In-Depth with Playwright Jim Henry

Jim Henry as Stanley in CST's 1995 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.Playwright Jim Henry is a man always on the move. The father of 8 children, grandfather of 5, husband, business executive, carpenter/plumber/electrician, and yes, playwright, chatted with director Traci Brant via phone while in New York at rehearsals for the Off-Broadway opening of his play 7th Monarch.

You have a crazy busy schedule these days. How do you find the time and motivation to write plays?
I usually write late at night when the house gets quiet and most of the complications of the day are over. That’s when I do 90% of my writing. I am motivated by a story that’s been in my head that I have to get out.

Your career as a playwright started later in life than most at age 35. What was the turning point or inspiration that drove you to playwriting?
I’ve always had stories that I’ve either told or they were in my head all my life. I came up with a story that was so compelling that I felt like I had to write it down and share it with someone.

What story was that?
The Angels of Lemnos

Most of your work does not follow the conventional chronological approach to story telling. The plot often unfolds in dreams or flashbacks. Is this a calculated choice or is that just how your brain works?
I think that’s how my brain works. When I see either theatre or movies, I tend to dig that format better than linear stories. I like how playing with time can bring forth drama and tell a story in a more interesting way.

Now for a playwright's least favorite question. What is your process? How does an idea come to you and where do you go from there?
The initial idea for any play or screenplay I have written--it’s odd to me how it comes. Sometimes I’ll be driving down the road and think of it. Sometimes someone in the room will say something and it just clicks in my head. I find someplace to write it down and shove it in my pocket, and then I look at it weeks later and see if it means anything to me… if it’s still something that’s worth looking in to.

I really have 2 styles of writing that have evolved over time. I used to have the whole play in my head before I wrote the first scene. I would have entire scenes of dialogue floating around in my head … that’s how The Angels of Lemnos developed. By the time I got to Backwards in High Heels, I just started with a single idea and wrote it without know what was going to happen next. This second method was based on Steven King’s book On Writing which fascinated me. That’s how he writes … he’s experiencing things for the first time as the characters are doing things. Now, I’m kind of a hybrid of both.

What other playwrights have influenced your work?
Tennessee Williams. You go 'What!' No, but he has. Martin McDonagh. Rebecca Gilman.

CST held its first staged reading of Brother of All over a year ago and the full production opens in just over a week. How long have you been working on this particular play? How has it evolved?
I wrote the first scene between the psychologist and Leonard 10 years ago and then got busy with other things. Then at some point, I was talking with actor Tim Gleason. I told him, ‘I wrote this play and there’s a character that I think you would be great for.’ Time passed and then when Tim came back to CST to do The Pillowman in February 2010, he asked, ‘Whatever happened to that play you were writing?’ At that moment, I said, yeah, I’ve got to finish that. So he and I set a deadline for July 4, 2010. And in true Jim Henry style, I didn’t work on it at all until July 4th weekend and then I started scrambling like a madman. I had to call Tim at 10 o’clock on July 4th and tell him that I wouldn’t make it by midnight, but that I would have it to him by July 5th at midnight. And, I did.

As the play was written, I had no idea what the hell was going to happen after that first interview scene. In fact, I completely re-wrote that interview scene or most of it. I went from there with no idea what was going to happen. Suddenly this mom showed up in the interview room and that’s kind-of how it evolved.

Brother of All has some beautiful metaphors based on Cherokee legends. Why were your drawn to this subject?
I was looking for something higher than me spiritually that would somehow tie in to the real contemporary story that was happening. Oh, and of course, I had Tim Gleason involved who is Native American so he got me thinking in that direction. I had also been up to Ketchikan, Alaska for a production of The Angels of Lemnos. That whole island is immersed in Indian folklore. The tribe up there is the Tlingit. So I started using that tribe, but it became problematic because their language is a lost language. There are only like 30 people who speak it anymore and very little information. I was looking for legends that somehow would tie into my story so I decided to turn to some of the larger tribes. The Cherokee legends were plentiful and I came upon some that connected with me and I felt in some way connected with my story.

