The Girl with the Red Hair, part 3: An Interview with Samantha Yestrebsky

The following is the final part a 3-part series of interviews on the forthcoming play, The Girl With the Red Hair. Written and directed by Anthony Laura, and featuring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, and Samantha Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run on December 5th at The Alchemical.

The opportunity to explore the inner-workings of a play, as it transitions from table read to stage has been one of the more fascinating explorations of the art I’ve made. Special thanks to Anthony Laura for offering me this opportunity. The Girl with the Red Hair is heartfelt, brilliant in scope, and has left a lasting mark on my perception and perspective of mental illness.

To close out the series, we delve into the characters of Courtney and Azura, the girl with the red hair, both roles played by Samantha Yestrebsky.

If you wish to revisit Part One, featuring actress Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura, can it be found here. While, Part Two, featuring actress Vivien Cardone and Anthony, can be found here.

Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.

An Interview with Samantha Yestrebsky

Samantha Yestrebsky hails from Owasso, Oklahoma and moved to New York in 2016 to train at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts where she received her Associate’s Degree in 2018. During her time at the Academy, she performed in Blood at the Root, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Kareem Fahmy, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 as Charles and Somerset, directed by Lisa Milinazzo. She also side hustles as a librarian and dog walker. Samantha was recently nominated for Best Actress in a Drama for Mosaic at the New Jersey Webfest.


As an actress, you need to dig deep into a character to completely understand who she is. Who is Cortney Dawson, and what does her connection to Hayley say about her?

Cortney Dawson is a young woman who has been through a traumatic event and is having a hard time coping with it, hence the behavioral health facility. The specific reason she’s at this facility is not mentioned, but from what we can gather throughout the play, she is extremely intelligent and empathetic. I believe during her time at the hospital she hasn’t had much luck with getting a diagnosis, or getting help, which I believe leads her to shut herself off emotionally from the doctors and other patients. Hayley Jones is the only person who seems to understand her, and for some specific reason I don’t think we can palpably dissect, a small part of her feels vulnerable and free around her.

The Girl with the Red Hair delves deeply into depression, mental illness, and sexual abuse. How has the journey of Hayley Jones altered your view of these issues in your life?

Hayley’s story hasn’t necessarily altered my view on mental illness, but has actually validated it. I’ve always believed these stories need to be told in an unbiased way, without projecting any kind of political stance to the audience. I think it’s refreshing to read a play like this that encompasses all aspects and ranges of mental illness.

What appealed to you about the role of Cortney? What did you feel you could bring to the character?

I think many reasons why I took this role, and why many actors feel connected to roles in general, is that they see a part of themselves in a character. Cortney is extremely intelligent, honest, compassionate, and just so happens to have been living in a behavioral health facility for the last year of her life following a traumatic event. Cortney’s story deserves to be completely free of judgment, and I feel like I’m able to share her story from an unbiased perspective.

Toward the end of the play, Cortney tells Hayley a story about her grandmother. What do you believe she hoped to convey to Hayley in that moment?

In the scene, Hayley tells Cortney that she wishes people understood her. Cortney decides then and there that she’s going to allow herself to be vulnerable in order for Hayley to realize that sometimes it doesn’t matter if people understand or believe us, because, at the end of the day, we alone are the only people who fully comprehend exactly what we’re experiencing.

In addition to Cortney, you also take on the role of Azura—the girl with the red hair. How does your preparation differ for multiple roles?

Anthony made it incredibly easy to differentiate these two characters. The writing alone is usually all I need to prep for these scenes. Many times, when playing two roles, I want to make sure these two people are different in terms of physicality, the tone or pitch of their voice, their style, their hair—and I make a conscious decision about each aspect. The writing of this play honestly made all of those pieces come together naturally.

Azura mentions the sadness in the song Puff the Magic Dragon. She says Hayley is like Puff without his roar. What do you think she’s trying to say to Hayley?

