It’s an exciting time for Beth Polsky: after a long career telling other people’s stories as a producer and writer of entertainment news and reality television, she is about to tell her own. Her first full-length play, Gorgeous, premiers this weekend at Fierce Backbone in Los Angeles. I met up with Beth to discuss how it’s never too late to find your voice:
Sallie Merkel: What prompted you to return to playwriting?
Beth Polsky: A combination of many things: the first thing was time. When you work in reality television you work for three months and then you stop, then you start. I had a lot of time! Also, I was suffering from a very bad eating disorder; I wasn’t living my life the way I should because of my eating issues and I wanted to explore it. It had to happen, this play was coming out of me. There really wasn’t a choice in it.
SM: Can you say a little bit more about what your play, Gorgeous explores?
BP: It’s a comedy about a woman who’s suffering from an eating disorder, who is in denial basically, and is not living her life. It also explores her explosive relationship with her mother, who comes back from the dead to micro-manage her eating habits and fashion choices.
SM: Has your eating disorder been a life-long struggle for you?
BP: It has. So basically, I grew up in a household where the belief was, if you’re thin, everything’s great. There’s a mother character in Gorgeous who is a caricature of my mother. My mother worked for Sax Fifth Avenue—she was high fashion and I was not a high fashion child. I was very much a tomboy. She would throw feminine clothes at me—expensive, gorgeous clothes—and I did not want to have anything to do with them. I was not accepted because I didn’t wear the right clothes, my weight was always a big issue, I didn’t look right.
SM: Where did you grow up?
BP: I grew up in Long Island and then we moved to Connecticut, where nobody was Jewish and they were all six-foot-four blonde, gorgeous, people and I was a five-foot-tall, Jewish girl. So although I loved it and had great friends in Connecticut, I never looked like anyone. Plus I was adopted.
SM: So you didn’t really see yourself in the people around you—
BP: I only saw myself in other people who I could never be.
SM: Gorgeous is a very personal story—
BP: I also feel that it’s very universal. I feel like everyone has some sort of addictive behavior—I feel like we have an addictive society and people don’t know they’re addicted. This play speaks to that and I want people to see it because I want them to see themselves. I hope that this will change the way people feel about themselves, because really, it’s about self-acceptance.
SM: Why did you feel it should be a play, as opposed to a screenplay?
BP: I started out as a playwright…. But I didn’t feel like I could earn a living, I don’t know why, and so I just went right into television.
SM: Right out of college?
BP: Right out of college. So I kind of completely dismissed what my calling was, because I didn’t believe in myself.
I only saw myself in other people who I could never be.
I had gone to Emerson College and I fell into television because Emerson is very well connected in the television world. And once I was in it I kind of just became engrossed. It was a whole different side of what my talents were, but I was good at it.
SM: What did you enjoy about working in entertainment news?
BP: The process of putting things together—that joy of being able to create. When I started at [the cable television network] E!, I was very young, twenty-five years old, and back then people who had just started were able to be producers. At E!, you were encouraged to create and do things and make mistakes and put shows together, and it was immediate gratification.
SM: Were there any frustrations about being in that particular field, for you?
BP: As I continued to work in the field and got older, yes. The hours got longer. I had no life. And you never knew when you were going to get a job. There was never any downtime because you were always looking for work.
SM: I also wonder about being someone who struggled with an eating disorder and being around this image-making system…
BP: Oh, completely! It was difficult to be in an unstable industry, where they’re working you long hours and you don’t know when you’re going to eat. Also, I remember there was a show at E! called The Gossip Show, and I was in charge of it with a couple of other producers and I’d be interviewing celebrities every week. And I felt so inadequate because of how I felt about my appearance. Or I’d be directing or dictating shoots, but I was feeling completely inferior. It was really hard. I had faith in my ability as a producer and writer, but not in how I looked—because I’ve always been trying to be other people and fit in here and there. You have to just be who you are. People may not like who you are, but you can’t be any other way, you have to be you.
I’m much more happy being myself. I spent so much of my life hiding. And also, not having a voice. For some reason, I was brought up to not have a voice: don’t speak, because when you speak it’s just not good, you rattle the cage. And you know what? Sometimes you do rattle the cage, but it’s very important to have a voice.
The play is so much about being seen, and I’ve always been so anti-being seen.
I’m still learning who I am and this process is giving me more of a voice. The story of my play is so personal to me and I love talking about it; I can be myself when I talk about it, which basically I haven’t been for my whole life. The play is so much about being seen, and I’ve always been so anti-being seen.
SM: I think that’s such an important thing, that you can tell yourself into being by telling your own story. Is there anything that you’re excited about in media right now?
BP: Oh my god! The fact that you can create your own shows is the most exciting thing ever. The whole thing with the web. That you can get people together and shoot a show, you know on a relatively small budget, and put it up yourself! Now we can actually see talent that nobody would ever see, because they’re doing it themselves.
SM: Yes! I love how, largely through new media, so many people are telling stories that weren’t “marketable” a few years ago.
BP: People were told these stories weren’t marketable, but they were always marketable.
SM: You’re absolutely right. It was just the conventional wisdom that certain stories weren’t marketable. But the audiences have always been there. Do you think that you might start writing for film and television now?
BP: I don’t know why I didn’t before! I guess it was sort of a survival thing. Because I was on my own here and I was very young. I think that I will now because I can. I didn’t have time to write scripts. That’s the other thing with TV, you’re working so many hours, it’s hard to do anything else.
SM: I think that’s a really important part of this conversation, because on the one hand you can say, be authentic and do what you love, but that can be impossible when you’re just trying to survive. So I think that’s necessary to acknowledge.
BP: Also, I am married to someone who believes in me and who is absolutely wonderful, and she was like, this is okay, you can do this for a little while. And I don’t know that, if I hadn’t had that option, that I would have written the play.
SM: I think that’s such an important thing and a thing that people don’t talk about a lot. Like, I was able to do this because of the support of my partner, or friends or family, whatever supportive structure. We need to talk more about the ways we support each other. I think that’s a wonderful thing to acknowledge.
BP: Completely. Having said that, there are some people who no matter what, even if they are working another job, if they really want to do something, they’ll find a way.
SM: Are there more plays on your horizon?
BP: Yes! And this next play, I had the idea for years ago. I feel like I’ve picked up from when I was fifteen years old. That’s another thing I want to say, it’s never too late.
SM: That’s such a key thing for people to hear in as many places as possible.
BP: People have two, three, four, five careers now. We’re in a different world.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Beth Polsky is a veteran television writer/producer living in Los Angeles. She started her Hollywood career at E! Entertainment Television where she produced the comedy hit Talk Soup. She has produced and written thousands of hours of programming for major networks including: The Gossip Show (E!), E! News Live (E!), Who Wants to Date A Comedian (Entertainment Studios), Who Wants to Marry My Dad (NBC), Meet The Folks (NBC), Watch This (TV Guide Channel), Dailies (Reelz Channel), Eye On LA (KABC), Live Big With Ali Vincent (DISNEY/ABC). Beth had two short plays premiere at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Beth is a member of the Producers Guild of America and a proud member of Fierce Backbone, where Gorgeous was developed.