Self-Injurious Behavior: an Interview with Playwright Jessica Cavanagh

International Support Women Artists Now/SWAN Day is fast approaching and the SWAN Day Calendar is filling up with some incredible events. One of these is Self-Injurious Behavior by Dallas-based actress and playwright Jessica Cavanagh. “Self-Injurious Behavior”, which had a hit workshop run at Theatre Three's Theatre Too! in 2018, will move to New York for a showcase at Urban Stages in April. The New York run, April 21-May 5, will feature the Dallas cast, and will again be directed by Marianne Galloway. Statera’s Operations Assistant, Evangeline Stott, reached out to Jessica to have a conversation about this powerful show and Jessica’s journey through motherhood, loss, and the process of writing an autobiographical play with the perfect ratio of truth to laughter.


Evangeline Stott: Tell me about your process while writing this piece. How long was the writing period?

Jessica Cavanagh: I take a four and a half hour drive to visit my son, Elijah, at his school one weekend per month, which I've been doing ever since we admitted him in the summer of 2012 when he was 12 years old. Driving away from him at the end of those visits has always been hard, but that first year, it was excruciating. I would drive, weep, pull over, get myself together, drive, weep, repeat. Then, one day, during the trip back to Dallas, I started thinking of a play about a divorced woman who recently admitted her autistic son to a group home and was now half-heartedly attempting to date (which was my current situation). On a whim, I recorded myself talking about some pretty intense feelings about my kid and birth and parenthood and imagined it as a really inappropriate over-share moment on a first date. That date doesn't actually happen in the play anymore, but the monologue is still there, almost verbatim. Looking back, it kind of provided the anchor for the piece from the beginning. What followed was a bunch of short bursts of inspiration spread out over nearly three years before a full draft came together, mainly because I couldn't spend more than a day or two focused on telling this story without sinking into a pretty gross pit. It was still so raw. Within a couple years, I'd lost my mom in a car accident, divorced my husband of fourteen years, and admitted my child into a group home because he couldn't stop hurting himself. I was just incredibly not okay. The first informal reading of the first full draft didn't occur until September of 2015.

ES: With this being such a vulnerable and personal story for you, did you share what you were writing with anyone along the way?

JC: After about the first year of random voice notes and writing, I asked a few close friends whom I knew I could trust and whose work I respected to look at the monologue and one early major scene (the toughest in the play, which is based on what I remembered as the worst day I'd ever had with my son). The responses I got really surprised me! People were stunned. Folks who had known me for a decade asked me if this was really true - if what I was writing had really been our lives. I think they were mortified and maybe even hurt to know that their friend had been struggling, and that due to my need to escape my life when I left my house and went to rehearsals or performances, I rarely shared the depths of what we were dealing with at home. And to this day, that's been the most consistent question from everyone who reads or sees the play; people I know, and people I don't: "Is this real?" That question is what made me realize this is bigger than me; this is a story that desperately needs to be told for the sake of every caregiver who sits at home with their loved one and fights despair. So, now I had a mission. And I've always done well with a mission!

Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt

Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt

 ES: Can you tell us a little bit about the title, "Self Injurious Behavior"?

 JC: The phrase "self-injurious behavior" is how doctors and therapists often refer to self-harm, so I heard it a lot over the years in dealing with Elijah. He would bang his head on the hardest, sharpest objects he could find, punch himself in the head with his fists, and bite his arms until he broke the skin, among other pretty horrific things. As I wrote the play the issue of guilt and the idea of punishing one's self for feeling as if you've failed your child and yourself is one that was immediately prevalent in the story and, in fact, became THE story. The connection between my son's self-harm and my emotional self-harm became really clear. We were both beating ourselves to death.

ES: What were your biggest challenges in the first stages of writing and developing "Self Injurious Behavior"?

