Ep 8: How COVID Can Lead to More Empathy for Undocumented Americans (Feat: Hilary Bettis)

Every week, culture critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís bring a POC perspective to the performing arts with their Token Theatre Friends podcast. The show can be found on SpotifyiTunes and Stitcher. You can listen to episodes from the previous version of the podcast here but to get new episodes, you will need to resubscribe to our new podcast feed (look for the all-red logo).

This week, the Friends discuss immigration, or rather, how immigration is portrayed on the stage. First off is a review of The Copper Children by Karen Zacarías, a play that was performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and is now being streamed by the theater. It’s about a fight between white people and Mexicans in 1904 Arizona, throwing into question the arbitrary-ness of citizenship and whiteness.

Then the Friends interview playwright (and FX’s The Americans staff writer) Hilary Bettis. Her play, 72 Miles to Go is also about family separation, following a Mexican-American family who is torn apart when the mother, Anita, is deported to Mexico. Bettis talks about how the way we’re living now in quarantine is not too different from how families who have been torn apart are living, like communicating via phone calls and not being able to touch each other. She also talks about the new Kilroys List, which annually spotlights under-produced plays by women and non-binary folks. This year, the List is a tribute to all of the shows by marginalized people who were cancelled.

Here are links to things the Friends talked about in this episode.

Below is the transcript of the episode.

Diep: Hi, this is Diep Tran.

Jose: And I’m Jose Solís.

Diep: And we’re your Token Theatre Friends, people who love theater so much that this weekend I saw like two shows. I felt like a normal weekend, you know, pre-COVID weekend.

Jose: I had a three show Wednesday—matinee, evening and evening plus, I guess or something.

Diep: And you didn’t even have to put on pants.

Jose: I wore pants, because you never know if those people can see you.

Diep: Yeah, you never know what like the cameras they make these days. They could like direct it themselves, right?

Jose: Don’t even go there, don’t put ideas in my head.

Diep: Yeah. And what are we talking about today, Jose?

Jose: We have a really exciting show today cuz have you seen a Karen Zacarías play before? I mean, no, right. First up, we’re gonna talk about The Copper Children, a play that was streamed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival and which turned out to be our very first Karen Zacarías play. So we’re gonna talk about why in a little bit. And we are also talking to playwright Hilary Bettis, who is part of the Kilroys who recently released a very heartbreaking list this year.

Diep: Yeah, yeah shows of COVID past.

Jose: I know. We’re gonna be talking to Hilary about the Kilroys, and 72 Miles to Go, which is a play she was doing at Roundabout [Off-Broadway] before COVID. Did you get to see that?

Diep: No, I didn’t have time.

Jose: So much heartbreak this episode.

Diep: I know. I know. Both of these plays are about immigration. And they’re kind of a bummer. A little bit.

Jose: Like a lot.

Diep: Yeah, yeah. But actually want to know what’s not a bummer? I just want to take the time to just talk about New York and how proud I am of New York. Because there’s so many you know, theater people out of work right now, so many restaurant people out of work right now. But we all chose to take the financial hit and stay home. And yesterday in New York City reported zero deaths for the first time. And so I heart all of us. And that does not mean we stop wearing a mask or go back to the theater because, like what will make you feel safe right now? To go back.

Jose: To go back, not being near Disney World. How, like I mean, how how how can you explain that to me how?

Diep: Money, money is how. But there’s so many other theaters like, I read this article that this theater in, somewhere in Middle America I think it’s called the Heron Theatre Company, [ed note: it’s Hale Centre Theatre in Utah] they reopened with no distancing between the patrons. And the actors and their production of Mary Poppins got sick and so they had to cancel that production, shut everything back down.

Jose: Mary Poppins? Mary Poppins she’s like flying, like coughing—

Diep: Spreading COVID to the children of London.

Jose: Yeah, so definitely being very far away from Disney World makes me very happy right now. It makes me feel very safe. But I don’t know if there’s anything that would really make me feel safe. Right now, do you? Do you have no benchmark?

Diep: I’m waiting for the vaccine.

Jose: You gonna be trapped for a very long time.

Diep: Yeah, I think that’s why like so many, like the two theaters in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, they’re re-opening and I’m just thinking, Why? We’re doing so good, no one’s dead in New York. We need to keep we need to keep everything down. Why are we getting ahead of ourselves? I’m so scared Jose.

Jose: You know what’s so strange, it’s like Bizarro world. There was a movie that came out two years ago, but I think was released commercially last year in the United States, was called In Transit. It’s a German movie in which characters are trying to, like do like, migration from the US into Mexico and people are being smuggled from the US into Mexico. And I’m like, literally, this is where the world is right now. I mean, like, my friends in Europe are saying that Americans are banned from the European Union and—

Diep: Everywhere, everywhere.

Jose: And that’s like never happened before. I feel like it’s upside down world so strange.

Diep: Or it’s real life, reflecting fiction because remember that that movie that Roland Emmerich movie 2012?

Jose: With the library and Jake Gyllenhaal, yes, unfortunately, yeah, yeah.

