Beth Henley, born Elizabeth Hecker Henley, grew up in Mississippi. The daughter of an actress, Henley yearned to follow her mother’s career. One of four sisters, she attended Murrah High School in Jackson. She then went to Dallas to major in acting at Southern Methodist University (SMU), where she took her B.F.A. in 1974. While in Dallas, Henley began her acting career, performing at Theatre Three. She also acted and taught creative dramatics for children at The Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre.
She wrote her first play, a one-act work titled Am I Blue, while she was a student at SMU; it was produced at the university’s Margo Jones Theatre in 1973. Am I Blue was later staged in 1982 by New York’s Circle Repertory Company as part of a triple bill titled “Confluence.” The play was included in the volume Best Short Plays of 1983. In 1975 Henley moved to Urbana, Illinois, where she taught introductory acting at the University of Illinois and acted at the New Salem State Park theater. In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles, where she joined the professional acting company of the Great American People Show. In that same year she began her domestic partnership with actor and director Stephen Tobolowsky.
Henley’s career as a playwright blossomed when in 1978 she won first prize in the Great American Playwriting Contest for Crimes of the Heart, a play she had written while studying at an acting workshop in Burbank, California. In 1979, Crimes of the Heart was produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky. It won widespread acclaim and was commissioned for a Broadway production. Before the play opened in New York, Henley was awarded the 1980...
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