Meet Be Boyd, Director of Intimate Apparel
 by Sheryl Flatow
Be Boyd is a theatre lifer. She first appeared onstage in an elementary school play, and never looked back. “I was in second grade, and the teachers put us in plays – not skits, but actual plays – and helped us try to understand dramatic literature and what it does.” She was hooked. “I also had music in my blood, because my dad was a jazz musician. The idea of being in front of an audience, telling a story and sharing an experience with people through a play or through music, was exciting. My mom said that when I was young, I was fascinated with opera singers. She said I would just sit and watch them on TV, and she couldn’t pull me away. So, there was something tugging at me very early on. I double majored in theatre and English Lit in college, because the ability to tell stories and to shape someone’s story has always been appealing to me.”

Boyd was enthralled by various aspects of theatre, and has gone on to explore all of them in her distinguished, award-winning career. She’s a director, playwright, actress, and educator, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where she’s specialized in directing, voice, and acting since 2002.
Now she is making her PBD debut as the director of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, which tells the story of Esther, a 35-year-old African-American seamstress of exquisite corsets, camisoles, and other lingerie, who aches to love and be loved. An unlikely opportunity arises when she enters into a correspondence with George, a man she’s never met, a laborer on the Panama Canal. Nottage wrote the play, which is set in 1905, “to honor the legacy of her great-grandmother,” a seamstress in New York City at the turn of the last century.

“Lynn Nottage is a wonderful storyteller, and this is a beautifully written play,” says Boyd. “The characters and the relationships are all fascinating. I think the play resonates with so many people because they see their ancestors in it, their grandparents and their great-grandparents.”

In addition to Esther’s relationship with George, a man who turns out to be markedly different from the person he appears to be in his letters, Nottage explores her relationship with the landlady of her boarding house; with two of her customers, a wealthy White woman and a Black prostitute; and, most poignantly, depicts Esther’s unspoken mutual attraction with Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish immigrant who sells her fabric.

“One of the things Nottage does so well is show moments of humanity in every one of the characters,” says Boyd. “I think that’s what she’s always trying to do in her work. Of course, she puts the ugly out there because it needs to be. But she also helps us understand the ugly. Until we can do that, I don't know that we can make any progress with each other.

“The play is also a great history lesson about the turn of the 20th century and I wanted to honor that,” Boyd continues. “Esther’s on a journey to try to understand herself as a woman and to try to understand her place in a society that is largely traditional, but is also changing and becoming more modern. We also learn, in George’s letters to Esther, how badly the men were treated who worked on the Panama Canal. In preparing the script before rehearsals began, I researched more about what the workers went through, and they were basically considered chattel. They risked their lives trying to create this vision for what was essentially early corporate America, and got no thanks for it. So many of them were maimed or went deaf or carried disease, and they still don’t get recognition for their contribution. My understanding of all this helped me understand George, and actually made me approach him in a different way. Everybody in the play has to determine how to keep from being a victim of society and of tradition, and George doesn’t make the right choice. It’s easy to see him as the villain, and what he does is pretty crappy, but I did not want him played as just an angry man. In the end, I think that his relationship with Esther ultimately teaches her who she really is.”
Despite the fact that the play takes place more than 115 years ago, the parallels to contemporary America are evident. “Let me preface this by saying that we’ve made progress,” says Boyd. “But we’re still dealing with race and identity issues. We’re still trying to figure out how to be true to yourself when society has other ideas about you, and how families sometimes reject you for your choices. Corporate America still doesn’t respect its workers. Religious restrictions can still keep you from true love and true happiness.” And, on a lighter note, “Esther and George meet by corresponding, the 20th century equivalent of online dating.”

Boyd, a self-described “military brat” and the youngest of three children, was born in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas and grew up in Texas, Germany, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. It was during the family’s time in Germany that she took her fateful first steps onstage. “But I also had teachers on the military base in Fort Knox, Kentucky who understood the power of theatre, and I’m so grateful to all of them,” she says.

Although Boyd always knew she was headed for a career in the performing arts, there was a time when she was uncertain whether she would pursue theatre or music. “I played clarinet and tenor sax, and I was going to study music at Austin Peay State University, where I had a music scholarship,” she says. “But a month before I was going to start college, I told my parents I couldn’t live without theatre. They were very supportive.” So was the school, which granted her some scholarship money in theatre.

