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Halley Feiffer Makes the Transition From Actress to Playwright

A conversation with the Theater World Award winner, whose dark comedy ''How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them'' is currently running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. logo

Halley Feiffer has one of the more illustrious résumés for a young actress these days. Besides winning a Theater World Award in 2011 for her performance as a window-climbing nun in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, Feiffer, the daughter of cartoonist Jules Feiffer and actress Jenny Allen, has also been seen in productions at off-Broadway institutions like Signature Theatre Company, Atlantic Theater Company, and Second Stage Theatre. Not to mention her screen résumé, which includes the acclaimed films You Can Count on Me, The Squid and the Whale, Mildred Pierce, and the HBO series Bored to Death.

In between acting gigs, Feiffer moonlights as a playwright and screenwriter. He's Way More Famous Than You, which she cowrote with Ryan Spahn, was released earlier this year. And her newest play, a dark, dark comedy called How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, about the horrors of a codependent friendship among three women, currently runs at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

TheaterMania chatted with Feiffer about her experiences writing plays, how she comes up with awesome titles, and the age old question: "What's harder: acting or playwriting?"

Halley Feiffer
(© David Gordon)

What impressed me most about How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them is how weird it is from start to finish. Usually "weird" plays become less and less so as the play goes on, almost as if the writer is apologizing. Was that weirdness always there?
I think it was there to begin with, but [director] Kip [Fagan] really helped me. I rewrote it a fair amount before we started rehearsing, and also during the rehearsal process. That's something he really encouraged me to do, especially with the ending. The ending used to be very different and [spoiler alert] no one died. [laughs] That's so clearly stupid; it seemed like a good idea at the time. He encouraged me to stay true to the tone and vision of the play and not shy away from stuff that would feel weird or extreme.

Rattlestick, which is known for its offbeat productions, is a great place to develop a piece like this.
I know. We're so lucky. I've been so spoiled. I've tried developing pieces with other theaters and had good experiences, but I'm used to more restrictions. With David Van Asselt, who runs Rattlestick, he was like, "Great, I love it. I have one thought, take it or leave it." And I'm like, "Oh, really?"

Where did this play come from?
I started writing in college, actually. It was a collection of short plays called If It's Weird Now: Short Plays About Friendship. It was about horribly damaged, deranged, sadistic, masochistic friendships, which is what this play is about. I did a couple of developmental readings in New York and what I kept hearing was [that] this should be a fuller play. Then I distilled the characters into three, and made two of them sisters. That's where it came from, from quite a literal standpoint.

And emotionally?
Emotionally where it came from, I don't know. I have two sisters but we don't have this kind of relationship, thank goodness. One is ten years younger and one is twenty years older, so we didn't have this codependent closeness and competitiveness. I had friendships growing up that felt really wrong, like we treated [one another] in ways neither of us was proud of and couldn't stop. I was interested in exploring what a lot of women, perhaps not all, experience — how when they're young and don't have any coping tools. You tend to lash out and hurt the people you love the most because you're in pain and don't know what to do about it.

Besides the awesomely titled How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, you've also written a play called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Any tips for aspiring writers on titling plays?
Sometimes what I do is find a line that I think is really good and just call it that line. I have a play called I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, and that's a really important line that one of the main characters says. How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, I didn't even think of that title. Second Stage [Associate Artistic Director] Chris Burney is a friend and did a reading of it there. He was saying, "It's almost about how to make friends and then kill them," and I was like "THANK YOU!" A Funny Thing Happened…I don't know. Someone said to me, "It's so great how you're so brave to eschew this tradition of one word titles." I just want to intrigue people and make them come see the play. If I see a play and it has a one word title, I'm like, "I don't know what that's about and if it's interesting or not." So I feel like if it has an interesting title, I'll want to go.

What's harder, playwriting or acting?
I think it's changed over the past couple of years. I was really, really struggling so much trying to get people interested in my plays and consider me as a playwright because I was an actor first. People thought of me as an actor, and I felt like I was both. For a while, playwriting felt much harder because I wasn't disciplined, and I wasn't good at it, and I didn't know how to do it. I didn't go to school for it, and I applied to schools and didn't get in. Now I feel like I have a firmer grasp on that.

I just acted in a play at Atlantic Theater Company and I found acting to be really hard. It just keeps changing. I enjoy both. Sometimes I feel like it's so hilarious that they're in the same discipline because they're so, so different. I think acting is terrifying because you're right there in front of so many people and if you screw up, you feel humiliated. With playwriting, you've already done the work so it's kind of freeing. All you can do is sit back and watch it or not watch it. In a way, it's kind of liberating.