A Conversation with Hilary Bettis
Written by Margarita Javier
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
December 5, 2016
Earlier this year, The Sol Project was announced as a new initiative to raise visibility of Latina/o voices in the theatrical landscape. To kick off this venture, The Sol Project is collaborating with New Georges to present a brand new production of accomplished playwright Hilary Bettis’ Alligator, which opens on December 4 and runs through December 18 at the A.R.T./New York Theatres. I sat down with the smart, funny, charming, and wittily self-deprecating Hilary over hot tea on a rainy day in Williamsburg, where we chatted, among other things, about her play, her creative process, the current political climate, and the complicated nature of her personal cultural identity. I also attempted to get her to spill some spoilers for the upcoming season of FX’s The Americans, for which she is a staff writer.
Margarita Javier: The first thing I wanted to ask you is about The Sol Project. I’m very excited about it. How did you become involved with them?
Hilary Bettis: It’s one of those things that happened organically. Elena Araoz, who’s directing, has been a longtime friend of mine. We’ve done lots of readings and workshops together over the past four or five years. She actually directed a reading of [Alligator] in 2012, and that’s how she and I met. She was part of the founding members of [The Sol Project], and this was one of the plays that they had been considering. New Georges – who I also had a relationship with and had done a lot of workshops with for this play years ago as well – ended up being the first producers. I got a phone call one day from Susan [Bernfield] and Jacob [Padrón] and they were like, Hey! We’re gonna do your play!
MJ: That’s amazing. And it’s been a good experience so far?
HB: Yeah! It’s been a great experience. There’s been bumps in the road, because The Sol Project is new and they’re trying to figure out how they produce together. This is the biggest play that New Georges has ever done, on top of the first play in the A.R.T./New York space that’s still literally under construction. We just figured out how to have heat in the theater two days ago. It’s the first production that Elena and I have done together, so we’re trying to figure out what that relationship is, how we work together, and how we communicate. It seems so easy in theory, and then you’re in the thick of it and you’re like, Oh, we didn’t talk about this, or maybe we should talk about this, or maybe we should approach it this way. It’s actually really exciting, despite the stress and the lack of sleep that I’ve gotten throughout this process.
MJ:Tell me about the play, Alligator. What is it about, where did the idea come from?
HB: It’s this crazy, messy, chaotic, bloody, ensemble-driven play that I wrote when I was going through a lot of shit in my own personal life, like taking care of a friend who was dying of cancer and living with my alcoholic ex-boyfriend – a lot of a lot of a lot of a lot of chaos. That play came in like a fever dream; it sort of vomited out one night. It was very instinctual. I’ve never written anything quite like that since in that way, and I think it came out of trying to survive my life at that time and find meaning in this messy chaos with all these people that are literally wrestling life and death demons, including myself. It’s set in the Everglades. It’s in a really small rural town and it’s about all of these teenagers, and they’re trying to figure out how they fit into the world and trying to figure out how to love and be loved, but none of them have the tools or even know what that really means. It’s like a collision of pain and how these seemingly innocent interactions translate into this bigger destruction of this community.
MJ: Why the Everglades?
HB: I like to write about places that I’ve never been and I get really excited about, and I think for a long time it was because I was so poor and couldn’t actually travel. I wanted to see the world.
MJ: So you could write it.
HB: Yeah, and when you have an excuse to just dig and research and let your mind go on crazy tangents. I love being able to do that, but I also think there’s something really interesting about it, because you don’t have the familiarity of that place. In some ways, you can have a bigger perspective of it if you really do your homework. In all of my plays, place is always the number one character. All of who we are as people, the choices that we make, the decisions that we have to make, come from our environment and surviving our environment. The Everglades in particular is this messy, swampy, isolated part of the world that you really have to understand how to fight to survive in because everything in there is trying to kill you. It takes a certain type of person in and of itself just to be able to live in that environment, and that becomes a metaphor for these deeper struggles.
MJ: Why do you write? Out of all the things you could be, why a writer?
HB: Oh man, I don’t know. Insanity? [laughs] Writing is really a byproduct of surviving my own life, you know? My family moved a lot when I was growing up and we didn’t have a lot of money – and I was the oldest, the only girl, and I was “the new kid” every two years. I saw a lot of violence and sexual abuse and all kinds of shit when I was growing up. We never lived in a community long enough to really get to know a community. My parents both worked 60-hour work weeks, and so we would end up just having to learn how to survive and navigate people with our instincts. And sometimes that was good and sometimes it wasn’t good. Being the only girl on top of that, writing was a thing that I did to deal with life and deal with feelings, and it was the only place I felt safe because you can say the most poetic thing or the most horrible thing, and you can rip it up and burn it or you can show the world. There’s a sense of empowerment that I never felt in any other aspects of my life.
