The Pulitzer-winning playwright’s latest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, returns to his themes of grace, fear, and the possibility of redemption.
Seeing one of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s plays is like being hugged and slapped at the same time — they’re bracing, bruising, and funny all at once. Guirgis grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to school in Harlem; he has clearly absorbed the way people talk and act, and his characters, who often hail from Harlem or the Bronx, speak in the varied vernaculars of anyone you might run into on a New York sidewalk.
Guirgis’s plays (including bona fide classics like The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Jesus Hopped the A Train, and The Motherfucker with the Hat) are tales of people trying as hard as they can to make it in a world that often seems set up to make sure they fail. They’re both hilariously profane and haunted by grace, doubt, sin, and redemption.
Guirgis’s last play, Between Riverside and Crazy, won the Pulitzer in 2015, and in 2016 he and Baz Luhrmann co-created the Netflix show The Get Down, about the birth of hip-hop. LAByrinth, the theater company where he served as co-artistic director with his college friend actor John Ortiz, is a major force, and not just in the New York theater scene. Originally founded as a boundary-pushing launchpad for Latino actors, LAByrinth has both expanded over the years and remained extremely tight-knit. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a co-artistic director with Ortiz for many years and directed Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the A Train. Members have included Ortiz, Sam Rockwell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Eric Bogosian, Liza Colón-Zayas, Ron Cephas Jones, John Patrick Shanley, Michael Shannon, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and many others. Many LAB actors have originated roles in a number of Guirgis’s plays, which are now performed all over the world.
Guirgis’s latest play, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, is set in a women’s halfway house in the Bronx that’s struggling to serve its residents in the face of funding cuts from the city. (The title comes from a bit of poetry one of the residents reads in the first scene.) It boasts one of Guirgis’s largest casts, with 18 human characters and one pygmy goat, whose fame is rising. It’s currently playing at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company in a co-production with LAByrinth directed by Ortiz, and its run was recently extended until January 5.
I recently spoke with Guirgis by phone about his characters, his writing process, empathy, religion, and why his heart will always be with theater.
The night I saw the show in November, around Thanksgiving, John Ortiz came out and said you’d added three new scenes that day and three new scenes the night before. And I thought, Amazing. That’s what’s so magical about theater: It’s always changing.
I think the first show I saw of yours was The Little Flower of East Orange, which must have been in 2008. I remember, very distinctly, how bowled over I was by one scene. In the middle of this story about people treating one another badly, with a lot of profanity and dicey situations, Michael Shannon approaches the front of the stage and starts talking about how grace showed up in a difficult situation. I remember being startled, because I wasn’t used to seeing those things juxtaposed, and certainly not on the stage.
And obviously that element of grace, and the juxtaposition of the sacred and at times very profane, is a big part of your work. Is there something that keeps drawing you to that topic?
Stephen Adly Guirgis
I try to write about stuff that’s personal to me. I try to write about what keeps me up at night — stuff that is upsetting or disturbing or things I have questions about in my own life. Hopefully, in doing so, it’ll resonate with other people as well.
If people read or see my plays, they can sense the theme of the religious or spiritual. It’s really not intentional, other than just the fact that I grew up Catholic. It’s hard to get the Catholic out of the Catholic. Even a bad Catholic, which I’ve certainly been at times. I don’t even know what I believe now, but it stays with you.
That reminds me of something I think about a lot, especially this year, when there seems to be a lot of art by and about Catholics, like The Irishman and The Two Popes and A Hidden Life. People who self-identify as “bad” Catholics, like Graham Greene for instance, seem to make the best art about religion; when I was reading a lot about Martin Scorsese earlier this fall, I realized he says the same thing. I don’t really know why that is.
Stephen Adly Guirgis
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of guilt, and then there’s hope that you really want to try to hold onto as you get older. The religion also promises a lot. And as you get older you’re like, The likelihood that some of this is actually true is very small.
But you talk about things like grace, and that’s something I believe in.
When my mother was dying, my sister called and said, “Where are you? You need to go to the hospital right now. She has weeks to live. She doesn’t know. You have to tell her.” I went down there. There’s very little worse that I can think of. But it was fine. There was grace there, and I handled it. What I’ve learned in life is that often with the big climactic things, or the big things that require courage, we’re taken care of, and we can get through it. It’s the little things — at least with me — that I stumble with time and time and time and time again.