From the beginning, she had no intention of limiting herself to just one specialty. “I knew I would do it all because I loved it all,” she says. “When I was a freshman, I wrote a play called In Focus: A Recollection of Black Thought. And I got turned on to playwriting and directing then; again, it was the idea of shaping stories, whether as an actor or playwright or director. Having the opportunity to take an idea and flesh it out and then share it with people is really exciting to me.”

Boyd got her first professional acting job when she was still an undergraduate, which helped her decide to pursue an MFA in acting. “That was my focus, but I also wanted to get my MFA because I knew I wanted to teach; I wanted other people to be as excited about theatre as I am.”

Just after receiving her MFA from the University of Louisville, Boyd was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. “I discovered that teaching in college gives me the opportunity to do it all,” she says. “I can teach, I can make the choice to direct a play, to write a play, to act in a play. I also learn a lot from teaching, which is really a gift. At the same time, I like helping people. I like seeing people grow and seeing a process grow; it’s a beautiful thing to see. Teaching is in my blood; not teaching, but helping, guiding, offering options for people, seeing potential in people. I think it's part of everything I do.”

And each thing she does impacts the other. “I’m writing a play right now and I’m trying to see it through the actors’ eyes, so that I can solve problems ahead of time,” she says. “It also helps me as a writer. And as a teacher, I try to figure out how an audience is going to receive something. I like my stories to not just entertain, but to teach as well. I also like history. I like understanding how we got to where we are. That’s what I get excited about. But I've also done silly plays that I get just as excited about. I try to find something that I really enjoy in all of the plays, something that holds up human nature or humanity. All playwrights are trying to do that in some form or another: whether they’re writing a silly comedy or telling a story like Intimate Apparel, they're all talking about some aspect of humanity that they want us to experience. I want people to learn, I want to promote discussion. That’s true when I direct as well. I hope that after seeing Intimate Apparel, people will want to find out more about Lynn Nottage, because she’s such a fascinating human being.”

So is Be Boyd.
Palm Beach Dramaworks
The contemporary American experience, in all its vigor and complexity, takes center stage at PBD in the 2022-2023 season. Our twenty-third season will feature two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and August: Osage County by Tracy Letts; a Pulitzer Prize-finalist, 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog; the world premiere of The Science of Leaving Omaha by Carter W. Lewis; and the classic Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. Opening night is Friday, October 14.

The plays are set in New York, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, and range from heart-warming to heated, from funny to fraught, from intimate to epic. With the exception of Twelve Angry Men, all the plays were written in the twenty-first century and tell stories that reflect America’s diverse tapestry as they shine a light – with humor, insight, and empathy – on family dynamics and the tribulations of modern life. Though Twelve Angry Men was introduced in 1954, it, too, speaks with unnerving immediacy to today’s audiences.

2022-2023 SEASON 
4000 MILES
By Amy Herzog
Directed by J. Barry Lewis
October 14-30, 2022 

At the end of an agonizing cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo shows up unexpectedly at the West Village apartment of his 91-year-old grandmother Vera. Across the generational divide, the physically fragile Vera and the emotionally fragile Leo tentatively and gradually learn to connect in this warm and touching comic drama.
By Reginald Rose
Directed by J. Barry Lewis
December 9-24, 2022
In this timely, timeless, and taut classic, 12 jurors deliberate the fate of a teenager accused of killing his father. Only Juror #8 is uncertain of the young man’s guilt. As he compels the others to carefully examine the evidence, the prejudices and social attitudes of each man are revealed – as are the strengths and flaws of the American justice system.
By Carter W. Lewis  
Directed by Bruce Linser          
February 3-19, 2023
Iris feels trapped in her job at a crematory and wants to get out of Omaha. When Baker breaks into the funeral home to say goodbye to his recently deceased wife, he and Iris spend a humorously unpredictable evening together trying to understand the dismantling of their working-class lives before their pasts, and the police, catch up with them.
By Tracy Letts
Directed by William Hayes
March 31-April 16, 2023
Meet the Weston family, a clan so embittered and embattled that dysfunctional would be a step up. Violet Weston is the pill-popping matriarch whose weary, alcoholic husband walks out the door one morning, never to return. His disappearance leads to a very dark, very funny family reunion full of revelations, resentments, and recriminations. A semi-autobiographical, Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama in which the taunts and stings are both over-the-top and all too real.
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Be Boyd
May 26-June 11, 2023
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of African-American brothers Lincoln and Booth, so named because their father thought it was funny. Spiritually wounded and barely scraping by, the brothers live in Booth’s seedy boarding house room where they alternately support and disparage each other as they look back at their troubled past and look ahead to an uncertain future. A darkly comic trash-talking tale of simmering sibling rivalry.
An Interview
Bruce Graham
Prior to the premiere of The Duration, playwright Bruce Graham asked PBD not to mention 9/11 in any of the material we generated before or during the run of the play. He wanted the audience to discover its centrality to the story while sitting in the theatre. We were happy to honor his request. For that reason, we held off running the interview we did with him. But he’s a fascinating and funny guy, and we thought you’d appreciate learning something about him and hearing his thoughts on the play. Here’s his conversation with Sheryl Flatow. Better late than never!       
Q: Talk about the genesis of The Duration.