Azura sings this song to Hayley because she believes there’s a fire inside Hayley that has diminished, and she knows that Hayley needs to get her wildfire back. In reference to a line Tabatha says in the play, “Some of us are supposed to be at this hospital, waiting for princes, and others aren’t.”

Both Azura and Cortney seem happy, yet aloof, both with their own memorable lines. Is there one line for either—or both—that sticks with you?

The most important line Azura says that sticks out to me is, “You really are a superhero, you know?” Although this is one of her more serious lines, I think it encompasses everything you need to know about Azura—she truly believes in the good in people, no matter what.

What about you? Do you believe in the good in people?

Truthfully, sometimes it’s really difficult. I want to! I really do, but living in a big city, you see a lot of bad things, and believing in the good in everybody can sometimes get you in some not-so-great situations. That’s why I really love playing Azura, because she’s so extremely different from me! It’s really refreshing to see the world through her eyes.

 The art of writing and performing a script requires a great deal of collaboration between actor and director. In what ways did the collaborative effort affect the roles of Courtney and Azura?

I’ve worked with Anthony on a couple of different projects and I really respect and admire his approach to the work. The number one reason is because he trusts his actors. He allows me the freedom to explore my character (in this case, characters) and let me do my work. I feel free to make new choices with him, and he trusts me to pick whichever ones feel best to me.

What do you want the audience to take away from the roles of Cortney and Azura?

This is such a hard question for me because I believe a character’s purpose is to serve the story, and my job is to serve the character and tell their story as truthfully as I can. There are so many themes and motifs and images that are being expressed here and I believe it’s up to the audience what to take away from the play. With so many different themes I think each person is going to take away something different that they personally connected with. I’m so excited to talk with people who see the show to hear their thoughts and opinions on what they think the play is about!

The process of staging a play takes considerable time—from the first table read to the first performance. What about this process do you find most enjoyable, and to that end most frustrating?

My favorite part of putting on a show is absolutely the rehearsal process. Second to that is the table read because those are where the first genuine moments and reactions take place, but the actual rehearsal is my favorite part. We get to play around so much with these different characters and find choices that work and choices that don’t work and that’s where I find the most enjoyment. There is so much that happens in rehearsal that the audience will never see and to me that’s really special. On the opposite of that spectrum, I can’t think of anything I find frustrating about the process at all! I really do love everything about the process.

 Tickets for the upcoming run of The Girl with the Red Hair are available now. For those considering the idea of attending, what would you tell them?

I would tell them they need to see it! This show is just genuinely good theatre, which I think sometimes is hard to find. It will leave you asking questions, discussing moments, and creating theories about the end of the play. We’re a cast and crew of passionate people who believe in telling good stories, and that essence shines throughout the whole show.

An Interview with Writer/Director Anthony Laura and Actress Casey Hartnett

As a writer, and as founder and Executive Director of the Broadleaf Writers Association, I’m often given the opportunity to preview work before it reaches the public. Generally, that means a manuscript that requires editing before it’s sent out on submission, or an advanced copy of a book to be published. But I’m also fortunate to know a number of writers, producers, and directors working on either plays, screenplays, or both.

One of those is writer/director Anthony Laura, an artist I have come to admire both for his emotionally provocative scripts as well as the passion in which he brings them to reality. One of those works, The Girl with the Red Hair, is a play currently slated to premiere this winter, and I was honored to not only get the opportunity to read the script, but to interview both writer and lead actress.

Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.

An Interview with Anthony Laura and Casey Hartnett

 

Writing about or portraying an individual suffering from the ramifications of sexual abuse requires both accuracy and a gentle, yet firm, hand. How did you both prepare for this sensitive subject?

CASEY: We talked a lot about Hayley’s backstory and the specifics of what actually happened when she was nine years old. Then in my own crafting, I thought about the specifics of what happened right afterwards. Did I tell anyone? What did I say? How did those words come out of my mouth at such a young age? Who did or did not believe me? What became the dynamic in my family after all of this happened and how I did I deal with that as a teenager? All of these specifics had to be well-thought out in order to be as truthful as possible. The scariest thing is the idea that someone in the audience could really relate to having something as traumatic as this happening to them, so being as truthful and specific as possible with every little detail was really important to me.

