happen. You also need to be prepared to travel, which I didn’t quite know going into this. But I’ve found that when I write what interests me, what scares me, and what makes me cry – and not for any imagined audience or certain cast size or specific theatre – and when I focus my intentions as an artist, good things come. Development, productions, royalties, all of it.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
JH: I still see fantastic work by all kinds of theatre artists, which gives me hope that nothing we do is dead or dying or any of that nonsense. On the contrary, there are endless forms for endless stories . . . and talented people exploring them all.
To learn more about Jennifer Haley and her work, visit her web site.