Hilary Bettis spent the past two years writing about Russian espionage in the Emmy-winning The Americans, which followed KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) posing as an American married couple in suburban Washington, D.C., during the Cold War.
Despite the success of the drama, penning TV scripts was not what the Brooklyn-based Bettis had in mind when she started studying writing in college, earning a Lila Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship at The Juilliard School. In fact, she rarely watched television and knew very little about the shows creating a buzz in the industry.
“I’ve really been a playwright my entire writing career, and a lot of the writers who went through the Juilliard program were graduating and going to write for TV right away, and to be honest, I was tired of being poor and not having health insurance,” she says. “The idea was to write for TV and help support my theatre writing.”
Once linking up with an agent, she watched some shows to become familiar with different formats and warmed to the dramatic storytelling of many of the cable shows. “I knew I would be terrible at a comedy and really just wanted to write for premium drama, but I thought that was probably far-fetched because I didn’t have that passion in the same way I had for writing plays,” Bettis says. Then, she was offered The Americans.
The Voice of Americans
Joel Fields, the showrunner at the time, was looking specifically for a playwright, and though Bettis had never written a television script, her playwriting convinced him to hire her.
“I was hoping that no one would figure out I was a fraud and had no idea what I was doing,” Bettis says. “I read every script that had been written for the show and would go home and practice writing scenes.”
Once the show ended in 2018, Bettis returned to her first love—the theatre. Her latest play, Queen of Basel, made its world premiere at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
The play is a bilingual adaptation of Miss Julie, the August Strindberg story set on Midsummer’s Eve on the estate of a Count in Sweden. The title character is a young woman who is drawn to a valet named Jean, who is particularly well-traveled, well-mannered, and well-read. But, their love affair leads to tragic consequences.
In Bettis’ reimagining, the setting becomes Art Basel, Miami’s weeklong party for the rich and famous, where real estate heiress Julie reigns over the blowout her mogul father hosts at his South Beach hotel. Through an elixir of power, class, and race, the story unfolds as a commanding look into the Latinx community.
The show was commissioned by Miami New Drama’s artistic director Michael Hausmann, who wanted to take a familiar piece, update it for the Miami community, and make it bilingual to unite local populations.
“I was asked to do this back in 2016 and read the play and absolutely hated it. If you read the author’s preface, he essentially says John is superior because he’s a man, and it’s incredibly insulting. The thing that was driving him to write this play was coming from so much anger towards women,” she says. “[The characters] Julie and Christine are not afforded the same complexity he gives to John.”
Bettis went to Miami that summer to observe the city, meet its people, and find fodder to make the play relevant to her—and to humanize all three characters equally.
“Michael himself is a Venezuelan expat and theatre director whose theatre was teargassed by Chavez, and I thought that political angle was fascinating and something I wanted in the play,” she says. Bettis, who is half Mexican, pushed further to explore themes of race and Latin identity in present-day United States.
“It’s really a play about these big ideas that don’t have any sort of definitive conclusion,” she says. “What I hope people get out of it is—as uncomfortable as it is—to be able to live in these gray areas of conversation that none of us have answers to and see the humanity in people, even if you don’t agree with them.”
The Blackburn Effect
In 2019, Bettis earned a nod for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for women in theatre, for her work on 72 miles to go.... The play’s title represents the distance between Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.
That play received a workshop production at Houston’s Alley All New Festival in January and will premiere at the Roundabout in March 2020—marking the theatre’s first-ever all Latin cast.
The Blackburn nomination opened new doors for Bettis. During the March ceremony at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Bettis connected with West End theatre elite and there’s talk of her show possibly ending up in London.
“People are taking this play seriously and my work seriously in a way that hasn’t quite happened in my career before,” she says. “This play being nominated has made more theatres wake up and say, ‘How do we find more Latinx writers and make sure it’s something we are all paying attention to.’”
Two of Bettis’ fellow nominees for the Blackburn Prize have also gained visibility. Lily Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself premieres at Actors Theatre Louisville in Kentucky as part of the Humana Festival, and Lauren Yee’s Song of Summer bows at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island.
“The Blackburn is an honor that those in the theatre community take very seriously and pay attention to,” Yee says. “It’s a very prestigious prize with an incredible roster of previous winners and finalists and I’m certainly thankful for the money that comes with the prize—that’s going to help me get to my next step.”
Padilla adds, “Being a finalist for the Blackburn Prize puts me in company with a lineage of brilliant playwrights past and present; and is spreading word about How to Defend Yourself to more people internationally.”
Where the Screen Meets the Stage
Bettis credits her improved playwriting—which led to her recognition—to her time on The Americans.
“It helps me see that nothing is precious, ever,” she says of the beauty of rewrites, which she now applies to her plays. “Just because your first or second idea might seem interesting, there might be a better idea and you shouldn’t settle. In the playwriting world, we can write in a magical space of inspiration, and there’s no room for that in TV. You have to turn something around when needed, and it’s forced me to develop my chops, my technique, and craft.”
Plus, “the real estate on the page is so incredibly valuable,” and succint TV scripts have helped Bettis tell a more effective story in Queen of Basel.
While Bettis wishes being a playwright could pay the bills the way TV does, she knows that she’s going to probably have to do both for a while. She’s begun a new family drama in the vein of August: Osage County, only with a Latinx family. She also has a pilot project at AMC and another at FX.
“I’m trying to figure out that balance in my career now between TV and theatre,” she says. “When I talk to my agent or interview for jobs, the first question I ask myself is ‘How do I make sure this doesn’t take over my life so I can still be a playwright?’ I won’t ever be not writing a play.”
Queen of Basel plays Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., through April 7.