BWW Interview: Playwright/Actress Halley Feiffer on Her Long Titles, Collaborations, & Growing Up Funny
Playwright/actress Halley Feiffer's no stranger to the stage with her latest A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT SLOAN-KETTERING MEMORIAL CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY already in previews this first week of September at The Geffen Playhouse. A FUNNY THING..., however, will mark Halley's first time performing in her own work, after her self-described, humbling acting role as Peggy Grant in the theatre legends-studded THE FRONT PAGE earlier this year on Broadway.
We managed to wrestle a few answers out of Halley amidst her rehearsals as Karla, a young comedienne attending to her cancer-stricken mom in the gynecologic oncology unit at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Halley!
Thank you for having me!
Your title, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT SLOAN-KETTERING MEMORIAL CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY, must fill up a theatre marquee with no space left for credits. How did you decide on your title of this play?
I try to convey the tone of my play effectively with every title. This moniker felt apt because the play is about a stand-up comedian (hence the A FUNNY THING HAPPENED part) who finds herself in a situation in which she is utterly at sea: the oncology unit at a hospital (hence the rest of the title). I hope the title captures the playfulness as well as the emotional bottom of the play.
What were the shorter options?
It used to be called A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE CHEMO WARD and then, honestly, I did not feel that was long enough. I felt if you are going to go long, go really long. So I kept making it longer.
Trip Cullman has directed your plays before. Is this Geffen production the first time Trip is directing you as an actress?
No, he directed me in THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE at Second Stage a few years ago. I love working with him as an actor, and I hope to do it more and more. He is incredible with actors. An "actor whisperer," if you will.
Who would have the final say in a rehearsal: playwright Halley over director Trip? Or director Trip over actress Halley? Do you compartmentalize your two job descriptions?
It's not a competition - we are a very well-suited collaborative team and we try to provide a united front for the rest of the team in every production on which we embark. We love working with each other, and that includes arguing about choices - and then always finding a solution that feels like the best of both worlds - to both of us. I believe working with him makes me a better artist and makes the play better, too.
Would you say that your character Karla has similar qualities to yourself?
Absolutely. Every character I write has similar qualities to me, otherwise I don't feel I would be able to capture them successfully. I have to approach each character from the inside out: I want them all to feel deeply human, so I need to be able to identify with specific pieces of their humanity. So there is a lot of me in Don, the male lead in this play, as well as Marcie, Karla's mother; and even Geena, Don's mother, who barely speaks in the play, but plays a very significant role in the story.
As the playwright, do you have a voice in casting the various premieres of your work?
I do in world premieres. In every playwright's contract for a world premiere, it states that the playwright has final decision over all director, casting and designer decisions. I play a very active role in all these choices because every single decision makes up a crucial piece of the puzzle that will ultimately, hopefully be a fulfilling and seamless (or as close thereof as possible!) evening. For regional productions, it varies contractually. Often the creative team includes me and asks for my thoughts, which I really appreciate. Making these kinds of choices is a very fun (and, of course, integral) part of the collaborative process.
In casting the MCC production of A FUNNY THING... last June 2016 and the Chicago premiere opening this month, were you looking for a "Halley Feiffer-type" in casting Beth Behrs and Mary Williamson, respectively, as Karla?
I never look for anything other than the person who is most right for the role. I have not seen Mary's work though I have heard she is brilliant. We chose Beth to play Karla Off-Broadway because she was perfect for the part. She is funny, endearing and ferociously brave, with a true grasp of humanity. I loved watching her work and learned so much from her.
Since playwright Halley created the character Karla, how is it for actress Halley to see other actresses play Karla before you yourself take her on?
I love watching actors make my characters come to life. I can't really imagine anything more thrilling. They open up the story in ways I never could have expected, and always make the play much, much better.
Earlier this year, you finished out a successful run acting in THE FRONT PAGE on Broadway. Can you share some acting tips you received from that incredible cast and/or some wonderful moments from that production?
It was beyond humbling to get to be onstage with that caliber of talent. I think the most impactful thing I learned was that hard work really pays off. Watching someone like Nathan Lane - a legend, truly- work and re-work, and continually investigate moments in the play, toying with them and continually adjusting in an effort to find the best possible choice; it blew me away. The work never stops in this art form. Or at least, it doesn't have to. And the harder you work and the more dedicated you are, the more successful you tend to be in whatever aim you are pursuing. That fact is at once very exciting, scary and satisfying to me.
What prompted you to act in your own play?
It was an idea I have been contemplating for a few years, but, quite frankly, it always terrified me too much. In the last year, I developed a bit of an attitude of: "F*ck it, why not?" The political events in our country really inspired me, to be honest. I realized, what am I waiting for? Why don't I just try this? The worst thing that happens is I fail, and is that really so bad? And the best thing that happens is I stretch myself in ways I never have before, and grow in ways I didn't know were possible. I feel more fearless than I ever have in my life, and I want to keep leaning into what scares me in order to continuously expand.
Growing up in a household with a comedian mom and a satirist dad, were you naturally funny?
Yes, can't you tell by how funny this interview is? Just kidding. I think these answers are the least funny things I have ever said. Sorry about that. I would like to be more funny in this interview, but I am very tired from rehearsing my play. This answer was a little funny, right? I will take a nap now. Goodbye.
At what age did you realize the significance of your father winning a Pulitzer Prize? You were only two when he won it.
Okay, now I'm back from my nap! Where were we?
What is next for playwright Halley?
I'm in a very abundant stage of my career right now and I feel very grateful. I am working on rewrites on two commissions - one for the Atlantic, one for Playwrights Horizons - and starting two new commissions for MTC. And Trip and I just premiered a new play at the Williamstown Theater Festival called MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW for which we are in the process of finding a New York home.
I also make most of my living as a TV writer, a medium which I love deeply. I am currently writing a pilot for TNT that I am really excited about, and also in the process of developing a show I would also act in with a producer I adore. I also wrote on Mozart in the Jungle next season, so am excited to see how that turns out!
And for actress Halley?
Nothing concrete at the moment, though I really want to keep acting in my own work. Now that I've done it and have seen that it's not only not as scary nor hard as I thought it would be, but also that it's actually profoundly satisfying creatively and I want to never stop.
What audience reactions to your previous productions of A FUNNY THING... took you by surprise?
I really don't pay much attention to audience reactions and I wouldn't want another playwright to pay much attention to my reactions. I would just want her to be as truthful as she can be in her work, which is what I strive to do.
Any lessons or feelings you would like the Geffen audience to leave with after your curtain call?
Oh, I do not feel I am in a position to teach anyone lessons! I just hope I can give at least a few people the kind of experience in the theater that motivates me to keep buying tickets to plays - a few minutes in a dark room that leave me just a bit changed when I leave.
Thank you again, Halley! I look forward to visiting you in your gynecologic oncology unit at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center.
For schedule and ticket availability through October 8, 2017, log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org