Theater In Conversation
HILARY BETTIS with Kyoung H. Park
Hilary Bettis’s Alligator is a gritty play that explores identity through the story of seven young adults facing tumultuous life transitions. Each of them is searching for love, forgiveness, and the meaning of life. “These people are not physically pretty […] They’re swamp people,” Hilary writes. “Think of this play like a Jackson Pollock painting inside a Temple Grandin slaughterhouse.”
The play will début in New York this November, the inaugural production of The Sol Project, in collaboration with New Georges.
Kyoung H. Park (Rail): What inspired you to write Alligator?
Hilary Bettis: I don’t think there’s a single idea or event that inspired Alligator, other than I needed to write the play. Writing for me has always been about survival, long before anything else. And really, at the center of the play is a group of kids all fighting for their survival in some way—[from] poverty, shame, loneliness, violence. These were things I was grappling with at that time in my life. I was sleeping on a mattress, taking care of a friend dying of cancer, living with an alcoholic. And the first draft of this play just sort of took me by surprise. I was also in a relationship with a musician and spent a lot of very late, drunken nights at every rock club in the city. I wanted to take that culture and put it on a stage in some way, so live music was a huge element to the story from the beginning.
Rail: Why did you set this play in the Everglades?
Bettis: Environment is always the main character in anything I write. Our lives, our choices, our perspectives are influenced by our environments. I don’t think you can really understand who a character is or what a story is until you understand the world they exist in. There are few places in the world more oppressive (and simultaneously beautiful) than the Everglades. The heat and humidity is brutal, the swarms of mosquitoes, the giant, invasive pythons and anacondas... Plus, it’s the only place in the world alligators and crocodiles live in the same environment. Most people aren’t cut out for life in the Everglades, so the people who are inherently understand survival is a constant fight against nature in a way most of us take for granted.
Weeeelcome, weeeelcome, weeeelcome ya’ll from all over the country! All over the world! All over the universe! All over where ever the hell it is ya’ll are from! Now I hope ya’ll are ready to be amazed here tody. Are ya ready? I said are ya ready? Oh now folks, I can’t hear ya! Now I wanna hear ya loud as a pig in a slaughterhouse! Loud as a pig squealin’ for his life!
Rail: You’ve worked on this play for seven years, many of them at New Georges. Can you talk about your artistic relationship with this company?
Bettis: New Georges was one of the first theaters I began a relationship with when I moved to New York. I barely made it through high school and didn’t go to college (I received a fellowship to Juilliard in 2013 because of Alligator, but that’s been my only academic experience), so when I came to New York I had no idea how to break into theater. I emailed every theater in the city asking if I could volunteer in some way. Susan Bernfield and Sarah Cameron Sunde took me up on that, so I suddenly found myself helping break down sets and stuffing envelopes. Somewhere along the way I told Susan I wrote a few plays, and she offered to read them. Six months later she called me and said she read my plays, they were “really good,” and I should be one of their Affiliated Artists. Around the same time I had a first draft of Alligator and applied to one of their workshop programs. I think that was actually the first thing I did with them artistically. Since then, I’ve tried to be as involved in their community as I can be, and I’ve met some of the most incredible artists I know through New Georges. After that workshop, Alligator took on a life of its own. I’ve had workshops and residencies all over the country, including the O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference, and I met [this production’s director] Elena Araoz when she directed a reading of it in 2012 at the Great Plains Theatre Conference.
But honestly, the play is so raw, it came out of my own struggle with death and violence, and those wounds had to heal before I could really look at the play. While I wrote it seven years ago, there was about a four-year span where I couldn’t look at the play.
I’ll tell you. Right now. The meaning of life, Lucy, is to stay as drunk as possible so you can survive until the grave.
Maybe survival is overrated.
Rail: Your play Ghosts of Lote Bravo received a rolling World Premiere across the country this past season through the National New Play Network. The play explores femicide and the anguish of living in despair, exposing a story of atrocities in Juarez to audiences across the nation. Ghosts of Lote Bravo and Alligator share a similar, symbolic theatricality and religiosity; mysticism and mercy are recurring themes in your plays. Is this a reflection of your own upbringing, or playwriting practice?
Bettis: My father is a Methodist minister from South Carolina, so the church was a huge part of my upbringing. Church in the South is as much (maybe even more) about community and reputation as it is about God. I think that’s something that’s misunderstood in the North. It’s where—no matter your occupation, level of education, political beliefs— the community comes to gather every week.
