Hilary Bettis On Life During COVID-19: “We Are All Now Living the Undocumented Immigrant Experience”

Hilary Bettis (Photo: James Bartalozzi)

Playwright Hilary Bettis is finally getting some alone time. She recently gave birth to a baby boy and she and her husband, actor Bobby Moreno, have been taking care of their infant in shifts. So during her down time, Bettis has been doing a lot of reading and soul-searching: “I’m spending a lot of time digging deep into my own family’s story and the history of this country,” she said in a Skype interview from her home in Brooklyn.

The Mexican-American playwright writes quite a bit about family. Her play, 72 Miles to Go, was produced Off-Broadway earlier this year at Roundabout Theatre Company and was about a torn apart when the matriarch, Anita, is deported. The Ghosts of Lote Bravo, which has been produced around the country, is about a Mexican mother who is haunted after her daughter is murdered. Bettis is also a writer on FX’s The Americans, for which she won a Writers Guild of America Award for her work.

Bettis is also passionate about representation. She is a member of the Kilroys, a group of theater activists who advocate for more women and non-binary playwrights on American stages. Their annual list highlights plays that need to be produced (Bettis was on that list earlier in her career). The 2020 list is a little bit different: it focuses on plays by women and non-binary writers who were cancelled. And it’s a living document, which will be updated until the theater comes back.

When asked what people should be doing right now, Bettis responded with, “read all of those plays, and especially the plays by unknown writers by you know,” she said. “make a commitment to bring these plays back when theater comes back.”

The conversation below has been edited and condensed.

One of the reasons why we wanted to talk to you is because you’re representing the Kilroys. Every time the Kilroys List comes out, it’s like a, “fuck yeah” moment about all these plays that haven’t been produced yet and that are there for people to read them and start producing them. And this year, we got the heartbreaking, the sadder twist to that, which is the plays that could have been. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, the idea behind this year’s list?

It is really heartbreaking. I have multiple productions that were canceled. Every playwright on this list, I know how gut wrenching it is—you work so hard and so long, and you finally get an opportunity and overnight, the rug is pulled out from under your feet. And I’m sure a lot of these writers are wondering, will I ever get a chance, will this play ever get a chance again?

None of us know what the landscape is going to look like 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 moment and we wanted to really think in big-picture terms about what is happening, not just in theater, but across the world right now.

The spring production especially is when theaters take their riskiest plays; women and people of color overwhelmingly are the plays that are scheduled in those slots and so it’s like an extra, “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.

This is really a living list. We know that more plays are going to be, unfortunately, canceled and postponed. People can continue adding to this, so that we really document what is happening right now in this era.

The Kilroys (Photo: Jenn Spain Photography)

I went to 72 Miles to Go, a few weeks before quarantine started. There was that line from your play, about touch [in the play Anita says, “I miss touch. I miss hands. Rough skin… fingers… I think a person dies inside without touch.”]. It struck me like lightning, even not knowing what was coming. And ever since, I’m like, it’s Hilary Bettis is a prophet.

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. My two-month-old son still hasn’t met most of his grandparents yet. That’s the experiences that family [in the play] was going through and so many families go through. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, my hope is that this country will be able to have a deeper understanding and empathy for undocumented people. For us, it’s temporary. For them, it’s not.

You talked about the undocumented 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?

It’s personal, partially. It’s a subject that I’ve written extensively about. I feel like I’ve been talking about it long before it was ever even in our news cycle. My mother grew up on the border, and my father’s a minister, my brother’s in the military. My mother’s a nurse, and so the character specificity, the characters were people I love and conversations that I’ve had. And then, in terms of being undocumented, I worked with a lot of different actors that are undocumented throughout the process. I met with immigration attorneys, and spent some time in an actual attorney’s offices—with different clients coming through and like, what the day was like for them and what the language was like for them. I feel like this is like the greatest human rights issue of our generation. And I think because of that I feel like attention must be restored.

You’ve had a lot of success doing television writing in The Americans. I would love if you could talk what what you have learned from writing for different mediums that you kind of wish more TV writers incorporated this theater thing more often. And that playwrights incorporated this TV thing more often.

The more 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. Theater is a live experience. And so the way that our brains experience time in theater verses TV is very, very different. And you sort of have permission in theater to just live with characters in real time and space.