ANTHONY: In both preparation and execution, we wanted to honor the specific difficulties of experiencing and continuing to live with such trauma.  The seeds of Hayley’s suffering with the abuse is sprinkled throughout the play, but the reveal happens quite late.  Due to this, Casey and I spoke about the physical manifestations and how the emotional repercussions were specific to Hayley.  I think what was most profound about Casey’s portrayal is how deeply you felt her pain, yet it always remained a bit at bay and hidden.  Many survivors suffer silently for years, whether it be from shame or fear, and continue to relive their trauma internally.  We wanted to illustrate the debilitating effect that repression can have and how much courage it takes to make the decision to speak it aloud.

The girl with the red hair is a pivotal character in Hayley’s journey. What does she represent to you?

CASEY: The girl with the red hair represents everything that Hayley wishes she could be. She represents this fantastical perception of perfection that no matter what Hayley does, feels so far away from being able to be achieved. There’s a hopefulness but also a hopelessness all at once in the girl with the red hair, and that combination is really heartbreaking.

ANTHONY: Azura has always felt like a bit of a guardian angel to me.  Through her optimism and innocence, a sense of hope is ignited in Hayley.  It’s one of the few times in the play that we’re left with Hayley at the end of a scene feeling at peace.  However, Hayley winds up putting her on a pedestal, believing her life would be better if she existed as her, until Coury accurately points out “Why can’t you just be yourself?”  It’s a feeling I think we can all relate to in viewing people in terms of their best qualities and assuming we are defective for having problems of our own and not maintaining our own expectation of perfection.

Despite the sensitive and emotionally raw nature of the script, there remains a good bit of humor. How do you manage to convey a sense of comedy in moments that are so deep in despair and pain?

CASEY: I think sometimes we have to laugh and find the humor in unsettling situations in order to maintain our sanity. I guess it’s almost like a defense mechanism that Hayley uses to hold onto what little control she does have of her situation. If she can tease Dr. Watkins maybe she’ll start speaking to Hayley as an actual person rather than a patient. If she jokes around with Nurse Janice, the time might go by a little quicker. I feel like in Hayley’s case, humor is used as an escape mechanism; an escape from the mania and the depression and the utter sadness that has enveloped her entire being so harshly for so many years. Sometimes laughter is a better cure than any medication.

ANTHONY: For me, levity tends to exist very often in the most painful of situations.  In fact, in my experience, the more painful the situation, the more we yearn and strive to make people laugh or help us laugh through the hard times.  We crack jokes to ease the tension every day.  Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias always had a line that stuck with me.  “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

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?

CASEY: Honestly, I think the biggest thing I’ve gained from working with Anthony has been a greater sense of trust and confidence in myself as an actor to go out there and tackle heavy material like this play. I’ve always been so subtle as an actor that being driven out of my shell to truthfully portray those moments of Hayley’s mania and heightened emotional life has given me the confidence to expand on the types of roles I want to play; and the roles that I actually believe I can play now. Because of this, when working on script revisions, if he asks me if I’d feel comfortable trying something new with Hayley, I have no reservations against saying, yes, yes let’s try it!

ANTHONY: I remember the first time I sat down with Casey and she told me her interpretation of Hayley.  I recall being in such awe of her empathy.  In the past two and half months, she has shown me a world within Hayley I never imagined.  A lot of that comes from how open and vulnerable she is on stage and how deeply invested she is with Hayley, but more importantly how giving she is with the other actors (and characters) around her.  Overall, what I continue to gain from working together with her is trust.  I think we both listen to each other with full attention and when that happens, the possibilities are endless.  There’s absolutely nothing more thrilling than exploring a character or situation together with a new and exhilarating idea that only comes from wanting to hear each other’s input and make the best possible product.  She always makes the work better.  Plus, she’s one of the kindest actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

Azura, the girl with the red hair, visits Hayley at one point and mentions the sadness in the song Puff the Magic Dragon. She says Hayley is like Puff without his roar. What do you think she’s trying to say to Hayley?

