Interviews: The Girl with the Red Hair

It’s not rare for a writer to shelve a project, whether by stuffing bound paper into a box under the bed or by ignoring an abandoned file in a folder on a laptop, tap dancing around either as if in fear of waking a sleeping toddler. The decision to do so could be for many reasons: the quality isn’t up to code, too many rejections, no connection to the story, and so on. A writer’s reasons for giving up on a project are, after all, endless.

However, it is rare (roughly once a century, it would seem) for projects to come to a screeching halt due to factors beyond the writer’s control, such as, oh, say, a global pandemic. Entire industries shut down, leaving writers, directors, producers, and artists everywhere restricted to home, their projects on indefinite hold or left to wither on the vine and die as they were released to a world unwilling to spend or risk exposure by gathering with others.

Movies, musicals and plays, music, books, gallery showings—all the product of artists, all driven by a team of others working on a final product, all set aside. Most forgotten.

To thrive, even more so to survive, a writer must be resilient. Relentless. Unstoppable. Willing to take the fruit given, no matter how sour it may be, and turn it into a tasty sugary beverage for all to enjoy. It takes courage to cling to an idea and refuse to let go, no matter the obstacles.

Enter Anthony M. Laura, writer, director, and head of Face to Face Films. Prior to the pandemic, his play, The Girl with the Red Hair, was steamrolling toward an opening. Everything was in place. It was time to reveal this passion project to the world.

Until it wasn’t.

Undeterred, channeling the relentlessness needed to thrive when the world went sideways, Anthony set aside the play and pivoted. Devoted his time to keeping actors working and to giving eager theater-aficionados the entertainment they now lacked. He dove headlong into the creation of Theater, Interrupted, his series of virtual plays and programs, ranging from classics to original content. For a solid year, his team produced one to two programs per month, focused on quality, always improving what was offered, working tirelessly.

But The Girl with the Red Hair called. Time granted him opportunity. To refine, to edit, to refocus and start anew. And this November 2-12, at the Gene Frankel Theater in New York City, his vision will come to life. The Girl with the Red Hair will have its run.

Though this is a testament to the will and perseverance of one writer and director, it’s also the product of an entire team coming together. What follows is a series of interviews with Anthony and his cast, as they prepare for November, and as they look back at a pandemic that sidelined their careers.


Anthony M. Laura and Jaclyn Holliday

As with all things, the pandemic brought production on The Girl with the Red Hair to a halt. Despite the disappointment from this unexpected hiatus, did the time away from this project alter your viewpoint on Haley or her journey in any way? 
ANTHONY: Personally, I think Hayley and her journey have mostly remained the same, even after the pandemic.  However, I think it is starting to hit people differently now based on their own experiences of isolation during the pandemic.  I think being locked in one place, prior to 2020, felt foreign to some.  It felt like more of a reach for many to relate to being in a place you don’t have the capacity or control to leave.  Now, I think we tend to associate more with the struggles of the psychological effects of not only isolating, but being alone with your brain.

Actors and directors both work to interpret a script into their vision of character, which is ultimately a collaborative effort. What have you gained the most from working with one another?
ANTHONY: Jaclyn is an amazing talent.  She brings such an incredible energy every time she acts, because she puts her soul on stage.  Over the course of the past four months, I feel grateful to have built a beautiful collaboration and friendship with her that allows us to have fascinating conversations that lead to wonderful breakthroughs.  Her eyes light up when she talks about Hayley and she is deeply invested in honoring the truth of her journey.  She told me once that if she didn’t get the part, she still wanted to come see the show because of how the play affected her.  It’s little things like that, that confirm you’re working with the right person.  She believes in the work.  Our feedback read was a joy for many reasons.  For me, it was so amazing to see how people loved her interpretation of this character that is so deeply close to me.  She brings joy, light and love in ways I’ve never seen.  Every day I’m in the room with her, I learn something different.  It’s a true honor to have her not only as Hayley, but as a producer who fights for the story every step of the way.

JACLYN: It has been such a pleasure getting to know and work with Anthony these past couple of months. From day one, he created an environment that was comfortable, collaborative, and creative. We both work in similar ways so in rehearsals we were able to bounce ideas off of one another and build concepts together. I would go into a new scene with an expectation of how it would play out and by the end of the rehearsal that was filled with exploration, we would have a completely different product than expected. That’s the adventurous part of theatre that I love–the unexpected! Getting to be an actor and producer on this project, I got the inside scoop on all things Hayley Jones. I was able to voice my opinion and help make decisions, which made me feel even closer to the character. I’m so grateful to Anthony for this opportunity and trusting me to play a role that I know is very close to him. He poured out his passion for these characters on every page. I commend his bravery in writing this piece and have learned so much by working with him about mental illness, trauma around abuse, and conquering the fear of speaking up. I’m excited to continue working together on this project and more in the future! 