In TV, audiences get very bored very quickly staring at a screen 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 their relationship needs to say it for an audience. I think that’s probably the biggest difference.

Honestly, I wish that we could take some bigger theatrical risks. Like a traditional American kitchen sink drama, how do we take that and take the pacing and the sort of big gestures that you could have in television—how do you use that in theater to make it more immediate.

Speaking of audiences, when you did 72 Miles—we all know the audience at Roundabout, it’s not the audience that we would like. But you were exposing them to a personal story that they would not have had knowledge of otherwise, because undocumented immigrants are usually quite villainized or other-rized in media. 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?

I think some people yes—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. There definitely were people that for sure were inspired.

And then of course, there’s people that are like, “Oh, it’s, political—trying to make me feel something for people that I don’t want to feel for.” I think because there are not enough Latinx stories, I think for a lot of the audience, the only time they’ve really ever thought about Latinx people and this particular subject is from like, The New York Times or CNN. And it’s always gut-wrenching stories about detention centers and children being taken from their families, and harrowing journeys across multiple countries and the violence and the death and the cartels. That is part of it, but also for so many more people it is this quiet, everyday life. That’s what I wanted to highlight.

I think that there was a real 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 a bigger issue. White audiences, 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 have to take a deeper look at subtle, insidious racism in our culture and how we’re all a part of that.”

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.” 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.”

Jacqueline Guillén, Triney Sandoval, Tyler Alvarez and Bobby Moreno in “72 Miles to Go” at the Roundabout. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

What is like some of the things that you have found yourself doing during quarantine? That you were like, Hilary, not in a million years I would have ever imagined you doing this in your life?

[laughs] Oh, besides having a baby. I have definitely been doing a lot of soul searching about what kinds of stories I want to tell and what kind of writer I actually want to be. I’m really asked myself uncomfortable questions: is theater, the right place for, my voice or the audience I want to reach. Your reactions are amazing. I really want to write really messy plays like Alligator, but I want to reach an audience like Roundabout and I’m like, how do you do that?

Part of me is like, maybe I should be a novelist. Because it’s complicated navigating these big institutions and how do you hold onto 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. I’ve found that hard to navigate in every production that I’ve had period, whether it’s been Roundabout or a tiny theater in Kansas City or whatever, 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.

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

You are. You really, really, really, really are. And you have, very well-meaning artistic directors and producers and people that really know their particular audience that are giving you notes behind the scenes that are about their particular audience. And you’re like, well, I want this play to resonate. I want it to be successful—especially like, Latinx plays that is on Off Broadway, you’re like, God, it has to be successful so that they take more risks like this. Suddenly you’re carrying the weight of an entire community. And being a woman on top of that.

I personally know that I fall into the trap of second guessing my instincts or being like, I’m not being collaborative, 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 cut that part of the play. Or I should tone that language down. Or make this more of a WASP-y repressed scene instead of a big Mexican family that’s like shouting at each other. It’s a lot of like those little tiny, this constant, like, mental calculation that you’re doing.

Which I feel like white male playwrights don’t do 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 my pragmatic brain says this, and it’s a constant emotional wrestling match. I feel like I’ve hit the glass ceiling of my career.

To counteract that, have you been revisiting any specifically Latinx pop culture, or food or anything in quarantine that’s given you joy?

I don’t know enough about Chicano history and especially women’s history. So I’m spending a lot of time digging deep into my own family’s story and the history of this country. I grew up in like public schools where basically we were taught that the Bible is founded on God, and the Constitution’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. I think our Black history month was like, Martin Luther King Jr. was great, the end. And how great white people are again.

I can’t expect our country and our culture and our society to understand our history until I really start to look at it and understand it for myself and understand why my family made the decisions they did, what were they dealing with coming of age in this country and trying to carve out their own place. It’s one thing to like, look back and say, Why didn’t my grandfather teach us Spanish? It’s another thing to look back and say, wait that was during like the repatriation Mexican-Americans and that his mother and his family were living in fear and the Juan Crow Laws in Texas that like nobody talks about. So you can understand it in that context.

That’s what I’m really trying as well—having a baby now and wanting to teach my son, 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.

Listen to the rest of the conversation on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.

Leave a Reply