CASEY: When Azura tells Hayley she is like Puff without his roar and that she needs to get her roar back, I think she’s trying to tell Hayley to not let her current situation get her down and to embrace her flaws and her past because without all of those facets of Hayley, she wouldn’t be Hayley and that’s what makes her so unique and special. Maybe embracing all of these parts of Hayley instead of trying to bury them away will allow Hayley to feel whole again. I think Azura is just reminding Hayley that despite everything that has happened, it is possible for Hayley to feel happy again.

ANTHONY: Going back to the guardian angel comment earlier, Azura is letting Hayley know that everything she needs to be her best self exists inside of her.  Sometimes, especially through trauma, we lose a part of ourselves that even we forget existed.  Azura wants to assure Hayley that whatever she seeks in right within her grasp if she allows herself to fight.

Writing a play of this emotional magnitude is a challenge. What challenged you the most?

ANTHONY: I think the biggest challenge was in balancing and withholding.  I wasn’t interested in telling a story about these issues that would be too operatic.  I wanted it based in reality and, for me, in real life, we hide instead of show.  The other challenge, which I still strive for in the new run, is accuracy.  Many people who suffer from mental illness, whether it’s on a large or small scale, continue to feel inadequately represented when the portrayal is romanticized or emotionally inaccurate.  I think it further adds to the stigma that only elicits more shame and fear in those who suffer.  Maybe this is an obvious statement, but I think it’s important to treat everything as a documentary and show realistic portrayals so people suffering feel seen.

Bette Midler makes several appearances to Hayley. Was there any particular reason you chose her for the script?

ANTHONY: One reason is the difference in Ms. Midler’s presence on and off stage.  She always puts on a great show and makes you laugh with everything she does.  Yet, if you watch more of the intimate interviews with her, you’re overtaken by how candid she is with her struggles and how different her personality actually is from her stage appearances.  I think Hayley responds to the comfort of Bette, what she wants her to be, and that further enforces the theme of controlling ourselves and others.

Hayley has endured experiences that pushed her beyond her breaking point. Through her suffering, you tackle the issue of mental illness. What message did you hope to convey?

ANTHONY: We all know what it’s like and how easy it is to isolate when we feel others can’t understand how we’re feeling or what we’re going through.  I’ve experienced depression to the point where I would stay in my room and not eat for days.  As hard as that is, it’s also hard on those around you.  We want people to feel less alone.  We also hope that people who are on the outside of the disease can see this and understand that sometimes all you need to do is listen, that your support is all anyone needs.  I hope that we are able to articulate what people suffering have gone through and continue to go through and make them feel like the heroes they are for fighting this fight everyday of their lives.

Each character holds a key to unlocking the truth of Hayley’s journey. Was this something you planned, or did it come about through the writing process?

ANTHONY: A little of both.  There was definitely a lot of discovery during the writing process and the rewriting process.  I know that in my life, a lot of the truth I’ve learned about myself has come from the people closest to me and I wanted to show how each character had an effect on Hayley, whether that was manifested or based in reality.  The story is essentially about Hayley’s growth and acceptance of herself, but the underlying theme for me was that it’s never weak to ask for help.

What advice would you give other writers interested in writing about characters suffering through mental illness?

ANTHONY: I have always found that the most honest writing comes from finding a way in, knowing what your personal reason is for telling the story.  I don’t think that means you have had to experience mental illness but understanding the reason behind why you want to tell the story and who you want to reach can help in always having a foundation when the writing process takes its crazy turns.

As an actor, finding a sense of empathy for the characters you play is an important facet. What was it in Hayley that you were able to connect to?

