Honeybee, a new original musical by teenage playwrights Brooke Mackay and Jenny Henry, explores the devastating impact of a young mother’s postpartum suicide. The SOL Theatre production created a valley wide buzz this July with three debut performances. Now the creative team plans to develop the script for release to broader audiences.
Q&A: To learn about their creative vision, I sat down with Brooke Mackay, a home schooled high school senior who wrote the script and directed the production. Jenny Henry, a junior at Glenwood Springs High School who wrote 12 original songs and played a leading role. And Jennifer Johnson, Executive Director of SOL Theatre.
Kathryn Camp (KC): How did HONEYBEE get started?
Brooke Mackay (BM): First, Jenny and I became close friends while working together on the SOL Theatre production of Rent. We had known each other through theatre for several years. But I was always in the ensemble cast while Jenny played starring roles, so we didn’t rehearse together. Then during Rent, we clicked.
Jenny Henry (JH): That’s how theatre works. You become like family. Brooke is like a sister to me now. When I was in 7th grade and Brooke was in 8th, I wrote two songs, ”Imagination“ and “Look to Your Left.” Brooke shared her ideas for lyrics. And we soon realized that the chorus lines of these songs could work really well in a musical.
KC: What inspired you to write a play about suicide?
JH: After years of doing childrens’ theatre, one thing we both loved about doing Rent was how it deals with real issues. So right away, we knew we wanted to take up a topic with a relevant message. We wanted to explore mental health issues.
BM: It took a lot of trial and error, exploring different plot lines trying to find the story. Ultimately, the characters and their inner challenges led us to this piece that takes up postpartum depression. LGBTQ+ relationships, parental abandonment and suicide.
KC: Tell me about your creative process. How did you get the story onto the page?
BM: It was definitely a collaborative process. On the playbill, it was cleaner to simply say that I wrote the script and Jenny wrote the songs. But the whole process happened really organically.
JH: We’ve spent hours, days, months discussing what the characters felt in each of the scenes, what motivated them, and how their experiences impacted other characters. In a co-creative process, we always felt safe to say what we felt was best for the story. We worked together to experiment with various plot directions. We bounced dialogue off one another. And spent a lot of time thinking about themes and symbolism in the story.
KC: The storyline is not overtly about bees. How were you working with this metaphor in the title?
JH: Honey was my grandmother’s nickname, and originally, we liked HONEYBEE for our title just because we liked the sound of it. The seasons of the year and of life were always important to the story. We thought a lot about how we were working with color to reflect mood. All of this related back to what was happening in nature. Honeybees are strongly connected to the seasons. They are all about serving the next generation, which is the heart of this story.
BM: The story explores how love can sometimes be full of life and fresh and new like springtime flowers. Flowers fade away, and sometimes this happens with love. This fear seemed to be living under the surface of Taylor’s depression and suicide. Her own mother had died. Her father had abandoned the family. Taylor had this beautiful baby girl, and she couldn’t get past what she felt was inevitable. Her own perceived inability to be there for her child. She named her daughter Abby, which when pronounced phonetically has a bee in it. Another character, Sam, later calls Abby “Honeybee,” and in a way, the cycle becomes complete.
KC: You worked on the script for two years, then what?
JH: We knew we needed feedback, and we wanted to get the story into the hands of someone who would know what to do next. Not just in terms of how to get it produced. But also how to take it to the next level of authenticity and professionalism.
BM: We knew that Jennifer was producing Spring Awakening for SOL’s Spring musical, a play that we had begged her to do after we did Rent, for which we had planned to audition. So, we didn’t imagine that she would be able to take it up. But we reached out hoping she would read it and give us advice about next steps.
Jennifer Johnson (JJ): We scheduled a read-through. Jenny sang the opening lyrics, and as soon as I heard Brooke’s opening dialogue, I knew this was something special. It was a ‘leap and the net will appear’ decision, but I knew we needed to do this.
BM: Jennifer knew exactly how to tell us what we needed to do without ever making us feel like we were just kids. We felt incredibly honored to get to work with her at that level, and we also felt very built up by her. She always respected our artistic vision and supported us as the decision-makers on behalf of our story.
JH: Jennifer was the Godmother of this project.
KC: How did the story change in moving from the page to the stage?
BM: Jennifer talked with us a lot about how to leave doors open, how to leave questions unanswered, so the actors and ultimately the audience members can interpret the story. This meant cutting moments where we had wrapped things up, as well as avoiding the impulse to explain things about the characters through dialogue.
JH: With Jennifer, we had a sounding board for bringing more authenticity to our characters. For example, we’ve never experienced postpartum depression, nor have we faced decisions like those made by Cassie and Eve (aunts of baby Abby) who found themselves raising a child. We worried that it wasn’t our story to tell. Jennifer helped us see what we got right, and how to give texture to these experiences, how to make the characters more relatable.
BM: Plus, our cast told us what they felt their characters would say or do in the moment, and we learned a lot by blocking the scenes and actually seeing the actors embody the characters.
JJ: Brooke was great about letting advice shape the script. She was open to allowing the story to evolve. And this was absolutely reaffirming of my decision to go with this production at this stage in its incarnation. I felt the same way watching Jenny balance her desire to see the show grow, learning that it was still her baby, even as her songs were interpreted by other musicians. Chris Harrison transcribed some of the pieces, and Kyle Jones’ piano accompaniment enriched the production immeasurably because he created the underscore for the scenes, working from Jenny’s compositions. It takes a level of maturity to give other artists room to express their understanding of your work.
BM: Being the writer and director for this initial production was helpful for this process because I took off my writer hat and put on my director hat and saw what worked and what didn’t. We both saw how Cadie Harrison, who played Eve, changed our view of her character. We had always seen Eve as a little angry, cold and hard. Cadie interpreted her differently and brought complexity and strength that we hadn’t imagined.
KC: HONEYBEE ran for 3 packed-house shows at Thunder River Theatre. Everyone was talking about it. How did that feel?
BM: It was incredible. Backstage before we opened on the first night, we were shaking, crying with joy, not quite sure it was finally real. The moment I heard the first notes, I realized it wasn’t our story anymore. It belonged to everyone in the room.
JH: One thing about Thunder River Theatre is how intimate the place feels, with the stage positioned in the middle of the room. I experienced this on a whole new level while playing Cassie. As she encountered the suicide of her sister and then struggled with the anger and grief that followed, I felt wholly in scene, while I also felt the audience’s reaction from a few feet away. I hope I will never forget hearing my songs with this resonance of feeling.
JJ: Everyone is asking when we’ll do another run, reaching out to see if we can bring this to local high schools. Suicide prevention is of course a powerful motivator. But to rush it would be to stifle this work of art. This run was truly just a workshop for a piece with tremendous potential. I don’t want to prepackage and push HONEYBEE out before it is exactly what the girls would want Lin-Manuel Miranda to come and see on their opening night on Broadway.
KC: What can we tell everyone who wants to see Honeybee?
Stay tuned! Mountain Parent will be sure to let you know What’s Happening in time to mark your calendar for HONEYBEE’s next opening night.