Halley Feiffer: Writing New Roles One Play at a Time

How an actor who has always been a writer became a writer who has always been an actor.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

MS: What were your first professional acting and writing gigs?

HF: I started out as a writer as a small child. I would write little stories on one of those very old-school Apple computers. As early as second grade I was writing little stories and saying to my parents, “I really want to be a children’s book author when I grow up, please don’t let me forget.” Now, I don’t want to be a children’s book author, so I hope the child within me is not disappointed. I always wanted to be a writer.

I went to an acting camp called Stagedoor Manor, where people like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman and other famous people went. I was nine that first summer, pretty darn young. A lot of the kids did musicals there, and I did musicals for the first two years. My best friend at the time was a better singer and I was quite competitive, so after a time I didn’t audition for the musicals, just the straight plays. I got cast in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Children’s Hour, earning a niche of doing the darkest plays.

As I got into high school, I started drinking quite heavily, and that inhibited my ability to foster the discipline and fearlessness that it takes to be a writer. I really leaned on acting for years as my sole creative outlet. I would dabble in writing here and there, but I was too drunk or hung over to really make it a practice. I got sober a little over 10 years ago and was able to devote myself to it. Acting was destroying my spirit — the constant rejection, the focus on my physical appearance. I love acting but I don’t love a lot of the stuff that goes along with it: the time-suck of getting yourself to and from auditions, dolling yourself up, memorizing lines, with no guaranteed playoff. I thought I could spend this time and energy writing.

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MS: Are there acting or writing areas that you want to try?

HF: That’s what’s so exciting — I get to constantly grow. There’s that musical that Trip and I are collaborating on. I’ve never written a musical, but I feel confident that I can figure it out and ask for help. In this case, I met with a commercial producer about the project, and he hired me as the book writer, and I suggested Trip to direct. It’s an adaptation of a beloved feminist film.

I’ve been making a living writing for various TV shows and selling pilots for the last four-and-a-half years. Most recently, I was a writer-producer on Showtime’s Kidding, starring Jim Carrey, during its first season, but I chose not to go back so I could focus on my own projects. This was a scary and a new kind of action for me. Before that, I worked on the fourth and last season of Mozart in the Jungle. And I recently sold a pilot for a TV show that hasn’t been announced — a very female-centered, darkly comedic thriller. I want to write a TV show that I can act in. It scares me, which is why I think it’s probably the next right action for me.

MS: How do actors become playwrights? Just by having something to say?

HF: It takes a commitment to rigorous honesty to be a good writer of any kind. I’ve taught playwriting and I always say: tell the story that you need to tell. It’s like this burning coal in your chest: if you don’t tell it, it’s gonna burn you alive. Otherwise, there’s no urgency. It’s about a commitment to really exploring those most unsavory parts of yourself, to free ourselves from the bonds they have on us and hopefully free others in some way. We all have these unsavory parts of ourselves, and the more we unflinchingly examine them, the more unhampered we can be by our own shortcomings.

I had a commission years ago from Manhattan Theatre Club, and I tried to write what I thought would be an MTC show. And it was bad. [Artistic Director] Lynne Meadow said, “We commissioned you because we wanted you; we didn’t want you to imitate what you think we want.” At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was a micro-cosmic example of relationships. If I pretend to be someone I’m not, I’m being dishonest. I really should just be myself and take it or leave it, because I’m not going to convince me or you if I pretend to be someone I’m not. That’s what I try to do and what I would encourage other people to do.

Young people take me out for coffee and ask about how to get into writing plays or for TV. My first advice to is learn and absorb. I didn’t go to grad school, so, for me, experiencing art is how I learn and grow as well.

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MS: Who inspires you and who do you admire? Why?

HF: I’m so inspired by other actor-writers. Dramatists who refuse to stay inside a box and constantly reinvent and push themselves. The first people that come to mind are Heidi Schreck, Tracy Letts, Bruce Norris (who doesn’t do a lot of performing any more but is another performer-turned-writer), the late Sam Shepard and David Greenspan.

Heidi has been a big inspiration for years. I was working with her husband, Kip Fagan, when she got her first job writing for a TV show. I’ve tried to follow in her footsteps as much as I could. That’s how I got into TV writing: watching Heidi get a job on Nurse Jackie and trying to do what she was doing.

Other playwrights I admire include Annie Baker, Sarah DeLappe, Clare Barron, Tanya Barfield — bad-ass women who examine their truths unflinchingly, with a heaping dose of humor. I love them as people and as artists. In TV, I really love Frankie Shaw and what she did with her show SMILF. And I love Pamela Adlon. These women are writers, directors, producers, show-runners and actors with very clear visions and execute that vision, come what may.

My friend Desiree Akhavan is a filmmaker, writer, director and performer with a TV show called The Bisexual that just premiered on Hulu. Her film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a conversion-therapy camp, won Sundance last year. My friend Noah Haidle is a playwright who inspires me endlessly and was in the writers room with me for Kidding.

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MS: If you weren’t you, who and what would you be? Any other fields you’d consider?

HF: I was going to make a joke that I’d probably be dead in the street. But honestly, the only other thing I could see myself doing that would thrill and fulfill me is working with other addicts in recovery. That’s my other big passion and a calling for me. What I spend the most time doing, aside from working in theater and TV, is working with other addicts who want help getting and staying sober. I see something quite related in the two pursuits —  trying to inspire the shift in perspective that can change a life in a small or significant way. I think art can do that. And I think working with addicts in recovery can do that.

MS: Given your talents and passions, what do you suppose may be your legacy?

HF: I heard a friend who I really admire say a couple of years ago that she wanted to leave this world having helped as many people as she could. I was chagrined to hear her say that at the time because that wasn’t my priority. I thought I was supposed to leave this world getting things and looking good! Then I thought, helping people, that is probably what I should be focusing on, so I tried to shift my attention to that.

A few years ago I was acting in my play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Geffen in LA. Beth Behrs played the same role in the 2016 MCC premiere production. I finally had the gumption to try it in LA as a kind of tryout for my appearance in The Pain of My Belligerence. A friend told me to think of this as a way to be useful and to help people, not about looking good or getting anything. This took all the pressure off, and I was much more aware of the ways to do that and was more open to hearing feedback. The show is about a fractured relationship between a mother and daughter that begins to heal by the end of the play, and people said to me or to friends after seeing the show that they were going to call their mom or take her to lunch. Hearing something like that made me want to burst into tears. The 2013 movie that I made with my friend Ryan Spahn, and his partner Michael Urie, had a similar effect on some people. One person told me, “I have 32 days sober and this gave me the courage I need to keep trying to stay sober a day at a time.”

I feel art has the power to entertain but also change lives in small and substantial ways. I want to try to help people through art and all my actions. I am passionate about telling women’s stories as honestly as I can, to explore what it means to be a woman in all its grandeur and darkness and complexity.