Is the Brother of All legend, as told by Wohali in the play, based on an actual Cherokee legend?
No, it’s a legend that I created, but the thing about it--the permission I have--is that legends are something in most Indian cultures that were passed down through generations. Legends are constantly evolving and new ones are created all the time. If you come up with a story that is meaningful to share with others and it helps people gain understanding and interpret the world, then it is a valid legend. For example, in the play, Wohali makes up the legend about a Seahorse. That is now a real legend. That’s the belief system. This new legend is just as valid as a legend that was first told 10,000 years ago.

The play is largely focused on Leonard’s troubled relationship with his mother. Did you set out to explore this relationship?
No, she appeared in a room as I was writing the play. I knew when she popped up that she was his mother and it was obvious to me that there was now a dynamic in the room that I had to explore. I was making those kinds of discoveries as I went along. Clearly, when she arrived on the scene I knew there were high stakes and conflict. I didn’t know what it was at the time… I only found out later.

What is your relationship with your own mother?
My mom is very supportive of her kids’ pursuits especially in the arts and music because she is very art-centered and has found joy and freedom in creative outlets. It’s something that she has always fostered in our family—go do the things you love. She sets an example through her own life.

The other very close relationship in the play is that of Leonard to his “blood brothers.” Do you have any guys in your life that you would consider “blood brothers?”
Yes, my own brother definitely. We’re a year apart so we’ve always been very tight and also competitive--which over time makes you both better. My friendships over the years with other guys have grown into a brotherhood. I think that’s natural for most people who build close ties to their friends. You become very protective of each other. You become family.

Having read most of your plays, I’ve seen you deal with mental illness or mental breakdown in many of them. What draws you to this theme?
I’m fascinated with the human mind. I’m one of these people that thinks we’re only using 10% of it instead of the massive capacities of the brain. The more I understand it, the more I am fascinated. As an extension of that, I am interested in how our brains help us process the world and make meaning out of it. Most of my characters seem to either have some kind of debilitation or brilliance or a combination of both that gives them a different perspective on interpreting the world. Or, it makes it difficult for them to interpret the world. They see things differently. That fascinates me.

Prior to BOA, CST also produced your plays The Angels of Lemnos, 7th Monarch, and Backwards in High Heels. What is your relationship to CST?
It’s my home theatre where all my initial ideas of a play are germinated and created. It’s not that I create a play and bring it to them to support and develop it. It’s that, literally, the ideas come to life at CST through being an actor, interacting with directors, and working on all aspects of the production process. It helps me tremendously as a playwright. At CST, I’ve learned how a lighting director approaches a show or how a sound designer works, so that when I’m writing I try to work within the confines of what is possible and will work on stage while pushing those ideas as far as I can. Just talking with actors, directors and designers generates ideas. By talking with creative people, you think creatively. I benefit from having a home where I can express myself as an actor and a writer. And, I’m treated amazingly kind, so that when I get out into the sometimes brutal theatre world, I can always go back to those people at CST who love and understand me.

It’s a bit unusual for a small, non-professional theatre like CST to have the opportunity to form a creative relationship with a playwright and produce new work. Why do you continue to let us get our hands on your new plays?
It’s incredible how lucky I am to have the support of everyone at CST behind my work. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it is to have them working with me… so willing to take risks on my work. There are playwrights that don’t have that kind of support at professional theatres let alone a community theatre. I have this incredible relationship in my own backyard. I would not have turned out the volume and quality of work that I have up until now without Chicago Street Theatre.

You’re in New York now working on 7th Monarch, which opens Off-Broadway in June. How is working in NY different than back home in Indiana and in Chicago?
One of the big differences when I go to any other city is that process of learning and building report with a new group of artists. I have that built in at Chicago Street where I’ve been working with some of the same artists for many, many years.

Do you have a new play in the works now?
Yes, I have a new play called Bury Me which has had some development so I want to get back to that. And then I have a playwriting journal full of about 30 to 40 ideas. Some of them I’ll get to and some I’ll look at and probably have no idea what the notes even meant. I’m in a good position as a writer because I have lots of ideas… now I just need to have more time to work on them.