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Monica Horan Goes Deep in Beckett’s Happy Days

Monica Horan in Happy Days. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

Buzz neighbor Monica Horan recently returned home from playing would-be Gerald Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. It was a return to Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, her first theater home. As Horan describes theater ethos, “You’re doing it for the love, not the cash. It’s a different level of commitment, and egos are off the table.”

Horan’s level of commitment is on full display in her current, more local, theater endeavor. She opens this weekend in the challenging role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at ISC Studio (Independent Shakespeare Company) in Atwater Village.

The production has been selected as part of the Ninth Annual Conference of the Samuel Beckett Society: Beckett and Justice, hosted by California State University, Los Angeles from June 6-8. It will also be performed at the California Institution for Men (CIM), a state prison in Chino, through Cal State LA’s Prison Graduation Initiative, the first in-person Bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in California.

Beckett is something of an obsession for Horan, as is activism, and in Happy Days she has found a way to combine the two. This production, and the work done leading up to it, have brought together friends from her earliest days as an actress, and newer academic contacts tied to Beckett and incarceration.

Timothy Durkin and Monica Horan in Happy Days. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

Where It Began

The extensive synchronicity started, Horan says, when she could not visit her mother in assisted living during COVID. “Then there was the insurrection. I got a bleeding ulcer from the anxiety. I was consumed with fear about my family, the country. I had a heightened sense of responsibility to fix things that were getting worse.”

She adds, “I had seen Happy Days at Boston Court with Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub. Brooke’s character Winnie reminded me of my mother.” So, during the stay-at-home time, Horan set out to play Winnie.

She reconnected with two friends: Tim Durkin, who in 1986 shared the stage with her in the play where she first caught the attention of her future husband Phil Rosenthal, and Rob Weiner, who directed that play. Durkin played Willie; Weiner, who lives in Texas, acted as director and guide to Beckett.

They started on Zoom. Horan, wary of all the memorization, brought in Sarah Jane Hale, Patricia Heaton’s stand-in on Everybody Loves Raymond and a dialogue coach.

“It felt like grad school,” Horan says. “It was a deep experience. Beckett is not always pleasant—at first blush. Once you understand it, though…”

Multi-hyphenate Elaine May played a role in shaping Horan’s performance. Horan remembers, “Elaine kept asking, ‘When am I seeing the Beckett?’ Tim and I performed the first act for her in my daughter’s old room. Then I had an appointment with Dr. April’s Hollywood Mobile Vet, but Elaine made me cancel it. We finished and she gave me phenomenal notes, including to stop worrying about the props.

“Elaine has a specific way of crystalizing what’s happening. She said she never realized the play was about a marriage. That’s when we realized we were onto something.”

New Partners

In April 2022, after Horan felt she had mastered the play, she and Durkin performed it in Marfa, Texas. Rob Weiner directed the pair at The Crowley Theatre. When she returned to Los Angeles the following month, Horan asked her college friend Elizabeth Dennehy, a Shakespeare scholar, for advice. Dennehy recommended Melissa Chalsma, artistic director of Independent Shakespeare Company.

Chalsma notes, “Beckett is one of the most influential figures of theater and literature in the world. He helped define many of the storytelling modes we are now used to, exploring abstraction and absurdism. He also masterfully interweaves comedy and tragedy, horror and empathy, pathos and lightness. In this way, his work reminds me a great deal of Shakespeare’s: an ability to portray the sweep of human experience in the same play, and even in the same moment.”

Horan and Chalsma attended a Beckett symposium led by Katherine Weiss from Cal State LA and Feargal Whelan from Trinity College in Dublin. Horan relates, “I went up afterwards and said I had a production of Happy Days. Katherine and I had dinner at Vernetti on Larchmont (I mourn the loss of Vernetti!). I was going to be 60 the following January and told her I would produce a small production of Happy Days as my birthday party.”

Weiss attended rehearsals of a workshop production of Happy Days at ISC in November 2022 and was part of post-show talks. She says, “Shortly after that, I, with the support of Feargal Whelan, pitched the idea of Cal State LA hosting the conference to the Samuel Beckett Society Board and they agreed to it. I asked Monica if she could share her incredible performance and production with the conference participants. I was so pleased when she and Melissa Chalsma suggested a full run of the production to accompany the conference.”