JC: I think the biggest challenge was sitting down to do it. I had all these ideas swirling and I had a great NEED to get it all down on paper, but forcing myself to really sit with it and what that meant was just very hard. It never seemed like a good day for that, you know? When is it convenient to revisit the most painful moments of your life? Never, ever. Once I got started, though, I was fine. Until I wasn't, at which point I'd stop. It was always just that first move that killed.


ES: How did audiences respond to the production at Theatre Three? Have you had the opportunity to dialogue with any audience members with stories similar to yours?

JC: The responses from those audiences were really humbling. People would wait to talk afterwards and some just wanted to look into my eyes and say, "This is my life. Thank you for this," and I'd often end up crying and hugging a stranger - now friend - in the lobby. Even more common, though, were the people who said they had a nephew, grandchild, friend, etc., on the spectrum and they had no idea that this might be what their friends or family were dealing with (or they had a friend who was severely depressed) and they were so thankful to have their eyes opened. It became really clear to me early on in the run that while I had hoped the story would honor and be sort of a love offering to caregivers and anyone struggling with depression, the great thing is it was actually drawing back the curtain on their lives and promoting empathy in others. I felt like I got to actually watch empathy for these issues be born in some people, which was doesn't really get any better than that, you know? Folks would come up afterwards and literally say, "Wow. I've been an asshole. Thank you. And thank you for making me laugh while I figured it out." (I actually think I turned a bunch of people on to Renaissance Faires, too, which gives me no end of nerd-joy!)

Photo by Jordan Fraker

Photo by Jordan Fraker

ES: One of my favorite production images I've seen is that of you sitting among the toys and blankets with your son’s Peter Pan-like shadow over you. Can you tell us a little bit about Peter Pan, and the significance of him in this story?

JC: My kiddo is obsessed with all things Disney. He had a Peter Pan Halloween costume that he loved, and when he was 11-12, he looked a lot like a cross between Christopher Robin and Peter Pan. I still get mom heart-pangs whenever I see either of those characters anywhere (yeah, he's 19, leave me alone!)  It took me some time to settle on how closely I wanted the character of Benjamin to resemble Elijah in the play, but at the end of the day, I decided to keep things simple and tell the truth as much as possible, so I've given Benjamin an obsession with Peter Pan. And, as it turns out, there's just something really lovely and poignant about the parallels between a kid like Benjamin and the boy who never grows up. It felt really right for the play.

ES: Can you talk a bit about what its like to be a single mother and work in the theatre? Especially being a single mother of a child with special needs? What resources did you have or not have?

JC: Well, I was very lucky when my son was younger because my mom lived nearby, so, between her and a couple of sitters who were like family and knew Elijah and his routine and wouldn't flip out if he had a meltdown, I was able to cobble together a childcare team while I rehearsed. I was actually still married at that point, but my husband was in a band and traveled the majority of the time so it was almost always just Elijah and me. And I'll be honest, those years were mostly hell, and to this day, I have such admiration for the single moms I know in theatre who make it happen. Being with your kid all the time is hard. Being with your kid all the time when your kid is screaming and banging his head and never sleeps for longer than two hours at a time is actually dangerous. So, at the end of the day, theatre was my refuge and I did whatever I needed to do and bribed whatever sitter I needed to bribe in order to get where I needed to go. I think I subconsciously knew that it was the only thing keeping me (and subsequently, Elijah) alive, so I fought for it like it was life or death. But, of course, a boatload of guilt accompanied me every time I left the house, because, motherhood.

ES: What has it been like to play yourself on stage? How do you feel about doing so again this spring?

JC: It’s been different than I expected, thankfully! Super weird in some ways, for sure - mostly to do with the nauseating pre-show jitters every night which have nothing to do with being nervous about the acting and everything to do with knowing the audience is aware (if they read their playbill!) that this is my story and I really said and did many of these things. The fear of judgement was acute, especially when we first opened (I ran to the bathroom a whole lot, y'all.) But, thankfully, I've found that once I'm in character out on stage, it's really just like playing any other role. And Summer isn't one hundred percent me. Some pretty major details from my life were changed for the play (I have one wonderful sister, and I gave Summer two, for example, because I just liked the dynamic of three). So, that really helps separate Summer from myself a bit and gives me the freedom to approach her the same way I would anything else.