BG: I wish I knew. Sometimes I can pinpoint the exact date and time I got an idea for a play, whether from something I read in the paper, or something that happened to a friend, or some kind of event. But with this one, I literally just sat down one day, pulled out a notebook, and started writing. I usually outline everything and do pre-writing, sometimes for weeks or a month, so I go in with a roadmap. But with The Duration, I just put myself in Audrey. In rehearsals, the first thing the cast asked me was about the characters, and I said, “Well, Audrey is me.” I wrote the play pre-pandemic, and it’s about stuff that was on my mind as I watched people who wouldn’t ordinarily say awful things suddenly say awful things, and other people accepting it. That’s why I made Audrey a well-educated, liberal college professor; she’s not the type of person you’d think would want to beat people up. I wanted to defy the clichés and show that everybody has these thoughts. You can be the best person in the world, and when you get devastated with a double tragedy, you can go off the deep end for a while – so long as you come back.
Everybody’s angry and you’ve got to deal with it. But there are right ways and there are wrong ways. We’ve always needed a scapegoat for our anger or our own incompetence. A lot of times, I find it’s coming from people who are angry about their own life. The wounds didn’t heal; they festered. I think that some of the crazy xenophobia the country is going through now comes from this. One of my students Is Asian, and literally three days after the pandemic hit China, his parents were harassed. This kind of mentality has always been there, but then you get certain administrations that will throw kerosene on the fire. So that’s where the play came from. And I’d also started to feed feral cats that I’d rescued from crab traps, so there’s that.

Q: Did you also want to write about 9/11, or did you want to address what’s going on now but set it in the past, so that it didn’t look like you were just responding to this moment in time?

BG: The latter. I wrote a play called Burkie, and people said, “Oh, it’s about cancer.” No. That’s the engine that drives the play. Same with 9/11; it’s the engine that drives this play, but it’s not what the play’s about. Really, I never want to say what a play is about because to me the audience takes away whatever they want. I'm not going to tell them what to take away. I just know why I’m writing it.

Q: Did you lose anybody on 9/11?

BG: No, but two good friends were both police officers and knew a lot of the EMS people. The wife was working across the street from the towers and watched the second plane go in. I was in New York the week after it happened because I had a meeting at Miramax which was down in that area. I’m the kind of guy that never looks at accidents. But I got there early and walked around the fringes and saw the memorials that were popping up. Even though I wasn’t personally affected, I was affected by what I saw.
Q: If Audrey is you, was the play at all cathartic for you?

BG: In some ways all of my plays are. I get something out of my craw. Even in the comedies, there’s an edge to them. Several years ago, Dramaworks did my play Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grille. At one point a guy comes in with a shotgun and announces the names of all these people he wants to kill. All the names I used were members of the school board who I was fighting with at the time. Writing is how I get my aggression out, but it also gives me a chance to say things. In The Duration, I actually agree with what all three characters have to say. A lot of times, my plays are arguments with myself.
Q: I’m only familiar with a few of your plays, but I like them very much. I appreciate your humor, and your ear for dialogue. I know you’re prolific, and that your plays have been produced on every continent except Antarctica. So, out of admiration and respect, why aren’t you better known?

BG: To be honest, I don’t play the game well. I don’t network, I live in Philadelphia. I made my money in movies and television, but stayed in Philadelphia. After my daughter was born, I’d take the red eye to Los Angeles twice a week – I racked up 180,000 frequent flyer miles in a little over a year once, working on two different things – because I wanted to be home when my daughter woke up. I hate LA. It’s boring and ugly and I hate the driving. People stopped inviting me to things because I never wanted to go. I’ve driven a few agents and lawyers nuts because I am the way I am. I also write things that sometimes piss people off.

