ARTicles vol. 5 i.4a: Behind Closed Doors

Heather Helinsky and Kristen Frazier discuss Betty's Summer Vacation

Acting students from the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard perform in five plays during their second year of training. Their next play, Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation satirizes the public fascination with celebrity crime and media sensationalism. Durang’s horrific and demented world is seen through the eyes of Betty, an innocent young woman trying to find peace on a seaside vacation. Dramaturg Heather Helinsky sat down with Institute actress Kristen Frazier to discuss the play’s themes and the acting challenges of Durang’s play.

HH: What type of person is Betty?

KF: Betty is incredibly optimistic and hopeful that goodness can be found in people. She thinks if she helps out her housemates one by one that she can make the rest of the world better. Despite all the chaos that occurs on her vacation, she doesn’t want to leave the house because she can’t face the world until she knows she has control over making this inner space good and safe and quiet and peaceful.

HH: She sounds like a goody two-shoes. How can we relate to her?

KF: I think beyond her goodness, she is insecure in a lot of ways. Over and over again she watches the abuse that Trudy and Keith put up with and the abuse that Buck inflicts on other people. She wants people to be nice. She has a line where she says: “We have to agree not to harm one another. That’s one of the basic rules of civilization.” She thinks she has some power to help them find that-- either through her example or through her instructions.

HH: What is it about Betty that makes us feel sympathy for her?

KF: Betty has to be the one you are rooting for. As interesting, intriguing, and ridiculous as the other characters in this house are, the audience has to be drawn to the humanity of Betty. She can’t be a dishrag.

HH: Yet this play is side-splittingly funny. How do you balance the pathos with the over-the-top situation Betty finds herself in?

KF: You have to be willing to let yourself go over the top, exaggerate, and be ridiculous. It is only when you allow yourself to go there that you find the extent to which the character is really willing to go.

HH: What do you mean?

KF: Durang’s characters have needs that are so much greater because of the incredibly warped situations they’re faced with. It’s the responsibility of the actor to fill in that extreme. You have to ask yourself why.

HH: Do you mind if I ask why Betty’s life is a sit-com?

KF: (Laughs). I love sit-coms. Durang gives Betty these episodes where she has to navigate through a problem, whether it is dealing with a mother while cooking dinner or Keith who walks in clutching a mysterious hatbox. Sitcoms have distinct characters that go through life in a moment-to-moment need-based existence. You have a clearly defined character that faces a clearly defined situation that they are forced to deal with immediately. The way they handle the problem makes it comedic.

HH: You’ve said in rehearsals that Christopher Durang is your favorite playwright. When did you first encounter Durang?

KF: I first read Durang when I was in high school. Beyond Therapy was his first play that I read. I loved how outrageous the characters were. I remember reading that John Lithgow starred in the original production. At the time Third Rock from the Sun was on. Lithgow’s performance was outrageous and ridiculous and fabulously hilarious, and it permeated the way I read Beyond Therapy. After I read Beyond Therapy, I read just about every Durang play I could get my hands on.

HH: What did you find compelling about his plays?

KF: I think Durang really likes his characters. They are funny and incredibly complex and hurt. It illuminates the way Durang sees the world. Durang’s not afraid of presenting the way he sees the world to the audience.

HH: Do you find his mixture of the comic and tragic world disturbing?

KF: I love Betty’s Summer Vacation because it’s like the great big build-up on a roller coaster ride. The most terrifying part of any ride is that big incline where you are going and going and going and you hit the peak. I think Betty’s Summer Vacation has a certain peak and then the rest of it is the roller coaster looping and you are flying off the momentum of that moment.

HH: Betty’s Summer Vacation is almost ten years old and references sensational events like the Lorena Bobbitt and Menendez trials that were extremely relevant when the play premiered. As an actor do you ignore the time-specific references? Do you feel the issue of an entertainment-driven media has relevance for us today as it did back in the 1990s?

KF: The first time I read Betty’s it felt dated because I was basically a kid when Lorena Bobbitt and Andrew Cunanan were in the news. There’s one line about Michael Jackson that says “I wish it went to trial” and since that time the Michael Jackson case has gone to trial. But I think the play is more a comment on media noise and not about headlines. Now instead of Tonya Harding we have Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, and reality TV. It makes Betty’s Summer Vacation a prescient play because since the 90’s the media noise has only increased.

HH: How does Betty deal with the noise?

KF: She wants more than anything for the world to be quiet. The number of references to someone feeling trapped by the noise is really interesting. What ends up happening is that the noises envelop and smother her until she is forced to make her final decision.

HH: Which is why all of us go on vacation, to shut out the daily noise from our lives.

KF: It’s true. However, it’s difficult for me as an actor to play “to escape from the noise” because an actor needs to think about what they need from the people around them. Nowhere in the play are you led to think that she can’t at any moment leave these crazy people and walk out the door. There’s something in her character that doesn’t allow her to feel she can abandon the people around her.

HH: So what does Betty need from the other characters?

KF: If you look at the great comedies, even as far back as commedia dell’arte, characters in comedies have incredibly strong needs. In commedia there is a character whose one drive is appetite—their behavior is then determined by this single, intense need. What makes Keith so intriguing is that everyone needs to know what he is hiding in his room. What is it about a closed door? Durang knows that everyone wants to find out what is behind a closed door. Do you look at a closed door with terror and fear or do you look behind a closed door and see mystery and romance? The individual determines that.

HH: And Betty is afraid of what is behind the closed door. If Betty could walk away from the situations she is faced with, where would she go?

KF: I think Betty would love to sit in a dark theatre with the rest of the audience where it is quiet and safe. The experience of the audience watching a play by Durang is like watching Village of the Damned or The Shining while eating popcorn. Betty just wants to escape and watch movies.

Heather Helinsky is a second-year dramaturg at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

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