Diep: Like the entire world is ending and, and it heats up and so everyone is like, illegally migrating to Canada.

Jose: Yeah. Or wait, who was? Who was that? That that’s it. Dennis Quaid?

Diep: I forget who. Emmy Rossum was in it before she did—

Jose: Phantom. Yeah. God bless her. Who was the mom?

Diep: I think there’s just a dad. Back when Jake Gyllenhaal tried to be a movie actor. Remember that?

Jose: Pretty cool. I mean, I think I like him more in movies that I do on stage. He’s not my favorite in any medium for starters. I think I like him a little bit more movies whatever why are we talking about?

Diep: You didn’t like Sunday in the Park with George?

Jose: I like Sunday in the Park with Annaleigh Ashford. I mean, he was really good at that. But I don’t know. I’m a Gyllenhaal agnostic.

Diep: Yeah. I’m also very Gyllenhaal agnostic. Don’t tell the fans, they’re gonna come after us.

Jose: So are we cutting bits from the episode?

Diep: It seems we have the same taste in men, Jose, I think that’s what’s happening.

Jose: Not Jake Gyllenhaal

Diep: Not Jake Gyllenhaal. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, even if he was on stage right now, like who would pay to be in a theater and try to not get COVID.

Jose: Someone would pay. There’s always someone who would risk people’s lives. Betsy DeVos would pay.

Diep: Which is why, you know, I’m glad so many, there are some people who are opening, but I’m very glad theaters are continuing to close and stay home. Because we’re all in this together until the very end, which I hope will not be a year from now.

Jose: That’s dark. Can you get a happy ending?

Diep: We’re about to get into a discussion of immigration.

Jose: We’re talking about Jake Gyllenhaal. And other things just so we don’t have to go into—

Diep: Exactly, exactly. Though Jake Gyllenhaal in a dad cardigan in Sea Wall/A Life, at the Public Theater before went to Broadway when he was wearing a cardigan because he did not wear the cardigan on Broadway. That is my favorite Jake Gyllenhaal.

Jose: I think my favorite tip Gyllenhaal is shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal in a very inappropriate Prince of Persia where he played Middle Easterner.

Diep: Remember back when it was okay?

Jose: It was never okay. But I think that’s my favorite. Also like, Jake and remember that movie Love and Other Drugs where—

Diep: Where he was naked for most of the movie? Love and Other Drugs is what I thought Brokeback Mountain was going to be. I thought there was gonna be more naked in Brokeback Mountain and I was kind of kind of disappointed, you know, RIP Heath Ledger that they were only really shirtless for like one scene.

Jose: They’re in like the mountains in Utah or something.

Diep: It’s a fantasy.

Jose:  He gets murdered at the end, it was not a fantasy. It’s not like Danielle Steel like lady porn.

Diep: I thought it was gonna be lady porn. I thought lady porn is the same as gay porn. You know? Like we just like seeing good-looking men doing stuff with no shirts on.

Jose: Yeah, at different levels of like, lubrication. Okay, we need to talk about this. I’m holding your hand. Alright, let’s start with The Copper Children,

Diep: So The Copper Children is based on a true story and it is by Karen Zacarias, who is one of the most produced playwrights in America. But fun fact, Jose said in his article that is on our website that you can read that Karen has never had a play done in New York. And just goes to show you don’t need to be approved by New York in order to get like a multi million dollar production. Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced The Copper Children. It is not a small theater. It is a very large theater and it was a really stirring production. It was very Brechtian to me, actually. It They call it like a fable, like an American fable and summary: It is set in 1904 when a bunch of Irish orphans get transported across the United States to the frontier Southwest, so they can be adopted by Catholic parents, except the Catholic parents turned out to be Mexicans who are cohabitating in Arizona, which belong to New Mexico at the time, with white people. And so when the children arrive, it then becomes,  they go from Irish to white, and all these racist people are like, you cannot, these Mexicans cannot adopt the children even though, you know, they didn’t actually want them originally. But because race is a construct, they decided that these Mexican parents are not good enough for these children.

Jose: it’s insane though, right? I mean, that happened so long ago and like, why aren’t people learning their lesson? It was very sad. But the play is very Brechtian, it’s very sad, do you think you would have been able to like handle it if it had been more naturalistic? And if we had seen for instance, like actual little children, and if it was more literal, was your soul ready for that?

Diep: No, not really. I think it was comforting to know that this was, they’re all just telling a story like the actors, you know, like the actor start off in modern dress and then they recreate these stories, they recreate this story and there’s like there’s always slightly removed. But what I really loved about it was whenever we went back in time, like even if it’s just like a very short scene, like Karen is such an economical writer that she’s able to make you feel these people’s humanity—both the Mexicans and the white people, with very little time. Like she establishes the racial scene of Arizona at the time, which is incredibly complex, in less than five minutes. I don’t know how she did it, but I was riveted the entire time.