I never actually wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a veterinarian and then I probably wanted to be an actress. I moved to LA a week out of high school to escape this very small, rural, conservative Minnesota town that we’d moved to when I was 15. I ended up homeless in LA. My first job was cocktailing at a strip club when I was 17 years old. I saw the greatness and the rottenness of that world and also the complicated humanity. You know, people don’t lose their dignity just because they make hard choices for survival, and I think that it’s so easy to place moral judgment on people when we have food and shelter and water, you know? I was going out for terrible, terrible acting roles, and reading scripts where women were non-existent – they weren’t human, they were body parts. My 17/18-year-old brain was like, Well, I’ve lived in six different states at this point and I’ve been through so much shit and survived so much shit. I’ve had my big existential crisis over religion; I’ve seen people die when I’ve lived. Why is it that nobody writes people like me? I can’t be the only one in the world, you know? And so I think asking that question started this career path that has been – I mean, I’ve been really blessed. I have this sort of beautiful, lovely career that I never thought would happen to someone like me.
MJ: As a woman playwright, how has your experience been in the theater community or in television? Given the fact that it is – some would say and I would agree – harder for women to make it in these environments. Do you feel that pressure at all, or are you fighting to get more representation for women – is that a struggle?
HB: Yes. Especially in the TV world where people are really starting to recognize the importance of diversity. In some ways, I think that I’ve had doors opened that even three or four years ago women trying to break into TV didn’t have. I think it’s harder in theater for women than TV really, truly. Truly. In TV there’s a lot of turnover and executives tend to be younger. Everybody wants who the next up-and-coming voices are, and so they’re really excited to at least read your work. In theater I feel, you know, artistic directors who have been in the same position for 20 or 30 years feel very much a generation behind in their tastes, and I think there’s a lot of subconscious biases in there. They look at young women playwrights and it’s like, Oh well, you are a niche market, you cannot be mainstream. Whereas you can be a straight white male writer and, you know. I watch my classmates out of Juilliard, and hands down the guys always had it very easy in a way that it wasn’t for the girls.
MJ: You look at representation right now, and there’s not that many plays being produced or written by women happening in New York, or women directed plays, but there’s so much talent out there. What can be done about that?
HB: Really, I think that women need to be in positions of power and leadership. I think that it’s not enough unfortunately and I wish it were, but it’s not enough just to write a play. It’s not enough just to want to be a director. You have to also be an advocate, not just for your work, but for your career. You have to be an advocate for other women, and you have to really think in versatile terms. What I am really consistently learning in my career is that if I really want to protect the things that I write, and protect the female characters that I write from becoming stock characters, gratuitous, or objectified. Then I need to learn how to produce and I need to learn the business side of things.
MJ: I’ve read a lot about you, and I know that a recurring theme in your work is identity.You’ve talked about your desire to reclaim your Mexican identity and that’s reflected in your work. That’s a very conflicting thing: not quite fitting in, not quite knowing. I identify because I’m Puerto Rican but don’t fit into a stereotypical look, so I understand the conflict that comes from that, but being part of The Sol Project, and the fact that it is something that recurs in your plays, how do you feel about your identity or wanting to reclaim that side of yourself?
HB: God, yeah, I feel like it’s gonna be something that is always gonna be – I don’t think I’ll ever have a definitive answer. I think it’s always going to be evolving as I evolve and the world evolves. Growing up, we mostly lived in really rural parts of the country that were really, really white. My brothers and I were always the most ethnic kids at our school, and I never thought about that as a hindrance to my opportunity in the world. My grandfather had experienced it – I mean, his whole life was fighting against prejudice – and he really felt that he was deeply held back and denied opportunities in his life because he was Mexican.
I think in order to protect us from that, he really deeply advocated for us being as American as possible and not learning Spanish.He didn’t speak Spanish around us. When my mother was pregnant with me, his biggest fear was that I would be dark and I would look too Mexican and I would have to deal with the same prejudices he dealt with, and so for me in some ways… I mean, yes, there are a lot of prejudices in the world, especially with Donald Trump in power now and it’s really, really scary. It’s really scary. But part of reclaiming that side of my family is giving dignity and honor to my grandfather’s life and his struggles, and it’s a complicated thing, right? My entire life people have told me that I don’t fit into any community. When I moved to LA and met a lot of Chicanos, they were like, Oh, you’re a white girl, you’re not Mexican at all. And yet being in rural white communities in the Midwest, I was always Latina. And so it’s been a strange thing. Am I allowed to claim? I struggle with it. I actually struggle with whether or not I’m allowed to claim that part of my identity, and yet it’s my blood and my DNA.
MJ: Absolutely. And I understand where the dissent comes from because I do feel very protective about portrayals of Puerto Ricans specifically, and I do have that same struggle where I’m like, Well, you’re only ¼ Puerto Rican. I don’t know if you’re qualified to represent us. But at the same time, why create that conflict? It’s really complicated.
