(Pictured: Program Art from Portland Center Stage’s Production of Bo-Nita, Winter 2014)
Stories need room to grow. Elizabeth Heffron’s Bo-Nita, a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, germinated at Portland Center Stage’s JAW, came of age at Seattle Rep in its first full production, and most recently matured back on the mainstage at PCS. As Heffron sees it, when real people tell a story it “rarely goes in a straight line”, resulting in “tales with a lot of turnarounds, and sudden confessions, and flashbacks throughout.” New play development often experiences a similar trajectory, and Bo-Nita is no exception.
Bo-Nita centers on a scrappy 13-year-old protagonist with a tempestuous family life. Throughout the play, the actress playing Bo-Nita also becomes her hard-drinking mother, her dangerous ex-step father, her mother’s confused and short-lived beau, and her burlesque performer grandmother, among others. Her story, which takes place in St. Louis, is a whirlwind of violence, deception, longing and serious grit. It begins abruptly with Bo-Nita in confrontation with her ex-stepfather Gerard, whom she decides not to save from a perceived heart attack. Instead, she and her mother, Mona (arriving drunk on the scene with a new companion) hatch an elaborate plan to dress Gerard as a woman in order to stage a convincing homicide, and bring their new conspirator along to do the heavy lifting. A terrifying disguise, high speed chase and second heart attack later, Bo-Nita and Mona head out for Arizona, and we are left reeling from the boomerang of tumult and loyalty that is their relationship and the ride they’ve just been on.
(Pictured: Hannah Mootz as Bo-Nita in the Seattle Rep production of Bo-Nita)
Bo-Nita has recently closed its second full production at Portland Center Stage, under the direction of Gretchen Corbett, with Kate Eastwood Norris playing Bo-Nita. We were able to talk with both playwright Elizabeth Heffron and actor Hannah Mootz, who played the title character at Seattle Rep, about the development of this exciting new play:
Hannah Fenlon: Elizabeth, you are quoted in Seattle Rep’s playbill about playwriting: “If you’ve got the chutzpah to change your parameters, you can always start over, always try something new”. I love this quote, and I think it corresponds nicely to new play development and the growth of Bo-Nita from JAW to Seattle Rep and back to Portland Center Stage. What are some parameters that have changed throughout the play’s various iterations?
Elizabeth Heffron: When the play had a very first reading, it wasn’t a solo piece. There was a cast of five actors playing Bo-Nita and the six or so other characters that made up the story. But that format wasn’t working. It felt too much like a radio play, yet something in me wasn’t willing to break the narrative into standard scenes, to fully incorporate all of these characters in a standard way. For a number of reasons, I had to put the project away for a while and when I came back to it, it was like a light bulb went off. It was just her, Bo-Nita, telling the story. All of the other characters were being channeled through her. Once I discovered this — and realigned myself to the fact that this was the way the story was demanding to be told — the entire project changed. When I walked into the JAW experience, I had already made this discovery, and I had most of the skeleton of the play, including the somewhat over-the-top adventure tale that Bo-Nita relates, but what surfaced much more fully at JAW, and after that was the extremely complex, interdependent relationship between this mother and this daughter. And the way drugs, poverty, abuse, and lack of resources contribute to what a good friend of mine coined as an ‘inter-generational car wreck’.
HF: Hannah, Elizabeth seems like a flexible playwright who wants to continually develop her work. How did Bo-Nita develop and grow during your stint with the play?
Hannah Mootz: We were very lucky to have the opportunity for Elizabeth to be in the room with us at times. This was helpful to us because we had questions and she helped fill in the blanks on some specifics in back-story stuff. But I think it was also really beneficial for Elizabeth to see the work up on its feet. She made small changes to lines when hearing I had a tendency to say it one way. She also found lines she could take out because through the action they were no longer needed.
HF: Bo-Nita has now been hosted by two theatres, one of which has worked with the play both in its earlier form and has a full-fledged production. How has the play’s growth been impacted by its host programs and companies?
EH: Having the opportunity to work with both companies on the play has been remarkable. I’ve been lucky enough to have two terrific actors tackle Bo-Nita and her odd, little posse, and two, actually three, gifted directorial eyes guide the process. Anytime you have the opportunity to channel your characters through several different voices, you learn so much more about what you’ve written. One big thing I discovered is the fine line the play dances between humor and pain, and how far I could take the story in either direction. Roam too far astray in either territory and you wind up either with caricature or a certain heavy-handedness. Get the balance just right and the humor invites the audience deeper into the darkness that’s there.
