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Jul 9, 2020

I Interview Playwrights Part 1087: Yvette Heyliger


Hometown: Washington, DC

Current Town: Harlem, USA

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I am currently taking part in a playwriting challenge called Say Their Names. Inspired by the #SayHerName Movement, any BIWoC identifying member of Honor Roll!—an advocacy group of women playwrights over 40 years old—may submit an eight minute, forty-six second play about a Black Women+, Indigenous Women+ and Women+ of Color who died at the hands of law enforcement. The submission window is July 1st through – August 31st by 11:59pm EST.

Q:  Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Following is a story from my one woman show, Bridge to Baraka which recounts an incident from my childhood that speaks to who I am as a writer and a person. I last performed the play in the United Solo Theatre Festival in 2018.


“I remember we had a red-haired, freckled-faced, playmate that lived on the street behind our cul-de-sac. One day my sisters and I knocked and asked, “Can Pam come outside to play?” Opening the door to see three little colored kids on his doorstep, Pam’s father flew into a rage, “You little niggers better not never come knocking on this door again!” His red-faced fury, skillful cursing and double-negatives surprised me so much that it took him calling us “niggers” a few more times before the message to run home could get to my nine year old feet. I wasn’t exactly sure what a “nigger” was, but I knew it meant playtime was over.

“Our uncle who was visiting explained, “Where y’all been? Don’t y’all know niggahs are all fired up, taking to the streets ‘cause Martin Luther King, Jr. got shot?!” Somehow the word “nigger” sounded different in his mouth, almost like a game of hopscotch—he just tossed that rock of an epithet into a chalk square and skipped right over it on to the next thought. “Niggahs done already started riotin’ and y’all’s house is surrounded by a buncha ‘ol red neck Virginia crackers. You need to come on and evacuate, now—be with your own kind where you’ll be safe.” But our mother said, “We are staying put. I will not be run out of my house.” What would be the point, anyway? Our family was between a rock and a hard place. Not black enough to be black or white enough to be white, we weren’t accepted by the “crackers” or the “niggers.”

“With the rioting not far away, I took matters into my own hands—well I couldn’t leave it up to God, now could I? Everybody knows God is a white man, just look at the pictures of His son, Jesus Christ—not one drop of African blood! So, I’m thinking, maybe God is the God of only white folks ‘cause He didn’t want little colored girls playing with little white girls, and was probably mad that the niggers were rioting. I felt like it was up to me to protect our father-less family using the only weapon I had—my words.

“On a poster board, with my brown crayon, I drew stick figures of my sisters, me, our mother and our French poodle, Pierre. In a crayon the color of lamb’s blood I wrote, SOUL SISTERS LIVE HERE, and posted the sign on the front door of the one-story home on a hill that was situated on the cul-de-sac our family had integrated. I was hoping the rioters would see it, know there was a black family living there, and pass over our house.

After my sisters and I went to bed, my mother took that sign down. I knew she was proud of me though—for believing I could make a difference with my words.”

© 2011, 2020 by Yvette Heyliger

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  At the rate things are going women theatre artists will not see parity in the American Theatre for another hundred years. I would change this by mandating that gender parity be achieved through legislation—essentially that any arts organization or institution that is receiving city, state, or federal funding should be required to allocate an equitable portion of that funding to womxn artists, or risk losing government funding. (Hopefully the commercial theatre would do the politically correct thing and follow suit.) Additionally, I would institute this mandate across the visual and performing arts disciplines, so that all womxn artists might benefit.

Q:  Who are your theatrical heroes?

(1.) Director, Glenda Dickerson. The head of the Theatre Department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the late 1970’s (in the midst of the Black Arts Movement), Glenda introduced us budding high school student actors to an Afrocentric, non-linear, ritualistic Black theatre experience that was grounded in the cultural and artistic aesthetic of an awakened Black America. Glenda infused students with the knowledge of who we were as Black people—she gave us our very own Black selves. In retrospect, I see this act as revolutionary.

(2.) Playwright, Athol Fugard (see the next question).

(3.) Master Acting Teacher, William Esper. From studying the Sanford Meisner technique with this acclaimed teacher, I gained an appreciation for the sacred craft of acting and the actor’s process. I learned to live in the moment, to trust my instincts, to work off of the other actor, and to respond truthfully. When I auditioned for the Cosby Show Esper said, “Don’t worry about getting the job; just do a good audition so they will remember you and ask you back.” His advice really took the pressure off, enabling me to be my authentic self, fully present and in the moment. Additionally, I discovered an unexpected bonus to the Meisner technique—the ability to create truthful dialogue!

(4.) Playwright/Organizer/Avocate, Rachel Crothers. The most successful woman writing for the stage in her day, Rachel Crothers  broke ground on Broadway with over 30 plays to her credit—many of which she casted, directed and staged herself (and, as I understand, even did some costuming!). Simultaneously, Crothers broke ground serving the theatrical community by working to improve their welfare. She also distinguished herself by organizing the theatre community to support the war effort in the US and abroad, during both World War I & II, at a time when women could not even vote. Putting up a Broadway play while supporting the troops and their families? What’s not to admire about this theatre woman?

