Dallas — With weighty drama and powerful subject matter, Blake Hackler’s new drama What We Were premieres at Second Thought Theatre this week. The co-production with Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre (where it runs in September) follows the lives of three sisters: Carlin, Nell, and Tessa, as they attempt to rebuild their lives following an abusive childhood. The story is loosely based on a 2002 Texas Monthly article about Treva Thorneberry, a Texas woman who spent most of her young adult life living under an assumed identity. Hackler described his new play as “a meditation on how one survives.”
The play was originally intended to be a play about Thorneberry, but Hackler said the story took on a new life as he wrote it. Now, What We Were explores the family dynamic of the three sisters, one of whom has gone missing. The primary focus of the show is Nell, the middle sister searching for her missing sibling.
What We Were is directed by Christie Vela and features Lydia Mackay, Jessica D. Turner, Jenny Ledel, and Benjamin Stegmair. It’s Hackler’s third play to have premiered at Second Thought, after The Necessities and the Ibsen adaptation Enemies/People. Hackler is also currently directing the world premiere of Gordon Dahlquist's Red Chariot, which opens in a few weeks at Undermain Theatre.
What We Were has preview performances Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 28 and 29, with opening night on Friday, Aug. 30. It runs through Sept. 21; then it picks up Sept. 26 through Oct. 19 at Circle Theatre.
TheaterJones recently spoke with Hackler to learn more about the show and Hackler’s creative process.
TheaterJones: What are some of the ways that What We Were is different from your previous work?
Blake Hackler: I think that most playwrights tend to write around the same themes over and over again. And even though the plays might look very different, at the core they’re meditating on one or two things. And something that I’m always looking at is belonging, faith. I think that those things are very much in the world of what I do.
My plays sort of fall into two categories. There’s a certain kind of play I write that [is] wild and all over the place, and other plays that I write are sort of tense. And I think this is one of those. It’s very structured, it’s very deliberately paced. It plays with time, which – a lot of my plays play with time.
So, it doesn’t go in a straight line, it moves backwards and forwards, sideways and up and down, so that the audience is kind of thrown off about, ‘Wait, what year are we and when did this event happen? And when did that event happen?’
I think that something important for me is I try to write plays mostly how I experience life, and I don ‘t experience life in a linear fashion. I wake up and I get dressed and go to work, but I’m also thinking about this thing that happened when I was 16 and this thing that’s going to happen in three months. I’m always bumping around in time. So, I wanted to bring that into the play.
That’s interesting, because I was also curious about if there was some sort of biographical element to your plays.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever written a play that’s biographical, and our imagination — [those thoughts are] formed by our biography. So, there are absolutely things that come up in a play.
I was raised in Texas and the three sisters are based on my mother and her two sisters. And even though this is not their story [and] this is not what happened to them, the way that [the characters] talk to each other, the way they treat each other, the way they say things to each other, that all comes from 40 years of observing [her] and her sisters.
[This play] is sort of written as a tribute to them, as a tribute to how strong they are. So, I think in that way those things are very biographical. And in some of my earlier plays, the sort of things that come up and we talk about, certainly come from my life.
You said that the characters drew from people you knew. Did you intend for that to happen, or were you kind of meeting the characters as you went along?
Yeah, and I think that’s an interesting question, too, because I am not a playwright that sits down and intends to write something. For me, if I have an intention or if I want to write about 'X', most of the time it doesn’t turn out well.
I think what happens for me is I have something I’m really interested in I start to play around with it, and if I’m writing well … I start to listen to what the play’s asking of me. So, as I started to write and the three sisters came up, they just started to have the voices of my mother and her sisters.
So, your plays essentially write themselves?
I try to listen to the play. I try to take myself out of the equation and listen to what the play wants to happen. And again, if I’m writing well that really happens. If I’m not writing well or if I’m struggling, I can feel a lot more of my own will in the play. What We Were is one that I listened to clearly and let it go where it wanted to.
It seems that a lot of your work tends to focus on heavier dramatic storylines. Would you say that’s correct?
