Written Wednesday | Interview With Justice Hehir

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Justice Hehir is a second-year MFA Playwriting student at Hunter College under the direction of Annie Baker, Brighde Mullins, and Branden Jacobs Jenkins. She graduated from Rutgers in 2016 with a BA in English and Women’s and Gender Studies and a lot of debt. She’s from New Jersey and her plays tend to focus on the people who make up the pulp and substance of her life- working class, diverse individuals. She strives to write plays that reflect the multicultural, multiracial, multilingual society she’s grown up in. Her work has been presented by the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, The Secret Theater, The Magnet Theater, Torrent Theater Company, the Semicolon Theater Company, and the George Street Playhouse, among others.

 

As an intersectional feminist, what factors do you take into consideration when playwriting, especially in comedy?

The beauty, to me, of living your life as an intersectional feminist, is that it manifests in your work consistently. Because so much of my daily life has been and continues to be about unlearning prejudice, bias, heteronormativity, etc., the things that I find funny tend to be informed by those insights. That being said, I obviously am also a careful editor, because intent is irrelevant and you always need to be responsible for what you say, and unconcious bias is so important to address in the performing arts. When I write sketch comedy, in particular, it’s important for me to always understand why my audience is laughing; you can learn so much about people by what they laugh it, it’s ridiculous. What makes us uncomfortable (and a lot of comedy is about just that, discomfort) is a really intimate and powerful way to check in with ourselves and see where we are. The biggest victory in writing for comedy is watching people realize that they just saw a sketch that doesn’t rely on stereotypes, oppression, etc. and they laughed their asses off. I hate this idea that feminists can’t be funny… like I’m pretty fuckin’ funny. And the frustrating thing is, comedy itself is an underappreciated art form. There is so much power in laughter, at getting people to laugh at themselves and as society and its ills. Too often comedy is used to reinforce stereotypes and bias, and that kills me, because it can work so effectively to do the exact opposite. Not to claim all my comedic writing has a message; sometimes I’m writing sketches that are just weird, dirty, bizarre, farcical concoctions made to create laughter. Actually a lot of the time. But I like to think, especially in my plays, that my sense of humor is a means of connection with my audience.

You are a poet and a playwright. Do both mediums influence one another? Do you identify more as one than the other?

At the moment, I’m pretty much squarely planted in playwright land. I’m in my second year of a Playwriting MFA program at Hunter College in NYC, and that means I write a LOT of plays. Like all the time. Just for a single class this past semester, I had to write three Greek tragedy adaptations, and again, that was just one class. So much of my program has been to learn to treat writing like any other pursuit: something that you need to practice every day in order to be good at it. Writers tend to be precious about our craft and think we can only write when we are inspired. In fact, some of my best work has come from being pushed to write when I really didn’t feel like I had anything good zooming around in my head. When you write when you’re not feeling it, sometimes you hand the pen over to your subconcious, and they have so much to say. It’ll surprise you, for sure. That said, my poetry work absolutely influences my playwriting and vice versa; my forte tends to be group poems, and given the context of my work holistically, that’s not a big shock.

Describe your creative process when writing a play. How does that compare/contrast with your approach to writing poetry?

Every room I enter, every new space, I’m always asking, “what’s happened here? What does this room know?” I eavesdrop compulsively, I observe people often.

When I write poetry, it’s usually “me” speaking. I don’t do character pieces, it’s in the first person and that’s that. With plays, you have to open yourself up to all these characters you’re creating inside you and listen to them. It sounds self indulgent and bizarre, but I’m a channeler, as my professor has taught me to say. I channel the people in my plays and write down what they say. To be a playwright is to share your body and brain with all of these people you’ve thought up; you’re never alone. You spend your days in gestation, waiting to birth these characters, and while that might not be through labor, it can be painful in other ways. Letting another person out of you, I guess, is always painful. In a sense, I feel like I give birth through my fingers and chest. Characters are like babies in that you want what’s best for them, but then, at the same time, you can’t protect them. Protecting your characters makes for a boring story. You need to let them experience the world of your play for themselves, and that’s terrifying. Any kind of control I personally find terrifying. It’s a scary thing, to be in control of your own world, to create characters that you don’t like, to make people you feel are everything that’s wrong with the world. Sometimes, the only way to let our characters show how amazing they are is to let other characters shit all over them; sometimes the best way to change a bigot’s mind is by writing a bigot into your plays. Sometimes all it takes is an audience watching someone do something wrong to know what’s right. Theater, I think, like poetry, should make people uncomfortable. For me, whenever I feel discomfort, I know I have the opportunity in that moment to decide between two things: defensiveness and learning. I strive to write plays that encourage audiences to do the latter.

Describe a play you worked on and what you expected your audience to take away from it.

