Interview with Halley Feiffer: ‘there is nothing funnier than supreme vulnerability’
London Student’s Anthony Walker-Cook exchanges questions with Halley Feiffer about her new play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynaecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York, which opens at the Finborough Theatre early October 2018.
You’ve said this work is loosely inspired by your own experiences with your mother: what are the challenges of bringing your own experiences to the stage?
None of the events that transpire in the play happened in my life (in some cases unfortunately, since there is a sex scene I feel anyone would covet!). I had the idea for the play while in the hospital with my mom as she recovered from a hysterectomy to treat ovarian cancer. The biggest challenge I faced in writing this story had little to do with that experience, though, but rather was rooted in excavating the emotional truth of these characters. The first several drafts focused mostly on the comedy of the situation and not enough on these people’s pain and the ways in which they hurt each other as a means of escaping their own vulnerability. I had to do a good deal of work to explore the characters’ layers, as I was afraid of being vulnerable in just the same ways that the characters are.
Why does something horrible like cancer seem to provide opportunities for comedy?
I think because there is nothing funnier than supreme vulnerability, and cancer forces a person — and the people who love that person — to be exquisitely vulnerable. We are all powerless in the face of something like cancer — so what can we do? One thing we can do is laugh in the face of that extreme powerless — and find ways to discover mirth in the face of pain.
Why such a long title? (I think it’s brilliantly quotidian!)
Because it’s funny and dark, just like the play.
How did you go about writing this play?
I brought a chunk of pages in to the Stella Adler Studio in NYC and its counterpart, the Art of Acting Studio in LA, where I had the opportunity the workshop the pages with actors and the artistic staff, who were able to provide feedback and help me in shaping it.
What is your next project?
I have two plays off-Broadway this season, one in which I am starring in: “The Pain of My Belligerence” at Playwrights Horizons and an adaptation of “Three Sisters” called “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” at MCC Theater. I’m also a writer / producer on the Showtime series “Kidding,” starring Jim Carrey.
Which writers influenced you? Did any influence this work in particular?
Arthur Kopit had an early influence on me, and his play “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I‘m Feeling So Sad” clearly taught me that titles need not be tidy and short! In many ways this play is my version of a Neil Simon comedy with some Annie Baker-inspired moments and tones thrown in.
If you had to summarise the play in one word, what would it be?
If the play is trying to pose one question, what is it?
And what is the answer? How can we connect with each other when we’re so afraid? Find joy.
Why should people come to see the show?
To investigate how humans work and take lessons gleaned back out into their lives. And also to laugh — a catharsis in itself.
Finally, what is it about hospitals that make them interesting places to set a play?
They are a place where time seems to stop, where the concerns of the outside world tend to melt away, where events take on an exagerrated magnitude because of the extremity of the circumstances.
Many thanks to Halley for taking the time to answer our questions and to Holly Croft from Chloe Nelkin PR for organising. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynaecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York runs at the Finborough Theatre between the 2nd and 27th of October.
Feature photograph: Arsalan Sattari