Q: I discovered in my research that you were a stand-up comedian in another life. Was that what you really wanted to do? And was that experience at all helpful to you as a playwright?

BG: It was incredibly helpful. I’m untrained as a playwright. My training is as an actor. When I was 16, I was doing open mic nights by myself. I always came across as older. We had a bar with an open mic in Philly called The Library, and my mother would say, “Where were you last night?” “I was at the library.” And then I got to college, and my first week there, somebody said, “You’ve got to meet this guy, Billy Elmer.” I go to a party that night, and who do I meet? Billy Elmer. We ended up becoming partners and worked lots of colleges and comedy clubs, and I got to write material for the characters we played. I was the straight man; Billy was like Jonathan Winters with a hit of acid. There was one club we played two times a month and people would keep coming back, so I was always trying to come up with five minutes of new material. We’d do the nine o'clock show, and if the jokes didn’t work, I was literally behind a dumpster on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, rewriting the jokes for the 12 o'clock show. It was great training. I knew how to write material. Originally there were three of us. I’d give the material to them and they’d say, “This isn’t funny. There’s not a joke in here.” On paper it wasn’t funny, but I knew that when they did it, it would be hilarious. And it was. I learned so much doing this work. It was my grad school.
Q: Was playwriting what you had set out to do from the start? Or did you gradually come to that after your comedy career?

BG: I was always writing, and I was always the class clown. When I was about eight years old, my parents took me to see the movie Good Neighbor Sam, which starred Jack Lemmon. I walked out of the theatre going, like that song in A Chorus Line, “I can do that.” I could do the Jack Lemmon stuff. And I decided I was going to be an actor. I have a collection of vintage movie posters in my living room, and there with all these classic films is Good Neighbor Sam. When people see it, they want to know what it’s doing there. I tell them it’s a very important film.

Q: So, the movie was the impetus for your career. You knew you could do what Jack Lemmon was doing, but when did you decide you could do what Neil Simon was doing?

BG: When I was a kid, I would go to libraries and devour plays, including all of Neil Simon’s. I owe a lot to him, plus I’ve done a ton of his plays. I have a Neil Simon face. I was always writing and acting, but I think acting was easier to get into. I wrote Rainbow Bar and Grill when I was a senior in college, but it took a lot of rewrites. Let’s just say my acting career was not quite successful. I'm short, I was going bald, I photograph like W.C. Fields. There weren't a lot of parts for 22-year-old character actors. So, I started writing plays for short, bald guys – and they always cast tall guys.
Q: Does being a playwright help you as an actor? Or can it get in the way, because you start rewriting things in your head?

BG: I’ve appeared in some of my own plays, and when I put on a different hat, sometimes the actor hat doesn’t like the writer hat. We did a first reading of my play Funnyman, and I played the part of an agent, which I kind of wrote for me. We sat down around the table, and I’m making adjustments. And we got to my first four lines and I said, “Let’s cut these.” I thought they were stupid. Now I had an actor hat on going, “This is totally unmotivated. He wouldn’t do this.”

Q: Has working with students affected you as a playwright?

BG: Absolutely. I like to use a lot of things in my class that I learn from every production. For instance, I did a PowerPoint slideshow showing an early draft of The Duration and the current version, and I went through the changes and explained why they were made. I'm always telling students that you can’t ask your actors to do things they shouldn't do. I did that in an early draft of the play, and rewrote the scene during rehearsals. A lot of times, pointing out my mistakes helps the students recognize their mistakes faster. I like being in the classroom. It’s acting, and sometimes stand-up. And the kids teach me a lot. I get them as 18-year-old freshmen, and a lot of times they’ll do their senior thesis with me. It’s fun watching them grow up. I have two students that recently sold movie scripts.
Q: There is a wonderful, funny story told in The Duration that’s taken from your own life. Could you talk about that?

BG: I’ve never written an original scene in my life. [That’s said with a laugh.] The first thing I make my students do is go out and tape record a conversation and write it verbatim. Some of them have actually gotten plays out of them. I just observe, or the story comes out of me. In the play, Audrey talks about bringing the twins home from the hospital, and her husband singing the song from Sweeney Todd, “Not While I’m Around.” I actually did that. My wife went to bed, and my daughter was only five pounds, and I’m looking at her trying to figure out what to do with her. “Do you want to watch a game? Do you want to go to a bar?” It really freaked me out. So, I sang her that song.