Yeah, I think the subject matter is always kind of weighty. But I think when a play’s just weighty and has no lightness to it, that’s a really tedious evening at the theater. I try for there to be moments when people can breathe. I think this is probably my darkest play, yet there are moments of great hope in the play. Again, the play that I just finished yesterday is about death and dying and grieving. And yet (I hope) in parts it’s very funny.
I think you really have to ask yourself when you sit down to write a play [is] “I’m asking people to give me two hours of their life. So, if I’m asking that of them, what am I offering them?” If I’m offering them a story about two twentysomethings in Brooklyn having a bad date, that’s OK but you can watch that for 30 minutes on a sitcom. What am I doing that’s going to make this worth it? What exchange am I giving?
I think a lot of time that means we talk about more serious things, but hopefully in a way that’s balanced between light and dark.
Is the theme of sexual violence unique to this show, or is this an area that you’ve written about before?
It is not an area that I’ve written about before, and I’m really careful in the play that it is alluded to; it’s clear that’s what’s going on, but I wanted to treat it with a great deal of respect and a great deal of caution.
I didn’t want to soft peddle around it because it’s a very serious thing, but I also didn’t want to appropriate it or seem like I was appropriating a tragedy that was not my own. So, I read a lot about it and I did a lot of research about it and then a lot of thinking about it, so there’s really only one moment when they sort of detail (and even then it’s in a very subtle way) about what might have happened.
And I think the real test of it was it won that New Play Award at the Ashland [Oregon] New Play Festival. As part of that, you have two big readings — about 200 people come to each reading — and the amazing thing is that half of those people have read your script numerous times. … Several people came up to me and approached me the following day and said things like, “That happened to me” or “That was my story and I didn’t talk to you afterwards but I feel like that was the most sensitive telling of it.”
In fact, when it was reviewed for the local paper there, the reviewer (who was male) actually talked about [how] he had experienced a thing like this and yet he felt like it was treated so carefully and so respectfully that he really was moved by it.
And that is my goal. That’s what I had hoped, because it’s horrible, but so many people have gone through this. And if someone comes up and says “I feel see by that and I feel [that] by being seen in the play I feel a little better, a little more whole. It feels like my story is being told.” That’s, I think, the highest praise I could possibly ever get.
When you’re writing about such a difficult topic, is it all about subtlety and not showing but telling with delicacy? How do you do that?
I wish I knew so I could do it again [laughs]. I think the other thing I always think about — because I also teach acting and that’s by first field — is that people don’t really want to talk about the thing that has happened. Only people in bad plays want to sit around and tell you about all of their hurts.
In real life people might get to a moment where they spill and where they really go into why they’ve been hurt, but that moment lasts a short time and it only comes when there’s nothing else possible. So, I’m always thinking “How do people talk about the thing without talking about the thing?” And it happens all the time in life.
There’s a scene where the sisters are discussing what to do with the house after dad had passed away, but what they’re really talking about is “What do we do now that he’s gone and this house is ours and this house is where we were abused? How do we deal with that?”
And it takes place in a room where the sister is missing. So, the whole conversation never refers to her except the whole conversation is about “Where is she?” It’s always about making sure that the thing is in the air, but it’s not explicitly talked about most of the time.
When you were writing Who We Were, were there moments when you started thinking about who might be in the audience, as far as sexual assault survivors?
As I’m sitting down writing it I can’t have that sort of monitor in my mind. I’ve got to write it and then read it and see how it’s reading to me. Then, I have a very, very close friend — a woman who is one of my best friends and who’s also a wonderful writer — and done things where I’ll send things to her and say “Read this and tell me what you think.” I really trust her opinion. Because I think as you’re in the act of doing it, [you can’t] constantly monitoring yourself.
I know that no one is going to see it until I’m ready for them to actually see it, so I can make mistakes. I can go too far and then clean it up after I’ve gotten it onto the page.
Can you tell me about the cast and what they bring to the play?
One of the great things about working with Second Thought and working in Dallas is that you’ve got some really spectacular actors and all three of the actresses I know very well. We’ve sort of had an embarrassment of riches because there were several people who came in who were so good — the show could have been cast three or four or five times with brilliant actresses.
