Living Out Our Imagination: An Interview with Jennifer Haley
By Miranda RizzoloJanuary 8, 2014
THE FUTURE. THE INTERNET has transformed into a virtual reality world where you can live out your every fantasy in complete anonymity. Identities are blurred, dreams real, and culpability seemingly nonexistent. This is the world of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether, which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last spring after winning the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. A crime drama and sci-fi thriller, The Nether, like much of Haley’s work, explores the moral and psychological implications of human relationships in an increasingly technological age.
Born and raised in Texas, Haley earned her MFA in creative writing at Brown University before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in theater and now television. She has made a name for herself as a playwright in a city dominated by the silver screen (and the small one). In addition to writing five plays, which have been produced all over the country, Jennifer is the founder of the Playwrights Union, a network of theater artists in LA writing for theater, TV, and film.
I met Jennifer for burgers during her lunch break from her new job on the writing team of Netflix’s thriller Hemlock Grove to discuss her career, her writing process, and the future of theater. Also online dating. Unlike many writers, Haley does not see technology as antagonistic to art or human connection. For her, the possibilities of technology — and of theater — are as boundless as our imaginations.
Miranda Rizzolo: When did you start writing?
Jennifer Haley: I started writing my last couple years in college. I was studying acting at the University of Texas at Austin and also getting a liberal arts degree. I basically started writing because I wanted to write fun parts for myself. I feel that, especially as a woman, the parts can be limited. And as an actor you have to wait for cool stuff to come to you, instead of being a generative artist. So I thought, “What kind of part would I write for myself? What kind of play would I write?” I was in a program that let you do pretty much anything you wanted for your thesis, so for my liberal arts thesis, I wrote, produced, and acted in a play. And the playwriting teacher there, Susan Zeder, came and saw it. She came up to me afterward. Even though I wasn’t studying playwriting, she was like, “You are a playwright.” And she helped me develop the play. Over the next few years, I kind of phased out acting and producing and decided to focus on writing. I couldn’t stop writing: even when I was doing a million other things, I was always working on a play.
MR: Tell me about studying under Paula Vogel at Brown. In addition to being a wonderful writer herself, she’s mentored quite a few talented playwrights.
JH: Yeah, she’s sort of legendary. I would say the amazing thing about her is she’s just as passionate about teaching as she is about writing her own work. She’s also an amazing administrator; she works on getting the playwrights endowed at the programs where she’s teaching. So I got out of Brown after graduate school with almost no debt. And with Paula, there was the stuff that she taught you in her classes, but it was also the way she structured the program and the other instructors who were there and the students she brought in. I feel like my writing changed significantly in that program. There wasn’t one moment, one “Ah ha!” moment. It was just like, two years later, I was able to look so much more critically at the writing I was doing. I was much more in command of the craft.
I’d say one thing she did is that she always pushed you. If you came in as a certain kind of writer, she would push you to write a different way. It was very difficult because I went in thinking, “Well, this is the kind of writer I am, and I really need to become better at this kind of writing because that’s how I’m going to make my living.” You know, when I still thought you could make a living as a playwright, which is a whole other issue. [laughs] Originally, I thought a certain kind of writing was my brand, my thing. But when I gave that up and started going in different directions, I realized I didn’t even know what my “thing” was. So I think one of the most powerful things Paula does is, whether you come in as a more experimental or a more traditional writer, she’ll push you the opposite direction. She never said there was one way to do it; she just wanted you to experiment.
MR: Tell me about your award-winning play, The Nether. How did you come up with this idea of “the Nether,” the virtual reality world of the play?
JH: Actually, to bring Paula back into it, one of the things Paula would say is “write what you hate.” I’d never really tried that before, but whenever I start a new play, I like to build in some kind of challenge for myself. I started The Nether in 2010, so I’d been out of school for five years, and I was mulling over the whole “write what you hate” idea, and I thought, “What do I hate?” I landed on television procedurals. Like cop procedurals, CSI-type shows. I really can’t stand them. I feel like they’re so pat. You know all the answers in advance; the bad guy is caught in 40 minutes. It’s very predictable. I thought, “What if I did my own procedural onstage?” I’ve been interested in technology and video games for a long time, virtual reality, so I wondered, “What if a guy is being interrogated for something he did online? And what if it’s in the future, so online reality is a much more sensual and lifelike experience?” Then I wondered, “What’s the worst thing you could do in that world?” That took me to this idea involving children and what people might do with child avatars online. So that was really the seed of it. I was just going to write a 10-minute play for a festival I was doing with some friends, but after I wrote the first scene, I realized it was a much bigger idea.
