Works by Women

Supporting creative work by women

Interview: Hilary Bettis

hilary-bettis-copyHilary Bettis writes gut punching plays as well as episodes of top TV drama The Americans. Her latest play, Alligator, is the inaugural production of The SOL Project, a “New York City-based initiative catalyzing change via a national movement to provide productions by Latina/o playwrights, bringing the stories and culture of their community to the fore of the American Theater.”

Produced by New Georges and directed by Elena Araoz, Alligator also christened the new ART/New York Theatres on West 53rd Street in New York City. The play is raw, visceral, set amidst Florida’s Everglades and underscored by rock music.

Bettis spoke to Works by Women about the South and its influence on her work, how the theater community can better support playwrights, and what music she listened to while writing Alligator.

WORKS BY WOMEN: Alligator is the inaugural project of The SOL Project, which champions Latina/o playwrights Off-Broadway, in partnership with New Georges. What is it like to kick off this terrific initiative? And have your thoughts about this changed since the recent presidential election?

HILARY BETTIS: The whole thing has been an incredible experience for sure, and really such an honor. [New Georges Producing Artistic Director] Susan Bernfield and [The Sol Project Artistic Director] Jacob Padrón are amazing producers who have challenged me in all the right (and sometimes uncomfortable) ways. And, really, for them to take a risk on a play so big and impossible speaks volumes about their bravery and commitment to new voices.

Ah, the election… I didn’t wanna get out of bed for like a week. We were watching the election at home, and my boyfriend (Bobby Moreno who’s in Alligator) was like “let’s watch 30 Rock, and turn the TV back on when Hillary wins…” So we put on 30 Rock and the opening bit was Tina Fey making a Donald Trump joke. Anyway, yes and no. A big part of why I ever started writing to begin with was to give voice to those who are underrepresented in our world. I do think, in the era of Trump where so many people no longer trust our government or news sources, story will become a far more vital (and subversive) way of questioning our society and values without alienating audiences.

WBW: How do you reckon with the South, religion, and redemption?

HB: I’ve lived all over the South, and church was a big part of my upbringing so they’ve both deeply influenced me in multiple ways. I think there’s still a gulf of misunderstanding between the South and North. In so much of the South, church really isn’t about God as much as it is about community, and one’s reputation in the community, a lot like theater in New York. I love the community part of church, but I did start really questioning religion around 11 or 12. I remember a youth pastor telling us (a room full of preteens) that the only way to Heaven was through Jesus, and how sad it was for most of the world who didn’t believe in Jesus because they were going to Hell. I’d never met anyone who was Jewish or Muslim, but it seemed illogical that a loving and forgiving God would happily punish most of the world for eternity. And then that same pastor told me dogs don’t have souls or go to Heaven the day after my childhood dog was put to sleep, so I was like “fuck it, I’m out.”

But I think we’re all searching for redemption. I think that’s part of the human condition, and so much of what I write about is really trying to find beauty and hope and intimacy in brutalness, if we can learn to love ourselves and each other through that, then we’ve found our redemption.

Alligator featuring Bobby Moreno and Lindsay Rico Photo credit Heather Phelps-Lipton.jpg
Bobby Moreno & Lindsay Rico in Alligator | Photo Credit: Heather Phelps-Lipton

WBW: Your trajectory as a playwright is different from many others whose work is presented Off-Broadway. What do you think budding playwrights need? How can they be nurtured in the current arts ecosystem?

HB: I really think you have to be insane to even want to be a playwright. There’s no money or job security, so really, you have to do it because you can’t exist not doing it. Every time you write it has to scare the shit out of you, or you’re not saying something real. Writing the play has to be the reward, and anything else is secondary. So I think budding playwrights need guts, heart and a vision.

Two things:

We need more programs like New York Theatre Workshop’s 2050 Fellowship and New Georges Audrey Residency, where playwrights and directors are in residency together so that they can learn from each other’s processes. It really is like a marriage, and the more we can understand how playwrights and directors work, (and speak about the work), the better collaborations we will have when we’re in the trenches of a production together.

We need more financial support from institutions. There’s been a lot of conversation around this recently with Equity, but this also applies to writers, directors and designers. Like Virginia Woolf says, “a woman (or artist) must have money and a room of one’s own…”

WBW: What’s it like working with director Elena Araoz on Alligator?

