Pause. Do: Beckett, Justice and “Happy Days” – A Conversation with Actress Monica Horan

On Saturday, June 8, the Independent Shakespeare Company in Atwater Village will feature the final performance (to date) of a remarkable production of Samuel Beckett’s 1961 two-act play “Happy Days.” The production, which is part of the 2024 Samuel Beckett Society’s annual conference on the Irish author’s life and body of work, stars the award-winning actress Monica Horan as Winnie, a woman who, despite her unusual predicament – she is buried up to her waist in a sandy stretch of a unidentified landscape, yet remains optimistic and wistful, even though she will eventually sink into the ground, leaving only her head visible to the audience. Winnie’s husband, Willie (played by Tim Durkin), who remains largely hidden behind the mound, and who is as monosyllabic in conversation as Winnie is lively and garrulous.

For Horan – a veteran stage and television actress who is perhaps best known for playing Amy MacDougall Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (created by her husband, writer/producer and “Somebody Feed Phil” star Phil Rosenthal) – playing Winnie was the culmination of a multi-year process that, as you’ll read in this interview/essay below, bridged not only time and geography but also her own need for creative expression and challenge in the face of personal and global roadblocks. What she discovered in the process of performing “Happy Days” is both a unique perspective in performing and a pathway into Beckett’s work, which proves far less enigmatic and impenetrable than the reputation that sometimes (unfairly) orbits his plays.

The Beckett Conference performance of “Happy Days” takes place on June 8 at 7:30 p.m. A Q&A with the cast, director Melissa Chalsma, and crew follows the performance. For tickets and more information, please visit

The Los Angeles Beat: Your path to “Happy Days” was a complex one. Can you tell us how you came to this play?

Monica Horan: This latest production at the Independent Shakespeare Company, which will culminate on June 8th as part of the Samuel Beckett Society’s 9th Annual Conference, has been the fourth iteration of my work with this play over a period of two years. I started working on the text in January 2021 as a form of self-preservation. Feelings of helplessness brought on by the COVID epidemic, my mother’s increasing dementia—and the myriad issues stemming from that, along with the US Capitol being desecrated and taken over by a violent mob of so-called “patriots,” resulted in my getting a bleeding ulcer.

Enter Samuel Beckett.

Ten years ago, in the fall of 2014, I saw Brooke Adams play Winnie, with her husband Tony Shalhoub playing Willie, at the Boston Court Theatre in Los Angeles. I didn’t know the play at all, but loved Brooke and Tony and the idea that they were doing a play together. Brooke’s Winnie reminded me of my own cheery and precious mom, and I was stunned by the skill level involved in bringing this part to life. I thought maybe I’d attempt it one day. It took a stomach ulcer and becoming a ‘woman of a certain age’ to get me to take the plunge.

The person I wanted to work with on this was Rob Weiner. In the 1980s, I’d been cast by Rob (along with my husband, Phil Rosenthal, and our friend, actor Tom McGowan) in an original play for his graduate studies senior directing project at Columbia University, when I was just out of college and living in NYC,

The year before Rob and I first met, Rob had suffered a great loss: his Columbia Directing professor and mentor, Alan Schneider, had been killed in London just days before Rob was to fly to the UK to assist him in directing the play “The War at Home.” Mr. Schneider’s death was not only a personal blow to Rob, but to the theatre world as well. Alan Schneider had directed the America premieres of Pinter, Albee, and Beckett plays, including “Waiting for Godot” and “Happy Days,” as well as Beckett’s only foray into film: a short subject starring Buster Keaton entitled “Film.” It’s been said that there was a “Beckettian” element to Schneider’s death. He was about to cross a street to mail a letter to Beckett, and forgetting he was no longer in NYC, but in the UK, looked the wrong way and was killed by an oncoming motorcycle (I’ve always wondered what happened to the unfortunate soul driving that motorcycle that struck Alan Schneider).

A few years after Alan Schneider’s death, Rob moved to Marfa, Texas, to assist the artist Donald Judd, founder of the contemporary art museum The Chinati Foundation. Rob went on to become the Associate Director and later Senior Advisor of Chinati, bringing a theatre component to the Chinati culture. Actors and directors like Wallace Shawn, André Gregory, and Richard Maxwell come to Marfa to work with Rob on various projects. In 2001, my husband Phil and I, along with other artists from Marfa and beyond, joined Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg for a reading of the play “Marie and Bruce.”

