Theater News

Foote Folk

David Finkle talks with Daisy, Hallie, and Horton–the daughter/sister/father, playwright/actress/director Foote trio behind When They Speak of Rita.

Hallie Foote andEbon Moss-Bachrach inWhen They Speak of Rita
Hallie Foote and
Ebon Moss-Bachrach in
When They Speak of Rita

You could say it’s Foote fete-ish. The fact that Daisy B. Foote wrote When They Speak of Rita, sister Hallie Foote plays the title role, and dad Horton Foote directed the five-character drama currently running Off-Broadway at Primary Stages. And furthermore, the fact that they’re having such a good time doing it. Which doesn’t surprise them. “It surprises other people–when they think about their own families,” Daisy says. “We’re very close.”

The closeness is apparent just after the lights have faded on a Sunday matinee, when–before turning their attention to an interviewer–the three of them have a quick huddle about a line cut in that performance. They all agree amiably that the revision makes a substantial difference, and will be kept. Then dad, daughter, and daughter take seats in the front rows of the small auditorium: Horton round-faced, white-haired and jolly, and Daisy and Hallie fresh-faced with long hair and open expressions.

Indeed, while Hallie is more glamorous than the discontented housewife she just portrayed, the Footes tend to look like the down-to-earth characters they write about and/or play–even though Horton and Daisy set their works in very different regions of the country. Raised in Wharton, Texas, he (who estimates his full-length and one-act plays now number over 50 and recently published Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood) tends to write about doings in the imaginary Harrison, Texas. Raised in Nyack, New York and New Boston, New Hampshire, she (who has written six plays to date) tends to write about imaginary doings in Tremont, New Hampshire.

But even though Horton and Daisy memorialize dots on the United States map that couldn’t be much farther apart, they deal with similar subjects similarly. It’s like-father-like-daughter in that they take middle-class people enduring mundane lives and present those lives with perfect dialogue-and-action pitch. In When They Speak of Rita, for instance, Rita Potter

From When They Speak of Rita
From When They Speak of Rita

would like to do something with herself other than clean people’s houses, but her longings to cater are mocked by her road agent husband, Asa, and car mechanic son, Warren. During a few fitful months when a couple of scandals are taking place elsewhere in Tremont, she is so frustrated by her colorless routine that she runs off with her son’s best friend. And then comes home–to Warren’s dismay and Asa’s muted satisfaction.

“She’s based on a lot of different people, but one person in particular,” Daisy admits. “There’s some of her in all of us. There are moments in our lives when we just become completely overwhelmed.” Horton and Hallie were overwhelmed by Rita in a different fashion. Daisy began her play for an American Conservatory Theater two-week young person’s program, which is when Hallie saw it–twice. Initially moved watching the work as played by a cast of actors between the ages of 15 and 18, she returned to test her reaction to the text. She was moved again. “This is a powerful play,” she remembers thinking. So she took on the role of Rita for a reading at the Cherry Lane Alternative in Manhattan, which is when Horton came to see it. “And that’s how it all happened,” Daisy recalls: the plan for the three of them to work together.


In addition to sharing the family name and, evidently, the family talent gene, the Footes share a love of theater. “You really can’t beat it,” Horton says. “I sit here now very impersonal, because the director has to keep it very impersonal. Otherwise, you can’t be any help. And it’s just wonderful every night to have people around and see the reactions and the live things that happen on stage. I don’t mean to denigrate films, because I enjoyed some of my experiences in films, but it’s just not the same.” (The 84-year-old writer has two Oscars in his possession–for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies–and a Pulitzer Prize–for The Young Man From Atlanta.)

About theater, Hallie adds, “I get homesick for it. Everyone bemoans the loss of
Broadway, but now it’s all shifting to smaller houses. It seems to kind of work itself out.
Boy, I’ll tell you, these young actors that are in here… It gives you hope, because they all love theater. And there is something wonderful about the whole process of working on a play–going from beginning to end and having the whole experience at once. And have a live audience.” (Incidentally, the young actors to whom she refers are Jamie Bennett, Margot White, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who play Warren, his girl friend Jeannie, and best friend Jimmy, respectively; Ken Marks plays Rita’s husband Asa.)

Although Hallie is optimistic about theater and theater audiences, and Daily appreciates the influence regional houses are having, Horton is less than pleased at the current state of affairs. “Unfortunately, half of America isn’t aware of theater,” he says. “I’ve been in the theater a long time, and I think the quality of plays is much stronger, but it is no longer a majority kind of theater. I’ve made my peace with it.”

Daisy Foote
Daisy Foote

In the Foote household, theater is a majority thing, of course. “There was a lot of music around,” Daisy says of her New Boston upbringing, “and all of those things feed this. I started writing in high school, and in college Dad encouraged us to write. He said not to get too specific about it, but to learn about a lot of different things. I wrote short stories in college and then in the summer of my senior year, my parents had gotten an apartment back in New York, and I studied playwriting with [actor/director/teacher] Herbert Berghof. Herbert liked my writing a lot, and he actually did a play of mine after I got out of college–a play called Villa Capri.”

Working in the theater wasn’t as clear-cut for Hallie, who says about acting, “I kind of pushed it down. I’d gotten married, and I didn’t know what I wanted, and I felt really lost. One day it came to me just out of the blue like a bolt of lightning. It sounds really crazy. So I went and talked to my father, and he said, ‘Well, maybe you should study with somebody.’ He asked around, and I ended up going out to California and studying with a woman called Peggy Feury.”

Horton picks up the story of Hallie’s progress. “She lucked out, because [Feury] was a great teacher.” Discussing When They Speak About Rita, but also talking in general, he goes on to say, “I think that’s one of the great unspoken tragedies of the play that you get in life all the time. I think the greatest gift we can be given is to know what we want to do. And so many people don’t know what they want to do.” The Footes know–they’ve got the gift.

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