Another key partner is Bidhan Chandra Roy, Professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles and faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster State Prison and California Institute for Women in Chino.

Roy notes, “Beckett’s own interest in incarceration is well known, and this certainly has contributed to interest in his work amongst incarcerated populations. But I think it is the themes and characters of Beckett’s work that speak to the experience of many incarcerated men and women.

Waiting for Godot is probably the most produced and known of Beckett’s plays in prison, and particularly the character of Lucky—a slave with a rope around his neck—is one that often speaks to the experience of incarceration and confinement for many. I think Beckett’s work can help people conceive of incarceration and prison in broader, more philosophical, ways than how it can sometimes be framed in the US: in this respect, Beckett has a compelling connection with prison activist organizations, like [Roy’s own program] WordsUncaged, that are trying to reimagine understandings of what prison is and who is in prison.”

So far, 40 people have graduated through the program, with 100% non-recidivism. All earn English Communications degrees.

The Social Impact of Beckett

In 1957, the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop performed Waiting for Godot for incarcerated men in San Quentin State Prison. According to Katherine Weiss, Alan Mandell was the theater company’s business manager at the time and is slated to speak at the Beckett conference on June 8. The play was produced there again in 1988, as captured in the documentary Godot in San Quentin. Spoon Jackson, who is serving a life sentence, portrayed Pozzo; Jackson will join the conference by telephone on June 6.

The ISC production of Happy Days will be supported by a series of workshops run through Cal State LA connected to the BA program in liberal studies at CIM. Roy notes, “It will give everyone involved a rich, sustained engagement with Beckett, as well as humanities education, more broadly.”

Cal State LA’s Prison Graduation Initiative. Photo by Manuela Dalle.

He adds, “By very happy chance, I will also be appearing on a panel at the Beckett conference at Cal State LA this year with Spoon Jackson, whose poetry we published in our first WordsUncaged book and whom I have known for over 10 years. So maybe my work in prisons has made me destined to eventually get involved in the Beckett Society through all these serendipitous connections.”

Weiss points out, “Perhaps Beckett could connect [with the incarcerated] because he spent years in hiding after the cell of the French Resistance he was part of was betrayed. He survived the war by hiding out, not knowing when or if he would be able to come out of hiding.”

She adds, “Beckett’s theater, like all theater, is open for social statements and activism. However, Beckett’s works aren’t protest pieces. It’s important for us to acknowledge that they are often defamiliarizing and, as some might say, absurd. What his work captures, though, is what confinement and powerlessness can feel like.

It’s interesting that both plays that speak to confinement, but in both the characters are out in the elements; the characters are unhoused and, for Angelenos, they remind us that those living in tents, encampments, and the streets are human; they are our neighbors!”

Melissa Chalsma points out, “Like many great plays, Happy Days allows for audience members to create their own relationship and understanding of the material. Samuel Beckett was not a didactic writer, in the sense that he isn’t telling us what to think. My takeaway from the play is about perseverance, and the human trait of trying to find a way through grave circumstances. That seems an important takeaway in any era, but perhaps especially the one we are in now.”

Horan adds, “From the beginning of time, art has been a tool for humanity and a necessity in human existence. The only thing that changes is the monetary or societal value. Art is just an expression of life and humanity.”

Happy Days runs May 16-June 8 at the ISC Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave. in Atwater Village. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:00pm. On May 24 and May 31, stay for a post-show “Friday Night Drama Club” discussion with the cast and Katherine Weiss, PhD, of the Samuel Beckett Society and Associate Dean, College of Arts & Letters, Cal State LA. Tickets  are $27.50-$47.50, students $20, and are available at www.iscla.org.

The Ninth Annual Conference of the Samuel Beckett Society: Beckett and Justice, hosted by the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA in partnership with UCLA is open to the public. It is on the campus of Cal State LA from June 6-8. For details, see beckettandjustice.com.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.
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