Would You Like to Know More?
An Interview with ‘The Nether’ Playwright Jennifer Haley
Excerpts from American Theatre‘s 2015 interview ‘In the Uncanny Valley with Jennifer Haley,’ by Diep Tran. To learn more about the Toronto premiere of Haley’s play The Nether, co-produced by Studio 180 and Coal Mine Theatre and opening October 11, click here.
The Nether’s popularity might partly be explained by its familiar setup: It opens up in an interrogation room (Jennifer Haley admits she was partly inspired by “C.S.I.”) where a female detective is questioning a middle-aged man about his involvement in the Hideaway, a virtual Victorian-era world in which pedophiles can have sex with avatars of pre-pubescent girls. Though the play’s most graphic scene involves little more than a child actress taking off a dress to expose frilly undergarments, it’s a dark, twisted, get-under-your-skin kind of play.
Admits Haley (pictured) with a laugh, “If a man had written The Nether—if I were, like, Joe Haley, everyone would think I was a big freakin’ perv.
“I feel like The Nether could have only been written by a woman.”
But hot topics aren’t the only reason Haley’s work seems to be catching on. All of Haley’s plays hone in on the moral quandaries raised by technology, role-playing games, and the seduction of virtual worlds, while making audiences question the little ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives 24/7.
“My stuff is narrative, but I don’t feel like I’m spoon-feeding people,” says Haley. “I draw them in using genre—in Breadcrumbs, using the essence of a fairy tale; in Neighborhood, using a video game; in The Nether, using television procedurals. These genres provide a great sense of shorthand. If I want to sound evil and crafty, you just sort of lull people in.” She finishes with a chuckle.
Haley’s road to playwriting was a long one. In a sense, it’s a third career for the 44-year-old writer. Raised in San Antonio, Texas, she started acting in high school in plays like The Elephant Man and The Miracle Worker. She was especially enthusiastic about the latter.
“I love that play,” Haley says. “I thought I was going to be cast as Helen, but [the director] cast me as Annie Sullivan. I was so shrimpy, but there was actually a shrimpier girl than me.” She went on to pursue a liberal arts and theatre double major at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was there that she wrote her first play, though she’d never taken a playwriting class.
“So many of the roles were just dopey stuff,” she says.
“So the first play I wrote, I just wrote something with a great role for myself.”
In the late ’90s, she moved to Seattle and became a web designer. Though that was just her day job—she was writing plays at night—the two worlds started to merge in her mind.
“As technological media was changing, I felt like I was in the thick of it,” she recalls. “It was being a tech person and being in that world, it really started influencing my work.”
Haley’s father died of alcoholism five years ago, and The Nether can in part be read as a daughter’s quest to understand addiction; it emerges that Morris, the detective, lost her father to his virtual-world obsession. In the chilling jargon of the play, he became a “shade.”
“Of course I was never going to write a living-room play about a daughter dealing with an alcoholic father,” says Haley. “That doesn’t interest me, because that’s too nose-on. But addiction to the Nether is addiction to just about anything—alcohol, drugs.”
So don’t expect an O’Neill-esque family drama from Haley any time soon (though she says she’s started writing a living-room play, just to see if she can pull it off). For her, the heightened genre and nonlinear form are what help her dig more deeply into the content she’s most interested in.
“It’s not really about technology,” she explains of her work.
“Ultimately I’m interested in technology because it’s giving us a way to live alternate lives. I’m very interested in identity and how people perceive themselves.
“The technology for me is just an interesting way to examine these really limitless, long-standing, global questions of identity, and waking life versus dream life.”
Indeed, part of what makes the worlds she conjures so eerily familiar is that they aren’t that far removed from an age in which smartphones are practically human appendages and Internet celebrity is an actual paying job.
“During The Nether, we kept saying this is not the future, this is actually like eight years from now,” says Anne Kauffman, who directed The Nether at MCC. “The future is now.”
Read the full interview here. Photos (1) Jennifer Haley; (2); The Center Theatre production of The Nether in LA, 2013 (Craig Schwartz); (3) The Royal Court Theatre production of The Nether in the UK in 2014 (Johan Persson).