What was also fascinating was how the physical nature of each theater effected the resulting production. At the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the play was presented on a striking proscenium stage, with quite a bit of sound/video/lights used to help propel Bo-Nita from one situation to the next, allowing the actor, Hannah Mootz, to stay really grounded within the story. She brought us into Bo-Nita’s world and we were hooked. For Portland Center Stage, the audience surrounded Kate Eastwood Norris on 3 sides in a thrust configuration – with fewer overt production requirements. Bo-Nita was now required to move us between all story shifts herself and the script changed a little to aid these transitions. Because of the 3/4 thrust configuration, Kate had to engage with her audience in a much more up-close and physical way, which she was thoroughly able to do, and this brought its own rewards.
HF: [The Seattle Rep production] was the first full production of Bo-Nita. With this in mind, what struck you the most about audience response, and about your own experience as an actor generating a role?
HM: Sometimes I’d be surprised by the audience not laughing at EVERY single joke, though they laughed at most. But being a perfectionist I wanted to be sure to re-visit how I was doing the few that weren’t landing and understand why. What I came to realize through many runs were two things: 1) There are hidden references that not everyone is going to get, and it’s a gift for those that do, and 2) It’s a story that starts right at the top and goes on this crazy ride that really never stops, and there is a lot of information being covered. I was told by several that they were so engaged and didn’t want to miss a thing, so at times held back from laughing, because they were so locked in. I also loved the differences in the laughter between my regular audiences, and the school matinees. The kids got the jokes that the adults didn’t at times.
HF: What have been some of the challenges and victories associated with Bo-Nita’s unique character structure?
EH: When real people tell a story, it’s incredibly fascinating to track the trajectory of how the tale gets told. It rarely goes in a straight line, from the very beginning to the penultimate end-point. No, we’re messy, and forgetful, and if we don’t quite trust our audience, we may even reserve some information for a later point in time, when we feel safe enough to divulge it. This means we tell our tales with a lot of turnarounds, and sudden confessions, and flashbacks throughout. This is how Bo-Nita relates her experiences to her audience, so one of the challenges was making sure all parts of her story were tracking, and that the leaps in time and circumstance built on one another, rather than just landing center stage in a big, confusing mess.
Also, like most solo shows, one actor is required to take on seven different characters of various ages, sexes, and backgrounds. That’s tough enough on its own, but then to find a way to convincingly place them all in space together – when three or four of them are actively engaging at once – that’s a huge actor/director rubiks cube that I have watched two different teams solve in uniquely inventive ways.
HF: Hannah, what were some of the most challenging elements of your multi-character role? Were there things you tried that didn’t work? Can you speak a little about translating Bo-Nita’s challenging dialogue to the stage?
HM: Oh I’m sure there were plenty of things I tried that didn’t work! But Paul [Budraitis] was really great in letting me come in with my natural instincts for each character, and then help me shape and mold them into something very specific. I think the most challenging would be Leon’s voice. In my head I heard him in a higher range, so my tendency would be to go in MY higher range when I was channeling him. The problem there is he is a male, so even if he talks in a higher range, it is still much lower than my voice. So Paul and my voice coach Judith had to keep reminding me to bring him down in my chest. That challenge came from having to incorporate an immediate change from what my natural instincts were telling me to do in a small amount of time. But after a while I think it just became muscle memory. As far as the dialogue goes, I didn’t find it too difficult to translate. There were questions and research I had to do like for any other play, and again I was so lucky with this one because I had Elizabeth right there to help with pronunciation, and what each reference meant. Bo-Nita does cover challenging topics for sure, but she herself doesn’t see them as that. She knows, ‘it is what it is’, so I went in with that attitude as well.
HF: What surprised you the most in the rehearsal process? What about during the run of the show?
HM: For both rehearsals and performances, I think the biggest surprise that came to me was my ability to do it! I had about 3 or 4 months between being offered the role and starting rehearsals. So I think when I got into the rehearsal the most surprising thing that I found was how easy it came to me. Easy, not meaning it wasn’t hard work. It was exhausting and challenged me in every sense. But in those months of personal preparation I had a lot of doubts and fears. So about a week before actually starting rehearsals, I really started to freak out! But the second we started rehearsing I found that burden on my shoulders completely lifted and I WAS ready for this. That was a beautiful surprise.
And as far as the runs of the show, I think I surprised myself with my ability as an actor. I was going through some health challenges through the whole process of it all, and before we opened, there were times I truly thought I was going to have to have my understudy go on for me a few times. But by the 3rd show I KNEW in my bones I could fully do every show. I saw it as a huge task physically, vocally, mentally and emotionally and after accomplishing it and doing work I was proud of, I now feel I can do anything as an actor.