When “Covid” shut down the world as we’d known it, Rob and I took to weekly zooms, and embarked on this “Happy Days” journey. Not only did we explore the text as director and actor, but as professor and student, with Rob sending me books to read (“No Author Better Served” and James Knowlson’s “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett”) and various film clips–invaluable resources that deepened my knowledge and understanding of Beckett, the writer and the man.

As the worked progressed, I reached out to my old friend and colleague Sarah Jane Hale, whom I’d worked with on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and was now living in Wisconsin, to devise a system for me to memorize the challenging script. We sorted a schedule to FaceTime and work on the lines twice a week for a couple hours, and then once a week I would zoom with Rob and rehearse. With my computer screen propped up against the windowsill, I would rehearse looking out my window at the blue SoCal sky, with its white fluffy clouds, that easily stood in for a “very pompier trompe l’oeil backcloth” as described by Beckett. Rob shopped for and sent props, including a realistic prop gun and Winnie’s “small, ornate brimless hat with crumpled feather.” I would sit with my legs tucked into our dog’s crate that nicely served as my mound; my umbrella lay on the crate to my right; Winnie’s “capacious black bag, shopping variety” sat on a TV tray to my left. In my mind’s eye, Willie was in a hole to my “right and rear, lying asleep on the ground, hidden” by me and my mound.

Tim Durkin and I hadn’t been in a play together since 1986, and we were both excited about the idea of his being Willie to my Winnie and working with Rob. By April 2022, air travel was once again possible. I arranged for me, Tim, and Sarah Jane to fly to Marfa. Rob had access to a theatre that had been built by a former Chinati board member, Tim Crowley. The Crowley’s mission was to provide space for artists to rehearse and develop their work. We were thrilled to finally come together and work on this unique and impactful play in person.

When Tim, Sarah Jane and I arrived at The Crowley Theatre, we found that Rob and a fellow Chinati employee had constructed a mound made of wooden pallets for us on the stage. Lighting had even been designed by Tim Crowley’s brother. Everyone simply donating their time, their space, and their talents to making this workshop possible: the word ‘”utopic” comes to mind. We were there for just one week, but it gave us the time and opportunity to finally rehearse the play in its entirety, rather than piecemeal. We even had a small, invited audience for our final rehearsal together in Marfa. By the end of that week, it was clear that we were on a beautiful journey with this beautiful play.

When I returned to LA, I was determined to create a full production. I had no idea how to go about it and just started by sharing my goal with anyone who’d listen, including my friend Elizabeth Dennehy (actor and director of the annual “Blooms Day” reading at the Hammer Museum here in LA). Ever the supportive friend and fellow actor, Elizabeth enthusiastically put me in contact with director Melissa Chalsma, co-founder of the Independent Shakespeare Company here in LA. I had seen ISCLA’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park, directed by Melissa, so I immediately reached out to her and was thrilled when she said she would be interested in directing and co-producing our
“Happy Days” at the ISCLA Studio.

As Irish luck would have it, it was Ireland Week in LA, and coincidentally there was to be a Beckett Symposium 15 minutes from my home. Elizabeth joined me for the event moderated by Katherine Weiss, a published Beckett Scholar and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Cal State LA; and Feargal Whelan, Beckett researcher and lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin. Having been blown away by the program, I approached Katherine and Feargal after to share my dreams/plans for continuing work on “Happy Days.” They were also so enthusiastic, that I asked if I could take them both out to dinner in the coming week to discuss further. Feargal was heading back to Ireland that week, but Katherine said she’d love to meet: a truly bashert moment—seemingly inevitable, pre-ordained. Katherine quickly became ‘part of the team’, lending her knowledge and expertise along the way, building on the education I’d received from Rob.

It was now May of 2022, and I was anticipating turning 60 that following January. I decided that my birthday present to myself would be co-producing four performances of Happy Days with ISCLA founders Melissa Chalsma and David Melville in their studio that coming November. Melissa would direct, we hired a set designer, production crew and costume designer. I invited friends and colleagues to my “birthday celebration”—their gift to me was to be my audience.

Having created a family foundation, I’d spent the last 25 years deeply engaged with non-profits that address equity issues in LA, primarily around arts education and those who were formerly incarcerated and gang affiliated. So, my friends and colleagues represent a diverse population, and they all showed up for my performances. Friends from show business, like Jane Fonda, Paul Reubens, and Wendie Malick; José Arellano from Homeboy Industries; Jackie “Miss Funk” Lopez and Leigh “Breeze Lee” Fooad from the Versa-Style Dance company; and many more of varying ages and backgrounds. The reaction across the board was overwhelmingly positive. Some had never heard of Samuel Beckett, let alone seen one of his plays. Katherine Weiss attended each of the four performances and led talk backs after each.