Maybe around twelve years old, I started having some big, moral questions about dogmatic religion that leaves no room for doubt, evolution, or compassion; but the certainty that there is nothing beyond us feels equally rigid. I think on some level everything I write is a search for something that’s bigger than us in this world. What transcends our mortality, our nature, our fears? How do we find mercy and redemption in our darkest, cruelest moments?
Rail: When did alligators and Furies become part of your play?
Bettis: Rex and Emerald were the first two characters I wrote, so alligators have been there from the beginning. Live music was also there from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure how to integrate it into the structure, so I started reading the Greeks. The Furies are the bridge between Emerald’s world and Rex’s world.
There was darkness. Nothing. Just a void. And then the first two gods created themselves. Good and bad, male and female… And they made four other gods who created the world… Fire and a half sun, and they dropped blood into the mud, and we rose up out of the mud, you and me, Em. And after they created us, they created stars and swamps, the ‘gators and the rain… And we’ve been here wrestling them ever since.
Rail: The Sol Project was founded in New York City to raise the visiblity of Latinx playwrights in Off-Broadway theaters. During a meeting with The Sol Project’s artistic collective, you shared how Alligator came from a personal experience that you needed to work through and that it is meaningful for you to be telling this story as a Latina playwright. Why is it important for you to (re)claim your Latina identity?
Bettis: I’ve spent my entire life being told I’m not really allowed to claim this part of my identity. My grandfather was Mexican. He grew up on the border (as did my mom), pulled himself out of poverty by fighting in World War II and using his GI Bill to get an education in History. The American Dream quite literally defined his life. But he also experienced immense prejudice and racism, and felt he was held back in his life because he was Mexican. This was his great fear for his children and grandchildren (when my mother was pregnant with me, he told her he was afraid my skin would be too dark), and in order to have our dreams we had to work twice as hard and be more “American than the Americans.”
My family moved a lot, growing up. When I lived in very rural, white communities I was told I was ethnic, exotic, Mexican and Latina; and when I lived in Chicano communities, I was told I was white. It was always the community I was in defining who I was. And it was made very clear that I didn’t fit into either. My dad’s family is of German heritage and my grandmother’s family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, but there’s never been opinions or questions about those parts of who I am, and having Mexican blood is just as much a part of my DNA, my soul. So part of my motivation for reclaiming my Latina identity is saying that I get to define who I am, not the world. And part of it is honoring the shame and pain and sacrifice of my grandfather, carrying on his legacy.
I’m Lucy. A searcher. Been to Vegas. Rock shows in Seattle. Snowboarded Pikes Peak. Hiked the Yukon. Stood in Times Square while the sun rose. Been in limos and big rigs and station wagons. Met Bible preachers and movie stars and an old woman driving up and down Route 66 in search of her husband’s ghost. Their eyes were empty. But you… You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Rail: How is your collaboration with The Sol Project informing your current process as the play is gearings toward its World Premiere?
Bettis: Working with The Sol Project has been an incredible experience. It’s definitely been a challenging process in assembling a diverse team of collaborators—which really makes you suddenly aware that in order to have diversity at this level, people need opportunity and support and resources at every level so that they can hone their skills and craft and voices. You realize how vital things like the NEA and school arts programs are in developing the next generation of creative minds. And you realize that it’s a lot easier to pay lip service to “diversity” (which a lot of institutions do) than it is to live it. We all had to reach outside our channels to put this team together, which required extra time and patience than is the norm for productions.
We also had to have very complicated conversations about authenticity in representation. Alligator is set in the South, which is a very racially conflicted place. So how do we cast this play that is honest to that part of the world—that doesn’t just pretend like race in the South is a thing of the past, that gives dignity to the very different experiences of each of these people—while meeting the mission of The Sol Project? It’s a very fine line that required all of us to step back and listen. But I think the willingness to [commit to] a play that is as messy and complicated and dangerous as Alligator speaks volumes to the courage of The Sol Project and New Georges.
Rail: Writing a play is such an emotional journey, a process of self-questioning and self-discovery that often takes years. This quest is so beautifully explored in your play through characters that seem stuck in this town, by characters who return to town but are not who they say they are, and by transient wanderers who are mysteriously embracing life as a physical journey with no ultimate destination. Which character in Alligator do you most relate to, and why?
Bettis: All of them are parts of me, my own demons, my own flaws and fears. And they’re people I love. And they’re fiction. But I won’t give away any more than that.
I think the world is still beautiful. All of it… I was so afraid of death until I met you… Always thinking I could out run it. But I’m not afraid anymore. When I close my eyes for the last time I want to see your face. Your soul. Not the big, angry alligator in the mirror… In your eyes. In my eyes.