I spent the next two years working on it. I got development opportunities, and it was clear the themes were catching on with people. But I really was laboring under the notion that no one was going to actually produce the play because it involved this little girl. And not only is it expensive to do a show with a child — and the child labor laws are pretty strict — but also the subject matter is incredibly touchy for a child actress. But I couldn’t change it. I couldn’t change the play. So I kept pushing forward. And when I got to the point where I actually cast a child actress, I realized how important she was to the play. The first actress we worked with was a 12-year-old girl in New York City named Maya, and her parents were very liberal, very open-minded. I’m still Facebook friends with her mom. And Maya didn’t miss a beat; she handled the material really well. Having a young actress in the play, rather than an adult playing a child, warmed the play up in an amazing way.
Anyway, The Nether went through about three years of development before Center Theatre Group produced it last spring. It’s funny, too, because these ideas really came from a subconscious place, but when I started researching, I found so much material about this theme of living out our imaginations. And should people be allowed to live in a place of imagination even if it’s a very horrible place? These themes are just so prevalent right now.
MR: Right. It’s funny because people are always worrying that the age of technology counteracts our ability to imagine and to live in these fantastical worlds. But the idea that technology could enable that kind of creativity is really interesting. You talk a lot about the effects of technology in your works, as in Froggy and Neighborhood 3. Is that something that really resonates with you?
JH: Yeah, I think our imaginations are so powerful. And we spend a lot of our time in daydreams or imagining the future. In some ways, it’s what makes us human, what separates us from animals — being able to imagine different scenarios and change our behavior based on that. When I was researching The Nether, I found this video on YouTube of Carl Jung talking about imagination. For him, the world of dreams and imagination is a different reality, but it’s just as real as our physical reality. Because when you think about it, we wouldn’t be eating this food, we wouldn’t be in this building without that imagination. Someone thought of this burger I’m eating; someone came up with this recipe, and someone had an idea for how to make this plate. We already live in our cultural imagination. And now we’re able to execute that imagination in virtual worlds and to communicate with people on the other side of the world. Technologically, you can sit down in a room and talk to a person across the world, and you can choose what you look like and how you appear.
MR: You often explore identity in your work, and there’s this whole idea of a virtual identity, that you can craft yourself a completely different identity over the internet. Is this identity authentic? It seems like it’s distancing: you can have a different name and behave in a different way.
JH: And that’s the question. Is it distancing? Or is it just a form of intimacy? We think we’re so connected to our physical bodies, but what if there is a spirit? And what if technology is allowing our spirits to communicate with each other in a way we never could before?
MR: That’s interesting because a lot of people, especially literary people, are fighting the age of technology. They’re afraid technology is threatening human relationships and intimacy, but maybe it really is just a different way to be even more intimate with people.
JH: It could be a natural progression. It could be an evolutionary leap. I mean, we don’t know yet. I don’t think I answer any questions in the play because it’s not like one way is better, but one of the things I try to do is to push against our assumption that living your life in a virtual reality is necessarily bad. Or that meeting people online is bad. I mean, we’ve got online dating. It’s so funny because people are still sort of embarrassed to admit if they’ve met online, but I don’t know why. I was reading this book of letters from a pioneer woman in the late 1800s. This woman had been married, her husband had died, and she had a small child. And she was trying to figure out what to do. She saw an ad in the paper for a widower who needed a woman to come help him on his homestead. And she answered the ad, she went out, and they got married and had a family. It’s absolutely no different than finding someone online. You know, people freaked out when the printing press came out. But the printing press made it possible for those two people to communicate. Technology in terms of communication is definitely very interesting to me.
MR: The LA Weekly review of The Nether talks about your play’s ability to hold its own in lowbrow conversation, like talking about deviant sexual behavior. Theater is typically thought of as more highbrow. Do you think good theater is challenging or unexpected or even uncomfortable?
JH: Yes, yes for sure. I think good theater does that. Like even if you go to a comedy, I think good comedy is comedy that gets under your skin and makes you uncomfortable, and you’re laughing because you’re like, this is absurd; this is not right. [laughs] But I’m also not a fan of theater that’s in your face, that tries to make you uncomfortable and drag you over the coals. So there’s a fine line. There’s this one scene in The Nether where we first introduce the little girl, and someone described it to me. She knew it was coming, and she looked around the audience, and she said she could tell people’s scalps were peeling back. And I got the feeling with the audiences that they were often very quiet. There were a few laugh moments that I built in, but for the most part, they were incredibly quiet. But not bored quiet; they were just very still. There’s a listening that happens. The play moves very quickly, and I just got the feeling that some of them were holding on by their fingernails.
