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.
Photos courtesy of Daniyal Khan
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.