HB: It’s really complicated and I would never claim to be able to speak for Mexican culture. I’m an American. I was born in America. I speak a little Spanish, but it’s not great. I don’t know what life is like to be Mexican in Mexico. I don’t really know what life is like really to come to this country as an immigrant from Mexico. It’s a complicated thing, but at the same time, it’s also part of my own family identity.
MJ: I think it’s admirable because it’s so easy to give into not claiming that, because doing so makes it harder. If you are ethnic, it is harder in this country, and there’s this constant struggle to want to assimilate. I think it’s admirable of you to want to claim that part of yourself because it would be easy to just be like, No, I’m just American. That path would be easier, I think, than saying, No, I want to talk about this. I think it’s important to do so.
HB: Well, I really appreciate that. I really do.
MJ: So you mentioned Donald Trump. And I wanted to bring it up, especially since somewhat recently Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, and it became this big thing where suddenly the president-elect was launching an attack against the theater community, and I was just wondering if you have any thoughts about that.
HB: I mean it’s scary, right? On the surface, it’s like, Oh, you know, he’s crazy and his ego was hurt, and it’s just somebody complaining on Twitter and it’s harmless. But the reality is that those are the beginning steps towards really taking away some of our basic fundamental rights in this country. And it’s not really even about theater – it’s about freedom of speech; it’s about being able to be safe in this world and say things that might not always be popular, be able to talk about and give voice to marginalized communities, and be able call into question the people that are in power and the way that we always have… That’s one of the foundations of our country. I think we have to be very vigilant about it, especially as artists. Our purpose in this world really is to call into question the world around us and make people uncomfortable.
MJ: Absolutely, and it’s about challenging ideas and theater has always been challenging and arts have always been challenging.
HB: Yeah, and it should be! We’re doing our jobs.
MJ: What is the intended audience for your plays when you’re writing?
HB: I know that my plays are probably never gonna be at places like MTC. Especially with Alligator, I wanted to write plays that my friends would go see. My friends who weren’t in theater. I wanted to write things that I would want to go see and I also wanna write things that ask really uncomfortable questions. I know that that’s not always popular, and people want to go to the theater to escape and you have to have money, really, to see theater, for most people. Many of them will walk out of my plays, and that’s fine. But the ones that stay, I want plays that are really gonna make people think, and make me think as the writer too. I mean, it’s not just about, Oh, I’m gonna use this as a soap box. It’s just as much about, These are the things that I also struggle with or the hypocrisy that I see in myself, and let’s talk about it. Let’s not pretend that we’re better, or that these things don’t exist.
MJ: So why theater specifically? What drew you to theater?
HB: You know, I think part of it is just always being a new kid and never having friends growing up, and really yearning for a community. My dad’s a Methodist minister, and so the church was a big part of my childhood and my father’s very poetic and he loves to tell stories. I think part of it was growing up watching my father write beautiful sermons, and the way that he could captivate a room of people. That’s what great theater does; it’s a shared experience. Especially in this day and age where we’re so addicted to technology, we’re having less and less human interaction, and our entertainment, our love lives, and our whole existence is us and a screen. Theater, I really and truly believe, is going to become more and more relevant because people are going to crave human connection in a way that I don’t think we quite understand yet, because of what technology is doing.
MJ: What are your theatrical influences, and who are your favorite playwrights? Or is there anything you’ve seen recently that you thought was great?
HB: Well, I haven’t seen anything recently because I’ve been so crazy [busy], but I have a very special place in my heart for Marsha Norman, of course. I fell in love with her work when I was 18 years old. To have gotten to study with her at Juilliard for two years and be… I actually talked to her on the phone today, and to have a relationship with her is incredible. I really love [Edward] Albee and Sam Shepard and Sarah Kane, and unapologetic writers, and I really love Westerns too. I love Cormac McCarthy and [Quentin] Tarantino and super masculine genres. I love to try to find a woman’s perspective in those worlds, and so I tend to write things that feel really gritty on the surface but have a lot of empathy and vulnerability underneath.
MJ: Have you ever had a great idea that you abandoned because it didn’t work?
HB: [laughs] Um, every day. I don’t know if any of them are great. I have ideas all the time. I have a lot of files on my computer that are false starts to things that seemed so cool and then five pages in you’re like, Oh, this is not a thing at all. I have a lot of those. A lot. And then I have these ideas that are like, Oh, that’s my magnum opus that I’m gonna write some day when I have the ability to. I think there are some things that I want to write that I just don’t have the craft yet. I haven’t written enough to be able to execute it.
MJ:You’re a staff writer for The Americans. I love that show. How did that gig happen?
