Interview with Beth Henley

Studio is premiering Beth Henley’s latest play, Laugh. She took some time out of the beginning of rehearsals to talk with Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel about her inspiration, the joys and perils of writing slapstick (“the audience can always refuse your invitation to laugh”), and the kind of physical and emotional stamina all this comedy requires of its performers.

Can you talk a little about where Laugh came from?

It really came from a yearning for the light. My previous play, The Jacksonian, is dark and kind of violent. I had been living with that play, and reading the newspapers, and I thought, “I just want to laugh.” I wanted something that would make me feel good, that would make me laugh. Making people laugh is the most subversive thing to do at this point. For myself, there’s a lot in the world that I’m not able to fix. But I can make people laugh. I can give people the opportunity to laugh or not.

One thing that makes me happy is old movies, people sticking pies in each other’s faces. I just love the world of film, silent film, and of vaudeville. I started exploring the world without any language—just experimenting with how a moment could make you laugh. I was inspired by those performers, and particularly Roscoe Arbuckle—he was called Fatty Arbuckle—and Mabel Normand. So the names of the protagonists are an homage to them, to their skill and their spirit. I loved how Fatty Arbuckle fell. His falls made me laugh more than anyone else’s. And I love Mabel’s rebellious spirit, her zest for life. Both of them had a poignancy about their performances, and certainly in their lives, which also ended up coming into the play.

So I was watching these silent comedies—Hal Roach’s films, Mack Sennett’s films—and they just made me feel so good. Even the more romantic and dark pieces—The Outlaw and His Wife, Sunrise, Salome—were fascinating. I love the idea of telling stories about a world that is just beginning, that is forming its own rules. I love the chance to explore identity—how we identify ourselves and the different disguises we take on. I like transformation—how actors transform themselves. It’s theatrical, and there’s a kind of joy to seeing actors embody so many different kinds of people. So I imagined an ensemble of actors to tell this story, and I have two main characters who take on disguises themselves.

What about the style? What are the joys of writing slapstick?

Well, it scared me. I wanted it to be a slapstick, and I’ve never written a slapstick before.  It’s an invitation to make people laugh, but if they don’t then there’s pie on my face. I’ve never risked being so incredibly corny before. But it’s a chance to try to conjure the special magic of this kind of film. And it’s a chance to work closely with actors. It’s the kind of play that isn’t actor-proof, as some people say. It depends on the gifts of the actors, on their stamina—their physical, vocal, and emotional stamina.

Luckily for me, it’s a piece that’s only going to work with the right director, and I’ve had a chance to collaborate with David [Schweizer] and our composer Wayne [Barker] through two workshops now. Their instincts have been profoundly insightful—they can sense what’s too long, or too pushed; what I should refine. They understand the movement of the story and how to help make a theatrical container for it that’s going to help the audience. I’ve heard it out loud several times throughout the process—I have friends read for me in my living room, I had a chance to work with students at Loyola Marymount as I was still writing the play, and I dodged a lot of bullets as I was learning how to write this kind of piece. I also got to see students do a whole class experimenting with pies in the face, which seemed to me to be just so funny.

Laugh goes to some pretty dark places, and some pretty honest ones about how hard it can be to feel worthy of love.

Well, comedy has got to be based in tragedy. You’ve got to get your characters in trouble, and then get them in more trouble. I got them in so much trouble that I didn’t really know how to get them out—everyone will see when we get to the final scene. You just put obstacle after obstacle in front of them and just…see what they’ll do.

But yes, it is a play about love, and about understanding yourself: through extreme circumstances, through disguise and lying, some bad choices and some better ones. In the end, to be yourself, you have to practically die. But then there you are.

I write for the theatre because I believe in the communal experience—some of the audience may laugh or be delighted, some might not be moved at all, but it will have gotten them out of the house, in front of people and with other people. In front of actors who are trying with all of their heart to entertain, to express the despair and anguish of humanity, and to express the love. Because what if you can love? What if, even after you know all there is to know about yourself and someone else, what if you can love?