The Writing Mindset: A Conversation with our Playwrights-in-Residence, Thomas & Judy Heath
Thomas and Judy Heath have been our Playwrights-in-Residence for the past 2 seasons. We have produced 3 of their plays during this time and they have been supporters, advocates, and educators for our Young Playwrights Program. In this blog post, we delve a little deeper into their personal mindset of writing and what they've encountered on their journey.
Q: When did you first start writing plays together? Was it an instant feeling that you both wanted to pursue this?
A: We started our first play Back to the Nest (originally entitled The Sunset Years) on January 3, 2010. There was no pixie dust about becoming playwrights, as we were SO immersed in a story and characters that demanded to be written. We knew though, that we wanted to have a career as playwrights, after seeing audience reactions to the production of that play. Then, we were on to the next adventure of creating a full length story for Perfectly Normel People.
Q: Whose work would you recommend (or maybe a certain book) for emerging writers to study?
A: If you’re being specific to playwriting, why not start simple? Glenn Alterman’s Writing the Ten-Minute Play is a digestible introduction to how a short play can be developed and structured. Otherwise, we'd suggest reading the works of your favorite storytellers and learning from them.
Q: What is most helpful to you as you sit down to write a first draft?
A: A rough idea of the story is essential, but because our writing is character-driven, we first work on getting to know who they are and ask them to inform our story. We have found that fully fleshed out characters bring depth to a story. Next, we set our intention for the first scene and what needs to be accomplished.
Q: Any words of wisdom that you have found helpful as you've been writing?
A: People ask us quite often.. "What's the key to writing a play?" Our standard answer: "Just start writing.” Don't worry if it's not perfect. That's why they call it a 'draft'."
Q: How do you know when something isn't working in your play, you need to make changes? (a.k.a. how do know the difference between "I'm just stuck. I'll work through it." and "This play isn't meant to be." And what do you do about it?
A: Wow, great question! Thankfully, we’ve never started a play that didn’t get finished. Part of the reason why is that we throw out a great many ideas that never make it to the page, let alone the stage. We have however, killed off characters and entire scenes during a play’s workshop process. We have had the good fortune of seeing all of our plays produced. Having a theatre home here at Threshold Rep. for the past 2 years is something we are so grateful for. And let me tell you, when you’ve sat through a scene that isn’t working, it can be painful, but you learn a great deal. An audience is the best collaborator there is.
Q: Do you feel like teaching writing came naturally to you, or do you think it's a skill that's gotten better with practice?
A: THOMAS: I grew up in a family of teachers, so I believe that's part of the plan for me. Hopefully, I'll be able to use some of my experience to help others explore the writing that brings them joy.
A: JUDY: I love to teach. In my other life as a psychotherapist, I have taught many workshops. It keeps my knowledge alive and growing.
Just for fun!
Q: What's been one of your favorite plays to read/have taken inspiration from?
A: The first two that popped into our minds were The Sisters Rosensweig and Lost in Yonkers. We were separately involved in productions of those shows during the 90's, so they're close not only to our hearts, but we love the honest, human and sometimes humorous storylines that are explored in each play. The playwrights are courageous in their storytelling for both.
Q: What's been one of your favorite plays to write/least favorite to write?
A: That’s like asking us to name a favorite child! With that said, Perfectly Normel People with it’s outrageous dialogue was a lot of fun to write. Our ten minute play, Hostage Bride, was the most difficult to write. We are by nature verbose and so honing our skill to pare down thoughts and dialog proved challenging. It was a great exercise, like writing poetry.
Q: When you're not writing plays, what do you like to do for fun?
A: Take walks together with our puppy or spend time with our new grandbabies.
Q: Any tips to young playwrights, that say are writing a 10-minute play, or are writing for the first time in this type of setting?
A: JUDY: Yes! Know your story before you begin writing. Be succinct, because every word counts in a short play. This is a snippet in the lives of your characters, but they should come away from their interaction with an insight or change. This does not mean that things should be wrapped up in a tidy bow. Quite often 10-minute plays make us think and wonder.
A: THOMAS: Write the story you need to write. Don’t write unless you’re passionate about it. And if it’s a 10-minute play, just make sure it’s “produce-able” in terms of it being staged easily. That means a small cast and minimum set, props and costumes.