I wish we would have recorded these lively, insightful, and inspiring conversations. I shared with everyone that I’d initially been drawn to this play because it seemed to capture my mother’s positive, cheery survivor nature, as well as her vulnerability, as her short-term memory vanished and life as she knew it was lost forever. Some in the audience had similar experience. For others, the play seemed to reflect the experience of climate migrants and the homeless. For those who had been formerly incarcerated, it triggered memories of getting through days in solitary confinement. For others, it made them think of friends or family suffering from ALS or other physical states of decline. Despite all this, there was much laughter. My “birthday party” experiment had been a huge success. I was beyond inspired and grateful. All had walked away changed in some way, with great respect for this playwright. I knew I wanted to continue performing this piece somehow, in colleges, possibly. A place with a built in-audience that wanted to experience and discuss this unique and challenging play.

The following year, while working on other plays in other cities, Katherine Weiss contacted me to see if it would be possible for us to perform “Happy Days” as a part of the 9th Annual Samuel Beckett Conference being held in Los Angeles, for the first time, and hosted by Cal State LA on June 2-9, 2024. The theme for this year’s Conference: Beckett and Justice. Once again, I felt I had the luck of the Irish!!! I immediately reached out to ISCLA about co-producing with me once again. Thankfully, Melissa was on board again to direct and co-produce a 14-performance run leading up to the conference. I then contact my friend Terrence J. Nolen at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia about building a travelling set in Philly, directing a 2-day workshop at his theatre, and then having the set shipped to ISCLA for our run there. He was also on board!

I couldn’t be more pleased and grateful.

LAB: As you said, it’s a “Beckettian” confluence of events that brought you to this role.

MH: For sure. The workshop performances at the Arden had been just as gratifying as “the birthday celebration” performances in LA. In the days following the young man who’d been in the audience reached out to say, “I’ve been struggling and angry with myself because I’ve gotten so impatient with my grandmother. We were very close, but now she is losing her memory. But after seeing this play, and spending time with Winnie, I’ve had more grace with my grandmother.” I love being able to have intimate contact with the audience and hearing how it impacts their lives. Which is why I am so thrilled that Tim and I have been invited by Dr. Bidhan Roy, of the College of Arts and Letters and Cal State LA, to participate in his Prison Graduation Initiative. This fall, we will have the opportunity to study Beckett and this play with incarcerated students participating in this program in the CA Institution for Men and the CA Institution for Women, both in Chino, as well as the CA State Prison in Lancaster. We plan to perform “Happy Days” on our traveling set at these class culminations.

LAB: I saw an interview with Tony Shalhoub about the production of “Happy Days” you mentioned that he did with his wife Brooke Adams. He said two very interesting things: one of the reasons that the audiences respond to the play is that because it’s so enigmatic. He also said that this role is unlike any other in the theatre for an actress. Would you agree with that?

MH: As I’ve said, that was my introduction to this play. Brooke’s Winnie reminding me of my mom was the initial inspiration. The next was the fear that I wouldn’t have the skill to master this “Hamlet for women.” Doing the hard thing is important and this play, without question, is a hard thing. You come out the other side knowing more about yourself as an actor and as a person.

LAB: You are in formidable company with the actors who have played Winnie: Peggy Ashcroft, Fiona Shaw, Brooke Adams, Juliet Stevenson.

MH: Yes, also Dianne Wiest. Great actresses all. It can be daunting. They call it “Hamlet” for women for a reason. I’m 61. I don’t think you can contemplate doing this play before being in your 40s…or 50s…or 60s.

LAB : It requires experience, not a particular number.

MH: That’s it exactly. Beckett has been said to feel music is the greatest art form. When we started working on the script, I realized I had to approach it almost as a musical score. He prescribes delivery with dashes, ellipses, pauses, maximum pauses! The stage directions are practically choreography. I don’t know how other actresses have tackled it when given a typical rehearsal schedule. I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been able to work to develop over a span of two years.

LAB: You can’t know everything about the play on your first time around.

MH: Right. Because you can’t possibly know all there is to know about yourself. This play is about getting down to the things in our human experience that are almost too profound to even attach typical words or language. But the feelings are built in, so when you attach your own experience, the humanity it celebrates is accessible. In a way, to do the play you have to fit your reality, your personal experience into the play.

