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Leading with Humor

An interview with “A Funny Thing Happened…” playwright and actor Halley Feiffer

“A Funny Thing Happened…” playwright and actor Halley Feiffer

Halley Feiffer seems intent on facing her fear as she tackles the lead role in her play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. I had the opportunity to chat with her about comedy, tragedy and, as in life, fluctuating between the two.

Before this, have you ever played a role in one of your own plays, and, after watching another actor take on this role, what is your experience stepping into the role of Karla? Do you find that there’s any push and pull between the actor and the playwright while you rehearse the role?

Halley Feiffer: I’ve never acted in one of my own plays before. I acted in a movie I co-wrote with a friend of mine years ago and that was really fun and exciting. But I never felt I could act in one of my plays. I had all these good “reasons” such as, I can’t do a good job as a playwright if I’m also an actor. You can only do one thing well at a time. I have undiagnosed ADD. But when this opportunity arose, I realized all these “reasons” were just excuses because I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of looking stupid, and I was afraid of what people would think. And for whatever reason, this year I suddenly became much more willing to walk through that fear. I’m really excited to do that. That said, I do feel that everything has worked exactly as it was supposed to. I’m really grateful I did not originate the role in New York. Beth Behrs, the actress who played the role in New York, was absolutely stunning. She did such a beautiful job and she created such a three-dimensional, moving portrait of this character and it’s something I don’t feel I can replicate, nor do I want to. So that’s my challenge here — finding Karla for myself, which should be easier than it is because I wrote her. But, in a way, that makes it harder because I have to view her from the inside out now in a way that’s different than when I’m writing. As the writer, I’m looking at the entire play as a whole and keeping all of the characters in mind as well as the general story. Acting the role, I have to focus on this one character and view her as if I didn’t write her — I think — sort of investigate it as if someone else wrote it, which is scary and hard but pretty exciting. I’m seeing it from a different angle — like the difference between flying over a piece of land in a helicopter and then exploring it on foot.

That’s a great metaphor.

HF: That’s what it really feels like. I feel like gosh, I’ve flown over this land so many times in a helicopter, how come I’ve never noticed these flowers? And how come I’ve never noticed that this plot of land needs to be weeded? So I’m already making a few changes to the text because I’m getting a new angle on it. Also, I wrote the play years ago so I have more insight into it and into the craft of writing as a whole.

The balance of what is true and what is funny in this play is balanced beautifully. Some consider laughter around the subject of death inappropriate but I think there’s nothing more inappropriate than death, so of course we’re going to have an inappropriate reaction to it.

HF: That’s so funny, I love that.

So when you began the process of writing this play, had you formulated what the emotional core was, or did you start from a place where you had a funny character in mind and came at it from a place of humor?

HF: Amazingly, when I sat down to write this play, I really thought of it as a comedy. And it was working with Trip [Cullman] that inspired me to dig deeper. This is why I love working with him — this is our fifth collaboration and he knows me really well and we trust each other. He kept suggesting that there was a deeper, darker story here that I was likely afraid of exploring, and he was right. So when I did a major rewrite of it, that’s when I really explored the darkness in the play. It used to be a lot fluffier and I was reluctant to dive deeper. I wanted it to be more of a simple rom-com. And the more honest I got with myself, the more I got to see that I was doing what the characters do, which was deflecting away from the painful truth and sort of dancing on the surface of it. So it was a sweet and fun and funny play but it wasn’t terribly wrenching or all that deep. With the guidance of Trip as a director and dramaturg, we got to the core of these characters and — I hope — in doing so, made it simultaneously funnier and more heartfelt.

I’ve had numerous people ask me this — do you have a background in stand-up comedy?

HF: Oh! No! Not at all. No. I always wanted to and I was afraid to. And now I don’t regret that because I feel like I can only do a couple things well at once and I’m kind of at capacity. But I think this is my way of experimenting with it while not having to actually go do it.

You act and write in numerous mediums. What are some of the things that you’re drawn to in each medium?

HF: I really like this question. I think a lot about television because I make my living mostly as a television writer now. It’s hard, if not impossible, to make a living exclusively as a playwright. I started off in theater and it really is my heart and the love of my life. For me, and I think a lot of people, it is a spiritual experience. I have a friend who says, “the theater is my church,” and I know what she means and I feel similarly. It feels really spiritual because it’s a group of people who are all setting the intention to be present and focus on a living, breathing, changing experience at the same time. I don’t know if I ever feel more present than when I’m in a theater watching a play — either as a writer or an audience member — or acting in a play. You’re forced to be utterly present and available and to surrender. You’re powerless over almost all of it and the key — and the paradox — is that the more you surrender, the better it is. You’re telling a story and subsuming your own needs and wants and desires for the sake of the story and it’s very, very hard. It’s like creating a Tibetan sand mandala where it’s impossible to get it perfect, but you do your best, and then it’s gone. It’s absolutely thrilling, and it’s the most pure form of art that I know how to engage in. Also, it’s just really, really fun.

By Amy Levinson

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