It’s summer at Vassar, and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater is an amazing venue that offers the opportunity for renowned playwrights to have readings of their works in development performed. Last year I had the opportunity to see a reading of Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda which has made its way to The Public Theatre and will be opening in January 2015. This year the Powerhouse was offering the opportunity to see a reading of Laugh by Beth Henley directed by David Schweizer with musical compositions and accompaniment by Wayne Barker.
I was particularly interested to see a work of Beth Henley’s in development, especially a new comedy. Henley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Crimes of the Heart (1981) for which she also wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay. Over the years her plays, screenplays and teleplays have evolved. Recently, I had seen her incredible The Jacksonian brilliantly acted by Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly and Juliet Brett at The New Group. Laugh promised to be another outstanding piece, if perhaps divergent from her previous works. I enjoyed the production and was able to ask Beth Henley some questions about Laugh via email after I returned to NYC.
How did you become involved with this project? What generated the ideas and propelled the plot direction of Laugh? Was it more genre-related: you wanted to do a slapstick/comedy/farce/satire? Or did something else or someone else inspire you?
After writing The Jacksonian, a play of mine that deals with murder, racism, and the devastation of a family, I was rattled and finding it hard to begin anything new.
Slowly, I realized that I wanted to laugh and see somebody fall, get a pie in the face or mud in the eye. I began watching the Keystone Cops and many early silent films.
Watching Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle and Mable Norman work together was wonderful. They made me laugh. They inspired me to write this play.
How did you decide upon a collaboration with David Schweizer? Had you worked with him before? Did you know Wayne Barker the composer? Did you or Schweizer invite him in early or late in the process?
I have known David Schweizer and been blown away by his work for many years. I saw a production he did at The Actor’s Gang of School For Scandal and was reminded of how gifted he was with style and comedy.
David and I did a workshop together at Theatre Works in Palo Alto. David brought the thrillingly gifted Wayne Barker into the mix. From the very first day Wayne’s playing lifted the play into another realm.
The production is currently in development. What is the next step for Laugh?
The next step will be a production at Second Stage in Washington D.C. next year. David, Wayne and I will all be involved.
In addition to plays you have also written screenplays. Do you have a preference?
I prefer writing for theatre rather than film because theatre is live. It is in three dimensions and people are breathing. Sound is real. The form is ancient.
David Henry Hwang suggested that beginning playwrights should be involved in a theater company when they are starting out. What suggestions might you give to an emerging playwright who is looking to break into theater, either regional or in NYC?
My advice for beginning playwrights is write, finish it, do a reading in your apartment with friends. Rewrite your play. Don’t send it out if there is one thing in it that you can make better. Work in a theatre doing anything you can. Much of learning about theatre is being there.