Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

A Conversation with Playwright Hilary Bettis

“This play in particular is really personal.”

72 Miles to Go...:

A Conversation with Playwright Hilary Bettis

On March 7, 2020, Hilary Bettis spoke about 72 Miles to Go... with Roundabout Teaching Artist Leah Reddy as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

Leah Reddy: I’d like to welcome Hilary Bettis to the stage. Just a quick biographical note: Hilary is a Brooklyn-based playwright and screenwriter. She is a graduate of The Julliard School. She has had work developed and produced across the country including at the Sol Project, Miami New Drama, New Georges, Alley Theatre, Studio Theatre, and many others. She is a 2019 Writer’s Guild of America Award winner for her work on television’s The Americans. She is currently developing projects at AMC, Hulu, and Netflix. 

Hilary Bettis: I’m very pregnant right now, so bear with me. 

LR: Thank you for coming out. Let’s start at the beginning. My understanding is that you did not grow up as a theatre kid.

HB: No. The first time I saw a play I was 18 years old. It was in California. My father is a minister and I grew up going to church, which I think is actually very similar to theatre. In a lot of ways, I guess I was a theatre kid without realizing it. 

LR: Lots of spectacle, I agree. 

HB: Absolutely. 

LR: So, what was that first theatrical experience what made you interested in writing for the theatre? How did that come about? 

HB: I think in hindsight I was always a writer; I just didn’t realize that writing was something that people did as a profession. My family moved a lot when I was growing up. I was always the new kid. Plus, I’m the only girl with three brothers, so I always felt like an outsider. I think keeping journals and diaries and writing short stories was how I learned to survive all those feelings, but I never thought about it as a profession. I lived in a really small, rural town of about 2000 people, where most people went to trade schools, worked on the family farm, or the military, so college wasn’t really a consideration for me. I moved to LA a week after graduating. Then I ended up by chance seeing a production of Death of a Salesman and I fell in love with the communal experience of it. I wanted to know everything about theatre, and so I packed up and came to New York and taught myself how to write plays.

LR: It’s a great story, seeing Death of a Salesman as your first play. 

HB: There was something really visceral and exciting about being in this three-dimensional space with living, breathing people telling you a story that I’d never experienced watching TV or movies. 

LR: Yeah. That’s so neat. As a writer, a lot of your plays have focused on the Latinx experience and Latinx identity in the United States. What brings you back to that theme? 

HB: It’s a lot of things. My grandfather is Mexican. My mother actually grew up on the border in Tucson, Arizona and my grandfather on the border in Texas so I think the mythology and narrative of existing in this in-between place has always been such a big part of the identity and the fabric of my own family. My grandfather came from a generation that saw assimilation as the only means of survival in America. Spanish was his first language, but he didn’t teach my mother or her sisters. There was always this lingering question about who we were, what that meant, and what we’re allowed to have ownership over—even if we struggle to talk about it. I think all of my work is an attempt to grapple with that and reclaim it for myself, especially in the world today. 

LR: I know you’ve said for the Ghosts of Lote Bravo that you were writing for an American audience. Do you think that’s true for this play? 

HB: Yeah. I do. I mean, I’m an American so that’s inevitably going to be the lens I write everything through. Other than Anita, everyone in the play was raised in America. It’s all they know and culturally who they are. That’s what I wanted to hammer home for an audience. The “harrowing” story of the traumatized migrant fleeing cartel violence isn’t the reality of the majority of the 11 million people living undocumented in this country right now. Hollywood and our news cycles have become obsessed with sensationalizing this particular narrative, which is something I purposely wanted to subvert with simplicity and everyday of this family. Although, much of the Southwest was Mexico before it was USA, and culturally Hispanic before Anglo, so who really is the “immigrant”? 

LR: I think that’s really interesting. Is there a reason you think this play is particularly important now? 

HB: Yes. This is a really divisive issue that’s going on currently in our country. It’s an issue that’s been going on long before this particular administration, which is why I set the play from 2008 to before the election in 2016. I also started writing it before the 2016 election, so I really had no idea just how dark and cruel things would get. There’s also so many misconceptions about our immigration system. The reality is that our system is set up to keep people out of this country. Period. Full stop. The “path to citizenship” only exists for the privileged. That’s something that I wanted this play to dig into (without becoming a soap box or an issue play). Here’s an average family that’s going through the same rites of passage most of us go through: the first day of high school, graduation, prom, getting married, having babies. But these events take on new meaning when your family is also separated with nothing but a phone to keep them connected. A phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the conversation around immigration is “we want to keep criminals out.” But by the end of the play, every person in this family is a criminal. They’re crossing the border illegally. I really wanted an audience to root for them to succeed because I think most of us would do the same for our families, our children.

LR: Did you do research for this show? 