I wrote a short play a couple years ago with my friend that we performed together called “trash.” It’s about two women doing community service on the side of a highway, picking up, you guessed it, trash. To be frank, I don’t know exactly what I expected for people to take from it; I just knew I felt the piece was authentic and real to me, and so maybe it would feel that way for others too. Unlike in poetry, you really don’t get to show your hand; telling people what you think works so well in poetry, but in plays, not so much. No one wants to go watch a play where they’re told what they’re seeing, why it’s good/bad, and honestly, that would suck. That wouldn’t be interesting. With plays, you need to guide your audience to that water, that kernel of truth, that idea you had and got all excited over that made you write the play in the first place. In slam poetry, you can open the goddamn fire hose and go wild on them. I think there’s value to both, and I happen to love activist poetry that is explicit, honest, and direct. But in theater, you’re creating a story, not a message; there might be a message somewhere in the story, but if your audience knows exactly what it is, your play probably isn’t that good. That’s something so different than poetry, or at least, my slam poetry, which is up front and in your face. The other thing about these two mediums is the difference in time: in slam, you have three minutes. In the theater, you’ve got at least ninety. Obviously, if you’re trying to get a message across in three minutes, it’s going to have be more direct than a piece where you have ninety minutes. I live for all the little moments of connection and verisimilitude that make others feel less alone, and in that way, my plays absolutely mirror my poetry. On a lighter note, being in “trash” involved exposing my breasts and nipples to public audiences. This was the hardest part for me, not because I mind being naked, but because as a woman, we rarely get to control how others experience our bodies visually and physically. I knew every time we performed that to me, this act was celebratory and defiant, meant to normalize my body, but to some members of the audience, I was just showing them my tits. To some members of the audience, I was pitied, I was the sad young vulnerable girl so desperate for attention, so desperate to be edgy, that I took my shirt off. To some, I was about to become another disembodied, masturbatory image for the shower later. It’s so hard to not have control of that. I guess ultimately I wanted my play to make people think a little more critically about the complexity of women and women’s interactions. In that way, I think we were definitely successful.

Was not majoring in the arts a factor in applying for an MFA program?

Definitely. To be honest, if I had, I might not have felt I needed an MFA; but I studied Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Rutgers. I don’t regret that decision for a second; studying Women’s and Gender Studies was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My professors in that discipline gave me the tools I needed to better understand oppression, power, race, gender, and sexuality, and that is a huge part of who I am and the plays I write. But I know myself, and what I want to be, what I am, is a playwright. I was really hungry to hone my craft, and made the unusual decision to pursue my MFA straight after undergrad. I learned so much getting a BA about the world itself, but hadn’t learned much yet about how to write about it; after all, Rutgers has only one playwriting class and I took it my freshman year. My MFA program has been wonderfully vocational, in many ways, helping me write plays that are effective and powerful. Between the two, I finally feel like I have the education I need to move forward in creating work I feel is authentic and meaningful.

Tell us how you navigate advocating for others (POC, LGBTQ+ community, etc.) while you are in a largely white-claimed academic space.

I piss people off all the fucking time. I’ve chosen to live my life authentically and committed to intersectional feminism, and that’s not a part time job. When entering my program, I had to make the decision to be truthful to my values of inclusion or go with the flow (the arts can be VERY conservative), and I made my choice. I advocate by calling out any shit I see. That choice has made me wildly unpopular in certain settings. I’m either being reductive, a killjoy, “the real racist for talking about race,” mean, annoying, self righteous, a bitch, I’ve heard it all. And I don’t care. The only way the arts are going to change is if we continue to challenge institutionalized bias and power systems. I aim to use my privilege to disrupt Western/white/straight/male centric conversations. I have a seat at the table, and that’s a privilege, and I’m going to use it for good. I don’t mean that in a self aggrandizing way, nor do I mean to suggest I’m the only one doing this. I’ve been fortunate to be in a program that is an outlier in many ways because of its diversity of leadership and students, but that doesn’t make it immune from bias. Being in a rarefied space coming from a working class/ethnic white background can be very taxing. It’s hard to advocate for yourself in a world that feels like it wasn’t made for you. So I try to be truthful. I claim my difference and won’t let anyone forget it. I’ve worked really hard to feel comfortable saying, “No, I didn’t see any shows this week, I can’t afford it.” “No, I can’t go out, I have work tomorrow morning.” For a while, I was so scared to speak because I knew my class would slip out; now, I just let it happen. Being authentically me, I realized, was a radical act in and of itself. I’m not going to pretend to be a WASP or wealthier or classier than I am or less feminist than I am so I don’t make anyone uncomfortable. I’m just me, and I’m committed to helping make others feel they can do that too.

How do you feel being a woman in, what still is, a male dominated field?

