Alex Witchel, New York Times
“WHEN my father died, my therapist phoned,” Daisy Foote recalled. “And I said, ‘It’s so awful! It’s the end of everything!’
“And he said, ‘Or the beginning.’ ”
Well, that’s the kind of thing therapists are supposed to say. But when your father is Horton Foote, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“The Young Man From Atlanta”) and Oscar-winning screenwriter (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), and you, his daughter, have been working as a playwright for decades on, let’s say, a more modest scale, the therapist might be right.
Not that her father was ever anything but supportive: their relationship, Ms. Foote said, was often teacher-student, and in 2000 he directed her first Off Broadway play, “When They Speak of Rita,” to ensure media coverage. Which was pretty good. “Flawed but affecting,” said The New York Times review.
When her next Off Broadway play, “Bhutan,” opened in 2006, Variety wrote that it confirmed “her formidable talent as an emerging playwright” while noting that her characters are “rawboned country folk with none of the charms and graces of her father’s colorful Southern characters. That she succeeds so well,” it added, “attests to the compassion behind her steely-eyed vision.”
These days her vision isn’t quite so steely-eyed — offstage, at least. “Him,” Ms. Foote’s first play to be produced since her father’s death in 2009, is in previews and opens at Primary Stages on Oct. 9, and she is finding the silence deafening. Mr. Foote read an early draft of “Him,” she said, and “he was shocked by it, how dark it was and frank.” Still, if he were here, he’d be the first to cheer her on.
“We’re at that stage in rehearsal where the actors don’t quite know the lines, and it makes me want to pick up the phone and call him,” she said this month. “But I realize I’ve got to grow up now. It’s weird to say at my age, but it’s true. It is time to grow up.”
Ms. Foote, 50, writes of the hopes, dreams and struggles of small-town New Englanders, much as her father wrote of the hopes, dreams and struggles of small-town Texans. But in Mr. Foote’s fictional town of Harrison, Tex., the characters aspire to gentility, fetching cool drinks and plumping the pillows while the ill-concealed terrors of alcoholism, mental illness, dead children — pick your poison — envelop them subtly, like a vapor.
In Ms. Foote’s fictional small town of Tremont, N.H., based on New Boston, N.H., where she grew up, gentility stays just out of reach as her working-class characters tough out the everyday fight of existence with pluck, ghosts — of both babies and fathers — and the inevitable box of wine. “Him” has all the above, and while Ms. Foote’s Tremont bears similarities to her father’s Harrison, her world is shellacked with a hardscrabble Yankee fortitude that allows her women to forge ahead, right or wrong. No vapors for them.
“What I write about is the idea of change and people feeling less” because of it, Ms. Foote said, sitting in a conference room at Primary Stages while the cast rehearsed nearby. “In the 1980s, when the computer boom was happening, people went to New Hampshire because of its low property tax. We went from living in a tiny town with a dirt road to something suburban. It just stays with you when something is as shocking and final as when these houses started to be built.”
Ms. Foote is a tall, rangy woman with a brisk manner and a penetrating glance. In jeans, a white shirt, a silver cuff bracelet and dangling earrings, she looks as if she walked straight out of the Sundance catalog. That Western vibe notwithstanding, her obsession remains New England, and she seems to embody its particular brand of flinty assuredness. Except when she talks about her father.
“Dad had an ease about him, a self-confidence I’ll never have,” Ms. Foote said plainly. “If the critics didn’t like his work, his attitude was, ‘Well, what else am I going to do?’ ”
Ms. Foote grew up in New Hampshire because Mr. Foote, during a midcareer funk in the 1960s, went into self-imposed exile in New Boston. There he wrote his classic “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” nine plays that followed generations of his family from the turn of the 20th century through their next 30 years. Its poetic naturalism was starkly out of fashion in the ’60s of Albee and Pinter.
“He had no insecurity,” Ms. Foote said. “I have abilities, and I feel confident about them, but I spend a lot of nights tossing and turning, thinking ‘Why can’t I be as talented?’ I chose this. And I used to spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Why did I?’ I’m trying to establish my own voice as much as I can. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely satisfied with it.
“I’ve done fine, but if I had been a rousing success from the start, I don’t think people would be comparing us in the same way. My dad was very aware of that, and it worried him.”
As she spoke, her face flushed and she pulled at her hair. “People become doctors when their fathers are, and no one thinks twice about it,” she added.
Ms. Foote’s mother died in 1992. With both parents gone, might that end up liberating her work? She nodded, and said: “There is a sense of freedom, yes. I want to write about my first husband,” referring to her 18-month marriage to a professor 14 years her senior while a student at Dickinson College. (She has been married to the actor Tim Guinee since 1997.) “I wouldn’t have let Dad read that. Too dark.
“I also want to write about my parents’ marriage, with the focus on my mom. That was too painful when he was alive. My father adored her but also had an idea of her. She was what he needed her to be. I think there was a lot more there for my mother.”
“You think about the ways things happen,” she continued. “After my mother died, the Signature Theater did that season of Dad’s work in 1994, which started an incredible second act for him. His life took on such interesting colors. If she were alive, would it have been different? Maybe. Maybe not.
