Halley Feiffer: Writing New Roles One Play at a Time

[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, March 23, 2019.]

Halley Feiffer [photo Zach DeZon]

Halley Feiffer. Photo: Zach DeZon.

Playwright-actor Halley Feiffer is currently shouldering both of her hyphenated roles in The Pain of My Belligerence, a world premiere running at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, directed by her longtime collaborator Trip Cullman, through May 12. Plus she has another play, Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, slated for an Off-Broadway run via MCC Theater. Feiffer and I spoke by phone between rehearsals and rewriting sessions.

Feiffer is the offspring of two creative personalities: her father is legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer; her mother, actor-writer Jenny Allen, is currently appearing in Deb Margolin’s play Imagining Madoff (reviewed by CFR here). In childhood, Feiffer told me that she aimed for writing children’s books — that idea came before acting camp, she says, and drinking and recovery. Based on the plays she writes, perhaps it’s best to call her a literary social worker who acts.

Playwrights Horizons’ description for The Pain of My Belligerence offers a sense of her style:

Twenty-something and brilliant, Cat is a journalist at the top of her game: tack-sharp and ambitious, and rapidly establishing her place in the field. Until she meets Guy — magnetic, devilishly charming, and married — and the attrition begins. Charting their spiky relationship over eight years, following a rapidly changing America, Halley Feiffer’s harrowing comedy sheds light on how we perpetuate our roles within a patriarchal culture, and the promise of a new paradigm.

The following is a condensed, lightly edited version of our conversation.

Martha Steketee: Do you have a professional statement or vision? How do you think about what you do?

Halley Feiffer: I try to take moments, events or feelings from my personal life that I find humiliating, infuriating or devastating, and spin them out, times 10,000 — and explore them in a hyperbolic, fictional form to free myself from patterns that can hold me back.

MS: Where did you grow up and where do you live now? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

HF: I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on 75th and West End Avenue. Now I live in Park Slope. This is gonna sound odd: I do think my favorite place is on my living room floor. I have a yoga mat on which I almost never do yoga, but I spend about 45 minutes every morning reading spiritual books there and meditating. It’s my favorite part of the day. I truly couldn’t do anything without that practice. It’s what grounds me, what opens me up to be a creative person…

MS: In The Pain of My Belligerence, you act in your own play. You also act in other people’s plays and movies. Talk about balancing these roles.

HF: I acted in a film I wrote in 2013 and in a Web series that I wrote in 2015. It’s different acting in a play you’ve written because you can’t stop and start; you can’t watch playback. I find it much more challenging because you have to juggle so many balls in your mind at the same time. You have to be present in the scene while also noting things that you want to change in the script, things you want to change about your performance, notes you want to give to the director about the other actors, notes about the design. I’m a very hands-on kind of playwright, have opinions, and tend to be vocal. I have a specific vision. I’m often wrong, which I love. That’s why I love working with Trip Cullman, my director. This is our seventh show together. He’s directing Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, and we’re collaborating on a Broadway musical together, too.

This is a lot to keep in my head, and I’m grateful for these very generous and patient and understanding collaborators.

MS: They get an enhanced package.

HF: You could see it that way or you could see it as a compromised package. I’m arguably not as present in a scene as someone not thinking about rewrites or notes for other collaborators. I try to be aware of that and to wear just one hat at once, but sometimes that feels impossible, if not the wrong choice.

MS: Are you a writer who acts or an actor who discovered that she writes?  

HF: I think about myself as a writer and actor. I do a lot more writing than acting because that’s what I’m more passionate about. Writing is what thrills me, what gets me up in the morning, what I go to sleep thinking about, what I wake up thrilled to embark upon. I can feel that way with acting if I love the writing.

Getting to act in something that I’ve written is a marriage of two of my three favorite things — the other is eating. I don’t have a strategy for my career. I try to do whatever seems to be the next right thing, do what’s in front of me and what excites me the most, and trust that it’s all gonna work out for the best.

[continued]



Categories: features + interviews

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