HB: Elena and I have known each other for years, and done about a dozen readings and workshops together on three or four different plays, so we had a real rapport going into this process. We’re both incredibly passionate and ambitious so there was never a moment of feeling like we couldn’t tackle this big, epic beast. We’ve sometimes had differing opinions about how to do that, so we’d throw a lot of different things at the wall to see what feels right. She’s an incredible and fierce director. I think we’ve made something really beautiful that we’re both deeply proud of.

WBW: Alligator is inspired partly by nights at rock bars in New York City. What was a transcendent or awe-inspiring night at one of these? Or a band that really moved you with a performance?

HB: I don’t know if there was one particular night as much as being so drawn to the visceral and unexpected that comes with live music. Live rock music isn’t “neat” and “well-made”. It’s raw. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the energy of the band and the energy of the crowd. I wanted to bring that energy, that rawness and unpredictability to the theater. Plus, all of my non-theater friends loved going to rock shows, but had no interest in ever going to the theater. I wanted to write a play that would speak to them.

I listened to a lot of Beirut and TV on the Radio when I was writing Alligator.

Alligator featuring Sean Smith, Julian Elijah Martinez and Dakota Granados Photo credit Heather Phelps-Lipton.jpg
Sean Smith, Julian Elijah Martinez and Dakota Granados in Alligator |
Photo Credit: Heather Lipton-Phelps

WBW: Tell me about being an Affiliated Artist with New Georges. How have Susan Bernfield, Sarah Cameron Sunde, Jaynie Saunders Tiller and the other artists influenced, sustained you and your work?

HB: Man, they’ve been some of my biggest supporters and advocates for a long time. I’ve learned a ton from them and met so many amazing people through New Georges over the years. There’s a lot of different styles of “getting shit done” in this business, and what I value so much about Susan, Sarah and Jaynie is that they’re fair, they listen and they believe in people above results. My bosses on The Americans are very similar. I think that creates a very organic and safe environment where people feel empowered to take risks because it’s safe to fail. That’s a lesson I’m going to hold onto in my career.

WBW: As you mentioned, you also write for TV. How do you know what medium–TV, film, theater–is right for the story you want to tell when you have a new idea? 

HB: I think, more than anything, the story itself is what informs the medium. And often, I don’t know what medium it will be until I start exploring it. I think the real question becomes, “is this a story about people, an event or an experience?”

In Alligator, for example, I wanted a story that brought that live rawness and theatricality to an audience. I wanted it to be an experience in the same way that going to live rock show would be. It wouldn’t have the same power as a TV show or movie.

I have two TV shows in development, and what’s really at the heart of each is the evolution of characters over a period of time. We see the world through their eyes, we grow and change with them. That’s what made Breaking Bad so incredible – we watched a man go from one of us to a monster. My show, The Americans, is really about the evolution of a marriage. Those stories wouldn’t have the same power as plays or movies, because we need a lot of time and space to live with these people.

Features tend to be about a very specific event in time and space, and once that central conflict is resolved, there isn’t anywhere to go. It’s why Twin Peaks only worked for one season.

WBW: You have a fondness for horses. Tell me more about that connection, and what you’ve learned from working with horses.

HB: God, I love horses. Horses are my first love, my first passion, my closest friends growing up. The first time I rode, I was three and I was hooked. Besides writing, the only other place in the world I’ve ever felt complete freedom is on the back of a horse. They’re these incredibly sensitive and intuitive animals who have taught me so much about patience and gentleness. They’re big and strong and that can be incredibly intimidating, but they have no concept of their size or strength, and the best way to get them to listen isn’t to scare or overpower them, it’s to be soft and calm, let them come to you. I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for life and art in general.

WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

HB: My papá always said “This too shall pass.” It reminds me to experience the moment, the good and the bad, gratitude and survival.

And my dear friend and mentor, Meir Ribalow, who passed away some years ago, always said “To live is to constantly reconsider.” It’s written on my kitchen wall at home, and a constant reminder to never be so stuck in my thinking and behavior (as a writer and a human) that I can’t evolve.

Alligator runs through December 18th at The Jeffrey & Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, NYC). For tickets and information, visit New Georges website.

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