“But I think a lot about that. About beginning.” She had let go of her hair and her voice was strong: “That’s why parents die.”
Daisy Foote, New York Times
ONE morning in 2006, well into the run of my play “Bhutan” at the Cherry Lane Theater, my father called and suggested we take in a matinee. He said he had woken up thinking of the play and just needed to see it. When the play was over, he turned to me and said: “Well, sister, it’s grown, don’t you think so? It’s just gotten better.” He was my biggest fan, believed in me completely — he was my dad.
As we were leaving the theater, an older man approached and expressed his admiration for Dad’s work. He’d been a fan since the 1950s and thought my father was greater than this or that playwright and on and on. While I quietly stepped back into the shadows, Dad told the man that we had a date for dinner, and that he didn’t have a lot of time to chat. He had a knack for the quiet brushoff; he could cut you down in a matter of seconds with his polite Southern manner.
As he took my arm to leave, the man shouted out, “You could learn a lot from him, young lady — get him to teach you how to tell a story.” And that pretty much says it all — what it means to choose your father’s profession when your father is Horton Foote: a writer whom Frank Rich, reviewing one of his plays in The New York Times, called one of “America’s living literary wonders.” When my dad died three years ago, it was after a career that included a Pulitzer Prize and two Academy Awards. In 1966 my parents moved our family to a small, sleepy New Hampshire town, New Boston. At the time it seemed a radical choice. My dad had just won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and he was moving where? But he’d been feeling a bit lost, even with all his successes, out of step with theatrical trends. So he and my mother decided getting completely away was their best bet.
As a child I had very little sense of my father as a writer. He spent many hours a day working in his attic study, but I was far more interested in horses than in any of his creative endeavors. After the death of his mother and father, though, he began a series of plays based on his parents’ early lives and marriage. Titled “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” the plays were written with a fever and a sense of urgency that spread to the entire household.
My most vivid memory of this time was right after he had finished the third play in the cycle, “Convicts.” It was winter; a snowstorm was raging outside our remote farmhouse. And that night my mother and I sat by a woodstove as Dad read his play to us. That night I started to understand and admire what my father did. He was no longer just my dad but also a playwright with this amazing gift for telling a story.
Still, it would take me a few years before I realized that this was something I wanted to do as well. My parents and I had just finished watching a PBS broadcast of Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others,” and I announced that I wanted to do that; I wanted to write plays. Dad wasn’t hurt that another playwright’s work had prompted this declaration. He simply told me to get started. Start writing. Thus began our relationship as teacher and student.
Over the next 15 years he would be the first to read a new play of mine. He’d call and ask, “Do you have time to talk?” He would ask a series of questions. These questions would help me to see that some part of the play wasn’t as clear or as strong as it could be. Yes, there were arguments, but he always won. He just had a nose for what was phony, what wouldn’t hold.
In the spring of 2000, my dad directed my play “When They Speak of Rita” at Primary Stages. My sister, Hallie, played Rita. With all that family involved, so many things could have gone wrong. But the only drama was onstage. I give him full credit for that. He never approached the day as our father but always as our director.
If I had one complaint about that time together, it would be my level of exhaustion. My father was 83, but he had the energy of a 20-year-old. We’d finish a long day of rehearsal, and then he’d say to me, “I want to go over a few things.” I might have wanted to go home, but I kept my mouth shut, and we got to work.
After “Rita” my working relationship with him shifted. He was still one of the first to read a new play, but there were fewer questions and no more work sessions. So much was happening. He’d won the Pulitzer in 1995 and had been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters; his play “Young Man From Atlanta” went to Broadway, and there were the numerous productions at the Signature Theater and Primary Stages.
While I was so proud and thrilled for him, I could also indulge in some grand moments of self-pity. Why did I choose this, of all professions, to go into when Horton Foote was my father?
It never lasted very long; it couldn’t, as he was always the one I would call, and he’d remind me that over the years he’d wasted too much time comparing himself to other playwrights. Then he’d tell me: “Just keep writing. Keep writing.”
That’s what he’d done all those years ago during his exile in New Hampshire when it must have seemed so hopeless, so impossible. He kept writing, and out of that came “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” and the screenplay of “Tender Mercies,” for which he won his second Oscar.
Recently I was in auditions with the director Evan Yionoulis for my play “Him,” being produced by Primary Stages this fall. Later I called my sister, who has a part in the play. I told her that I still had this impulse to pick up the phone and call Dad, to discuss the day with him, and that I had the feeling that if I hadn’t called him immediately, there would have been a message for me asking why I hadn’t checked in yet. My dad ate, slept and breathed the theater, from auditions to the last performance. And he got such a kick out of sharing this enthusiasm with me.
How bittersweet that Primary Stages will be producing “Harrison, TX,” three of his one-acts, this summer in the slot before mine. There is no escaping our connection. Who I am as a writer is completely tied to him, Horton Foote, the writer, my dad.
And of course, at the end of the day, he would have set some time aside for me, over the phone or maybe dinner. He would have gotten right down to it and asked: “How was rehearsal today, sister? Did you get some good work done?”