Beth Henley was depressed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had reached that point in her life we all eventually come to, where we try to figure out the meaning of life and what the hell we're doing on this planet, anyway. Henley and a friend had been having dinner at a restaurant on Melrose, and as they left, they met a graphologist who had set up a table on the street. "I've never seen one before or since," Henley said, which gives her story bit of a spiritual twist, considering what happened next and where it led her.
"He said he'd read our handwriting and that he could tell everything about us from two sentences. So my friend wrote down two sentences, and the graphologist said he was kind and brilliant and glorious and triumphant. And then I did mine, and he said I was measly and talentless and a coward, and that I would come to no good. I was devastated. I just suddenly believed him, totally—and I paid him $10 or $20 to boot!"
That was roughly 10 years ago. So while Henley was struggling with a haunting need to understand the meaning of life—"What is my existence about? Why am I here? What's my signature? What's anyone's signature?"—she responded to this humiliating experience by doing what she does best. She picked up a pen and started writing a play.
"I got kind of obsessed, and I actually went home and tried to change my handwriting," she said chuckling during a recent telephone interview. "I have really bad handwriting—I always write like a little ugly pig or duckling or something. So I started trying to write better, and it was impossible. I even got books on graphology, and how you were supposed to write to be brilliant, and how the letters were supposed to go. I just thought that was a good metaphor, or image, for the other problems I was concerned with, such as why I'm alive—which I didn't discover in writing the play, by the way. But I explored a lot about love and art and career and family."
The play was Signature, a high-tech, sci-fi, bizarrely futuristic look at Hollywood, where marriage is a career choice and everyone is desperate to make his or her mark on an indifferent world. Signature had its world premiere in 1995 at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre in North Carolina, which was followed by the Northeast premiere at the Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J. A New York Times review of that production raved, "...Beth Henley resounds once more. The Mississippi-born playwright's ever-zany wayward and poetic style, which has been associated with eccentricities of a particularly Southern kind, zooms in on a futuristic Hollywood. Ms. Henley is on a word high. Those words dizzyingly play, collide, enlighten, ceaselessly question, and even give answers with wit and without avoidance."
When asked how long it took her to write Signature, Henley laughed and quipped, "Until now. I'm still working on it." And indeed she is. At long last, Signature is receiving its West Coast premiere, and Henley has been busy honing the script to "make things better in little ways." Signature is being produced by Naked Angels Theatre Company on the main stage of Actors' Gang in Hollywood, Oct. 7-29.
"I always dreamed of doing Signature in L.A.; I just think this is the perfect town for it," Henley explained. "It's sort of an ode to the town. I was fascinated that Los Angeles is really about people who have come out here to make a signature, to make a mark, to not live and have a family and do a job and die in the place where they were born. Everything seems so new and dangerous, and there's the gold rush, and it's not all set, and I like that notion for the play—that all these people are just on the edge and don't really know how to behave at all."
Henley has been actively involved in the process from the start, including casting. "Casting was crucial. I was obsessive about it. I really wanted this production to have an interracial cast, because that's so much L.A. and the future, and it just kind of gives it this universal feeling, like the whole world is here. It's not an easy play to do; it takes some incredible technical skill, and also just some soulful depth that's unfathomable and most actors just don't have.
"I also had all of these insane ideas that had to be curbed. At one point, I wanted to cast one of the characters as a transsexual. I was seeing people in drag and going to look at paraplegics who could dance on skateboards, but I think we've come up with a really good cast. And I just love what they're doing with it. It surprises me all over the place. It's better than what I envisioned."
Growing Up in the Heart Land
Henley made her first big mark on the world two decades ago, when her first full-length play, Crimes of the Heart, landed her the Pulitzer Prize. Until then, she had written only a one-act, called Am I Blue, for a playwriting class at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Tex. But the stage was in her blood. Her mother was an actress, who regularly took her daughter to the theatre. "It was just such a magical place, to go into the dark and watch people pretend to be other people and wear costumes. It was so different from going to school, and from the tedium of life," she recalled.
She finally migrated to Los Angeles, where she tried, without luck, to sell a screenplay she'd written. Since no one would look at it, she decided to write a play instead because it would be cheaper to produce. Henley was 26 when she wrote the first draft of Crimes of the Heart, and when it was finished, her friend, director and playwright Frederick Bailey, submitted it to the Actors Theatre of Louisville's playwriting contest. It tied for first place. A professional production there led to stagings at other regional theatres. Eventually, Crimes ended up Off-Broadway, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. A Broadway move was pending when she picked up the phone one day, expecting it to be her agent, and instead found herself on the line with an Associated Press reporter asking how she felt to have just won the Pulitzer.
"I was just in shock. I didn't even know I was nominated! Actually, it was the first year that Off-Broadway plays were eligible," she recalled. "So I called up some friends and went out to a restaurant and ate this Brazilian feast in the afternoon and got totally drunk, and then had people come over and drink and eat pizza. We didn't know what to do!
"It probably had a bigger impact than I was able to perceive at the time," she continued. "It was intimidating and it was scary, but it was, in the end, really fun to have all this acclaim when you're really so young and so stupid, and you can just love getting a limousine and driving around with the top down and screaming, and all your friends are poor and you go pick them up. I really am grateful that I got to be successful when I had the strength to endure the parties!
"But the best thing about winning the Pulitzer Prize is that I've been able to live my life as a writer, and I get to work with artists. I can't imagine a more profound blessing. I just live this sort of dream life that I always wanted."
Producing as Mighty as the Pen
Part of that dream life, and working with artists, now includes wearing a producer's hat. Henley is part of the Loretta Theatre, a fledgling production company whose inaugural show, Colleen Dodson-Baker's Detachments, starring Glenne Headly and Laraine Newman, is now running at the Tiffany Theatre.
"One thing I love about Detachments," enthused Henley, "is that it's boldly theatrical. I mean, you could not do this as a movie or a book; it has to be a piece of theatre. And I'm really interested in doing theatre that is theatre. Detachments is very beautifully choreographed, it never stops moving, and there's a real theatrical sparseness to it, where you use your imagination, and you're listening to the language, and the emotions are moving you. It's got a wit to it, but in the end it's got a lot of heart."
Henley had worked with Headly back in Chicago in 1980, when the famed Steppenwolf Theatre produced Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest. Headly co-starred as Popeye, a typically quirky Henley character who makes a patriotic contest costume for a social outcast.
"I worship at the altar of Glenne Headly," Henley admitted. "She's so magnificent onstage. You get to see her calibrate her own performance, which you don't get to see in film. You see the choices she's making right before your eyes. It's astonishing."
Newman, of whom Henley had been a fan since her Saturday Night Live days, happened to live around the corner from her. A friendship was forged when the women discovered they both had little children. When Dodson, who was also a fan of Newman, asked Henley to give Newman a script and ask about doing the show, Henley happily obliged. And Newman came on board.
It's certainly been an interesting journey for a woman who was told 10 years ago that she was measly, talentless, and a coward. She could have accepted that declaration and lived under its shadow forever, but instead, Beth Henley is standing tall, demonstrating her enormous talent, and bravely trying new things.
In other words, she's leaving her signature on the world—especially in Los Angeles. BSW