Photo by Jordan Fraker with Jennifer Kuenzer.

Photo by Jordan Fraker with Jennifer Kuenzer.

ES: What are you most looking forward to with this New York production of “Self Injurious Behavior"?

JC: It’s so big...this thought of bringing a thing to the NY market. Right now, I keep thinking about the first laugh. The first time I hear a NY audience laugh at something I wrote, I really might just happily drop dead. And I can't wait to look into the faces of my production team and cast mates (now family) on opening night and be excited dorks together! I feel so lucky to get to share this experience with such dear friends, some of whom have been with the play through years of development, such as Marianne Galloway, our director. The blood, sweat, and tears of so many people have been poured into creating this thing, so getting to bring it to NY together is truly a dream come true.

ES: How has being Elijah’s mom shaped you into who you are now? What insights have you made because of your role as his mother?

JC: Elijah has shaped me so completely that it's almost impossible to pinpoint how. I was twenty-four when he was born, so I was still growing up, myself. He shaped who I was becoming in a very real way. I don't like to think about who I was before he existed, not because I hate myself but because I think he made me infinitely better and I prefer that person. Watching him grow up and struggle against a cruel and terrifying world has made me appreciate goodness and kindness when I find it to a degree that I never did before, which in turn effects my personal relationships. It’s funny how when you learn to value kindness and unselfish love above all things, the toxic relationships in your life tend to stick out like a sore thumb and make your path pretty freakin' clear.

ES: Mentorship is at the core of StateraArts' mission. Can you tell us about your mentors and how they have guided you and your work?

JC: I feel like I've had seasonal mentors - people who cross my path at a certain point to guide me through a certain thing, be it spiritual or artistic. Lately I've felt the nudge to find a seasoned, female-identifying playwright and be her spongey sidekick, just soaking up all her wisdom. I had some wonderful guides as I put Self-Injurious Behavior together and I'm so incredibly grateful to them! The thing is, they're all men, and I'm feeling a strong urge to connect with other women right now, particularly in the professional realm. So, HEY, if Paula Vogel just happens to be reading this and feels like having a weird rando obsessively trail her (and almost definitely ask far too many questions about Indecent), I'm your girl, Paula! 

ES: And lastly, is there anything else you'd like the StateraArts community to know about you and your work? 

JC: I’ve rambled way too long already!! I'd rather take the opportunity to say how much I appreciate StateraArts and your mission, and your willingness to talk with a new girl about her thing. Y'all rock. Thanks for all you do!

Interested in attending a performance of “Self-Injurious Behavior” in NYC? You’ll find it on the 2019 SWAN Day Calendar HERE.

About Jessica

Jessica Cavanagh is a Dallas-based theatre artist, voice talent, and writer whose work in the DFW area spans the past fifteen years. As an actor, she’s been recognized numerous times by the DFW Critics Forum as well as the Column Awards, including last season’s Critics Forum Award for her semi-autobiographical role in her play, Self-Injurious Behavior (Theatre Three). Selected regional acting work includes: Outside Mullingar, August: Osage County, Doubt, and The Glass Menagerie (all at WaterTower Theatre), Heisenberg (Theatre Three), Mr. Burns: a post-electric play (Stage West), ‘Night, Mother (Echo Theatre), and Port Twilight (Undermain). As a staff writer with Funimation Entertainment, she’s adapted hundreds of episodes of Japanese anime for an English-speaking audience and has also worked extensively as an actor in their English broadcast dubs, so you can hear her giddily voicing roles on Cartoon Network in shows such as Attack on Titan, One Piece, and My Hero Academia, and many others.