Jose: Karen Zacarias for Secretary of Education. I’ve learned so much. And I know that’s not necessarily the purpose of the play. But I learned a lot about history. And you know, it was so strange just this trial at the end of the custody battle for the little Irish children, who’s played by a puppet named Katie. Anyway, it was so strange that this whole battle was called a trial of the century. And how many trials of the century have we had? Yeah, like OJ [Simpson]. And like everything is a trial of the century. And I’m like, I don’t know, I just felt so bad. I felt like such failure as a human being, not just myself necessarily, but as like, a human society. Jesus, like, don’t we learn anything like at all? No. Like at all? No.

Diep: No? Well, I mean, an example of how why we haven’t learned anything. Because no, no one teaches this in school. Like the way American history is taught in schools is very much, slavery happened. And then slavery did not happen. We freed the slaves, and then everything was okay. Until World War Two, when the Germans killed the Jews, and then we had to kill the Japanese, but it was all them, you know, it’s all very much of us versus them mentality. And in school for me, most of the racial stuff was like, during the Civil War. You don’t learn your history, then of course you repeat it. And what I really loved about the play was the fact that the thing is like, it could so so like, there was a review in the New York Times of this play. And they were talking about, the reviewer Elizabeth Vincentelli was talking about how it was like very overstuffed with themes. And she found it very didactic and I actually didn’t, because it’s not an issue. It could be an issue play, but Karen doesn’t spell it out in exactly those words, she is just telling the story and because the actors are in modern dress for a portion of it, it allows you to make the connection in your own mind without the play guiding you through it. And that’s the brilliant thing about it.

Jose: So wait, wait, wait, a white lady who probably loved Oslo and The Inheritance, they say that this is overstuffed with themes? Who probably loves Angels in America, is saying that this is overstuffed. Okay, wow.

Diep: I know. I know. It’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.

Jose: I know, but it’s like, if if those people started like judging works by non white people with the same lens that they do works by white people that they love, they would be like, pot meet kettle, like, wow. Okay, anyway,

Diep: This play is basically kind of like Caucasian Chalk Circle but like why did, why am I the only one making that connection? It’s kind of like you know, playwrights of color are also influenced by white people.

Jose: Yeah, in fact, one of the things that I really enjoyed about writing about Karen, getting to speak to Karen, is that you know, we have bonded in the past, digitally, over how angry we get at white critics and white people using the word telenovela, usually as a derivative, right? And that’s something that’s like, it’s bad. And it’s so strange. It’s like most of those people haven’t even watched it and I loved telenovelas so much. So I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess I hoped that they would have, again, don’t we ever learned our lesson?

Diep: It’s more, it’s like a lack of imagination, which is the basic theme of American history, I think—people unable to look outside of themselves and outside of their own myopic worldview in order to understand where other people might be coming from.

Jose: What is the one thing that you learned, not in a history class about American history, when you found out about it?

Diep: I think it was definitely the Japanese internment. I didn’t learn about it in history class. I learned about in my English class because we read Farewell to Manzanar.

Jose: So you didn’t learn about the history?

Diep: Broad strokes. World War II, it was like two weeks worth about you know, the Holocaust. And then you got a couple days on Pearl Harbor but we did not touch on the Japanese internment at all, and so you’re not taught to make the connections between, you know, concentration camps and internment camps until you go to college and become a bleeding heart liberal. But then it’s too late, you know.

Jose: They only teach you the places where white people have been the heroes.

Diep: Yes.

Jose: So they teach you that they ended slavery but they don’t tell me about that nut cases.

Diep: Or Jim Crow. I went to school in California.

Jose: And that’s so progressive.

Diep: Right? Imagine how much worse it is like in the actual South.

Jose: Oh my god that’s terrifying. Oh my god. Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia.

Diep: Yeah that’s that’s why we’re in the situation we are in now because we are not taught that racism does not end with one event.

Jose: Wow, that is so insane yeah, which is why one of the things that I really loved about The Copper Children was that, you know, the puppet that’s supposed to represent Katie, who’s this redheaded, Irish orphan, she doesn’t have a face, she doesn’t have like a you know, she’s made out of wood, with no hair or anything. So it forces one, I would hope, to empathize and to see their children up there. Wow that took yeah took me on like a trip. That’s like insane like I couldn’t believe it. I mean, we talked about it kind of in our previous episode, the Hamilton Congress, if you haven’t watched it go do that at some point. We talked about how even like my sixth grade history book ended with, “someday, man will reach the moon.” I was born in 1986. So people had already been to the moon. Mm hmm. But that’s how my history book ended. Because like, we got the second hand history books from American schools. Yeah. I was in an American school where we’re getting like, super old history from the US. Yeah. But that’s like, Okay. How can people fix that then? Do you think that plays are a good place, you know, to learn history.