The League of Professional Theatre Women has a Leadership award named in her honor which is given bi-annually. If you have suggestions for a theatre woman exemplifies the spirit of selfless service to her fellow Americans while simultaneously making significant contributions the American Theatre, please send them to me at yvette@theatrewomen.org.

(5.) The 1st Year Acting Students of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (Winter Section). Since January, I have had the privilege of observing these acting students in the instruction of the Sanford Meisner Technique taught both by Maggie Low and David Dean Bottrell. When social distancing due to Coronavirus drove us all into the virtual classroom, none of us knew if, or how, it would work. These first-year students proved that, while not ideal, craft can be taught in the virtual classroom. Their work in class would bare this out.

In his introduction to the book, On Acting, director Sydney Pollock said, “Sandy Meisner’s work was, and is, to impart to students an organized approach to the creation of real and truthful behavior within the imaginary circumstances of the theatre”. Until acting students are able to return to the brick-and-mortar classroom, I would assert that the work of imparting the Meisner technique today is “to approach the creation of real and truthful behavior within the imaginary circumstances” of Zoom.

(6.) Girl Be Heard. I had the honor to work for this after-school program that builds leaders, change makers, and activists by developing, amplifying and celebrating the voices of young women through socially conscious theatre-making, performance and storytelling. What's not to love about an organization empowering our girls in this Black Lives Matter moment?

And finally…

(7.)  Producer and Blogger, Ken Davenport. In 2017 Ken asked us to write our Tony Award acceptance speech as an inspirational exercise. That year there were two women directors, two women playwrights and two women lead producers with shows on Broadway. Ken said, “By writing it, you'll be putting yourself in that moment, and by making it feel a little more real, you'll be that much closer to making that @#$% happen.” Here’s my speech:

Yvette Heyliger – Winner, Tony Award for Best Play

This year, on the occasion of the anniversary of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, we have fifty/fifty representation of women, including women of color, working on Broadway and in theatres across the country, writing, directing, designing, and producing. I feel so blessed to be one of them and I thank American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League for this great honor. I also want to thank my producers—including my lead producer and twin sister Yvonne Farrow—my director, creative team, cast and crew for your exemplary work. I want to thank the VITA office at Actor’s Equity for doing my taxes all those lean years, and I want to thank my family; especially my husband for giving me the gift of being able to stay home, raise our family, and write plays when it would have been more helpful for me to have had a nine-to-five. Finally, I want to thank Ken Davenport. You were right! This @#$% is happening!

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A: I am drawn to theatre that is used as an agent for social change while still entertaining. I saw Master Harold… and the Boys on Broadway starring Danny Glover and the late Zakes Mokae. It was written by one of my aforementioned theatrical heroes, Athol Fugard. When the curtain came down onstage and the lights came up in the house, I was weeping uncontrollably. An usher hovering nearby allowed me to sit until I was able to compose myself, rise from my seat, and exit the empty theatre. I want to say that I was “changed” by this play about apartheid in South Africa, but actually I was awakened. I left saying to myself, “I want to make theatre like that.”

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Gwydion Suilebhan, Project Director of the New Play Exchange, wrote a blog piece called Playwrights and the New Play Exchange. In it he says that 90% of all new plays NEVER get produced. This is even more sobering when you begin to add in statistical information—especially around the lack of parity for women in the American Theatre. The Lilly Award’s reports in The Count 2.0 , that white women get 20.5% of production opportunities nationwide and women of color get 6.1%. White men continue to get the lion’s share at 62.7%.

So what am I saying?

Until artists can make a living with their art, I recommend getting a day job that you enjoy—one that pays the bills so you can take care of yourself and your family, but which doesn’t suck up all of your creativity. Also, embrace having to wear many hats in the theatre—including self-producing. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to discover you or for a theatre to take you under their wing. If you want to grow as a playwright you have to see your work living and breathing on the stage.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  What a Piece of Work Is Man! Full-Length Plays for Leading Women by yours truly, Yvette Heyliger, and edited by Alexis Greene delivers a power-packed collection of plays for leading women (and the leading men who love them!). Great for professional actors, directors, designers and producers seeking new projects, as well as students of the theatre and lovers of politics, drama and activism! Artistic essays, critical reviews, production cast lists, as well as lead sheet music and photographs by Larry Farrow, illuminate the work of this producing artist and educator.

If you would like to reserve your seat on October 22 & 23, 2020 at 7pm for Say Their Names, Readings and Reflections of 00:08:46 plays by Honor Roll! members about a Black Women+, Indigenous Women+ and Women+ of Color who died at the hands of law enforcement, write to us at saytheirnameshonorroll@gmail.com.

Click here to read my post in The Dramatist Blog called, Honor Roll! We Got This . It chronicles activism for parity for women+ playwrights and highlights a new group, Honor Roll!, an advocacy group of women+ playwrights over forty whose aim is to increase inclusion and representation on stage and in the theatrical canon.

And finally, here is a link to a webinar I organized and hosted earlier this year in my role as Dramatists Guild NYC Ambassador called Getting the Most Out of NPX: Tips from a Fellow Playwright . In it I welcome playwright Emma Goldman-Sherman who shares tips to help make your scripts on the New Play Exchange more discoverable by the “right” people and more identifiable to opportunities for which your play is the right fit.

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