Oppressed. But, you know, hopeful. I’ve been fortunate to have so many amazing women/WOC professors and mentors who have always made me feel that women have a place in this field. What’s hard is approaching an industry that still expects, in many ways, scripts by women to be unrelatable and too specific. I recently went to interview for a prominent writers group, and was shocked by how uncomfortable I was. I got there, and every other woman there was dressed up, like hipster dressed up. I was sitting there in my leggings, braless, with a messy, matted bun and realized I had not gotten the memo. There’s a pressure sometimes to be a Cool Artsy Girl. Every other woman was loudly expressing her style… which I am not trying to shit on. Everyone should do what makes them feel comfortable. But in that moment, in that space, that wasn’t the vibe I was getting, that everybody was just “being themselves.” Everybody was in full makeup, “quirky” clothes, laughing loudly, speaking about an octave higher than usual. I realized there is still an expectation, in this industry, to be interesting but nonthreatening, “fun,” and hot. Being a woman who writes well, in that moment, didn’t feel like enough. And being a young woman, too, just amplifies that in so many ways. People often assume you have no idea what you’re doing, and if you stick to your values and advocate intersectional feminism, you’re seen as being “too young to get it” or “still in that college phase.” It’s frustrating to be called naive just because other people are jaded as hell. But I lay low, I do my thing, and look to the amazing women before me who have broke through these barriers and follow their lead. My mom has always told me, since I was little, “Be your own girl.” Her refrain echoes in my head whenever I feel I don’t belong and gives me a gentle push to keep pursuing my truth.

What resources have you found most valuable during your time spent in higher education?

My most valuable resources have been my professors. I used to be so scared to connect with my them, and I felt for a while like I couldn’t ask for anything, like I was wasting people’s time. It’s actually really hard to have accomplished playwrights as professors, because so much of the time I was like, “But they’re amazing! What am I even doing here? How can I ask them to read my shitty draft when they are so perfect!?” As it turns out, most of the time, they are happy to help, and reaching out to them and asking questions has made a huge difference to me. They have challenged me, pushed me, and made me a better writer than any amount of praise ever would have. Also, financial aid… for real. I am enrolled in one of the most affordable MFA programs in the country, and I still needed help. It’s so important to advocate for yourself. Admitting you have financial difficulty does not diminish you as a writer or person. Don’t be embarrassed to ask. By being communicative, I was able to receive help paying my tuition, and that’s made a major difference for me.

If you were to encounter someone who was just embarking on a similar career path, what is one piece of advice you would offer them?  

As writers, its our responsibility to pull each other up, care for each other, and nourish each other. Find people who will do this for you. Kindness, compassion, and empathy can go a long way in competitive fields like theater in making people feel welcome and affirmed. Especially for women, we need to break down the myth that another woman’s success is our loss. Be authentic, be radical, and stake out your own path, knowing all the while this spark is inside you for a reason, and you owe it to the world to let it burn. It’s so important that the arts continue to evolve; the only way that will happen is that all of us who have felt marginalized by them start banging on their doors. And by the way, in case no one has told you recently: the arts are valid. Pursuing your art is valid. And look, I’m not saying it will be easy, because it won’t. Being an artist means just about always needing a survival job, which effectively means working two jobs: one that pays, and one that doesn’t, and both seem to demand all of your time. Remember that there are affordable MFA programs (check out CUNY schools) and some that are basically free if you get in (like Yale or Brown). Remember that even if an MFA isn’t an option for you, you are still a writer, and what you write is just as important and valid as someone with an MFA. Trust yourself.
Excerpt of “dear dashboard”

NELLA

I really wanna re-watch Fargo.
ALEX

Ok.
NELLA

Are you ok to hang out for a while?
ALEX

Yeah.
NELLA

And you’re ok re-watching it? Because you’ve already re-watched it with me.
ALEX

Slight pause. Yeah, of course/
NELLA

/You didn’t say yes right away though/
ALEX

/Yes! Yes. There are like very few circumstances under which I would say “no, I do not want to watch Fargo.
NELLA

Like what?
ALEX

Like….

Um. Like I guess if Steve Buscemi died? Like in real life. Like then I probably wouldn’t watch it for a little while just to like, be respectful. I just feel like it would almost be sacrilegious to watch the woodchipper scene.
A thoughtful pause.
NELLA

But wouldn’t he like… want people to remember him by watching the movie? I mean he’s fantastic in that movie. Like if I was Steve Buscemi in that movie, I would like insist people watch it to honor my life.
ALEX

Yeah.
A comfortable silence.
NELLA

Then maybe The Shining.
ALEX

Yeah! I’ve actually been meaning to do that for a while. Because of the pig-man giving the guy the blowjob. I have a new theory about that.
NELLA

Genuinely confused. What?
ALEX

You don’t remember that part?
NELLA

No.
ALEX

It’s at the end? Wendy is running through the hallway and she sees in the room at the end of the hallway this pig-man, like he’s in a full animal costume, going down on this guy in a tux, and then the pig-man looks up and makes like, direct eye-contact with Wendy.
NELLA

You’re fucking with me.

Read the rest of the play here

Read the rest of Dear Dashboard here

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