HB: Yes, I have done a ton of research for this show. I’ve had workshops and readings all over the country, and worked with a lot of different actors, many of whom were dealing with similar circumstances. And this cast as well, Jacquelin Guillen is from Matamoros, Mexico. Like Billy, Triney Sandoval’s family is from New Mexico since it was Mexico. We wanted to find actors that can relate to this material as much as possible. I dug into my own family history, visited Tucson and where my mother grew up. I also worked with immigration lawyers. I spent a couple of days in the office with immigration lawyers in Texas talking about their cases, going over the play with them, and making sure that the language and all of the things that this family in particular is trying to do to become citizens feels authentic and accurate. And getting their advice on how they would work with a family in this particular situation. By the way, all of them said there was no way that Anita, who had been deported twice, could be helped, which is really sad. They’re, unfortunately, doomed from the beginning.

LR: I want to talk a little bit about the idea of writing family dramas because this is very much a family drama and The Americans is also a family drama. What did you learn about writing family dramas from your time working on that show? 

HB: Our philosophy on The Americans was that technically, yes, it’s spy versus spy action genre, but the heart of the show is about intimacy and marriage. Every story decision in the writers' room had to serve that. No matter how interesting a storyline might be, if it didn’t have an effect on the family  story, it was cut. Sometimes, the most heartbreaking, compelling moments are not high-octane conflict: they’re two people sitting in a car trying to figure out what to have for dinner, or how they’re going to talk to their kid about a bad grade. That was something I really took to heart with this particular play. Especially in our culture right now. Most border stories are Narco-genre-trauma-porn. I wanted to highlight these mundane slice of life moments. That’s what humanizes this subject. 

LR: Thinking further along the theatre/television lines. What does the development process look like in each medium for you? How do you get feedback? What’s the same, what’s different? 

HB: In television — especially if you’re in a writers’ room — it’s not your story, it’s not your show, you’re there to serve the showrunner’s vision. Period. And the showrunner has to answer to the network, the studio, producers, sometimes lawyers, consultants and the FCC — and in the case of The Americans, the CIA. Joe Weisberg, the creator, was in the CIA before becoming a writer, so all his material has to reviewed to make sure it doesn’t reveal anything classified. As a playwright, it’s your singular  voice (although, it’s still very collaborative, every director, actor, design team will have a very different perspective, and you’ll still get a ton of notes from producers during previews). The flip side is it’s a much longer road to getting a play produced — if it ever gets produced. It’s years of readings, workshops (where you have a few days or a week with a team of actors and director to dig into the dramaturgy). When you’re doing a world premiere, nobody knows what the play is. Everybody has a lot of ideas,  but it’s all theory until you get into previews. Most rewrites happen in previews, so if you saw the show two weeks ago, and the show today, it’s a drastically different play. 

LR: I want to dig into The Kilroys, who curate an annual list of plays by women and non-binary folks that should be produced but are not being produced. And you are one of the Kilroys now. Can you talk a little about that?

HB: First of all, we don’t curate The List, we simply aggregate information. The Kilroys started about five years ago and it was a response to gender parity on the American stage. Something like 70-75 percent of productions a year were by men. A very small number of women were being produced, and even less women of color, trans, and non-binary writers. When this was brought up, many artistic directors and producers were saying there’s not “enough quality plays in the pipeline” — which is bullshit. So, a group of female-identifying writers, directors, producers came together to start The Kilroys. They put together a massive list of nominators, something like 300 theater industry people, who read at least 40 new plays a year — directors, literary managers, actors, dramaturgs, producers — and asked them to recommend their top five unproduced plays by female-identifying writers. The Kilroys then tallies up all of those nominations, and puts together The List, which is the most recommended plays. Since The List has existed, we’ve had multiple plays that have won Pulitzers, and theaters are producing female writers at much higher rates.

LR: On a personal level, you had plays on the first four or five lists?

HB: I’ve had 3 plays on The List and 2 plays on the Honorable Mention List. 

LR: Can you talk a little bit about how those nominations impacted you?

HB: Yes. Almost every play that I’ve had on The List has been produced. I consistently get emails from college and high school kids asking me for my plays, because they have teachers assigning them Kilroys plays to do projects on. It’s definitely opened a lot of doors and gotten my work out there.

Audience Question 1: Which parts of the immigrant experience did you choose to highlight? How did you decide what to highlight? Where do you start approaching this experience and how to tell the events?  

HB: When I started this play, I knew I wanted to highlight the small, everyday moments we all take for granted, yet make our lives connected and universal. I wanted to stay away from sensationalizing the border. But, really, the writing process can be very overwhelming when you start. There’s an infinite set of possibilities and characters. I tend to start outward, then move in. Themes I want to explore, worlds I want to explore, and then carve out character and structure. 

Audience Question 2: Do you find yourself relating to the characters you’ve written, or see anybody in your life in the characters you’ve written? 

