The second of four daughters, Elizabeth Becker Henley was born to Charles Boyce Henley and Elizabeth Josephine Becker and raised in the neighboring communities of Hazelhurst and Brookhaven, locales that Henley adopted for two of her plays. Henley’s father, an attorney, served on both houses of the Mississippi legislature. A shy child plagued with chronic attacks of asthma, Henley, often bedridden, entertained herself by reading play scripts that were in production at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, where her mother, an amateur actress, regularly performed.
Henley attended high school in Jackson. During her senior year, she took part in an acting workshop at the New Stage Theatre, an experience that influenced her decision to become an actress. Henley enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1970, and during her sophomore year, she wrote her first play as an assignment for a playwriting class. The play, a one-act comedy titled Am I Blue, was produced at the university under a pseudonym in her senior year. After graduating in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Henley taught creative dramatics and acted for the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. She supported herself with odd jobs as a waitress, file clerk, and photographer of children at a department store. In 1975 she received a teaching scholarship from the University of Illinois, where she taught acting classes while pursuing graduate studies in drama. In the summer of 1976 she acted in the Great American People Show, a historical pageant presented at the New Salem State Park.
Hoping to become an actress, Henley moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1976. When she failed to get auditions for parts, she turned to writing screenplays, but without an agent to represent her, the studios would not read her scripts. Thinking that stage plays would have a better chance of getting performed, especially in small theaters, Henley began working on a comedy set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, about a crisis in the lives of three sisters. With production costs in mind, she deliberately limited the play to six characters and one indoor set. She finished Crimes of the Heart in 1978 and submitted it to several regional theaters without success until her friend, the playwright Frederick Bailey, entered the play in the annual drama competition of the Actors...
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