You begin the production with Hayley already on stage, writing in her journal, interacting with the audience as if they were orderlies. What prompted you to go in this direction?
ANTHONY: One of my favorite aspects of any performance I see on stage is watching behavior.  I was really excited by the idea of the audience observing Hayley before hearing one word of dialogue and making a silent connection to her.  The environment of our play is vital and this is the audience’s first chance to experience the hospital as a character.
 
Hayley has endured experiences that pushed her beyond her breaking point, which puts you in the position of needing to capture it and convey that struggle to the audience. How were you able to find a sense of empathy for her?
JACLYN: Upon first reading this play, I was so intrigued by the transformation of Hayley’s character as she slowly lets her walls down. Her trauma doesn’t define who she is, it’s just a part of her story that she has to process. Hayley is a very complex character. She can be timid but feisty, kind but vicious, and disoriented but also needs to be in control. She has a certain vulnerability that attracts others to her. The characters in this play feel safe opening up to Hayley, which makes her somewhat uncomfortable. However, with everything that she’s been through, she feels empathetic towards them. They have a shared experience so she understands their pain. I hope that the audience is able to see her heart through it all and find a sense of empathy for her as well.

The process of writing involves constant editing, often digging deeper into character. As the script has recently evolved into a new draft, is there anything new that you’re looking forward to exploring? 
ANTHONY: There are two significant changes that I’m really excited to dive into.  The first is the addition of a storm brewing outside of the hospital.  This came about two or three days before I was locking the rewrite and it opened up so many possibilities.  The second is playing more with the theme of memory.  Though this was present in the first draft, I have reworked scenes to play with the different ways we try to access memory, the way we move through memories and the ways in which our memories can help or harm us.
 
JACLYN: Something I’m excited about is the way memory is introduced and explored in this new iteration! The audience sees flashes of memories from Hayley’s past and it isn’t until the end that she can fully tap into her memories to get the whole picture of her past. The audience is making discoveries at the exact same time that Hayley is, which makes her connection to them even more personal. Another thing I’m excited to further explore is Hayley’s relationship with Dr. Watkins. In this new draft, we see the varying layers of trust that Hayley has with her as their relationship progresses. The very talented Nicole Marie Hunt is playing both Dr. Watkins and Pamela, Hayley’s mom, so I’m excited to further explore how those two authoritative figures in her life are connected in her mind. 
 
As a writer and director, it’s your responsibility to convey the sense of emotional struggle in your characters, and to work with your actors to ensure they do the same for the audience. How do you balance this without leaning too hard into your own personal struggles?
ANTHONY: I think if you asked me this question two years ago, I would have answered it extremely differently.  However, over the past several months, I have been quite vocal about the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood and why it led me to not only write this play, but to explore it in a different way.  I discovered that the last time I did this play, I spoke with friends and family and some collaborators about what I went through, but I felt I was still hiding a big part of myself.  After making the decision to speak about it and let people know the depth to which it effected me, I felt I was able to tell this story in a completely different way.  For this play particularly, I chose to lean deeply into the personal to allow it resonate more through my own vulnerability.

How has portraying Hayley adjusted your view of others, especially those suffering through despair, pain, and mental illness?
JACLYN: I think portraying Hayley has helped me understand a wider range of mental illnesses through research and hearing personal stories. I think there’s still such a stigma around mental health that we are only just starting to break. The same illness can look completely different on different people which is why we need to get rid of all the stereotypes. Also, sometimes it can be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis because a lot of them share similar symptoms, so finding exactly what you have and getting the help you need can be a long process. I’m so glad that more people feel comfortable speaking out about the importance of therapy and sharing their specific mental health journey because it’s educating those who are also struggling and may not have had access to this information years ago. 
 
What has challenged you the most about playing Hayley?
JACLYN: One of the most challenging parts about playing Hayley Jones is the journey that she has to go through in such a short period of time. Each scene she is in a different place mentally so arriving to wherever she needs to be at that specific point can be emotionally exhausting. In order to make sure that the audience is on this ride with me, I have to remember to stay present and take in how the environment around me has changed with each scene. Also, time works differently in the world of this play and there are some flashbacks that she sees first hand, so that also adds to Hayleys confusion of her nonlinear timeline. The workshop read that we did in May was about half the duration of the full length script. After that performance, I had to catch my breath as the adrenaline was rushing through my body, so I’m curious to see how I will feel after doing the whole play! But I’m ready and excited for the challenge! 
 