CASEY: I was actually able to connect to a lot of parts of Hayley, including her sense of feeling misunderstood and her longing to be heard and believed. That’s probably a common thing for everyone, this desire to be understood and not judged for who you are and what you’ve been through, but I have both seen in others and personally felt a strong desire for that sense of understanding firsthand so I felt like I really wanted to take care of Hayley right off the bat. I wanted to let her know through my portrayal of her that hey, I see you and I understand what you’re going through and I’m going to protect you.

If Hayley could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?

CASEY: I think Hayley’s message about mental illness would be just to not judge others or act like you really know what someone else is going through but to just be there for them and support them. To allow them to feel normal.

How has portraying Hayley adjusted your view of others, especially those suffering through despair, pain, and mental illness?

CASEY: Portraying Hayley has definitely made me more cautious of the way I speak to and about others. I’ve worked with very vulnerable populations like the homeless, so knowing those people and now knowing Hayley, I am just much more aware of when I am having judgmental thoughts and how to push those thoughts aside and really try to see and hear what other people have to say and learn about their perspective.

The progression of Hayley’s journey takes her further into paranoia and delusion. When dealing with portraying a character falling deeper into a broken mind, how do you walk the line between reality and parody?

CASEY: As Hayley falls deeper into her broken mind, everything feels real to her so by living in her world during the play, it’s portrayed as if everything is actually happening because the distinction between reality and fantasy has been blurred. So, if Hayley believes that this is all a reality, then I wanted to portray those instances as if they were real and not overdo them or make fun of them in any way.

What has challenged you the most about playing Hayley?

CASEY: I think the biggest challenge has been giving an ultimate truth and honesty to Hayley’s illness. It was really important to me that I understand mental health and sexual trauma as thoroughly as possible because it’s one thing for a character to feel misunderstood, but it’s another thing entirely for an audience member who identifies with Hayley to see a play and feel even more alone than when they walked into the theater.

Hayley struggles with sexuality on many levels, including her own sexual orientation. Given what you know, and have learned, of Hayley, how do you portray that sense of exploration beyond her dialogue?

CASEY:  Portraying Hayley’s sense of sexual exploration goes beyond her dialogue in the way of subtle hints in the underlying emotions during her interactions with several characters. She and Cortney have a few unspoken moments of attraction that act as saving graces for Hayley in a way; they comfort her and scare her all at once. With Coury, she is trying to find her sexual desire again but she has become numb to intimacy and can’t really understand why. Since she can’t explain it, it can’t be explained through the dialogue but Coury seems to acknowledge that it’s okay without ever having to say those exact words.

At one point, Hayley has a literal knee-jerk reaction to being touched. In another scene, she rebukes Eve’s advances by asking her to view her as a nine-year-old girl. How do you convey those moments to the audience, so that they see the connections to her past?

CASEY: Conveying those moments of Hayley still being affected by her past sexual traumas to the audience comes through in the emotional preparation of the work. I could ask Eve in a hypothetical, playful way to think of me as a nine-year-old girl, but that wouldn’t necessarily lead the audience to believe Hayley has actually been abused. Hayley’s quick temper and the way she gets so upset by Eve’s hyper-sexuality is evidence in itself for the audience to (hopefully) understand that something terrible happened to her when she was so young and it’s still greatly affecting her today and is most likely the cause for Hayley being in a psychiatric ward in the first place.

In Act Two, Hayley says, “Everything is so far away,” a perspective to which many can relate. What makes this perspective unique to Hayley? How is her “far away” different than everyone else?

CASEY: When Hayley says, “Everything is so far away,” her perspective has been radically shifted from feeling in control of the people around her during her manic phases to a total loss of control after Eve points out how she has betrayed all of them without her even realizing it. It’s like everything has taken a 180 degree turn in the wrong direction and Hayley feels completely lost and confused with no sense of an explanation as to why this happened. I would say that Hayley’s “far away” is different from everyone else’s because her mind literally cannot recall the exact details of what got her to this point. Her mental illness has created these blocks in her brain, it’s as if she blacked out and did a lot of regretful things that she can’t remember and therefore can’t apologize for.