Calling a Line Crooked: An Interview with playwright Leslye Headland - Part One
Leslye Headland, author of Assistance, spoke with Wilma Theater Literary/Artistic Assistant William Steinberger on Tuesday morning, October 23rd in a cab on her way to a rehearsal.
William Steinberger: What are you in rehearsal for?
Leslye Headland: I’m rehearsing a ten minute play that a friend of mine wrote, a younger playwright that I am in love with – creatively, not romantically. She got into the Sam French Off-Off-Broadway Festival, which is this week, so we’re just sort of in our last throes of trying to get everything to work and all of that – but it’s great. It’s really nice to be directing again, and it’s nice to be directing something that’s not mine, which is really always informative and cool.
Will: You’re a former assistant to producer Harvey Weinstein and I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your decision to leave your day job and focus on your writing.
Headland: I had been working at Miramax and the Weinstein Company for almost five years. I only worked for Harvey for the last year of that. I didn’t leave because of him, but because I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I had been stuck in an entry-level job for a really long time. And I noticed that a lot of people my age were in a similar situation. They weren’t being mentored, it was just sort of doing people’s dirty work for them, and I thought, why do we keep doing this? Why are we still in this position? And when I worked for Harvey directly, I actually did get somebody who was definitely challenging to work for, but somebody who actually encouraged me. He said, ‘Aren’t you a writer? Why are you still here?’ And he actually read through some of my work and really challenged me to leave in a lot of ways, and say, ‘You know, you could stay and become a producer, and I can teach you how to do that, but you’re a good writer, and if you want to be a writer, you have to go and do it – you have to actually write. You can’t hang out at my desk and write in secret.’ So that’s what the experience of working there and then leaving was like.
Will: You moved from New York to LA in order to get your plays produced, which at first might seem almost counter-intuitive. What about LA helped you blossom as an artist?
Headland: I went to NYU and had seen a lot of my fellow classmates start not-for-profit theater companies, people losing money and not getting praised on a larger level. I thought that if I moved to Los Angeles the black boxes would cost less money, just real estate-wise. We could afford longer runs; we wouldn’t have to only do a weekend or two weekends, but could actually do four to six week runs, which is what you need in order to get reviewers and other publicity.
But there was also the idea of being a big fish in a little pond. It’s not a huge independent theater community in LA. There are a lot of great theaters there, but a lot of them are at the professional Equity level. If you’re doing independent theater in LA, you’re not really competing with new playwrights, you’re competing with revivals. So to be a young playwright who was trying out her work, it seemed a great place to fail magnificently and learn a lot, and at the same time, really get some good feedback from people who weren’t necessarily theater people.
When I first started out writing, I always said I write plays for people who hate plays. I wanted to write for an audience that wasn’t necessarily a theater-going audience. I felt like the atmosphere in LA afforded me the opportunity to continue writing and to do that without a lot of undue pressure or competition. It was just a nice place and a lot of my friends from NYU had relocated there. And the IAMA Theater Company, which has produced the world premieres of all Seven Deadly plays, took a lot of chances that I think other theaters probably wouldn’t have taken, just because they were so desperate to create the kind of theater community that they had been raised in New York with.
Will: You mentioned your Seven Deadly Sins series, of which Assistance, subtitled “Greed,” is part. What led you to apply the moral lens of the Seven Deadly Sins to your writing, largely about your generation?
Headland: I’ve always been very interested in the Seven Deadly Sins. Being brought up Catholic and raised Christian, C. S. Lewis was a big influence of mine – The Chronicles of Narnia when I was really young, and then as I got older, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters – I just loved the idea of using allegory to explore morality. It interested me to write characters that were living in a society where everyone continues to tell you that morality is relative, and that you can continue to believe whatever you want to believe, but at the same time what I’ve found having my plays produced is that you get feedback of, ‘These characters aren’t likeable. What they’re doing is not okay.’ And I think that’s sort of the whole point of it, to say, ‘Well, if morality is relative, then why are you reacting this way to these characters?’
What I wanted to do with each play was pervert a sin and look at it through a different lens: can I create a character that on the outside would not appear to be suffering from this sin, but actually is? In Bachelorette, for example, the classic idea of gluttony is the Becky character. It’s the person that you see on the street and you think ‘Oh, that person probably eats too much.’ What you don’t realize is that when you see a character like Regan who is thin and has everything going for her you would never think of her as a gluttonous person, and yet my idea was that maybe she is.
The classic idea of Greed is, ‘I’ve got money and I need more money,’ of course. And in Assistance you’ve got the Daniel character, who represents the old idea of greed, and then these younger characters that don’t have any money to speak of, but they keep coming back for more. There’s a carrot hanging out in front of them that they can’t quite see, and they get just enough encouragement or just enough reason to stay and then they do. There’s this promise of something better, there’s this promise of success out there, and they feel like if there’s enough time logged that they’re entitled to it in some way.
The age group that the play deals with is a generation of people that aren’t necessarily learning a craft. They might get degrees in things like English or Business, or for me, Drama, and then they enter the workforce and enter it underneath this other generation, this great generation that made its own money, that built up this country and all of that. It’s basically, you go in, you start working for somebody else, and hopefully you learn some stuff from that. But a lot of times, like I said, you’re not in a mentorship, you’re not in an apprenticeship, you’re essentially facilitating something for someone else, and that’s where I think the greed comes from. That’s why I didn’t want to write about Goldman Sachs or the One Percent. To me, that’s where it begins; it begins with having a nebulous idea of what you want, and then just really settling and grabbing for whatever you can get.
Will: The names of the two main characters, Nick and Nora, recall The Thin Man. What led you to name your leads after these two?
Headland: I usually start with character names, and Nora was no different. I called her Nora because I knew she would leave at some point, recalling Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. As I started writing Nick’s character, he actually had a different name initially. When their dialogue started to sprout up, and it was definitely this sort of His Girl Friday back and forth, I decided to name him Nick. It’s a film that I love, it’s a book that I love, as well, and it’s a relationship that I love. I love the idea of a partner in crime. It’s a romantic relationship in The Thin Man; they’re married, but there’s a camaraderie and a partnership there that’s even deeper than romance. And I think that’s the point. A lot of people get tripped up on it and say ‘Well, you know, they’re not solving a crime, why did you name them that?’ I think my reasoning behind it was that they should be a couple but they’re not. They should be partners, but they’re not. They have this wedge between them of this invisible boss. And, obviously, their own defects as people are keeping them from fulfilling their destiny to be together.