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Playwrights' Perspectives

Leslye Headland on "Assistance"

You've heard the old adage that "Hell is other people." Of course you have. Yawn. It's been so oft-repeated that I suppose Hell has lost some of its gravitas, much to the delight of whoever may be in charge down there. I recently heard Tim Keller, one of my favorite Christian writers, sum up Hell in a refreshingly terrifying way. In discussing Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, Keller defined Hell as: "having to execute a pointless act from which nothing ever comes except the need to do it again."

Camus makes the point that our human lives are meaningless and insignificant. Nothing new to anyone who's been a freshman in college. Like just about every other eighteen-year-old fueled by alcohol and boredom, I fell in desperate love with Camus' The Plague, with Ionesco's The Lesson and with Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which I directed as my senior thesis at Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU. I was tickled by the way these great men of words narratively imagined the tragic comedy of a meaningless existence. But ultimately I found I didn't quite agree with them that life is completely without meaning. If it were, where does that "need to do it again" that Keller specifies come from? Wouldn't we all just give up? If your actions mean nothing, why get up in the morning? If your job is mind-numbing, why do you keep showing up?

Assistance is about that "need to do it again." But, like absurdist playwrights, I crafted it as a comedy. A decidedly 21st century comedy. I've tried my hand at the witty repartee that accompanies screwball comedies. It's got that popular trope, The Boss From Hell, from so many films and roman a clefs. It's even got a bit of a love story. But the elephant in the room for all the characters is the looming question of "Why do I keep coming back?"

I posed that question to myself several years ago, when I, in tears, ran from my desk, into the elevator, down the street, as far away as I could from the building I'd worked in for six years. The myriad excuses I'd been telling myself for six years all boiled down to one response: "Because that's what you do." It terrified me. It wasn't a good answer. But no matter how I dressed it up, it was the only answer. I was in Hell. And it wasn't my Boss's fault.

My own obsession with being "good enough," with being "successful" and with executing completely pointless acts day in and out had, at some point, shifted from a healthy post-collegiate ambition to an empty routine that was the sole validation for myself. It gave my life meaning.

A lot of people make their jobs their life. A lot of those people probably feel like they have to. Maybe money cushions or reinforces that choice. Maybe the dependence of a family necessitates it. But, for me, when my job became both my prison and my salvation, it was a devastating realization that spurred me toward a new life. When I look back at my frustration, I have to laugh. If you're in Hell but you think you're in Heaven, that's funny to everyone but you.

The characters I love writing the most are very busy doing nothing at all. They chatter on and on about freedom when their actions dictate that they have none. I like to watch them build prisons around themselves. I enjoy seeing them grasp for what they believe will save them and watch it melt away in their hot greedy fists. Because to me, that's funny. Because that's what I do.

My greatest aim is that the audience and I laugh at the same painful joke together. That we all enter the sacred space of a theater, become enshrouded in that ancient darkness and laugh at the absurdity of self.