HB: It’s such a good show! And it’s such a great culture. My bosses are amazing. They’re at the top of their field and their craft and are the nicest, most respectful, down to earth people, that also have families and lives and treat everyone with respect and value everybody’s opinions. To have that be your first TV job and to also really see that you can be successful in this career and you can write things that are of really high quality and you can still be a normal person and treat people well – I feel really blessed to have that be the place where I’m starting from. So yeah, they were looking for a writer for my position and read some of my plays and I went and met with them and then they hired me.
MJ: That’s amazing. They’re filming now, right?
HB: Yeah, it’s insanity. We finished the first two episodes. We have the producers’ cuts for those; we have the entire season broken; we have scripts through episode nine written and all the rest of the episodes are in process of being written right now. They’re like a machine, it’s insane.
MJ: Can you tease anything about the upcoming season?
HB: [laughs] It’s going to be awesome!
MJ: I read that you have a development deal for a show called Finding Natalie?
HB: I have two! I have a project at the Weinstein Company with Alyssa Milano, who’s executive producer on it, and we’ve been working on that for about a year. Then Finding Natalie is a gritty hour drama about sex trafficking. It’s about a young Mexican girl whose sister is kidnapped by a sex trafficking cartel, and she gets herself kidnapped to find her sister, and so really it’s a love story at the heart of it about two sisters, and what family will do for each other and the things that we will endure for love, for real love, and having that juxtaposed against this brutal world. Our culture really associates sex with love and being wanted, and to be able to say that’s actually not at all, that what these sisters are willing to do for each other is real intimacy. It’s in the pretty early stages. I’m in the middle of writing the first draft of the pilot right now, so I’m sure that I’ll have hundreds and hundreds of drafts with all the network notes and things like that.
MJ: And there are a few movies you’ve done as well.
HB: I have. I’ve done a couple of short films, and produced, and I have a feature film project that I’m developing with some producers as well that’s in the super early stages. I don’t quite know what that will be yet.
MJ: Do you think you’ll continue to do theater?
HB: I have to do theater. I have to. I do, but it’s so damn hard to get a production. I see why so many playwrights that are like, I’m done with theater. I’m gonna write for TV. I get it. I totally, totally get it. You have to continue to write plays because you love writing plays, and you don’t care if they’ll sit in a desk drawer and never see the light of day and you’ll never be paid for it.
MJ: What advice would you have liked to have had when you were younger and deciding that you wanted to be writer?
HB: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just write and let things be terrible. I think I had the impulse to write long before I really started doing it, and I think that I was really scared and didn’t think I had anything worth saying. I didn’t think that I was smart enough to be able to do it, and I meet a lot of people that say, “I just started writing” or “I want to be a writer” or “I want to write a play, how do you do it?” I think the biggest obstacle is fear. You have to take the pressure off yourself and give yourself permission to just be really terrible for awhile. Even when you learn how to write, the first draft of everything you write is going to be terrible. Giving yourself permission allows you to really trust your instincts and really conquer your fear. I think that more than anything is what prevents people from following their heart and saying the things they need to say. Also, learning how to protect and advocate for your work. Start in that place and really give yourself permission to be terrible.
MJ: Why should people come see Alligator?
HB: Yes, come see my show! Because, first of all, Elena has done an incredible job with the direction, and it’s messy and it’s bloody, and there’s an alligator onstage who also happens to be my boyfriend. There’s an actual alligator.
MJ: Well, I’ve heard so many wonderful things about it. I can’t wait to see it.
HB: Good! It’s so scary right now. The past week I’ve been like, Oh my god, I’m just gonna call everyone tomorrow and say this is terrible, let’s pull the plug, let’s pretend this never happened, let’s never talk about it again! Elena and I just sit in the corner ripping the whole thing apart and being like, Oh my god, what have we done? We’re both perfectionists.
MJ: I think if you get to a point where you’re entirely happy with what you’re doing, you’re doing something wrong. I think you always have to challenge yourself to be better.
HB: Yeah. Yeah! I hope you’re right!
Hilary Bettis writes for the theater, television and film. Her work includes: “Dolly Arkansas,” “Blood & Dust,” “The Ghosts of Lote Bravo,” “The History of American Pornography,” “Alligator,” “Dakota Atoll,” “Mexico” and “American Girls.” A two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center, she is a 2015 graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship at The Juilliard School.
Bettis has received many fellowships and residencies at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, York Theatre Workshop, SPACE at Ryder Farm, La Jolla Playhouse, New York Foundation for the Arts, Playwrights’ Week at The Lark, Audrey Residency at New Georges, Two River Theater, Great Plains Theatre Conference, The Kennedy Center/NNPN MFA Workshop and more.
As a screenwriter, Bettis has written and produced two short films, “B’Hurst” and “The Iron Warehouse,” which have screened at multiple film festivals across the globe. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a staff writer for the TV series “The Americans” on FX.