Diep: I don’t think like a play should teach you history because you know, play comes with its own preconceived notions of what’s worth telling, like any history book. And it’s always going to be incomplete, Karen couldn’t stuff all of Arizona colonial, you know history into her play. That’s why you need more research. But I think a good piece of work like, you know, The Copper Children, like Hamilton, will inspire you to look more into it, or it should inspire you to look more into it. And so actually, after I watched The Copper Children, I actually looked up, actually Googled, like Arizona orphans 1904, to see if it was actually true. Because I know, because I’m a nerd, like I need to know. I need to know. And there’s really that there’s a book actually about it by Linda Gordon called The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Also like one of the Arizona press in like the early 2000s wrote about it, and what Karen put in her play was basically not that far from reality. So really reality is like stranger than fiction sometimes because it’s fucking insane.

Jose: It is really nuts. It is really crazy.

Diep: But I would advocate for doing your own research like don’t believe, don’t 100% believe entertainment.

Jose: It not Pocahontas would be this 25 year old princess and not like a child. Oh Disney you have disappointed us in so many ways. I love Pocahontas, I love it. When I found out that she was like 12 and he was like, I mean, she didn’t even marry John Smith. Do you remember who she married?

Diep: She married John Rolfe, yeah, yes.

Jose: In the sequel Pocahontas: Journey to the New World.

Diep: Voice by Billy Zane.

Jose: Voice by Christian Bale, right?

Diep: No, no Christian Bale was in the Terrence Malick The New World Pocahontas movie with—

Jose: Q’orianka Kilcher. Are you sure Christian Bale wasn’t in the animated?

Diep: No Billy Zane was was because I remembered Oh, it’s it’s Rose’s fiance from Titanic.

Jose: You’re such a gay boy teenage girl. Was when you were reading The Baby-Sitters Club also?

Diep: Yeah. The 90s were a very vivid time in my imagination.

Jose: Okay let’s talk about, well this plays is making us talk about some creepy shit. Yeah, I know right off the bat we talked about at the beginning that this is like the first Karen Zacarias play we have ever seen and how wrong that is because who are the top people who have never been produced in New York, it’s Karen Zacarias, Lauren Gunderson.

Diep: Has like Octavio Solis been produced?

Jose: In New York. Not while I’ve been around I think. And Tarell [Alvin McCraney] even like he’s only had one show produced right?

Diep: Yes, but he has been produced, his famous trilogy [The Brother/Sister Plays] was produced in New York. But it was before we all got here. Yeah. I totally think that you don’t need to have like a big New York clout in order to be a playwright. I think what you do need, I think what you do need is just like enough people who believe in your work and I think think what New York is like—people, people come to New York because it’s the easiest way then to like be transmitted out, to get your name established so that more people will want to produce you. But that doesn’t have to be the case though.

Jose: It shouldn’t, like if anything, it taught us that it shouldn’t. I was so happy, I wish Roundabout or someone would produce like a play like The Copper Children instead of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

Diep: Or Tom Stoppard?

Jose: Yeah, I mean, I kind of have a soft spot for Stoppard but yes, enough Tom Stoppard. And yes, I was right Christian Bale was in both Pocahontas

Hilary: Oh, I had no idea.

Jose: He was Thomas Webber. I don’t have early onset disease, I remember my Pocahontas right. Thank you Karen for making me revise my history. Make sure that I was speaking the truth. But, you know, like that was the first time, that play about Marie Curie—

Diep: The Half-Life of Marie Curie. Yeah,

Jose: it was first Lauren Gunderson I think I ever saw in New York.

Diep: No, it’s a third that’s been produced in New York.

Jose: Okay, isn’t she the most produced after Shakespeare?

Diep: She is. In America. Yeah, but it’s because like her plays have gotten circulated outside of New York. But I do want to shout out, the director Sharifa Ali, I’ve never seen any any of her work before. And I was like really impressed by how she handled this because I think when it comes to stuff that breaks the fourth wall, or has a lot of ideas like this one, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by it. And I loved how simple she kept it with the scaffolding that looks like mine scaffolding, and just making sure that the designation of different time periods is just through like costuming and skirts and things like that. And so it was all very simple. So it really allows you to focus on the words, which is great actually, when it comes to—my theory when it comes to filming theater for live performance, I mean filming theater for online performance, is the simpler the text and the design, the easier it’s going to be for everyone to capture.

Jose: Yes, that’s fine. That’s kind of like that Hamilton, Come From Away thing, which by the way, someone needs to record Come From Away and release it because I need something to make me happy. But I agree with that. And, you know, if you don’t read the interview, but you should because Karen’s very wise, but if you don’t read it, you’ll also find out that this was not intended to be streamed. Like this was a video that they recorded for the understudies so they could see it if they were trying to play, if they hadn’t tried before. But even with that, you know, it was really good stream, right? Like the quality is very good. But can you imagine, what theatre companies could do with preparation and the awareness that something’s going to be streamed, like we could be doing all the Gundersons, all the Zacarias, all the Solis, but all those people that we don’t get in New York, we should be seeing that and we should be also looking at theater over the world. And I don’t know. It’s been like very eye opening and very sad also to know like, Oh, God, we could have this all along? And we haven’t and that’s very sad. Until they find a vaccine, please keep giving us all the plays that you’re making over the world.

