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Helen Hayes. A Farewell to Arms. 1932

The Helen Hayes Legacy project was a program I worked for in DC sometime between 2002 and beyond for about five years. The Helen Hayes Legacy Project was under the “umbrella” (a word thrown around quite a bit) of the Helen Hayes Awards. I would go into DC Public Schools and teach theatre. So much of the arts programming was cut that none of these schools had their own theatre programs. Some of these schools were downright dangerous. Some were full of inspiration.

My father smilingly led me down a knoll to spy the first arbutus peep through the ground. My mother propelled me up to the gallery to see Nijinski leap in the air.

I was the only thing that my parents ever had in common. They were born antagonists, but I thank heaven for their misalliance. -Helen Hayes, On Reflection

After several years of doing this I observed the difference in the quality of education and experience for students always came down to leadership. The Principal determined everything. The one who knew the names of every student had a higher test score rating. The one that screamed at the top of her lungs directly into the faces of 12 year olds struggled on every level. This, obviously, is a cause/effect question. How do you get to the good place if you are handed the bad place to begin? How do you feel the sun on your face when someone is constantly shoving an “umbrella” in front of you and pretending to save you from the rain on the driest of days?

It’s tricky territory.

One of my playwrights, Carolyn Gage, sent me Helen Hayes on Reflection, An Autobiography a while back. I loved reading it. Her story is charming. And sad. And sometimes a little scary.


Helen Hayes.

It was Mr. Fields who first let me discover the gentle power that comes from creating laughter in a theatre. It is, for me, the sound of heaven.

So strange. I was born on October 10, and so was she. She fell in love with theatre in Washington, DC and had a long career in New York City. I fell in love with theatre in New York City and have one of the longest running theatre companies in the world in the DC Metro area.

I read a while ago about her theatre in New York and how there were great plans for it that would bring it back around to its original mission of doing strong works for women instead of commercial work. Rock of Ages is playing there now.

But, this is the gigantic problem. This confusion between professional and commercial work. It’s killing new works under the guise of equal-pay. And the issue of pay is being upstaged with the blaming of small theatres. No accountability for million dollar deficits from the big houses. It’s a strange scapegoating experience.

Of course, I was a baby then, but I didn’t need protection. I was completely insulated by my own purity. I was surrounded by the most glorious sinners and loved them all. Better than any acting school was the experience I had meeting such a grab bag of characters early in life. I have always belonged to what I call the subway school of acting-that moving, roaring classroom where one studies fellow passengers. Mother and I used to play “Who are they and where are they going?’ although I stared so intently that she would have to elbow me back to reality. -Helen Hayes, On Reflection

Yesterday, I found out they are selling her name in NYC. They are taking it off the theatre in an attempt to save the theatre and try to keep it afloat. As I was reading this a single point stood out to me. She wasn’t really excited about her name being on a theatre, likely it was because she knew the nature of the beast more than most having been in the industry from such a young age. The only reason she gave permission was because she was promised it would stay that way into perpetuity. That’s a big promise. It’s been broken.

Running concurrent to all of this is the controversy around the Helen Hayes Awards. Now under the “umbrella” Theatre Washington. They have decided to define “professional” in terms of dollars in Washington, DC. In doing this they have launched a divisive campaign that essentially blames young and minority companies for depriving actors of living wage pay.

Hoping it would be permanent, that our adventure was over, he bought a little house for us on 18th Street near Rock Creek Park and the zoo. Listening to the Victrola on our front porch on a summer evening, the roar of lions was a strange accompaniment to the voices of Mary Garden and Beniamino Gigli. But the primitive undercurrent was wildly prophetic.

-Helen Hayes, On Reflection

They have launched no initiatives to address any of the issues we all face. They have done no real investigation in terms of problem solving around the poverty of small companies. They have mandated a new standard and kept their $2.5 million dollar operating budget for their once a year awards ceremony and once a month cocktail hour.

There’s been no apples to apples comprehensive piece of data to show which companies are healthy and which are sick under the monetary mandate in terms of paying out of what civilians know as a state of bankruptcy. No quantitative understanding of works produced. There’s only a blind mandate intended to exclude anyone who cannot quickly access cash. No thought that if that were possible it would have already happened. No thought that the people who cannot afford these things are minorities. No thought about the discrimination in the name of a great woman. Just a mandate under their “umbrella”.

Legends die hard. They survive as truth rarely does. Someone once said that history is a chronological list of lies. My Charlie used to find the truth unchallenging and quite candidly created the most amazing tales to displace it. He was a writer and far too imaginative to settle for the simple facts. -Helen Hayes, On Reflection

Here’s the thing.

Legacy is an important word to me. I’ve spent almost two decades investigating my own gender-legacy. It’s a large part of the genesis of my work. I don’t understand why they have to do all of this in her name. Why they have to violate her name? Why can’t they just call themselves the Opportunistic-Commercial-Theatre-Awards-Organization-Who-Likes-To-Drink-Expensive-Cocktails-While-Standing-On-Plush-Red-Lobby-Carpet-And-Humming-Show-Tunes? or The-Giant-Umbrella-of-Artistic-Exclusion? or Rich-Dead-White-Guy-Conservation-Society? ANYTHING but a strong woman’s name!

Not so very long ago, a serious and marvelous young actress, with whom I was playing a scene on Broadway, walked off the stage during a performance. Like all of us, she lives in terror. Like some of us who have not been helped sufficiently, she succumbs to it. The demarcation between mobility and paralysis is a thread. -Helen Hayes, On reflection

Right. The demarcation between mobility and paralysis is a thread.

I will keep building my dream at Venus Theatre. I don’t need an award to tell me that what I do is valued. And, I don’t need to try to be empowered with a disempowering umbrella constantly hanging over my head no matter what legendary woman’s logo is stamped on it. What’s been difficult for me is affiliating for 15 years with an organization that hasn’t really considered my work a part of their game. My work has not and will never be commercial. And, that’s been my choice. I take responsibility for that and I choose artistry. I choose mobility.

Complaints about inaudibility have become chronic, but inaudibility is only the symptom. The real trouble is an untrained ear, untrained to hear the melody of speech. Sometimes on stage, my mind fairly shrieks, “For God’s sake, get the tune right.” My acting lessons have run the gamut from Sarah Bernhardt to my poodle dog.

My gender-legacy in art is my own. It requires no one else’s permission. I will keep honoring her and all of the women heroes I can find for the rest of my life. Because their hard work has allowed me to do my hard work now. The rest is…nothing.

We must all, eventually, stand alone. -Helen Hayes, On Reflection


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