I don’t know. Religion is just a thing that is always around in my brain, I guess, and it comes out of my subconscious when I’m writing. And the main part is that I write about all different types of people, but often I’m writing about New Yorkers — working class, lower working class — and I just grew up really falling in love with the language and the rhythms of street and slang. It’s like music to me.
One of the things I love most about reading your plays is that the characters really leap off the page. You can hear their voices on the page specifically because of your command of their slang. It’s not mannered speech, and it doesn’t sound forced. They sound like people I might hear on the subway or in the park. Which tells me you are always paying a lot of attention to the people around you.
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Well, it’s because it’s the job. When you’re acting, your job is to pretend that you’re someone else, and do it well, and reproduce human behavior. That’s the job of the actor. It’s to not be fake.
The job of the writer is the same. Each of the characters on the stage should feel like real people. In this play, there are 18 characters, so it’s not possible that every character can have a full arc. They start at one place, and we can track them trying to get to this next place.
It’s impossible that everybody is going to have a fully developed arc. I have already cut some scenes you probably saw, and I cut a whole storyline. I try to make it so all my characters, even if they’re just on for two seconds, they want something. They’re trying to get something. In some cases, we’re going to see if they got it. In others, we won’t. But they all want something. They’re specific, real people.
As a writer, that’s the least you can do. I didn’t go to school for writing. I went to school for acting — I’m an actor. So the other thing that I think of when I’m writing sometimes is that not every role is going to be a huge role. But I try to not write a character that I wouldn’t want to play. So that at least somebody, no matter who it is, can be like, “Okay. It’s a small part, but the character has these circumstances and is trying to do something.” I try to make it real. Everybody gets a little moment in the sun, or the rain.
Do characters show up in your head fully formed? Do they talk first, and then you find out who they are?
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Usually it comes through dialogue. I might just have something that I’m feeling, an overriding feeling. Like I’m very depressed, or I’m upset about something in the world. I might just write a line of dialogue: “This is the worst day of my life. And don’t let me find a bridge, because I’m jumping.” I’ll sit there for a minute or two, and then I might hear a voice or something say, like, “Well, if you need company.” And I’m like, Oh, who’s that?
Then I let voices articulate, or debate, from what I’m feeling. And hopefully, characters and situations start to emerge. Sometimes you’ll write a scene and you’ll be like, “Oh, this is interesting, but it’s not really leading anywhere.” Other times you get a whole play.
Halfway Bitches started from … Well, at LAByrinth we have these summer retreats. There was a play that I was working on, but I had about an hour or two, so I was like, “Let me just write something that can use a lot of women. I’m not even going to worry about what it is, but let me see if I can get a couple pages just to like throw it into the mix.” I quickly started writing the beginning of that first scene of the play, that you saw.
So there’s different ways, but I usually start from what I’m feeling. That’s the main thing. Everyone has a different process, but sometimes I’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I’m writing a play about racism.” Or, “I’m writing about the military-industrial complex.” I’m like, Cool, but I can’t. That’s never going to sustain me. That’s like school.
But if I’m writing about something that is really personal to me, issues of race or the military or whatever might fit in. I wrote a play once called Jesus Hopped the A Train that was very specific, very personal to what I was going through in my life when I wrote that play. I remember when we did it in London it was well received, but the critics were all saying, “It’s a biting assessment of the American criminal justice system.” “Guirgis is a social justice warrior.”
I was like, “No.” I mean, that might be what you got, but I didn’t start out writing the play based on I want to expose the hypocrisies of the criminal justice system. It started out as something much more personal.
I wonder sometimes if people bring that expectation to theater — that it has to be about “big issues” or exposing something. That all plays ought to be about confronting something huge in society. Which some plays are, but really the good ones are about people. A play is a different thing from a sermon.
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Yeah. Yeah. But also, when you’re writing a play, it better be about something to you. Because, look, it could be good or bad. You try to do the best you can. Sometimes you succeed; sometimes you fail. But it better be about something substantive that you care about, because theater is prohibitively expensive these days. So if someone’s going to a theater, even off-Broadway, it’s a lot of money, so you better have something that you’re really wrestling with.
Sometimes people say, “Why don’t you write more plays?” And look, I have friends who are very prolific. Adam Rapp is a guy I came up with from the beginning; we were in different circles, but I really respect him. That guy writes a play — like, during the course of this interview, he would have written another play. We’re different. I think that Adam has a lot inside of him.