LAB: You need experience but also endurance.When you see the play, Winnie is buried up to her waist, and then later up to her neck. How do you prepare to work with those physical limitations?

MH: I must share my husband’s joke: “She’s buried up to her waist in the first act, and up to her waist in the second act. I’m waiting for the third act.” This is a very good joke because, I, Monica, like to talk. A lot. So, the role is very well suited to me. I’ve heard that actresses have suffered a great deal in the mound. Charlotte Rae is said to have wept from discomfort. Dianne Wiest apparently stood the whole time. I designed the interior structure for the mound. For me, it is like sitting at a desk with a fabulous skirt. The final act, when I’m up to my neck, my hands and feet are free and pretty mobile under there. Perhaps that is cheating. I only felt claustrophobic once in rehearsal, but it was short-lived. Like Winnie, I’m relatively comfortable right where I am.

LAB: When you say “Samuel Beckett” to some people, they think that the play will be dark and difficult to understand. And yet, as you’ve shown here, people connect with this play, underscoring the fact that Beckett’s work is actually very funny – not all of it, but many of his works are humorous. As a person who has done a lot of genres but is perhaps best known for comedy, what do you connect with on a comic level in “Happy Days”?

MH: I hope it isn’t tacky to quote a review, but this meant a lot to me, so I’ll risk being tacky and share what Steven Leigh Morris wrote about my performance for Stage Raw: “Horan offers an animated Winnie, with an elastic face that swiftly morphs from grinning to anguish, though the grinning is a form of anguish. Her approach to the role is that of a clown, putting on a brave, chirpy face while, on rare occasion, exposing flashes of despondency after realizing the trap she finds herself in.” While rehearsing with Rob and Tim and Sarah Jane, we had many, many full-on bouts of belly laughs over the hilariously observed comments, behaviors and marital frustrations that bubble up in this play. You don’t have to dig too deep into Beckett’s world to learn that he loved comedy, vaudeville, and clowns. I feel part of a great tradition [of comic actors who have performed Beckett’s plays]: Bert Lahr, Zero Mostel, Burgess Meredith, Jack MacGowran, Bill Irwin, and dare I say, me.

I don’t find Beckett dark or bleak. Life can be dark and bleak, and Beckett does not shy away from that aspect of life, but in the end, I find him a champion of the human spirit. The absurdity lies in the fact that we can still go on, despite it all. “I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on.” Tom F. Driver’s 1961 interview with Beckett, entitled “Beckett by the Madeleine“—published just months before the premiere of “Happy Days” at the Cherry Lane Theatre—articulates it much better than I. Driver writes: “My wish to meet Samuel Beckett had been prompted by simple curiosity and interest in his work.  American newspaper reviewers like to call his plays nihilistic.  They find deep pessimism in them.  Even so astute a commentator as Harold Clurman of The Nation has said that ‘Waiting for Godot’ is “the concentrate . . . of the contemporary European . . . mood of despair.”‘  But to me, Beckett’s writing had seemed permeated with love for human beings and with a kind of humor that I could reconcile neither with despair nor with nihilism.  Could it be that my eyes and ears had deceived me?  Is his a literature of defeat, irrelevant to the social crisis we face?  Or is it relevant because it teaches us something useful to know about ourselves.’

LAB: The other thing I found interesting in researching “Happy Days” is the earthiness of the play, even if that’s not immediately up front.

MH: Oh, yeah. The parts of Winnie that are flirty and funny are the most fun to play. Though she’s physically confined, I don’t find it confining at all, because she works so hard to be mentally free. When Winnie says, “Don’t you ever have that feeling of being sucked up? Don’t you have to cling on sometimes, Willie?”, she has such a buoyancy that she feels like she could get up and go, but has accepted that she physically can’t, even if she’s not 100% sure why. But are we ever sure of anything? If we aren’t conscious of our habits 100% of the time, why do we repeat them? Do we, like Winnie, mindlessly feel that we must do them? And if so, why? This is what Beckett does for me, this kind of dissecting of human nature, delivered in tragic comedy. And I’m not the only one, which is why people still perform his plays., and people still talk about them for days after seeing them. The same for Shakespeare’s plays as well.

I plan to continue to work on this play forever… where and when I can…as long as my brain and my body allows.

All photos of Monica Horan as Winnie in “Happy Days” at the Independent Shakespeare Company are by Grettel Cortes.


About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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