A Conversation with A FUNNY THING… Playwright Halley Feiffer

October 3rd, 2017 / Posted in 2017-2018 Season, CitySpeaks, Funny Thing

Halley Feiffer is a red-hot talent: she’s currently playing Karla in the Geffen’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…, and her newest play Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow received its critically acclaimed world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer. In the middle of all that, she and Director of New Play Development, Clare Drobot, caught up by phone to talk about the real world and comedic inspirations behind her unique blend of humor and pathos.


Playwright Halley Feiffer

Clare: What inspired the play? I know you have a personal connection to a family member with cancer.

Halley: The play is not inspired by true events. Nothing in the play ever happened. I wish I’d had a steamy sex scene in a bathroom. That has yet to happen to me, but it’s on the bucket list. Basically what happened was my mother, who is in wonderful health today, did have a hysterectomy to treat ovarian cancer a little over ten years ago. I was a college student at the time, and while I was in the hospital caring for her, I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to show up for my mother the way that I want to.” I was 20 years old, drinking really heavily, and just a profoundly selfish young person.

I remember looking at the curtain that separated her side of the room from her roommate’s and thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great if there were some cute family member of her roommate, say her son, who I could flirt with and that would help make all this pain and fear go away.” And then because I’m not a 100% sociopath, I realized it was a very fucked up thought. But I filed it away to write about, because I did think it was a funny premise for a play.

In a way, that situation perfectly captured what that experience is like; that you at once want to show up and be useful for your loved one and, because we’re human beings, we’re filled with selfishness – we also want to escape.

There’s a wonderful dichotomy that exists in the script between dark, edgy comedic moments and moments of deeply human connection. How do you explore the relationship between laughter and grief?

It’s really interesting as you get older and meet more people and have more in-depth conversations, you realize that your way of going through the world might not be the way that everyone does. I’ve always chosen humor to cope with anything really. It just comes naturally to me; both my parents are incredibly funny people. That’s how I was raised and it’s in my blood. So I’ve found myself making jokes at the most inappropriate moments. I’ve also found it rather pleasantly surprising how healing it can be – and how responsive others may be to it too, in ways that you might not expect. Even in the most painful of circumstances, it really is, in my experience, the most effective tool to move through with compassion and lightness.

How did your parents influence your sense of humor? Do you have any favorite comics or things that shaped what you find funny?

Oooh I love that question. No one’s asked me that about this at all. Well, someone did just ask me if I have done stand-up comedy and the answer is heck no! My mom actually is a stand-up comedian and a solo performer. I was really inspired by watching her perform and seeing her just kill as a result of being 100% honest. She’s also a humor writer and that’s what she does in her humor pieces. She talks very honestly about her own struggles in life whether profound or something a little more trivial, like what to buy at the grocery store. I always find that kind of humor not only funny, but cathartic, because that’s how we identify with other people. I also love Louis C.K., for instance, because he’s so honest. It makes you feel less alone because you’re like, “Oh my god! I had that same profoundly uncomfortable thought the other day and I thought it meant that I was a serial killer, but I guess I’m not because I really like you, and you had it too apparently.”

I didn’t really get into comedy until—and I still don’t know that much about it— until I was older, but some of my favorite playwrights are really the funniest ones. The plays that shaped my life were things like the early plays of Chris Durang. A play that really changed my life is Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. I really don’t think I would be a playwright if it weren’t for that play. I read it and thought “Oh my god this is maybe the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever read, but it is inherently funny and there’s a talking fish.” But it’s also plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night to be totally honest – weirdly and surprisingly. There’s a lot of humor in that play which I think a lot of people don’t realize. I saw that play, a production starring Jessica Lange, with Trip Cullman—he directed the New York production of Funny Thing and he’s directing it right now in LA—and we were both cracking up at certain parts and like, “What are you laughing at?”  Both of us simultaneously independently were like “This is hilarious”. I think there’s a lot of humor to be mined in darkness and I love the writers who are warped and brave enough to explore that.

Playwright Halley Feiffer with her parents Jules Feiffer and Jenny Allen.

You’re about to go out and perform in Funny Thing… out west, how does your work as an actress influence your writing or do you see them as wholly separate?

You know, this is a great question for me right now because I’ve never had this experience before where I’m acting in a play I’ve written. I acted in a movie I co-wrote years ago, but that felt really different for whatever reason. Film and plays they might as well be two completely different mediums. They’re so incredibly different.