But there are other playwrights who just crank out these plays that feel like something you could just watch on TV, and you’re like, “What’s the point?” With plays, there has to be something really moving you to write. It’s not the same as film and television, which is a media that I totally respect and I’ve worked in. But with plays, it’s kind of a different thing. Because you’re asking people to leave their house, pay money, pay a babysitter, try to make a night of it, that whole thing.
I do believe — and the reason why I’ll do theater until I’m not here anymore — that theater has the potential to be something special. That there is grace, there can be grace, found in the theater. You can be moved. You can still have an experience that you can’t have anywhere else, and certainly not in your living room eating GrubHub. I’ve seen TV shows that I adore, I worship, and I’ve seen something and been like, “That’s the best episode ever,” but it doesn’t change the way I live.
I think in the old days of our parents, and their parents before us — they had church, they had synagogues, they had temple, whatever. These days we are more secular — is that the word? But the theater, at its best, still has that spiritual component. So you better write something that cost you something to create. If people are spending money I’m going to try to give them the best that I can.
It strikes me that a lot of the characters you put on stage aren’t people who would probably spend the money on the Broadway ticket themselves. Do you think about that, like who the audience is for your plays, as you’re writing them? Or is that something you try to keep out of your view?
Stephen Adly Guirgis
That’s a really good question. I think that, initially, I’m writing for myself. I’m writing trying to exorcise demons or find answers to something for myself. To a certain degree, that’s the process all the way through.
But there is also a group I call “my people.” Who are my people? My theater company, the people that go to my theater company’s stuff. It tends to be very diverse — a little bit younger than average and diverse.
The goal and the dream always is that I want to write a play that anybody could see. I want something that’s going to bring together everybody, that everybody can like or get upset by. Like when we did Motherfucker with the Hat on Broadway, that was a good example. That audience was pretty diverse by Broadway standards. We had “our people,” and then you had the typical Broadway crowd, which is older and more white. And people across those demographics all seemed to have a really good time at the show.
So, I’ve found over the years that “my people” now includes older people, all types of people. That’s always what I’m trying to do. My dream is to write a play that’s filled with every type of people, and they all laugh, and they all cry. And then when it’s over they can’t get themselves out of their seats. Saint Paul talked about the illusion that we as people are separate. And that’s something David Milch always used to talk about.
So with Halfway Bitches, we’ve got 18 characters. The majority are women of color. Of course, I want women, women of color, people of color to see the show and feel like they’re being represented. At the end of the day, if you write well, the more specific you are, the more universal are the people who come. That’s what I’m after. It’s always about, I want the audience to see themselves. The hope is that either you can see yourself in these characters, or that you can find an empathy or an understanding or a commonality that either wasn’t present before or needs to be rekindled.
One of the times that I was most moved in the theater was when I was younger. I saw a production of Kenny Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. The first factor was that Mark Ruffalo was the lead, and he was young. And someone gave me a ticket. I didn’t even know what it was. Mark’s performance was so moving and electrifying to me — at that time I wanted to be an actor — to go and study and work even harder.
The other thing that really moved me in the play was Kenny grew up on the Upper West Side, and I grew up on the Upper West Side. But my family didn’t have any money. We were basically the working poor. My dad worked like 12 hours a day, six days a week in Grand Central Station. My mother stayed home and then she worked. I went to kindergarten and grammar school up in Harlem, and then we lived down on the Upper West Side. I didn’t really fit in either world. In fact, I fit in better uptown.
I grew up having a lot of resentments against kids in my neighborhood. They had more money than me, and other things. When we played, I was picked on. There was things that happened that made me have a lot of resentment toward a certain type of kid, those kids that I grew up with.
Then I saw Kenny’s play. I was so moved, because I was like, “Oh my God, those are the kids that I hated growing up. Those are the kids that picked on me. But also, those were the kids that I hated.” They were rich kids, so I was just like, “Fuck them. Whatever.” But with the play I had so much empathy for them. That’s something I learned just by going to the theater.
That’s a continued lesson, about empathy, and trying for empathy, and not stopping with your first, second, or third opinion of somebody. Particularly in this era we’re so damn divided, and things are so crazy. But I try. I actively work to … I hate who’s in the White House. I think that there is evil there. But I try not to hate Trump voters. When I fight with Trump people, I always try to find some kind of a common ground. Anyway, that’s something the theater can do.