The pandemic has put us all through the wringer. Mental health is an issue that has been thrust to the forefront. How did your experience over the past two years influence your portrayal of Hayley?
JACLYN: I’ll never forget the start of the pandemic when we all had to sit in our homes, isolated from the outside world, not knowing what the next day would bring. The numbers just kept going up and the unknown was terrifying. I, like many others, struggled with my mental health during this time. I realized that I kept myself busy on a day to day basis as a distraction from what I was actually feeling. So when everything shut down and I had nothing left to keep me busy, I had to face the reality that I was living.  When you’re left by yourself with only your thoughts, it forces you on a journey of self exploration for your purpose. You work to enjoy your own company because at the end of the day, that’s all you really have. That feeling of isolation, confusion for the future, and the journey of self acceptance are all things that Hayley is dealing with in this piece. I think even if you personally don’t struggle with your mental health, you can still relate to this story because of what we all have gone through the past two years. 
 
We want to, obviously, avoid spoilers, but was there a particular scene or line of dialogue that you love most? 
JACLYN: Can I say the whole second act? There’s a big reveal at the end of act one that sets Hayley off on a mental and physical rollercoaster all the way up until the last line! There is one scene in particular that I’m very excited to block in rehearsals. Hayley thinks that she’s finally getting what she wants in the hospital and tries to take control of the situation, only to quickly realize that she might not have had the right perception of what’s really happening. It’s one of the few times when almost everyone in the cast is on stage, so I know we will all have a blast working off of each other while staging that.
 
Hayley finds a particular interest in the story of Azura, the Girl with the Red Hair. What is it about Azura that brings her to such a prominent place in Hayley’s journey?
JACLYN: When Hayley is first told the story of the Girl with the Red Hair, she’s drawn to her anonymity. No one even knew her real name when she was in the hospital but they remembered only good things about her. There are some people who just walk into a room and light up the whole space with their presence. Hayley wishes that she had that effect on people. She wants to be remembered for something. Being in this new place she has a unique opportunity to start fresh with a clean slate. There’s something so exhilarating about starting anew. Getting to be whoever you want to be without everyone’s preconceived notions of who you’ve been. I think Hayley realizes this a little too late in her journey and at that point really wishes that she could do it all over again.

In regard to Azura–Hayley doesn’t make the connection that she is the Girl with the Red Hair, she thinks that she’s another patient in the hospital who just so happens to also have red hair. Hayley is drawn to her child-like playful energy and knows deep down that there’s something different about her. She admires her confidence in who she is and her constant eagerness to make those around her happy. In Hayley’s eyes, both Azura and the Girl with the Red Hair are bold individuals who leave a lasting positive impression on everyone they encounter, which she hopes to one day do as well!
 
Through much of the script there’s a manic pace of dialogue and action. Was that done intentionally?
ANTHONY: Yes.  The play is written to mirror how Hayley’s mind works.  Some scenes are quite short, like a quick memory that you come across, and others are quite lengthy, like a dream.  Some of my favorite moments come in the briskness of the pace, particularly in a monologue in Act 2 that we call “the roof monologue,” where pace is essential to understanding the emotions behind the words.

If you could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?
JACLYN: If I could leave the audience with one message about mental illness it would have to be: You’re the only one in control over your life so protect your mind and body and surround yourself with individuals who you know will be a good support system when you’re feeling your lowest. I think many people, Hayley included, see asking for help as a sign of weakness but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Realizing that you need help and having the courage to speak up for yourself could be just the thing that saves you. 
 
You’ve taken on the issue of mental health in several of your projects. What is it about this issue that draws you? And what message do you hope to leave those who see the struggles of your characters?
ANTHONY: I’ve struggled from a young age with depression and anxiety, and what I recently learned was undiagnosed PTSD.  I started writing stories like this because it’s what I knew and it’s where my heart was connected to the most.  However, as the years went on, I found people were connecting with my struggles, and mainly because others weren’t talking about it.  I think we’ve come a long way in bringing mental illness to the forefront of stories, but I still feel disheartened to see portrayals of bi-polar disorder, depression, PTSD and sexual abuse to be treated superficially.  There’s nothing romantic about trying to end your life.  There’s nothing exciting about being inside a hospital.  I wanted to tell a story that was completely raw and leaned away from making mental illness seem magical.