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AM I BLUE: 40 Years Later, a One-Act Play by Beth Henley Returns to SMU

Meadows alums share their memories from the original production in 1974; director of first production to attend Friday performance

By Ally Van Deuren (B.F.A. Theatre, B.A. Journalism, ’15)

Nicholas Costello (B.F.A. Theatre, '17) as John Polk Richards and Ally Van Deuren (B.F.A. Theatre, '15) as Ashbe in the 40th anniversary of AM I BLUE by Beth Henley, opening on Friday, March 28 in room B150.
Photograph by Liz Crowell

Courtesy John Tillotson
John Tillotson as John Polk Richards (left) and Marcie Glazer Newland as Ashbe in a publicity shot for the original production of Am I Blue by Beth Henley (1974).

When Becca Rothstein (B.F.A. Theatre, ’16) approached me about acting in Am I Blue, a one-act play by SMU alumna Beth Henley (B.F.A. Theatre, ’74), I was overjoyed.

The play is set in 1968 and centers around two troubled teens from two very different walks of life who come together by a chance meeting and share their stories. Written by Henley in her sophomore year (1972), the play is making its return to Meadows 40 years later.

I always have a wonderful experience doing SMU Student Theatre (SMUST) shows, as I often get to work with my immensely talented colleagues on new and challenging material. But I could never have prepared myself for the excitement that this process has given me.

The rest of the cast and I reached out to Charley Helfert, who worked in the Division of Theatre at SMU from 1970 to 2013, hoping he could give us some insight on the original production. He got us in contact with several alumni who shared their personal memories of the very first production back in 1974.

These alums are enthusiastic, helpful, encouraging and wonderfully excited that we are performing Henley’s Am I Blue again.

“I can’t believe the responses I have gotten from [the alumni],” Helfert said. “You can’t imagine how much it means to them. This is their life you are celebrating.”

Jill Christine Peters (B.F.A. Theatre, ’74) directed the original production of the play and will attend Friday’s performance and speak to audiences beforehand.

I went out on a limb and sent an email to Ms. Henley, not expecting a response. When she emailed me back within 12 hours, I was starstruck.

“I was so happy to read in your e-mail that SMU is performing Am I Blue this year,” Henley wrote. “Really forty years ago? Yikes.”

Henley, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her play Crimes of the Heart, was active in the undergraduate theatre program while at SMU.

“It was nerve-racking for me at the time,” Henley wrote. “My first produced play. I used the pen name Amy Peach.”

Peters, the original director, gave us insight on Ms. Henley.

“Beth was a funny sweet soul. She was very humble about her writing – self-deprecating, even, and could not believe anyone was recommending her work,” said Peters. “She shyly handed me her script with the caveat that she would be glad to change it up so it would not be so ‘corny.’

“Other playwriting students were self-promoting, shopping their plays around the directing program hoping to get produced, but not Beth. She was kind of quietly writing under the radar,” said Peters.

Not only did Peters give us insight on Henley during their time in the Theatre Division at SMU, she also gave us a glimpse into the play’s history and context.

“I think the most important thing that struck me when I was first approached by directors doing revivals of [Am I Blue] is that it is very much a period piece, very much of its time, 1970,” Peters said. “For me, the script was love at first sight.”

Other alumni commented and responded with enthusiasm.

Alumna Marla Elliott said, “I remember the identity of the author was kept secret for a while, and that the original working title was No, I Don’t Have a Cat.”

Apparently that was in reference to the fact that while dorms at SMU did not allow pets, a number of students would put out milk and food for the feral cats that roamed around campus.

Marcie Glazer Newland, who originally played the Ashbe character in the play at SMU, lived in Dallas for over 35 years after working in the Law School’s registrar’s office at SMU and has now moved to Vermont.

“We had loads of fun and I learned so much about so many aspects of theatre and about acting. It was the very first time I had ever done a show. I’m so honored to have been part of it,” Newland said. “SMU seems to simply be magical in some way, I guess. A lot of good memories over a lot of years – I still miss it.”

John Robert Tillotson (B.F.A. Theatre, ’76), who played John Polk in the original production, has acted and taught around the country since graduating from SMU. He lives in New York now, where he has performed regionally and on Broadway. The cast got to Skype with him to hear about his experience with the show and with SMU.

“Forty years?” Tillotson said. “I can’t believe it. I still have my original script here, which was not rewritten when the play was finally seen in New York. Beth was quirky, wonderful and had a skewed view of the world, which made her a great playwright.”

Am I Blue plays Friday and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. in B150 in the basement of Meadows School of the Arts.

Directed by Becca Rothstein, the cast includes Nicholas Costello (B.F.A. Theatre, ’17) as John Polk, Lily Manuel (B.F.A. Theatre, ’17) as Hilda/Barker/Clareece and me as Ashbe.

With special thanks to Becca Rothstein, Charley Helfert, Beth Henley, John Tillotson, Marcie Glazer Newland, Jill Christine Peters and Marla Elliot.

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