You said something earlier about theater being kind of like church. Church is pretty theatrical, but it’s also supposed to be for everybody who wants to be there. So what kind of responsibility is that for you, as a creator of theater?
Stephen Adly Guirgis
First of all, we can’t please everyone. That’s not going to happen. But this is how I look at it: I started out as an actor. I’m still an actor. What I love to do is acting. Writing is something that I have a lot of difficulty with. It doesn’t come easy, and it comes at a price. And that price usually feels, at least initially, that it was in excess of what the result is.
Even now, as I’m talking to you, with this play. Look, I worked in restaurants for almost 30 years, I’ve done every kind of job, and writing is not coal mining, and it never will be. It’s a privilege to be able to do this. But, it’s like, I haven’t really gone to sleep in a bed in a month, chain-smoking cigarettes, I probably put on 25 pounds, my girlfriend’s not talking to me. I have a bad back. I can’t hardly fucking walk. And it’s not fun.
But the way I look at writing is that for whatever reason, I was given — I didn’t do anything to get it, but I was given a certain aptitude for writing. That’s just a factor, a fact, as I see it. And so therefore, I have a responsibility, as long as I can still write, to try to write what is meaningful to me, which hopefully will be meaningful to other people, and to put it out there in the world. That’s what I see as a responsibility. Look, it’s also a privilege. Like I said, I’m not bartending anymore, I’m not a bike messenger anymore. But it’s a responsibility. So that’s where it starts.
And then there’s film, there’s television, there’s theater. And all are great, I love watching Netflix, and I love movies. Talk about places that can be for everyone, that can save you. I could tell you many stories about times I was so depressed and forced myself out of the house just to go to a movie at 11 pm on Tuesday, and seeing movies that weren’t even the greatest movies. But I’ll just never forget seeing As Good As It Gets, and what that did for me. Also Gilbert Grape, and Benny & Joon, these mainstream Hollywood movies that literally saved me in the moment. Or going to the old Lincoln Plaza Cinema, it’s closed now, sometimes in the summer. Just being lonely and forcing myself to go in and just see whatever is playing, some French movie at 10 pm, and having an unforgettable experience.
But theater, that’s where the heart is for me. I co-created the Netflix TV show The Get Down, and we started out in LA. I remember sitting in a room one day and they came in with all the new options for chairs, and so all the writers were sitting on three different versions of $1,000 chairs, being told to pick the chair they wanted. Every day, ordering lunch took like an hour. You’re looking through all these menus and you’re like, Oh, how’s this? How’s the fish? It just didn’t feel artistic.
Then my play was starting rehearsals in New York. So I flew back, and I went to the rehearsal room, and it was a little room with folding chairs and folding tables and a bunch of good people sitting around them. And everyone was happy that there was some water and food on the table. You know?
John Patrick Shanley was in our company, and when I first started to make some progress as a writer, I was asking him about what happens when you get to this point or that point in your career. And he said this thing that was really smart — at the time I understood it, but I understand it much more now. He said, “You know, Stephen, there’s this assumption that once your career starts, it’s just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and greater, and greater, and greater. Then one day you wake up, and you realize that you were never better, and it was never greater, than in that little 50-seat theater with the broken chairs, doing theater with your friends.”
With Halfway Bitches, the seats aren’t broken and it’s not $5 to get in, but you know what? Those are all my friends. It made sense to me, what Shanley said. I’ve worked writing in a style that was more mercenary at times, and it leaves my soul cold. It’s not worth it. If I had kids, I would write Rugrats and be thrilled, I would write anything. But if I can support myself, I’m going to try to do things that I think are meaningful, and work with people who I think are great and out of the ordinary.
There are people in that cast that I have worked with for 30 years, and there’s people in that cast who are just starting to work as actors. There’s people in that cast who weren’t even actors. It presents challenges, for sure, but there’s something really beautiful about that.
I’m still working on the play, and how it’s going to end up, and what it’s going to be, whatever. I feel good about the effort that’s being made, and I feel good about — whether you like the play or not — you’re going to see people on that stage that don’t look like actors and actresses. You’re going to see people on the stage that look like people that you see on the street and have a lot of heart, and a lot of complexity, and a lot of experience levels and age levels. And I like it.
So hopefully it’ll work out.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven runs through January 5 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York. The run is sold out, but cancellation tickets may be available; details are on the Company’s website.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson