Q&A with Elizabeth Heffron

Playwright Elizabeth Heffron recently completed a two-year stint as a member of the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Writers Group. She applied using samples from her then work-in-progress play Bo-Nita. Now completed, the play draws on Heffron’s early childhood in St. Louis, and will receive its world premiere at the Rep this October.

What first inspired you to start writing Bo-Nita?
I wanted to do a really straightforward piece in a girl’s voice. Bo-Nita is 13, and I wanted her to be really honest in that sense that when somebody is 13 and strange things happen, they don’t realize they’re strange because that’s just their world.
I was a public school kid. In the last five years, all this funding has been taken away from public education and the social safety net. For Bo-Nita, the safety net is the public schools and teachers and counselors, those people who look out for you. She’s a kid who needs that, and I was a kid who needed that. That helped me make it through my childhood, so I wanted to write something from that perspective.

The play also has “Midwest magical realism.” What does that mean?
I made it up! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Homer Price stories, but they were written in the ’40s. Homer Price is a kid from a small Midwest town who gets into these bizarre situations. So there’s a Homer Price-y thing to Bo-Nita, but about the very adult, dangerous world that she lives in. There’s funny stuff to it, but there’s something else under there. Sometimes people will be laughing but going, “I don’t know if I was supposed to laugh at that.” That’s the way humor is. There’s usually a lot of sadness or pain underneath it.

Does your writing often combine those elements?
I do find that I’ve been doing that more and more. I had a piece at ACT in 2006 called Mitzi’s Abortion, about a young woman whose fetus is diagnosed with anencephaly, which means it doesn’t have a cortex. Her doctor says she has to induce labor, but her insurance company says she can’t, because that would be a late-term abortion. It sounds hideous, but it’s actually quite funny, and kind of sad all at the same time. When people go through these kinds of horrible things, there are funny things that happen out of the reality of the moment.

Is there a lot of your young self in Bo-Nita?
I would say that there is, in a way. I’ve also raised two daughters, and there’s just that 13-year-old way of looking at the world. Oftentimes I’ll have these things that I’m working on that I need to do a lot of research for; Bo-Nita was not one of those. I started working on finding her voice, and the voice of everyone around her, and it just came. It’s Bo-Nita, her mother, who has had a pretty hard go of it, her grandmother, who comes from the Ozarks and also had it rough, and all these whacked-out guys in their lives.

Did you always intend it to be a solo show?
When I first started the play, I had them all as separate characters, and something just wasn’t working. And I said, ‘Wow, this is all coming from her, so she needs to tell the whole story.’ My goal had never been to write a solo show, but when I realized this is how this story wants to be told, it really deepened the play.

Your background wasn’t in theater at all—how did you end up making the switch to playwriting?
Growing up I always thought, “I need to do something practical.” I have a Bachelors of Science in neurophysiology from UCLA, so I was going to be a scientist. And then in my last year I hated the lab classes, where you had to implant things into rat hypothalami. I thought, “I don’t want to do this.” But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write somehow, and I was looking for a format. I wrote some monologues, I did some solo shows, I took an acting class at what would become Freehold. My training was mostly working in theater and meeting theater people. I’m definitely what you’d call a late bloomer.

Photo by Nate Watters