Calling a Line Crooked: An Interview with playwright Leslye Headland - Part Two

Leslye Headland, author of Assistance, spoke with Wilma Theater Literary/Artistic Assistant William Steinberger on Tuesday morning, October 23rd in a cab on her way to a rehearsal. This is the second installment of her interview.

Will Steinberger: Something that really excited the Wilma about the play is that it focuses on the workplace [as does the next play in the Wilma season, Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback],  and does so almost as an anthropological study.

Headland: Studs Terkel’s Working was another big jumping off point for me.  In the introduction, he writes that his book, ‘being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.’ It is about the subjugation of the human spirit. Work is not just what you do to make money or what you do to put food on the table, it’s actually an ordeal that you put yourself through and a lot of people make their work their life. They make Daniel their God or their Satan. It becomes their reason to get up in the morning. And the nature of work is fulfilling, there are a lot of fulfilling things about it – I get to do what I love doing for a living – but it’s also work. You’re putting yourself in a position to be less than and toil and I think even if you love what you do, you still have an obligation to your employer and you’re still serving someone. And that attitude of service can be one that can torture you, it can be something that you do willingly, but it’s not always the most rewarding or psychologically advancing thing.

Will: Assistance shows a workplace that has transformed into a less tangible experience over the past several decades.  There’s no real product that the assistants are making. What is the personal relationship they have to the work they’re doing, to that industry, or to their boss?

Headland: It’s funny, for me, the play sort of clicked when I realized that we wouldn’t say what profession they were in and that the boss would never come on stage.  That was sort of when I realized – I was like, ‘Oh, I know what this play’s about now.’  I couldn’t necessarily put it into words, but that was really important. Writing a sort of roman á clef was not something I was interested in doing, but once I realized that it was going to be this sort of nebulous world, this Absurdist theatre, existential drama of why do you keep coming back, and why do you keep working even if it’s not necessarily a fulfilling thing, that was definitely one of the spearheading ideas towards putting this story down on paper.

Will: The assistants play with the English language a lot. For example, breakfast is “breaky” and “I love you” doesn’t mean that at all. Their dialogue is also hilariously cloaked in sarcasm and ironies, and I wonder, do you see the use of language changing among Millennials?

Headland: I have to say that as years go on, I wonder if we are as eloquent as we sometimes think we are. We’re a sort of Wikipedia generation. We don’t have to read and we don’t have to research and we don’t have to experience. We can actually just go online and figure something out. Something that I’ve noticed is a lot of posturing, of “I know something.” It’s almost like the knowledge of something becomes a weapon, it becomes a joke that I know something. It isn’t something that you’ve earned in the same way that this position that these kids are working in they haven’t really earned. They just show up and keep showing up. And again, it’s time logged as opposed to actually learning something.

I love the idea of overeducated people who are actually not smart. It’s a thing that I continue to put into my work and do and I thought that an office place comedy, a black comedy was an excellent place to really make that sing. Because all you do when you’re in an office is talk, whether you’re on the phone or whether you’re talking to the person across from you. You’re really stationary. And when we were working on the New York production our wonderful set designer David Korins described the desks as ‘little Millennium Falcons,’ like little cockpits. So, just the idea of these pilots or soldiers, that’s how they’re going to relate to each other, they’re not going to relate to each other physically or socially, it’s going to be verbally and through jokes and through the lightening of very dark situations. You see that sort of humor in the military, this “war buddy” mentality, ‘we’re going to joke around about stuff that’s actually pretty dark.’

Will: Leslye, thanks so much for chatting with me.

Headland: No, thank you, and I couldn’t be happier that you guys are doing this show. It’s such an honor to be done at the Wilma. I can’t wait to come down and see it. I’m so excited about it.

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