The Butcher's Daughter

Jennifer Haley has run a mini-marathon with her play The Butcher's Daughter. "I started writing this play about 3 1/2 years ago," says the playwright, "about the time I went to Seattle, because basically I didn't know anyone and had nothing better to do than sit around in the dreary weather." Haley, who has roots in Austin, where she went to the University of Texas and was a founding member of the theatre company Troupe Texas, returned here last summer for a staged reading by the Refraction Arts Project. After that, "it was done as a workshop presentation at the Annex [Theatre in Seattle], very much like the staged reading that was done here.

"It's been very rewarding to watch it develop," she continues, although she admits "it's been kind of grueling to have it develop over such a long period of time. But it's been necessary, too, I think." What started as a play spanning three hours is now pared to an essential 100 minutes, more or less. "This thing was a pile of mush: interesting scenes, interesting moments, cool things happening. All of the seeds there were ready to be sown together thematically." For Haley, working on the play "is kind of like [riding] a roller coaster. You have a really good time, but you're going to walk away and go, 'We were going real fast on that turn, and I missed something here, I missed something there, I got jostled here. ...'" This time out, however, Haley feels confident that the script is nearing the end of its development. Haley sees this production as her opportunity to set both the text and a complete transcription of the music.

In the play, a girl, Leole (lee-oh'-lee), the daughter of a butcher, is born with a butcher's knife for a hand -- an unwelcome talisman of suffering that represents generations of repressed familial strife that she is forced to carry. "A lot of people have different variations of shitty childhoods that scar them in some way," says Haley. "The sins of the father or the problems of the parents are passed on to the children. And everyone walks around with internal conflicts and the ability to hurt other people because they're not able to cope with their own [problems. The knife hand is] not just a personality trait but an obvious representation of one's ability to wound other people." To be rid of it, she must take a long and involved journey. "But," says Haley, "it has to be done by a certain person in a certain set of circumstances."

Leole's onstage journey includes many characters, an enormous puppet, rope-swinging, climbing, singing, a live band, and plenty of that presentational, audience-friendly acting style that has made Refraction Arts one of the most fun theatre companies in Austin. It also recalls the heyday of Haley's former company, Troupe Texas, another group that made its name producing plays that incorporated live music, a circus-like presentational acting style, and production values that put a premium on the actors' and audiences' imaginations. In fact, with Haley back in town and fellow Troupe Texan Dana Younger next door at Blue Genie Arts, a distinct whiff of Troupe Texas is in the air at the Refraction Arts' new venue, the Blue Theatre. For Younger, the newer company has always shared an aesthetic with his former group: "It comes out of the Troupe Texas principle, which is that music plays a big part in storytelling and in background music, but without [the production] being a musical, necessarily. It should be fun to look at," continues Younger, laughing as he remembers his first production with Refraction, "In the case of Water, it was really silly. We had the giant phalluses onstage, we had the teeter-totter that was a boat, which was so silly."

The connections between Berry's production company and Troupe Texas are legion, more examples of the Six Degrees of Ron Berry. Notes Haley, "Ron came to town a year before I left. His sister [Katherine] wrote a lot of music in the show, and she went to school with Will Walden and [director] Deanna Shoemaker. They went to undergraduate together. Will is in the Barkers, and he played with Troupe Texas for a while. So that's where that connection came in. But the interesting thing was how ready Deanna and Katherine and Ron were to jump into that Troupe Texas sensibility.

"What I like about the show," says Haley, is "it could appeal to younger kids; there's appeal quality for all ages."

  • More of the Story

  • Six Degrees of Ron Berry

    With another acting job in a new play, his own new theatre about to open, his own stage company that champions theatre as something fun as well as substantive, and a lot of friends to help him make "good stuff" onstage, is Ron Berry the Happiest Man in Austin?

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