Thursday, May 15, 2014

THE DEVIL YOU KNOW: An Interview with Daniel Heath

Playwright Daniel Heath and Director/Actor George Maguire had a one-hour sit-down interview over coffee and afternoon treats outside of Crixa Cakes on Adeline downstairs from Daniel's Berkeley offices at Giant Rabbit. Two public staged readings of Daniel’s new script, DUST TO DUST, will be offered as part of the PlayGround Festival of New Works at the Thick House on May 18 at 11:00am and May 24 at 4:00pm

George Maguire: Let’s talk about you for a few minutes if we could. Playwright?? How many plays have you written?

Daniel Heath: This [DUST TO DUST] is my fifth full-length. Just Theater has done their New Play Lab for a number of years where they get five writers and five directors together and pair them up, doing a few meetings over a six-month period where everybody writes a new play, the “in-progress” scripts are passed out and are read beginning to end.

G: Didn’t DUST TO DUST start out as a one-act?

D: Thanks for reminding me. It did start as a PlayGround one-act, and then I got invited to be a part of this play lab, and after I had written the short for PlayGround, it felt like a full-length play crammed into a ten-minute format, so I just got started and it began to unfold pretty easily.

G: What’s the difference then between this ten-minute PlayGround play and the new full-length?

D: The ten-minute play basically was the granddaughter showing up, the state of the apartment and a very quick look at the social worker showing up and him turning out to be bad. In the full-length, I’m trying to have more balance and letting the play read both ways. Is he bad?

G: Well, his name is Nick? The devil? At the end of it, I was asking myself Hmmmm…is he the devil?

D: Good and I think that is really important. In the ten-minute version I couldn’t go with ambiguity.

G: Where did the idea come from for DUST TO DUST? 

D: The PlayGround topic was “ICON” so the icon in the play is the religious icon, and this play is unusual in that I don’t write about personal things I’m thinking about or my own experience, BUT I have had personal interactions with “hoarders”, who were really far along in the spectrum, leaving a strong impression on me, and this was tricky. I feel the essential thing needed in order to write effectively about something is “compassion”. You can’t make a very interesting judgment that’s uninteresting theater, and pointing out how gross and sad something is, is also damn uninteresting theater. So, how do you write about something that is incredibly sad when you see it?

G: So writing it, did you look at your life with your wife Anna and go “Honey? We HOARD!” Because that is exactly what happened to me when I read your play!

D: (laughing)…Oh, wow... We’ve been wedged into a fairly small apartment for a long time, but at the moment we’re doing…OK! But the diapers alone of the coming baby boy will change things I’m sure.

G: So…is the play going to get presented then?

D: There’s nothing signed, and I feel that every new play needs (certainly for me) a rehearsal and performance process. You learn so much about a play in the rehearsal process with good actors and a director. I could never write a play that didn’t change during that process, and the PlayGround readings in May will definitely give me valuable rehearsal and re-writing, so that the script is really tight and as good as I can possibly get it. There’s no substitute for the rehearsal process – you can’t simulate that artistic collaboration.

G: Do you ever get a little crazy in the rehearsal process when people are opining like crazy over your work. What’s you bottom line? What’s your “I draw the line in the sand”?

D: Wow! Cool question. For me though the rehearsal process watching and listening as people opine is fascinating and FUN!!!

I have things I am “up to”, things I am trying to accomplish in this play, and if I had a director or cast who didn’t get it…well (laughing)…that would be a problem, but as of yet….I have never had that problem. And the caliber of actors and directors who work for PlayGround – they have tremendous respect for the intention of the writer. It’s humbling how much respect… the stunning good faith actors have as they try to figure out something, when it’s actually sometimes… just a bad scene. So I just want to say, “Thank you so much for giving me the benefit of the doubt.” (Laughing.)

G: Have you ever started a rehearsal and gone “Ok, THIS is not working.” And then tossed out what you had?

D: Oh yeah! In fact I’m going to be teaching a playwriting course for PlayGround this summer, and the topic is “How to come up with, evaluate, work with and then sometimes discard your ideas.” I think it’s something you learn with experience and you have to write through your ideas to find out if they’re any good. Experience gives you the knowledge that you can spend thirty hours on a scene and it’s never going to be any good, because there’s a flaw in its conception. AND not all ideas are good. So not wasting time on a blind alley is one of the great results of experience.

