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INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT HILARY BETTIS


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Hilary Bettis about her work on 72 Miles to Go...


Ted Sod: Where were you reared and educated? When did you realize that you wanted to write for the stage and screen? Hilary Bettis: My family moved a lot growing up—South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Colorado. We moved to rural Minnesota halfway through my freshman year of high school. I went to a tiny public high school where our curriculum revolved around the Bible, abstinence, and agriculture. I grew up with horses and chickens and loved learning about agriculture, but religion was becoming a harder pill to swallow. At 16, I decided I was done with school and the last thing I wanted to do was go to college. So I moved to L.A. a week after graduation. I bounced around a lot and got into some trouble, but L.A. also cracked open the world for me. I saw how circumstances define our choices, not our dignity. I started wondering why movies and TV never portrayed stories about the people I encountered every day. One day, I volunteered at a theatre in North Hollywood in exchange for free food! They were doing a production of Death of a Salesman. It was the first time that I had seen theatre. I was so blown away! I started voraciously reading plays. And then I realized the only way to see stories about the world I knew was to write them. So I taught myself to write. I would break down a play, line by line, word by word, try to understand what was happening, then try to recreate my own characters and story based on that structure.


In 2013, I got a fellowship to Juilliard. That was my first and only academic experience. They take only four to five writers a year, and most have their undergraduate degree and MFAs. So I had to figure out how to keep up with them. Being in a room with brilliant, talented, prolific, disciplined writers under the mentorship of Marsha Norman and Chris Durang taught me what it means to be a serious writer.


TS: What inspired you to write 72 Miles to Go…? What would you say your play is about? HB: Oh, so many things! There’s the personal family history. My mother grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and always talks about how wonderful and magical Tucson was. All of the characters in the play embody my family in some way. My father’s a Methodist minister, my grandfathers and brothers joined the military, my mother’s a nurse. My grandfather experienced a lot of ugly racism growing up in Texas. He believed being as Americanized as possible was the only way to survive, so he learned to speak English with no accent, refused to teach his children Spanish, and denied anything culturally Mexican. I feel like I’m on this life-long search to understand who we are and what the Mexican- American identity means to me.


72 Miles to Go… is really a love story. It’s about Anita and Billy’s unwavering loyalty to each other, their deep intimacy and connection despite only having a telephone to bridge the distance. It’s about the sacrifices a family makes for each other out of love, no matter what it costs them personally—their dreams, education, safety.


TS: How did you develop this play? Can you give us some insight into that process? HB: Michael Legg and Rachel Lerner-Ley invited me to be a guest artist at WildWind Lab at Texas Tech and develop one of my plays with the students. It seemed like a great opportunity to start a new play. I


6 ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY Hilary Bettis


ended up writing the first 50 pages in a week. I spent the rest of the summer bouncing from residency to workshop to rehearsal for other projects while trying to finish the first draft. I was also writing on “The Americans” at the time, and that show taught me everything about writing family drama. Joel Fields, the showrunner, and Joe Weisberg, co-showrunner and creator, were always pushing us to write the most honest and intimate version of every moment of that show. And that seeped into 72 Miles. After I finished the first draft, I did some early readings of it at Roundabout. Jill Rafson, the Associate Artistic Director at Roundabout, has always been a huge advocate for this play. I did readings of it with New Neighborhood, Orlando Shakes PlayFest, and Two River Theatre’s Crossing Borders Festival. The play was also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The Alley Theater in Houston did a workshop production, directed by the brilliant José Zayas, for their All New Festival, which was one of the best experiences of my career.


Most of our audience at the Alley had a very personal connection to the play. We did a student matinee for over a hundred mostly Black and Latinx kids from all over Houston. Many of them had never seen theatre before. I was legit terrified because teenagers are tough critics, unapologetic in their opinions, and will let you know how they feel. But these kids were, hands down, the best audience I’ve ever experienced. They laughed, they cried, they gave Eva a standing ovation after her graduation speech. They brought the room to life in such an honest way. It’s something we forget as adults. José and I did a talkback with them, and they all had stories. Some shared that their parents were


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