Sunday, May 15, 2011

Daniel Heath Muses On the Origin of His New Play "This Is My Body," and Exposes PlayGround's Darkest Secret

THE SECOND PLAYWRIGHT in our series of interviews for the 15th Best of PlayGround Festival is Daniel Heath, who, unlike Arisa White, the first playwright we interviewed, is a longtime PlayGround member.

Daniel’s play This Is My Body, from the December 2010 Monday Night PlayGround, was directed by SF Playhouse Producing Director, Susi Damilano, for the Festival, and features Michael Phillis and Rinabeth Apostol. This is not the first time Susi has directed Daniel’s work. In fact, she directed the world premiere of his play, Seven Days, as part of the SF Playhouse’s Sandbox series last fall. Seven Days was Daniel’s second PlayGround commission.

His first dramatic full-length play, Fifty Years Hungry, was completed in 2009 as part of the PlayGround Fellowship. His full-length comedy Forking was produced by Pianofight Productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2009, and his short plays have been performed in San Francisco, Toronto, and upstate New York. His new musical, The Man of Rock, premiered at Climate Theater in December--around the same time that This Is My Body was written.

Are you from the Bay Area?

I grew up in the humid, bug-infested flats of the Midwest. I moved out here in '95.

Where do you live now?

San Francisco, a few blocks from Thick House.

What do you do, besides write plays?

I've got a small technology consulting business (Giant Rabbit, that does on-site IT support and web and database development for non-profit organizations (mostly but not exclusively in the Bay Area).

Also, I'm a bit of a cocktail enthusiast.

Was PlayGround the first time you wrote a play?


What was the first play you ever wrote?

My application play for the PlayGround writers pool. It was not good.

How long have you been in PlayGround? What was the first play you wrote for PlayGround?

Six seasons now. That's thirty-six plays, for people keeping score at home (I write every month). Add in the two application plays I wrote (for my first and second seasons), and we're at thirty-eight.

My first submission was called "Carthage and East 14th"; the topic was "In Medias Res." It was also not a good play. The opening lines were:

DIDO: Are you dead?

TROY: I'm okay. Just waiting for the gods to finish me off.

DIDO: You've got something on your face.

TROY: Wedding cake.

It goes downhill from there. No one has ever read that play except for the selection committee six years ago.

This Is My Body feels like a coming-of-age story everyone has experienced. Is it based on a personal experience?

Nope. I almost never write about personal experiences. I did spend a bunch of time in empty churches when I was a kid (Dad was/is a minister), but they were Protestant, so, no wine; that's where the setting came from, but the characters and situation are made up.

What inspired This Is My Body?

The topic, Alchemy, got me thinking about mystical transformations, which naturally got me thinking about transubstantiation, and that naturally led me to write about two kids breaking into a church and drinking communion wine.

Don't ask me where these ideas come from. Actually, I would love to know because it would be a lot easier if I could go there on purpose.

Do you have a Catholic background?

Nope. Relatively-lefty Protestant upbringing, which means they didn't really get into the more hard-core stuff (like transubstantiation). When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley, though, I did a bunch of reading about transubstantiation and the Eucharist from around the Reformation, and it was pretty fascinating stuff (what happens if the consecrated host gets dropped, and the crumbs get eaten by a mouse?)--wonderfully literal and Gothic.

One of the things I like to do in my writing is to take something that I *don't* believe in, try to take it as seriously and sympathetically as possible, and see what comes out. I end up with more interesting plays that way. (Nothing is worse than a playwright winning an argument with himself.)

Did you do any research while writing the play?

Yep. Does communion wine come in screw-top bottles? Yes it does.

Do you have any brothers, mean, dumb or otherwise?

My younger brother Jake is an ICU nurse. He was pretty dumb when he was a little kid, but once he developed object permanency things started to come together for him. He can be mean in his professional capacity as person-who-keeps-people-alive, but, in his words, "Everyone gets the nice Jake first." So if you take your meds and eat your food and don't try to bite any of the nursing staff, I understand he's generally a pretty good guy to have taking care of you.

Did you ever steal your mom's credit card?

Nope. There were 3500 people in my town and my dad was a minister. I could not get away with much.

What was the writing process like for This Is My Body?

The usual. Churn through a half-dozen bad ideas, finally late at night on Monday get a decent idea, write some notes, come up with a structure, then just plunge into it and write until it's done, which was some time in the small hours. Next day, read it over, fix it up, send it off.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing This Is My Body?

A sense that something important has happened, and we're not sure what. I think Rinabeth and Michael do a wonderful job of bringing us with them on this journey that they don't understand, but where so much is at stake.

Were you surprised when This Is My Body was picked for the Festival?


Why do you think it was chosen?

As I understand it, the PlayGround selection process involves a group of Dutch wood beetles known for their intra-species aggression. Each beetle has the title of a play engraved on its carapace, then they are set into an antique hat box which serves as an arena. As the beetles fight, dead beetles are removed and those plays are taken out of consideration. When six (or, in the case of the Festival, seven) beetles remain alive, they are carefully removed, etherized for posterity, and arranged on pins in the Hall of Champions. Those plays are then included in the Festival.

What are your plans for this summer?

I've just discovered that my blender makes terrific crushed ice, so I see a lot of crushed-ice cocktails, especially with some of these high-proof rums I've been having a lot of fun working with lately. Also, I'll be learning how to sit still and fight through the theatrical illusion while unbelievably awful things appear to happen to my girlfriend, who will be playing Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. I don't know if those two activities will help or hinder one another.

What projects are you working on now?

My first PlayGround commission from '09 (Fifty Years Hungry) is the last of my full-length plays that has yet to be produced; I've been working on a final version of that after a couple of readings last fall. I'm also working on polishing up Man of Rock for another run somewhere someday. Then... something new.

What are your goals as a playwright?

I'd like to keep writing plays and keep getting better at it, and I'd like those plays to continue to be produced. As long as those two things are happening, I'm a happy playwright.

Which writers or playwrights inspire you?

When I started out in the pool, the writers who had been in the pool for a while and were farther along than me and having success beyond PlayGround were very inspiring--and still are some of my favorite writers around.


  1. Wow. Now that I know about the "tweetle beetle battles", I'll save a lot of time not having to read scripts each month! Thanks, Daniel! :)

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