G: How many plays do you work on at the same time? Are you a multi-tasker?

D: Having my own business, and soon being a father, it’s a challenge to carve out time to do the art, so I tend to write late at night. Most of DUST TO DUST was written between 11pm and 2 in the morning. PlayGround’s deadlines are really helpful to me – giving me that extra push.

G: (laughing). I am asleep kid! Even when I was younger! Now at my age, 2am is the first time I wake up and pee. How did you start being a writer?

D: Ever since I was a kid, I wrote. I grew up in a tiny north central Indiana town of two stop lights. My father was a Protestant pastor. I read a lot as a kid – you know that terrible science fiction, and then I went on to Grad school for English Lit here at Cal which kinda broke my ability to read for fun. I can go to plays for fun, thank God, but trashy novels…not anymore. I guess I’m too smart for that. There’s something wrong with me now. I tried fiction writing for a number of years, diligently but unsuccessfully. I finished writing several books but never got one published – but I learned a lot, and that was sorta my boot camp. And then I found PLAYGROUND. I saw an advertisement for “The Best Of” maybe ten years ago. I applied, wrote my first play ever and got into the PlayGround Pool, and took to the play format pretty quickly.

G: So PlayGround is really an incubator for your plays.

D: Absolutely. It’s how I started writing plays, and it’s how I met my wife.

G: Which playwrights do you admire?

D: There are certain playwrights who have a grasp of the full-length form that I aspire to, and my favorites are Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill. Think of all the awful plays written by people emulating them. Now a lot of writers think it’s cool to not put “speaker attributions” in their work because Churchill made it look good, by creating an hour or two stage experience for people as she works through their emotions and human sympathies that is subtle, beautiful and compelling.

G: You got anything now you’re working on?

D: Yeah, preparing for the child! (laughing). I probably will start something new in 2015, and I’ll probably write only about diapers.

Who knows? Among my favorite quotes is from George Elliot and it’s “Among all the forms of error, prophesy is the most gratuitous.”

G: Daniel. Thanks so much for the time, the coffee, the cake and above all the insight into you and your work. Congratulations on everything – and THAT is a lot!!


DUST TO DUST will be performed as a script-in-hand staged reading at the PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco) on Sunday, May 18 at 11am and again on Saturday, May 24 at 4pm. Admission is free ($15 suggested donation) and reservations are not required though encouraged. For more information on this or any of the other full-length staged readings in this year’s Festival or to reserve your tickets, visit

Daniel Heath's productions of full-length plays include Seven Days (SF Playhouse, San Francisco, 2010), Man of Rock (New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011, and the Climate Theatre, San Francisco, 2010) and A Merry Forking Christmas (PianoFight, San Francisco, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012). He is a PlayGround Resident Playwright and two-time recipient of PlayGround commissions, and his short plays have been performed across the U.S. and Canada. He wrote Dust to Dust as part of Just Theater's New Play Lab in 2012. By day he is a founding partner in Giant Rabbit, LLC, a company that builds web sites and data systems for non-profit organizations. 

George Maguire celebrates 50 years as a member of Actors Equity Association. He is the Artistic Director Emeritus of the award winning Solano College Theater, and co-founder of the renown Actor Training Program, whose graduates include company member Jon Tracy. He has acted both on and Off-Broadway and regionally with Actors Theater of Louisville,the Hartman Theater, the Clarence Brown Theater, the Barter Theater, the Riverside, Northshore and Great Lakes Shakespeare Festivals, in over 35 film and TV roles, and locally with A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, CenterRep, Marin Theater Company, the Magic Theater, Shotgun Players, and 5 seasons as a resident actor with Marin Shakespeare Festival. Along with the 50+ productions he has directed for tje O'Neill Foundation, New Conservatory Theater Center, Solano College/Harbor Theater, he has directed for Broadway By The Bay, CenterRep, the Willows Theater, PCPA Theaterfest and projects for A.C.T., The Oregon and Great Lakes Shakespeare Festivals. He is the recipient of the 1984 Samuel French One-Act Playwriting Award for THE ENCHANTED MESA.

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