Diep: Mm hmm. And Oregon Shakespeare Festival is is putting slowly putting up their archives for like week-long, you know, runs online. So the next one up is Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I’ve seen their stuff live and it is breathtaking. So I hope you all check it out.

Jose: And Oregon, give us Head Over Heels please.

Diep: And just just a note this was filmed before COVID so they’re not doing this right now and filming it. This is all archival stuff.

Jose: Yeah, no one should be filming right?

Diep: No one should be at performing in person right now. Please be safe.

Jose: Stay away from people. So now we’re gonna go talk to Hilary Bettis who is a playwright, who you might know because she wrote Alligator and she’s part of the Sol Project. And she also wrote 72 Miles to Go, which was running at Roundabout before COVID hit. And Hilary is one of those amazing playwrights who also transitioned into television, where she was a writer for The Americans. Anyway, let’s go talk to Hillary about her career and also about her involvement with the Kilroys who just recently released their latest heartbreaking list. Hilary, thank you so much for joining us. I have so many questions for you. The first question that I have for you is that, you know, I went to 72 Miles to Go, you know, a few weeks before quarantine started. And so I ended up tweeting there was that line from your play, about touch? That I was like, it hit me, you know, it struck me like lightning, even not knowing what was coming. And ever since I’m like, it’s Hilary Bettis is like a prophet.

Hilary: I’ve been working on this play for years. But this feels like we are all now living the undocumented immigrant experience in our relationships. Having your entire life, your entire connection to your family through phone calls. I mean, that’s all you have. And like my two month old son still hasn’t met most of his grandparents yet. That’s the experiences that family was going through and so many families go through and if there’s a silver lining and all of that, my hope is that this country will be able to have a deeper understanding and empathy for undocumented people because we’re having—for us, it’s temporary. For them, it’s not.

Diep: You talked about the experience like so vividly in your play. How did you research it? What was part of like, what was a part of the process of like getting into that headspace?

Hilary: I mean, it was, you know, it’s personal. It’s personal, partially, you know. It’s a subject that I’ve written extensively about. It’s something that I’ve seen now I feel like, I’ve been talking about long before it was ever even in our news cycle. You know, my mother grew up in the border, and my father’s a minister, my brothers in the military. My mother’s a nurse and so, like the character specificity, the characters were people I love and conversations that I’ve had. And then, in terms of like, being undocumented, I worked with a lot of different actors that are undocumented throughout the process. Met with immigration attorneys, and spent some time in an actual attorney’s offices and different, you know, clients coming through and like, what day the day was like for them and what the language was like for them. But, you know, I just, I don’t know. I mean, I feel like this is like the greatest human rights issue of our generation. And I think because of that, because of that, I feel like attention must be restored.

Jose: You’ve had a lot of success doing television writing in The Americans, which I’m sorry, I still haven’t watched yet. Everyone’s telling me it’s such a great show to binge right now. But I’m like, it sounds very intense. So maybe I’ll wait a little bit. You know, you had great success writing for television, and The Americans and then 72 Miles to Go, ended up, for a few weeks, being streamed also. And obviously, none of us knew that this was coming. So I would love if you could talk what what you have learned from writing for each different medium that you kind of wish more, you know, TV writers incorporated this theater thing more often. And that playwrights incorporated this TV thing more often.

Hilary: More than I worked in TV, the more I really have a deeper love and appreciation and understanding of what makes a play a play. You can have empathy. I mean, first of all, theater is a live experience. And so the way that our brains experience time in theater vs TV is very, very different. And you sort of have permission in theater I think to just live with characters in real time and space. In TV, audiences get very bored very quickly staring at a screen, you know, and when you have cinematography and you have editing and you have all of these other camera tricks, you can get a point across much more quickly. I think in theater, the characters either need to say it or like their relationship needs to say it for an audience. And I think that’s probably the biggest difference, but honestly, I wish that we could take some bigger theatrical risks. You know, especially, especially in like the uptown theaters that are, I think so more of like a traditional American kitchen sink drama, which I think certainly 72 Miles I think fell into that, but how do we take that and take, I think like the pacing and the sort of big gestures that you could have in television, like how do you use that in theater to make it more immediate.

Diep: I’m glad you mentioned that 72 Miles is a kitchen sink drama. We both saw your play Alligator, which was pretty batshit.

Jose: Bonkers. I love it.

Hilary: It was very batshit. [laughs]

Diep: It was so crazy! It’s a completely different play than 72 Mile to Go in terms of, you know, topically but also stylistically, though they still have the fragmentation aspect. So like when you got the news that you’re getting produced in the 200 seat, you know, big Off Broadway space on 46th Street, did that affect how you decided to write the play?

Hilary: I love Alligator, I love like messy, weird downtown theater shit. That was sort of like my jam for a long time and then, like being completely like, pragmatic. I was like, my career has hit this glass ceiling, like theaters, they read my stuff and they’re like, we love you. We’ll never produce it. But this is cool. Let’s have another coffee. I want to write a play that gets the attention of uptown theaters. Something that I’m passionate about and a subject but reaches a bigger audience. I wrote a play called The Ghost of Lotte Bravo that was also very, like, messy and sort of, you know, closer to the world of alligator than 72 Miles. So I wrote the play with that in mind from from, you know, the first word on the page. So I kind of, you know, and then Roundabout loved it. I spent a couple of years like doing readings with them and developing it. I very like intentionally knew what I was doing.