I was telling someone the other day, that it feels like I am exploring a territory I have explored so much before, but I’ve always been in a helicopter flying over it and now someone dropped me out of a helicopter and they’re like “go check it out on foot!” I don’t need to—I’ve already been in a helicopter— but I guess I’ll try and then I’m like “What are all these plants doing? Like I had no idea this was here!”

It’s really exciting and it’s really scary and it’s hard because I want to rewrite a lot of it. In some ways, I can’t tell if I want to rewrite because it needs a rewrite or I want to rewrite it because I just need to do more work as an actor to make it make sense. Having that freedom is really scary, because I started off as an actor, so I’m used to just making a text work even if I wish I could rewrite it. There’s sort of a freedom in not having that freedom because you’re like “Alright, I don’t have a choice. I can’t rewrite it. I’ve got to make it work!”, but now I can do whatever I want. That’s terrifying and overwhelming but also a really beautiful challenge.

It’s hard when you’re on stage too. City produced Sharon Washington’s Feeding the Dragon last year. She starred in the play, which drew heavily from personal experience. She would have these moments of like “I have to stop being a playwright. I have to be an actress now. Because otherwise I’ll drive myself insane and start second guessing every choice I make.”

Right! That’s what I’ve realized. It’s also really interesting in terms of how I interact with the other actors. As a playwright, I’m pretty hands on; I really voice my opinion. I give a lot of notes through the director. Now I can’t do that just because it’s literally impossible since I can’t be on stage and give [director Trip Cullman] notes. It’s an amazing—not to get too heady about it—but it’s a really beautiful lesson in letting go. I can’t control everyone. Maybe that’s really good. Maybe everyone will actually do much better work if I’m not micromanaging everything. So I think that it’s a beautiful, challenging lesson for me that’s really timely at this point in my life, where I’m working on letting go in so many areas.

It sort of epitomizes the collaborative nature of theatre, but I’m also curious to know, what you think of the relationship between a playwright and an audience, especially if you’re not present for rehearsals or performances?

This is like a new thing for me. My plays only started getting produced in places where I am not in the last couple years. First of all, I’m just profoundly humbled that there’s a group of people watching something that I wrote when I’m not there. For whatever reason, that’s very moving to me. Because it shows me that this is way bigger than me and it’s not about me—which is very soothing. I guess I feel like I know as an audience member I have been profoundly moved and changed by art. So I try to view the plays I write as in service of that audience. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. I know that the play won’t serve anyone. There will be people who leave this play who feel changed by it and there are people who will wish that they’d spent the last 90 minutes doing something different; I’ve had both those experiences as an audience member. My plays tend to be pretty polarizing in that way and I’m sort of proud of that. So I guess I do it as just a way to be useful in the world and try to give people the kind of cathartic and hopefully eye-opening experience that I have had myself.

One of the things I love about this script is that Karla is this incredibly strong female character. I’m just curious to know, in mentioning that your plays can be polarizing and placing them in the context of an industry that still hasn’t reached anything close to gender parity, what inspires you to write strong female characters? Is it something you consider within the lens of the industry?

I never set out to write a strong female character. I’m always somewhat surprised when people mention that and then I realize that’s true. I guess that’s really accurate, but it’s never my intention because I just write what I know and I’m a woman so I write about being the kind of woman that I am in many ways. That’s just my experience. I have found that people often tend to have strong reactions to the female characters in my plays and that makes me happy and sad at once. This is just how women are in many ways. I think in our society and especially in pop culture and art, we tend to be sort of neutered versions of women, but those aren’t the women I know or the women who I care to hang out with to be 100% honest. So I’m writing women as I know them and as I find them to be interesting.

One last question, we’ve been working very hard as a staff to make sure that we’ve memorized the title properly and can repeat it at will. How do you come up with your titles?

It’s really different for each script. [For] my play I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, I wrote the whole play and then I looked at that line. Often, I’ll go through the text and I’ll try to find a line that I really like and I’ll make that the title. That’s one trick that I’ll share with everyone that tends to work well, I think. Everyone comments that my titles are long. I guess that’s true. I guess I just feel like as an audience member I kind of want to have an idea of what I’m watching.


You can see Halley’s unique blend of humor and pathos on City Theatre’s Main Stage in A Funny Thing Happened… through Oct. 15th. Get your tickets here!