Dallas — Local actor Jessica Cavanagh has spent the past few years developing Self Injurious Behavior, a play inspired by her own experiences a mother with a child on the autism spectrum. Theatre Three offered readings and workshops to develop the script and now the time has finally arrived for the world premiere of Cavanagh’s play (you can read our interview with Cavanagh before the play’s first reading in 2016, here). Self Injurious Behavior follows Summer, a woman who makes a difficult choice for her son’s wellbeing. She recalibrates her life in order to rediscover her own identity as a mother and flawed human being.
While Cavanagh is enthusiastic about the production, she also demonstrates nervousness as the play directly ties to personal experience. TheaterJones sat down with Cavanagh to discuss her aspirations for the work and what she has learned as an emerging playwright.
TheaterJones: I had the opportunity to see a reading at Theater Three’s basement space months ago. Has the script evolved since that reading?
Jessica Cavanagh: It’s changed so much. What’s so funny is at that point I wouldn’t imagine that it would [change]. I’ve added things that I think “amp up” the story. It’s been kind of a long road for me, traveling towards making Summer as flawed as she needs to be for this play to work. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that she’s based on me.
From the beginning I thought, “I’m laying all out there.” But, I’m not. In the rehearsals, I ask myself “Why haven’t I talked about that or that?” Each thing I decide to reveal takes more risk.
It was a very PG-13 weekend [in the reading]. I needed her to make a really bad mistake in order to get away with the title. It’s really changed a lot, but it’s been interesting to see how long it has taken to cut some of those corners.
How has it been working with Marianne Galloway as your director? Has it been easy working with script changes and seeing your play come to life with her leading the charge?
It’s been incredible. We have one of those kinds of rare relationships where nothing is really sacred. I cannot imagine being offended by anything she says. If she says, “I think we need to look at this,” or “I think we need to change this,” I’m going to do that.
And, if she has something that she wants to do [directorially] and I say, “I don’t know about that choice,” she totally listens. It’s been a really great partnership.
You’re not just the playwright but you also play Summer. How has it been taking on those two roles? Do you enjoy the fact that if you want to change a bit of dialogue that you can simply do that?
It’s really fun. The production team, they tease me. Our PA is on book and I’ll switch up a line or something. But I’m the playwright. They’re like, “Is that going to be your excuse every time you drop a line?”
It’s great because in the middle of rehearsal, there might be someone who is really struggling with a line like, “Why is it written this way?” I can change that. I try not to do it all the time, but I think I’ve found a good balance with that.
What do you think you’ll take away from this experience as your first fully produced play?
I think several things. Nothing is sacred. You have to kill your babies in order to make a better play. [You can write something] and think it’s the “end all, be all” and realize that it’s not serving the play. And just being willing to let it go is what I’ve learned.
And I’m not looking at it as a loss, but a step I needed to go through to get to the next place. It took me a little time to get there, but now I’m happy with how easy it is for me to be objective about the work. Learning that “nothing is precious” and “nothing is vital if it doesn’t work” has been really valuable.
The most profound moment with that happened recently. I was putting the character list together at the front of the play; the characters are listed with short description. I had written “Benjamin” at the top as the kid. After it, I wrote “Summer: his mother.”
Suddenly, I realized the play is about her. Why is she not the first character listed? Subconsciously, I think I wrote these characters based on their relationship to the little dude in the show.
Afterwards, I re-wrote the descriptions with all the characters based on their relationship to Summer. That was kind of a real moment to me. I want to write plays that are about women like me.
When you say that you want to write plays like that, I think of our conversation more than a year ago during the first reading of SIB. You spoke about dissatisfaction with current character roles for women in their 30s and 40s. What are your thoughts on that now?
It's been really fun pushing myself to be as honest as possible about the “not pretty parts” of being a woman. Particularly, a woman who is 40, dealing with motherhood, and trying to live your life. You are trying to figure out who you are still; you can be a geeky nerd who still loves Star Wars. These are all things you don’t think of when you think of “40-year-old woman.”
When it comes to casting, sometimes directors get in their heads what “40s” are. Sometimes I get told, “You don’t even look 42.” Well maybe you don’t know what 42 looks like. I think people have an [image] in their head of a “40-year-old woman” that’s closer to 50. I still wear Converse and graphic tees; I’m not walking around in high heels and sweater sets.
I want these moms to look just like women, not our idea of what a mom is. Get away from all those weird stereotypes and just write us. Otherwise, we will keep getting put into these little pigeon holes that we don’t fit in.
Has this experience encouraged you to write more plays?
I love this I can’t wait to finish my next one, just having people sink your teeth into your words and bring it to life. This is addictive. I feel like I’ve discovered a new passion of mine. I’m 42 and have this new thing I’m obsessed with.
What’s the next play you’re working on as a playwright?
It’s about sexual harassment in theatre, actually. It’s called The Kindness of Strangers. It’s set backstage during a production of A Streetcar Named Desire and it takes place during the 2016 election.
What do you hope audiences take with them after they see Self Injurious Behavior?
I hope they check themselves the next time they are in public and they see a kid melting down in a grocery store, when they judge people for being “bad parents.” I think most people do have empathy but sometimes the first thing we leap to is judgement.
We don’t know what anyone’s situation is. I don’t know why you are making the decisions that you are making. Maybe I should assume that everyone is struggling, like I am. Not just about kids, but in the broader sense. Have a little bit of empathy all around.