These three actresses happen to be people who I knew very well: Jessica Turner, who I have worked with in the past and who I think is just wonderful; Lydia Mackay who also I’ve worked with in the past and is one of my favorites; and Jenny Ledel with whom I’ve work a bunch of times, both as a castmate and as a director.
I stayed completely out of the casting, because I know everybody and I was like, “I don’t want to be involved in that.” I gave the play to the director — the absolutely astonishing Christie Vela — and was like “You cast it, I trust you.”
Again, she had so many great choices. So, she chose these three. … I’ve only been to a couple of rehearsals because I really like to stay out of the picture as much as possible and what I saw was great. What I saw was really exciting. I got a text the other day from [STT Artistic Director] Alex [Organ] saying “I saw a run-through. I think it’s beautiful.”
I think they’re going to be spectacular. And the play is not an easy play, it asks an incredible amount of the actresses. A lot of times they’re changing, so one scene will be incredibly emotional — they’ll have the very last line in that scene where they’re sobbing, and then the first line of the next scene takes place 10 years earlier and they’re in a completely other space. They’re asked to change on a dime like that.
So, these had to be actresses that could do that. And all of these women are. They’re really spectacular. And the young man I don’t really know, but the little bit I saw, I thought he was great.
How are you feeling coming up to the premiere — is it excitement, is it nerves?
It’s excitement. I won’t be able to come to opening night, because I’m rehearsing another show that I’ve got to be in [directing the world premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s Red Chariot at Undermain Theatre], so I’ll come to the Saturday performance and probably several more. But I’m so thrilled, I cannot wait to see it.
And that’s one of the reasons I stay away, — so that when I come I’m seeing it with totally fresh eyes. And oftentimes, when I come to see shows, I sit in the audience and it’s sort of an out-of-body experience. I don’t really recall having written large parts of the play.
It’s probably completely different hearing your words coming from another person’s mouth.
Yes, absolutely. And then it’s sound and the costumes and the set and the whole thing.
How do you balance your playwriting and directing commitments with your work as an acting teacher at Southern Methodist University?
It’s a lot. I just got off this nine-day retreat where I was silent. Tomorrow [Tuesday; this conversation happened on Monday, Aug. 26] is the first day of school for me — I’m teaching four classes and then going straight to do first rehearsal of a world premiere of a play by another playwright. So, you know, I just have to do the next thing in front of me.
There was a lot going on this time last year; my mother had been really ill, I had been incredibly busy, some other things had happened and I was really exhausted, and I was in the middle of writing two new plays. I just said “You know what, I’m going to stop. Stopping does not mean that I’ll never start again, so I’m going to stop.” And I had not written a single word of a play until I went to this retreat last week.
I took a year off and I wrote this play and it needs some work. So, in the next couple of months when I have a week off here and a week off there, I’ll do that work on it. … It’s like I find pockets to plug things in.
What do you hope audiences get from What We Were?
I hope they walk away with hope for these people. I hope that they walk away with the idea that these women, these beautiful women — who are so incredibly strong and have been through so much — have a chance to be whole again. Have a chance to be whole, not in the same way that they would have been, but in a new way. That moving on is possible, that having a full life is possible.
The play’s about sexual abuse, but there are so many other kinds of pain and there’s so many other kinds of trauma. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have some of it in their lives, and I know people who are close to me who are able to move through it with such grace, and it’s astonishing.
I think that’s the thing I wanted to show people. I think at the end of the play these three women are in a state of grace, that they have brought themselves to that state. I think that’s the highest form of living as a human being.
I hope that they see some of that. And at least — my god, we need this so much right now — that they see people actually caring and loving each other. And if they see nothing else but that, I’ve done my job ten times over and I will be thrilled.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
Just how astonished and how honored I am, and how grateful I am to Second Thought that in the past three years they’ve taken a chance on three of my plays. They’ve given me that space. Alex and Drew [Wall] go above and beyond to give the people who work there beautiful productions and the actors that they hire are astonishing. So, I just am so grateful to them. And there are so many theater artists in Dallas who do such beautiful work, and it’s just such an honor to get to work with them and get to write for them.