HB: I have to fall in love with every character I write in order to write them. Even if I don’t agree with them, I have to crawl inside them and find their vulnerabilities and fears and dreams. This play in particular is really personal. My dad is a goofy, soft-spoken pastor, like Billy. My brothers are total science nerds who love animals and two of the three joined the military. My mom is an RN who, like Eva, struggles to find that balance between her needs and her family. I always end up writing parts of myself and the people I love. 

Audience Question 3: Your characters are always eating. I don’t think I’ve seen a play where they’re always eating. Why that choice? 

HB: We had a lot more eating, believe it or not! We cut a lot of it in previews. Food is such a communal experience. The good, bad, ugly, everyday happens around food. There’s something about the connection, the visceral nature of food, that is such a big part of what keeps this family together.

LR: That tuna noodle scene is really lovely. Was that inspired by anything specific besides tuna noodle? 

HB: When I was writing that scene, I had been on the road for three months, and really missed my husband. That level of loneliness after a couple of months was really hard… I started thinking about that loneliness over years, how do you survive it? How do you hold on to the most intimate parts of marriage when all you have is a phone and no idea when — or if — you’ll be together again?

Audience Question 4: You talked about changes and scenes rewritten during previews. Would you please talk a little bit about your process and tell us where you think you’ll go with this play? 

HB: I don’t think there’s a single scene in this play that wasn’t somehow touched or restructured in our preview process. I’ve brought in 3 different versions of the sermon. After Jo [Bonney] and I watched several previews, she kept asking, “What frame do we want the audience to experience this story through?” The original versions of the sermon was much more metaphorical. But because we were seeing the play in real time and space and tracking each character’s arc, we realized metaphor didn’t work. It wasn’t where Billy was at by the end of this journey. It was his final goodbye, it was him grappling with his own mistakes, and that’s what needed to frame the play. Jo really kept pushing me to make it more personal and specific. I would write something that I thought was great, and Jo would, in the most polite Australian way, tell me it’s terrible and to rewrite it. But every scene went through transformations. You just don’t know what’s landing and what isn’t until you see it in previews with all of the tech elements and a live audience. So much of the process was tightening the play, cutting away any beats or dialogue that got in the way of the emotional truth for these people, and clarifying things that might feel confusing. Are there moments an audience is taken out of the play? What are they and why? The other scene that has been the bane of my existence is the truck scene between Christian and Eva when he tells her he didn’t get DACA. I’ve probably brought in a different version of that scene every day. The version they’re doing now, they got two or three days ago. What I was grappling with in that scene was clarifying Eva’s point of view was, where she was at in her life. Christian’s arc was clear, and we needed to know he didn’t get DACA for the next scene to land. I knew   what he needed from her, but not what she needed from him. It took a lot of different drafts to find it.

Audience Question 5: Could you talk a little bit about the workshops? As a playwright, do you have input or any kind of say on the set design or how you want to see the costumes? 

HB: Yes, for a world premiere, you have input on directors, casting, design. Since my brothers are in the military, the authenticity of Aaron’s Marine uniform, haircut, and physicality was one of the things I was a stickler about. I was in a lot of conversations with the designers about that role. We ended up bringing in a Marine consultant —who was a retired drill sergeant — to work with Tyler. 

Audience Question 6: This theatre is the first place to host this play? 

HB: Yes. This is the world premiere. 

Audience Question 7: What are you working on next? 

HB: I’m developing a pilot for AMC, another for Hulu, and a third project with a studio (we haven’t taken it out yet). I also have a movie project with Netflix. In terms of plays, I’ve been working on a big, epic family drama that follows three generations of Mexican-American women grappling with the sudden death of their son, husband, and father. But the play isn’t  really about that at all — there’s a big twist — but I don’t want to give it away yet. I have a few other plays kicking around in my head.

Audience Question 8: How did you get started as both a screenwriter and a playwright?

HB: I taught myself to write by reading plays. I would read a play over and over, break it down beat by beat, trying to understand it’s structure, then using that as a structure for my own story. And I started stalking playwrights I admired, looking at their bios — what fellowships, residencies, theaters did they work with — and applying to those. I started getting residencies and fellowships, meeting industry people, picking their brains about everything. I eventually got a fellowship to Juilliard, which got me an agent, who happened to rep the showrunner on The Americans and gave him one of my plays, and they staffed me a few months after graduating. I’d never written for television before, so I had to figure out how to write a screenplay while I was in the writers’ room. It’s been a long road with a lot more rejection, failure, public humiliation, and deep heartbreak. I’ve written more plays that have failed miserably and died horrible deaths than successful ones. But writing has always been the only way I know how to heal and survive, so I just keep writing.  Because what else is there?

Audience Question 9: I am wondering about your interest in the military. Did you ever see A Soldier’s Play?

HB: I haven’t seen it yet. We’ve been in the trenches of rehearsal and previews at night. But I am very excited to see it. I’ve heard it’s fantastic.