Expressing "The Misery and Confusion Truthfully": An Interview with Beth Henley

By Bryer, Jackson R. | American Drama, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Expressing "The Misery and Confusion Truthfully": An Interview with Beth Henley


Bryer, Jackson R., American Drama


Beth Henley's first professionally produced play, Crimes of the Heart, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1981 after a successful New York production (prior to New York, it had been done in Louisville, Baltimore, and St. Louis in 1979 and 1980). Her first produced play, Am I Blue (1974), was written while she was an undergraduate student at Southern Methodist University. Her works for the stage since Crimes of the Heart include The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980), The Wake of Jamey Foster (1981), The Debutante Ball (1985), The Lucky Spot (1987), Abundance (1989), Signature (1990), Control Freaks (1992), Revelers (1994), L-Play (1995), Impossible Marriage (1998), Sisters of the Winter Madrigal (2001), and Exposed (2002). This interview was conducted on September 30, 2002, in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland; the audience was composed of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members. For significant assistance in preparing the transcription of the interview, I wish to thank Carolyn Bain.

JACKSON BRYER: Can you start by telling us about your first exposure to the theatre? As I recall, you became interested in theatre through your mother, who was an actress. Talk a little bit about your early interest in theatre and also about your time as a student of theatre.

BETH HENLEY: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, really in suburbia, so my mother was in community theatre plays. They were so magical for me, and one of the most exciting experiences was to go in and see little houses that were built for people to act in and then were torn down. I would also help her with her lines. I remember when she got to play Blanche DuBois and I got to hear those words over and over again when she was trying to learn her lines. Also, I liked to help her edit things. If she was doing a reading for a club or something, we'd have to make Blanche's speeches longer and cut out Stanley's--so I got into editing. Then, when I was a senior in high school, I was kind of bereft and she put me in an acting class. What I loved about the acting class was that you got to think all day long about a person that wasn't you, and figure out why they were sad and what they wanted, what they dreamed. I just loved being divorced from my own wretchedness. Then I went off to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. They had a really wonderful theatre department. I regret that I was so not grateful at the time to my professors. We're sort of innocently arrogant about just being young. The class I liked the best, that I think helped me the most, was my movement class because when I got out of high school, I was very hunched over. In movement class, you had to lie on the floor and get your alignment in to pass the class. You had to stand on your head for, I think, three minutes. That transformed me in a way that's hard to speak about. I also took Stage Combat, and I took a wonderful class in Theatre Styles where you'd do the Greeks and make your own mask. I remember sitting there with a death mask over me with straws coming out of my nose. I had a really good Theatre History class that, at the time, was excruciating. It was at nine in the morning, and I would sometimes go in jeans and my bedroom slippers. But actually that's kind of the way I learned about history. The only foothold I have in world history is through theatre history.

JB: All this time, you were doing this in order to become an actress?

HENLEY: Yes. I was sort of in the acting program. How I got in the acting program is a miracle. Oh, I know how I got in. Anyone could get in! You had to do a general audition for the school when you got in, and I chose to do, brilliantly I think, Willie from This Property is Condemned. And then I did Macbeth in Macbeth, which was the only Shakespeare I knew. Somehow, I was in the acting department.

JB: But it sounds like when you talk about your experience with your mother that, even if you weren't conscious of it, you were paying pretty close attention to the words. …

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