HF: Elizabeth, I love the concept of Midwestern Magical Realism, and I know it’s a term you made up to help describe the style of Bo-Nita. How have representations of this changed (maybe become more refined) in the course of Bo-Nita’s production history?
EH: In the 1940s, Robert McCloskey wrote a classic series of children’s books, featuring a young Midwestern boy named Homer Price, who was constantly getting himself into strange and hilarious Midwestern situations. Although the stories were funny, there was always a moral to the tale, something deeper that followed the humor. The main story arc in this play – involving the ‘miracle’ that occurs for Bo-Nita with her semi-ex-stepfather Gerard – is an homage to this sort of storytelling, only it’s brought forward to the present and set in a less idealistic Midwest. I think the work of these productions has been to help me find more of what lies underneath this. What Anne Bogart might call the ‘red thread’ that connects this arc to the rest of Bo-Nita’s tenuous world.
HF: You’ve spoken about plays as vehicles for social change. Have you felt these effects in Bo-Nita’s two communities (Portland and Seattle)?
EH: I do believe theater can be a vehicle for awareness and a forum for breaking open difficult and intransigent subjects. I think about what A Normal Heart and Angels in America did for HIV awareness and action. There have been post-play discussions and outreach for both the Seattle Rep and Portland Center Stage productions. The Rep engaged with high schools students through their education department, and at Portland Center Stage, there were talk-backs facilitated by local groups who focused on women, abuse, and poverty. Anecdotally, there was a 70-year-old woman in Portland who said in a post-play discussion that she still feels like she’s swimming in ‘warm milk’ (a metaphor used in the play), and a mother in Seattle, who had seen the play with her teenage foster daughter, said Bo-Nita’s situation helped the two of them find a way to talk about some really difficult subjects. Those are just two small examples, but I do think theater resonates best in such deep and private places.
HF: Looking ahead, what are your hopes for Bo-Nita?
EH: I guess my main wish is for the play to have a life and be heard. There are young people like Bo-Nita growing up all around us, hanging on by a thread. Kids (and adults) who really need the support of a larger village. As resources shrink and programs are cut, this has an immediate effect. I hope that Bo-Nita can be a reminder that these programs aren’t pissing in the wind, they have real and permanent impact.
HM: I couldn’t feel luckier to be the one to premiere Bo-Nita. This script is so tremendously beautiful and I was honored to be able to say the words every night. I hope and believe it’s going to blow up nationally and become a well-known story. And I feel so honored to have been a part of its ‘birthing process’ into the theatre world. I will always have a connection and special place for Bo-Nita and all the characters in her life. I actually really miss her.
The Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Program, directed by Brad and Louise Edgerton, was piloted in 2006 with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles by offering two musicals in development an extended rehearsal period for the entire creative team, including the playwrights. The Edgertons launched the program nationally in 2007 and have supported 128 plays to date in 50 different Art Theaters across the country. The Edgerton Foundation received the 2011 TCG National Funder Award in June in Los Angeles.
TCG member theaters with a strong and consistent track record of producing new work are invited by the foundation to submit letters of inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org. A panel of readers reviews the plays and one-time grants ranging from $5,000 – $75,000 are awarded.
Elizabeth Heffron‘s play Bo-Nita was developed at PCS’ JAW playwrights festival in July 2012, and premiered at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in October 2013. Her other new works include Portugal, about a nuclear accident at the Hanford Reservation, featured at the 2013 Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival, and The Weatherman Project (co-written with Kit Bakke), selected for the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s inaugural New Play Festival in February 2013. Other full-length plays include New Patagonia, produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Mitzi’s Abortion: A Saint’s Guide to Late-Term Politics and Medicine in America, which premiered at Seattle’s ACT Theatre in 2006. Elizabeth currently teaches at Cornish College of the Arts, ACT and Freehold Theatre/Lab, where she’s worked with incarcerated women on inmate-generated performance pieces. She is an alumna of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Writers Group, and a member of the Sandbox Artists Collective and the Dramatists Guild. (Photo by Nate Watters)
Hannah Mootz is a 2011 Cornish graduate. Mootz most recently appeared in Taste (feature film), The Trial (New Century Theatre Company), A Behanding in Spokane (Theater Schmeater), and the 14/48 Festival. She has worked at Printer’s Devil Theater, Seattle Shakespeare Company, ArtsWest, ACT, and more. Her next project is Tails of Wasps (New Century Theatre Company) at ACT in April 2014.
Hannah Fenlon is a TCG intern in the department of Communications and Conferences. She graduated from Kenyon College with a BA in Drama, and has lived for the past several years in Chicago, where she co-founded Two Birds Casting and worked as a freelance producer for theatre and film. She is currently pursuing an MA in Arts Administration at Columbia University.