July 6, 2016

A Conversation With Beth Henley

Interview by Fred Puza ’10
Photo by Jon Rou

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Beth Henley is President’s Professor in Theatre Arts in the College of Communication and Fine Arts. Born in Jackson, Miss., she is a prolific writer of plays and screenplays for television and film. Her play “Crimes of the Heart” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981 and was named Best American Play of 1981 by the New York Drama Critics Circle. She wrote the screenplay for the film version of the work. This past spring, Henley took a group of students to New York to work on the Broadway production of her play “Family Week,” which was directed by Jonathan Demme. She was interviewed by Fred Puza ’10.

What’s L.A.’s relationship to Broadway? Is it a testing ground or something more?
Often, it seems, plays from Broadway come here. They’re always bringing plays from New York out here and sometimes vice versa. I know a lot of plays from South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., have gone on to New York, as well as to the Mark Taper Forum. I love South Coast’s work. They do a lot of new plays. They’re very dedicated to young playwrights, as well as old playwrights.

L.A. seems completely film- and TV-driven. As a playwright, do you feel neglected in this town?
Well, it’s not a great theater town, but there are some really great theaters. There is some beautiful work if you keep your eyes open. Many people who are pretty brilliant come through here. I like the Odyssey Theatre, the Geffen Play-house and the Mark Taper Forum.

The audience for theater often seems small. Are you worried its audience will shrink even further?
That’s not something I worry about. I worry about a lot of things, but for some reason I don’t really worry about that. I’m happy to do a play in a tiny space with just 40 people. That’s the magic of theater that is so beautiful to me. I worry about finding the best people to work with, finding the best place to work and hoping that everything synchronizes. It’s always kind of a miracle when it does.

Does winning awards make playwriting any easier?
Yes. You feel kind of embarrassed, but awards do help solidify your reputation. It makes people think, “This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so how bad could it be?” or “How bad could she really be?” These awards help. People like to be noticed and appreciated. In that sense, yes.

You’ve taught at LMU for five years. Does teaching shape your writing?
Next semester is going to be very exciting because I’m writing a new play, and I’m going to work on it with Ron Marasco, who is a professor of theatre arts at LMU. He’s directing it. We’re going to use students to help me figure out the new play. It’s the first time I’ve done this at LMU. It’s kind of a slapstick piece. The students will help me change things, to see what works and doesn’t work, what’s too much and what’s too little.

Do you worry that the popularity of film and TV will siphon off talented writers who could be shaping American theater?
Absolutely. I am really concerned about that. The wonderful thing about television now is the writer’s voice. There are many television shows that have distinct voices. There are writer-producers. What disturbs me about television and movies is that [writers can] lose their own voices because there are too many decisions by committee or for different reasons: The producers want this, the stars want this, the cameraman needs that. The vision of the piece can get lost.

Is there a play by someone else that you wish you’d written?