Jose: My god, I love that so much. Now I want to go into like, more like heartbreaking themes that we’re like, oh my god, you should have seen us like try to get serious to record earlier. We were don’t want to like talk about the sad things that we have to talk about right now.

Diep: Because we’re also talking about Karen Zacarias play The Copper Children this episode and that and we’re like wow, it’s a lot about immigration and family separation and I mean granted, it’s a privilege to be able to not think about it all the time for sure.

Jose: Absolutely. Yeah. But anyway yeah, we were like oh god like we were like running circles around things but one of the reasons why we wanted to talk to you is because you’re representing also the Kilroys and different years, the Kilroys, every time the list comes out, it’s like fuck yeah moment about all these plays that are you know, haven’t been produced yet and that are there for you know, for people to like, read them and start producing them. And this year, we got like, the heartbreaking, the sadder like twist to that which is the plays that could have been, and I mean, the plays haven’t gone anywhere, they’re still in the world. And they can be produced if we go, you know, whatever production and staging looks like, at some point, all the plays can be that. But can you talk a little bit about, you know, the idea behind this year’s list? And it’s so sad like, I don’t know it. I don’t know, I don’t even know what to say. It’s just so heartbreaking.

Hilary: It is really heartbreaking. You know, I mean, I have, I have multiple productions that were canceled and so I’m like, you know, every playwright on this list, I know how, with gut wrenching it is, you know, you work so hard and so long, and you finally get an opportunity and, you know, overnight it’s, it’s, it’s pulled that you know, the rug is pulled out from under your feet. And I’m sure a lot of these writers are wondering will my play ever get, will I ever get a chance, will this play ever get a chance again? You know, none of us know what the landscape is going to look like when, when when theater comes back and who knows when that’s going to be. But I think for us, we really wanted to respond to the moments and we wanted to really think in sort of big picture terms about what is happening, not just in theater, but across, you know, the world right now. And really, like honor, because, like, these are, the spring production especially is when theaters take, like their riskiest plays, you know, women and people of color overwhelmingly are the plays that are scheduled in those slots and so it’s like an extra, you know, fuck you from COVID. And so I think our thinking was like, well, we really want to honor these plays. We want to honor the pain and heartbreak and grief that so many of these writers are feeling and experiencing. We want to keep these plays alive. We want theaters, when theater comes back to say, hey, these plays are still here. Please don’t like fall back on like musicals and revivals of old dead white guys. Do these plays, read these plays, keep these plays alive.

And we really felt like it was our, you know, the first of all, like the Kilroys, we we just aggregate information. We don’t pick plays. And I can’t stress that enough. We have nominators, they send us their top five reads you know, and then the top percentage of the most recommended plays are plays that fill the list every year. But we felt like that seems a little bit small in terms of what’s happening in the world right now. And so we really wanted to just make this, here’s all that’s been canceled, and that this is really a living list. We know that more plays are going to be unfortunately, canceled and postponed so that people can continue adding to this, um, so that we really document what is happening right now in this era.

Diep: What’s your opinion on like, people producing things virtually?

Hilary: I understand. First of all, I understand. Artists need to keep making work, we need to keep making work and we need to respond to the time and this is what it is. Theater cannot happen. We cannot invent together right now. And people’s voices need to be expressed, encouraged and out there in the universe. And also, you know, from my pragmatic point of view, theater needs to find a way to continue to survive, you know, bring in whatever money they can to exist. And hopefully that money goes into honoring their staff and artists and honoring things the theaters already promised artists, you know. I’m putting that out into the universe so that that’s where some money is still going to. But, um, it’s not the same as plays I’ve written to be experienced in real time, in real space, with a real living audience. And, you know, TV and film is really really good at what TV and films does. And so I don’t quite know how theater can compete with that, to be quite honest. Um, but I’m aware we have to have different ways of thinking about what you’re seeing right now, you know, I’m so I’m, I’m trying to be open minded about it and also at the same time, like, you know, we can’t compete with Netflix.

Jose: You’re so right about I guess I remember when I went to a matinee of 72 Miles to Go and someone was like, a man next to me was burping whiskey or something like that. Then there’s there’s that scene where the character, you know, where Bobby’s character, I think brings in some KFC. And I was like, there’s like the smell of fried chicken and this man’s like boozy burps, and all of that, you know, it kind of, I kind of missed that.

Hilary: Yeah, I mean, I think, right, we as a species are wired to experience empathy when we are in rooms with other people. And that is what theater has that TV and film will never have. When there’s like a screen in front of us, when it’s an object and screen, there’s part of our brain that doesn’t see the people on the other side of the screen. You know, but when we are forced to sit next to people, even people that might be like, drunk in the worst moments or falling asleep or hearing aids going off or whatever, we respond differently than we would you know. And I just think that like that lesson and empathy is so vital and so necessary and I don’t know, I think a lot of ways like when theater comes back, that is the one thing that you are going to be craving so much, you know.