We had very few walkouts. I actually expected more walkouts than we had. You know, we didn’t lead with the child stuff, so it’s not like people knew what they were getting into. The Kirk Douglas is a smaller theater, and they do edgier stuff there, but still it was an all ages crowd, plenty of older theatergoers. And for the most part, everyone hung in there. They had talkbacks after every show. I snuck into a couple of them, and I watched women probably in their 70s make these incredibly intelligent, very thoughtful remarks. They had clearly sat through this whole thing and didn’t get so freaked out that they had to leave. So I think there’s a way to make people uncomfortable and make them think without sending them running for the hills. Actually, in my essay when I applied to Brown, I said that I wanted to be a populist writer. I really wanted to tread the line between challenging audiences and writing material that would appeal to a wide range of people. And my theory is, if it’s well written and well crafted, you can throw almost any subject matter at people and they’ll roll with it.
MR: You won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for The Nether, which is an award for female playwrights. Do you feel that it’s harder to make it as a woman in this field?
JH: There are challenges. There was some big study done that showed that men were getting chosen over women in terms of getting produced in theaters. They would send out the same script, sometimes with a female name, sometimes with a male one, and the script with the male name would get chosen more often. Until that came out, I didn’t necessarily feel that way because I feel like I’ve gotten plenty of opportunities. In fact, I got this one development opportunity where I knew I got it because I was a woman. They accidentally sent me an email where they were like, “Well, we want to do some dude’s play, but then we’ll just have all dudes in our lineup. And we really need a female, so let’s go with Jen.” [laughs] It was a mistake. Then they figured it out and were like, “We’re so sorry.” It was for developing Neighborhood, and I was like, “I don’t care. You should have a female in your lineup, and I’ll happily be that female.” [laughs] So I definitely believe in affirmative action because people deserve a chance, and artists need many, many years of process and a lot of help. It might take several plays before they write the best play in the world, but there’s still a lot of merit in developing those, in developing all kinds of different voices and giving people room to make mistakes.
So when that study came out, I was kind of shocked because I didn’t feel like personally I had been at a disadvantage. But especially now that I’m getting into TV, I do feel like, as a woman, you definitely have to be willing to speak up. You can’t be timid; you can’t be meek. And even if you’re a man, if you’re timid and meek, there are too many people who have confidence and trust themselves, and they’re just going to move forward. If you’re not making sure you’re heard, then they’ll just keep going. I think that goes for both sexes. But with women it’s a little bit harder to speak up and to be unpleasant, to be a hard-ass sometimes.
MR: Los Angeles isn’t known as a city for theater compared to places like New York and even Chicago. What was it about Los Angeles that drew you to come here to pursue playwriting? What’s it like working in the theater here?
JH: Actually, when I got out of grad school, I hadn’t been watching television for a while, and I watched The Sopranos for the first time. I watched it all in one chunk; it was probably my first experience with binge watching. And I thought, if television writing is becoming this intelligent, I could see myself doing it. I like the weather in LA, and I could make a real living at that, whereas with playwriting, I had already gotten the sense that you needed to have another profession, or you needed to teach. I love teaching, but good teaching jobs are really hard to come by. So I moved to LA, and then when I got here, I had success with Neighborhood 3, and I ended up just writing plays for five years. And I found myself enjoying being in LA and finding a community here, especially with the Playwrights Union.
MR: What made you start that? Did you feel there wasn’t a real community of playwrights out here?
JH: I had no big ideas. I was just trying to start a monthly writers’ group with a handful of people at this theater down the road from where I live. Then everyone started sending emails around, and it quickly became a much bigger thing. Within a month of sending out that first email, I had 12 people in my backyard talking about something much bigger. So I really didn’t have the vision for it at first. It was only when I saw how much interest there was, and I discovered that there was a need for this, that I was like, okay, let’s look at a bigger thing. And it’s still not huge. It’s pretty casual. There is a monthly writers’ group, but mostly we have events during the year. We try to introduce new playwrights to people around town. A lot of our playwrights are moving into television, and the whole idea with the Playwrights Union is we needed to have one foot in theater, but if you’re in LA, you’re probably doing some screenwriting, too. So professionally, we wanted to be a way for people to network and learn and move into careers where they can write plays, screenplays, and television scripts. I think it’s becoming a lot more of a mobile and flexible landscape, especially with the rise of cable television. Your season commitment is short. You have six months of the year where you can write another play; it’s not like you have to disappear into network television and never be seen in the theater again.
MR: So now you’re working in television. How did that happen? What was the transition like from writing for theater to writing for TV?
