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A New Breed of Playwright

Author Maria Dahvana Headley debuts play at BCT


A first glance at Seattle-based playwright Maria Dahvana Headley brings the word "pixie" to mind. She's a small woman, somewhat exotic looking, with short brown hair, bright shining eyes and a smile that she wears almost permanently. She said her smile is partly responsible for her behind-the-scenes career as opposed to a life on stage.

"I was too smiley to be an actress," she said, of course, smiling. But there is so much more to the 30-year-old Headley than just her pretty face.

Raised in Marsing, Headley spent her high-school summers working in what she called "random capacities" for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, including working as an apprentice and in the costume shop.

"One summer, I was a props mistress of some sort," she said. It was that summer that she met Tom Willmorth (a member of ISF's Fool Squad), from whom she later took a drama class. Headley said she'd always been a writer and had been interested in the theater, but learning from Willmorth reinforced those ideas even more. She just wasn't sure in what direction drama study would take her. At the time, she said, she was writing poetry, even reading it aloud in front of audiences at the now defunct Dream Walker coffee shop that used to be on Main Street between 11th and 10th streets.

"I was kind of a fixture at their open-mic nights," Headley said. At some point, she said, it evolved. While still in high school, she realized she was writing and working in theater and there was no reason why she couldn't combine the two. The idea of writing plays seemed the obvious progression.

"The first play I wrote was titled Qualms," Headley said. "It was sort of an exaggerated, angsty play. We wore black dresses and white face paint going, 'Ooooohhhhh.' And at the end, we all screamed in the dark," she said, laughing.

After high school, Headley moved to New York to attend a theater-writing program at New York University. By then, she said, she had discovered that she liked the idea of creating material that would find its way to the stage rather than interpreting it.

"There were so many talented [actors] and I wasn't one of them," Headley said. "But I wanted to work with them. I think that's why I thought about going into acting in the first place. I wanted to work with those really talented people. I found I could work with them in a way I was much more capable of."

During that time, Headley was writing not only plays and screenplays, but short stories and prose. Her 2006 book, The Year of Yes: A Memoir, is about moving from rural Idaho to New York and how she thought that move would jump-start her life. "I kept thinking, 'OK, I'm here. Where's my life?'" she said.

Part of the problem lay in the lack of satisfaction Headley found dating. Headley wasn't even seeing anyone she really liked; she just kept going out with the same kind of guy. She decided that, to avoid getting mired in dating hell, she would date everyone in New York who asked her (which could be another kind of hell all its own). "I was very, very busy for about a year. And then I met my husband," she said. He's a playwright as well, and Headley said she was already a fan of his work. They've been together almost 10 years now and her book has been translated into several languages and is currently being looked at by Paramount Pictures for a screen adaptation.

With a good support system and a move back to the Northwest, Headley didn't have to look much further than her own back yard for the fodder for her play Last of the Breed.

The play is the story of Wyatt Munro, a crusty unkempt old mountain man living in a cabin on prime undeveloped real estate. To avoid the encroachment of a slew of Cape Cods with gas-guzzling emissions-emitting SUVs parked in every driveway, Munro has himself declared an endangered species. During his fight to stay on his land, he confronts two foul-mouthed developers, a tree-hugging environmentalist, a narcissistic TV-anthropologist, an arch conservative named Ross Chenowell and an arch liberal named Max Andruson (barely cloaked references to two of Idaho's most famous politicos), a huntress who plies black-market aphrodisiacs, a tough-as-nails hardass female Fish and Game employee, and Carlos the Elk and Sherman the Eagle, two talking taxidermied victims of Munro's favorite pastime: hunting.

Last of the Breed opens on a high note with the Starbucks-sucking, swearing developers and maintains a laugh-out-loud fast pace until the end. The play parodies the ecological issues people in the West are so familiar with, and Headley said the inspiration for Last of the Breed really stemmed from a 1998 statement by then Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth in which she claimed "The only endangered species is the white, Christian land-owning male." The quote bounced around Headley's head for a long while, and in 2005, longtime friend and Boise Contemporary Theater artistic director Matt Clark called her and said he wanted to commission a play. Headley knew she had the perfect piece, and in May 2007, an excerpt was read as part of BCT's 5x5 series. Headley said she had just finished the play a mere 30 minutes before the actors (some of whom have parts in the play) were given the script for the reading.

"The actors didn't even know the end of the play," she said. "And they were amazing." She said Last of the Breed was definitely informed by those actors and, in future drafts, went in different directions than she'd intended.

With the world premiere of Last of the Breed, the busy Headley, who said she works about 23 hours a day, is already turning some of her attention on her next endeavor, something she calls the Upstart Crow Project. For this project, she asked 37 female playwrights to adapt Shakespeare's 37 plays and said she was surprised that they all said yes, including Bust writer/actress Lauren Weedman. The plan is to have the plays staged concurrently across the country. But for now, Headley will concentrate on her self-described "black comedy-slash-satire-slash-romance." Yes, romance. The tiny woman with the beautiful smile knew that even a guy who doesn't smell great and whose toenails are more like talons can find love.

Headley reads from The Year of Yes on March 22 at BCT. Tickets are $30 and proceeds benefit BCT. Headley will teach a two-day workshop on The Year of Yes, March 29 and 30, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Registration is limited to 20 people, cost is $250. Also on March 29 at 7 p.m., Headley will offer a free preview reading from Last of the Breed and be available for a Q-and-A session and book signing. Last of the Breed opens April 9 and runs through May 3. For more information, call 208-331-9224 or visit Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St.