Diep: Speaking of audiences, like when you did 72 Miles and you know, we all know the audience at Roundabout, it’s not the audience that we would like. But But, but you were exposing them to a personal story that they would not have had knowledge of otherwise, you know, because undocumented immigrants are usually quite villainized or otherauthorized in media and so do you think the play did what you wanted it to do in terms of like making people feel empathy, and hopefully inspiring them to do something?

Hilary: Yeah, I think some people yes, some people, No, you know, I think they’re, I mean, definitely conversations that I had with some people felt like, oh, I never really thought about about immigration from a family perspective, I never thought about it from like, the small things in life that we take for granted that are missed. And how massive that is. You know, I think definitely there definitely were people that for sure were inspired. And you know, and then of course, there’s people that are like, Oh, it’s, you know, political. Trying to, you know, make me feel something for people that I don’t want to feel for, you know, and I will say that, I think because there are not enough Latinx stories, it ought to be but especially on our stages, there just aren’t. And I think for a lot of the audience, I will say very, like well, meeting audience members, I think the only thing they’ve really ever thought about Latinx people and this particular subject is from like, The New York Times headlines or like what they see on like CNN. You know and it’s always got-wrenching stories about, you know, detention centers and children being taken from their families and harrowing journeys across multiple countries and the violence and the death and the cartels, just that is part of it. But also for so many more people it is like this like quiet everyday life and first of all, that’s what I wanted to highlight.

For me, I think that there was a real expectation, maybe not even conscious to the subconscious expectation that this play was going to be like trauma porn. And I think a lot of people were disappointed when it wasn’t. And I think this is like a bigger issue with, there’s just white audiences I think want, they want that shock, they want to be like, oh I’m a good person because I would never be this horrible. And therefore I don’t actually like have to take a deeper look at subtle, insidious racism in our culture and how we’re all a part of that. And no, I mean, there’s, I think people still want that separation. That’s kind of what I came out with in this experience, I came in writing this play thinking like, Oh, we’ll see how similar we are then people will have more empathy. But I actually think, I think that that there were certainly people that that happened for. But I also there were many people that don’t want that. That don’t want to feel similar. They want to feel like, Oh, these poor people? I have pity therefore I’m a good person.

Diep: Yeah, yeah. Like I took my medicine by having this experience, it’s very painful experience and then therefore I don’t need to do anything else.

Jose: Other people are screwed because right now everyone all over the world is almost like living the exact same life right? And I say almost because obviously you know, like we we have WiFi, we have internet, and we have like, anyway, you know, like most of us I would say are like, I don’t know, like fairly equal playing level. What is like some of the things that you have found yourself doing during quarantine? That you were like Hillary, not in a million years I would have ever imagined you doing this in your life?

Hilary: [laughs] Oh besides having a baby

Diep: I assume you planned on having the baby.

Hilary: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, I think, uh, well, I will say that I have definitely been doing a lot of soul searching about, like, what kinds of stories I want to tell and what kind of writer I actually want to be. And, um, you know, I don’t know if that’s, I think that it’s because of what is happening right now. But it’s making me like step back in ways that I don’t know that I would have. Otherwise. I’m really asked myself like uncomfortable questions like, is theater, the right place for, you know, my voice or the audience I want to reach. Your reactions are amazing.

Jose: Don’t leave us!

Diep: We’ll still talk to you if you do, but

Hilary: But I, I really want to write really messy plays like Alligator, but I want to reach an audience like Roundabout and I don’t, I’m like how do you do that? How do you? How do you and also how do you like continue to put the family in 72 Miles at the forefront of the conversation that I want to have, and do it in a way that people can hear and people can digest and it’s not people being like, but I don’t want to feel for those people. You know, I think that’s something that I’m really, really grappling with right now. Part of me is maybe I should be a novelist. Because it’s, it’s also like, complicated navigating like these big institutions and how do you like hold on to your, voicing your point of view and your concept of this thing that you wrote when there’s so many like moving parts and other departments and other perspectives and other stuff coming at you, you know, and I think that I’ve, like found that hard to navigate in every production that I’ve had period, whether it’s been like Roundabout or like a tiny theater in, you know, Kansas City or whatever, it’s it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to navigate, which I feel like is part of the conversation that we’re also having right now.

Jose: I don’t mean to put like a cloud on your novelist parade but even they’re like looking at American Dirt. It seems that what they want is like, poverty and suffering porn. So don’t leave us Hilary.

Hilary: I love writing plays too much.

Diep: I know, I feel like it’s one of those lies that that theaters like to tell themselves, that it’s all like our base is not commercial, like, you know, Hollywood is. But no, like you’re making all kinds of artistic compromises in production because you think, Oh, this is what the, our white audience might like.