JH: I’m writing for a show on Netflix called Hemlock Grove. I actually got it through The Nether. As for the transition, I have found it to be surprisingly easy because basically, storytelling is the same no matter what context it’s in. Plus, I was hired by a showrunner named Charles Eglee, and he’s a really good leader. There are three senior writers, another junior writer, and me — and all of them are just so intelligent and really nice people. We’re working on the second season, and it’s a new writing team from the first season, but the creators developed material that’s really fun to work with. It’s kind of supernatural — like there’s a werewolf and a vampire, but there’s this whole bioengineering thing, too. The show takes place in this small town in Pennsylvania, and it has this real Gothic overtone to it. It did very well for Netflix the first season.
MR: What has your experience been working with someone else’s characters and story rather than your own?
JH: It’s been really fascinating to take what someone else created and riff off that for a whole new season. We have to answer a lot of questions that were raised during the first season while keeping a lot open. So it’s a very interesting way of working. I listed location and money, but the other reason I wanted to try TV writing was after watching The Sopranos, I got really interested in the idea of the writers’ room. I could never be a novelist, where you’re basically alone for the entire writing process (maybe you work with an editor or a friend). In playwriting, at least you get to collaborate with actors and directors, but there’s still a lot of alone time. It definitely comes down to you. So I thought it would be great to work with a lot of people and share the responsibility of the storytelling. That could probably be nightmarish if you were in a group of people that you didn’t respect or trust. But I feel like I’m in a situation where we work well together, and it’s a lot of fun. When I can’t figure out a story point, someone else swoops in and says, “Well, what if it’s this?” Then I’m like, “Oh, that’s brilliant.”
MR: How does that process work? Do you all get together and discuss ideas?
JH: We spent the first month discussing the season as a whole, and that was pretty much eight hours a day of free-flow discussion between all five writers with the showrunner guiding the conversation. Now, we’re each individually writing outlines for episodes, but all of us give notes to each other. If someone changes something in one episode, you very well may need to make adjustments in yours. Then the studio and the network are also reading your material and chiming in. So it’s this huge group effort.
MR: Right. Whereas in theater, how much do you feel your script changes based on input from actors or directors? Do you mostly come in with a script that’s pretty much a final draft? Or is it something that’s more malleable?
JH: I think it’s pretty malleable, but I’ve never had the integral nature of a script change. Directors and actors help you expose parts of your play; they can even help you discover what you’re really writing about. But at the core, if you’re in a good development situation, the play is still what you came in with. And with Hemlock Grove, especially since I didn’t create the show, it really is like, “What do you think? We could go this direction; we could go that direction.” It’s hilarious because when I think back to some of the ideas we were throwing out in the first week, they seem so harebrained to me now. We would talk about something for three hours, and then we’d move on and we’d realize, “Oh no that’s not going to work.” And if you’re working eight hours a day with other writers, you just move so fast.
MR: Are you working on any other plays or just focusing on TV for now?
JH: I’ve only been doing this for six weeks, so the TV is my main focus right now. But I’m going back to New York in January to work on my play Froggy more. We’re working on a video design for that. And I have another play called Sustainable Living I want to rewrite. There’s a director in New York I want to work on that with. So I’m just keeping those balls in the air. But I’m liking that cable television allows you to do these other things. Because I don’t want to leave the theater entirely.
MR: And a lot of people are very pessimistic about the future of the theater, worrying that it’s in decline. What do you think?
JH: I know theater-going audiences are getting older, audiences who are paying higher ticket prices and keeping regional theaters going. I’m not sure what’s going to happen as they continue to get older, if there will be a younger generation that will pay enough to keep these larger institutions afloat. But theater is not going away. I mean, there are so many people, especially young people, doing theater all over town. Even here in LA, there’s way too much for you to see. Theater everywhere is hit or miss, I don’t care what town you’re in. But even in LA, there’s plenty of good stuff going on. I’ll go to a show, and it may be a 50-seat house, but it’s packed. I very seldom go to a piece of theater and nobody’s there. And I see young people all the time who have the energy and the wherewithal and the excitement to keep performing.
And here’s where my apocalyptic forebodings come in. [laughs] If we do ever have any kind of apocalyptic occurrence, and we can’t just get online and watch whatever we want anymore, I think people will continue to do theater. There’s this play by Anne Washburn called Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, and it’s all about people performing in this post-apocalyptic world — the real dire version: everyone’s running around with flashlights and guns and stuff. But people are performing episodes of The Simpsons. And as the years go by, their interpretations are changing and getting really meta. They’re abstracting Simpsons episodes like the way we do with Shakespeare and Oedipus. We do our own versions that bring in the context of our lives at this moment.
We’ve been talking about communication and technology, but somehow at the core of who we are as people — and the core of our imaginations — is this need to tell stories. And as long as that need is there, I don’t think theater will ever go away.
Miranda Rizzolo studies theater at Yale. She is an alumnus of the 2013 Los Angeles Review of Books summer internship program.
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