Hilary: You are, you really, really, really, really are, you know. And you have, like, you have like, very well meaning, you know, artistic directors and producers and you know, people that really know their particular audience that are giving you notes behind the scenes that are, whether you’re conscious of it or not, are about their particular audience and you’re like, well, I want this play to resonate. I want it to be successful and especially like, Latinx plays that is on, you know, Off Broadway on that stage, you’re like God, it has to be successful so that they take more risks like this. And then you know, and so suddenly you’re carrying the weight of an entire community, you know, and being a woman on top of that on your shoulders, and you’re like, you start to—I personally know that I fall into the trap of like, second guessing my instincts or being like, Well, I’m not being collaborative, and I’m not—or I should listen to them because I see it this way, but maybe that isn’t going to resonate with the audience. So I should, like, cut that part of the play, or I should, like, tone that language down or, you know, I should, you know, make this like a more sort of WASP-y repressed scene instead of like a big Mexican family that’s like shouting at each other. You know, it’s a lot of like those little tiny, this constant, like mental calculation that you’re doing, and which I feel like, you know, white male playwrights don’t do, just don’t have to think about those things because everybody behind the scenes and in the audience shares their perspective. And so they can sort of be bigger and take risks in ways that I feel like, my instincts says this and you know, pragmatic brain says this and it’s a constant emotional wrestling match. I feel like the glass ceiling of my career and I don’t know how to. That’s the thing that I feel like I don’t, how do you. I wish you wrote for the New York Times, both of you Jesus.

Diep: Jose does. I don’t very much it’s too stressful of an experience.

Jose: And I have no comment right now. That that whole, like empathizing only with this white male perspective is how we end up with all this plays that feel like they have no adobo, like they have no seasoning, like there’s nothing there. But you know to counteract that. Have you fallen in love? Or have you been revisiting any specifically Latinx pop culture? Or just like food or anything in quarantine that’s given you joy?

Hilary: Oh, wait, yeah, wait, hold on. My education is like this. I don’t know enough about Chicano history and especially like women’s kind of history and so I’m spending a lot of time just like digging deep into, like, my own family’s story and, and the history of this country because I feel like you know, it’s I mean, I grew up in like public schools where basically we were taught that like, you know, the Bible is founded on God and the Constitutin’s founded on the Bible. And the men behind it were all white men and they’re perfect and we should all try to be like them. And there was like, no conversation around how women played a part in our history there was never like, I think like our Black history month was like Martin Luther King Jr. was great, the end. And how great white people are again, but God really is like, that was like my education. And so I feel like I’m, I’m, like, well, I can’t expect our country and our culture and our society to understand our history until I really like start to look at it and understand it for myself and understand, like, why my family made the decisions they did, like what were they dealing with, as they were, like, you know, coming of age in this country and trying to carve out their own place, you know, because it’s one thing to like, look back and say, Why didn’t my grandfather teache us Spanish? It’s another thing to look back and say wait like, that was during like the repatriation of you know, Mexican Americans and that his mother and his family was living in fear and you know, the like Juan Crow Laws in Texas that like nobody talks about and you know, and so you can understand it in that context, like how can we really understand ourselves. And so I think that’s like what I’m really trying as well, like having a baby now and wanting to teach my son, you know, who we are and where we come from. And also like there’s more to the world than what you’re going to be taught in school.

Jose: No pressure Hillary but like just hearing you describe all these things, I’m kind of like seeing like 72 Miles the TV series like prequel, like set out, like in the 1900s. And then you can write a book about the repatriation act, and then you can end up with your own Hilary Bettis like universe with movies and TV and plays. Yeah, that way you could do it all and not leave theater.

Hilary: Your mouth to God’s ear. I love it. I love it. I mean, I have some like TV development, stuff that just sort of all in the same, you know, trying to have the same conversations around like, immigration and the Chicano experience and, you know, trying to find different ways to subvert it and so our pop culture. We’ll see

Jose: This is the part of interview where you plug everything that you’re working on everything that you want us to make, you know, happen, so you won’t leave theater and write books.

Hilary: Okay, well, if you could, like, get some, like different critics reviewing plays, that would be amazing for the field, for all of us. Um, I mean, I think really what I want to plug is the Kilorys and the Kilroys list and I want like everybody to just look at those plays, look at all the plays on it, read all of those plays, and especially the plays by unknown writers by you know, plays that were canceled and small communities—like really reaching out and supporting them and not just like the usual suspects that are, you know, the well known or well known writers among us that have plays cancelled, but like the small, those plays, and like keeping them alive, keeping them alive, reading them, programming them, like, like making a commitment to bring these plays back when theater comes back. Like if there’s one thing I want to leave people with at the end of this conversation is that because, also so many other players on this list are women of color. And these are like vital, necessary beautiful voices that deserve to have a platform and deserve to have those productions. You know, and then read other plays by these writers. And then go back through all the Kilroys lists and read all of the plays by play by women that you have not read yet. I think our list last year was all, the year before it was all women of color. And so like go back, look at that list, read those writers.

Jose: Thank you. I mean, we were all in this together and give my love to Bobby and to the baby. And enjoy your downtime also.

Hilary: Thank you.

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