Thomas and Judy Heath have been captivated by the human condition their entire lives. It started when they were children, playing characters onstage. Thomas realized the addictive thrill of making an audience erupt with laughter; Judy discovered that stepping into a character's shoes was a path to finding herself.
This playful approach has evolved into adapting to the unexpected plot twists of life, helping others navigate their own complex storylines, and creating relatable characters for the stage. She is a psychotherapist; he is a life coach; together, they are Threshold's first ever playwrights-in-residence.
The two met as part of a traveling theater group. "It's a little like improv, you think on your feet," says Judy. "The environment always changes, so it's a good way of learning how to deal with what comes up." As a counselor, she specializes in grief and anxiety issues and has authored two books. True to her theater roots, she will leave her comfort zone to help a client.
Thomas is equally willing to improvise. "The overlap with my current work and the theater is passion and following your dream," says Thomas. "When a client says I am going to leave my cushy job and pursue my dreams, I can relate firsthand. When I left to focus on [ ... ] our writing, I had been working in computer software for 17 years. I am a firm believer in loving what you do. As long as clients can pay their bills and not put themselves or families at financial risk, they can pursue what they really want."
Just four years ago, the couple took a flying leap into the world of playwriting. At the time they confided to CP's Erica Jackson Curran, "If it's something that one day we could make money doing it, that's awesome, but that's not why we're doing it."
The Sunset Years had just debuted locally, and their biggest hit Perfectly Normel People, was still in the works. This year, in addition to their new productions, both plays will be published. Theater companies around the country hoping to produce Perfectly Normel People hit now have their chance.
The Sunset Years focuses on the awkward situation a retiring couple faces when they try to sell their home without telling their clingy grown children. Perfectly Normel People is a memory play and a love letter to Italian families the couple knew while growing up outside New York City. Its hero, 40-something Hadley Smith, reminisces about being a young Kansan starting at NYU. He arrives at school and learns there's no campus housing for him. Out of desperation, he lodges with the tongue-in-cheek named Normellinos of Queens. Fish-out-of-water hilarity ensues.
Encouraged by its success at Piccolo Spoleto, the duo submitted it to New York's International Fringe Festival. It was one of the 185 chosen from 900 entries, marking a first for any South Carolina playwright. With Kickstarter, the Heaths raised $15,000 to fund the trip. Local fans flew to New York to show their support. When they spied familiar faces in the audience, cast members were blown away.
Northern and Southern actors alike nailed their character's Italian-American accents. After shows, audiences often asked, "Do you know my family?" Thomas says, "It legitimizes the play to get positive New York feedback. People have been very generous with support of our stories. Even men who don't like plays liked this one."
For performers, the fringe festival in New York is live theater boot camp. Each theater has at least five shows booked. Cast and crew are one and the same; setting up and breaking down has to be done in 15 minutes flat. Lather, rinse, repeat.
With an exhausting schedule, keeping track of cast members across a huge city, feeding everyone, counseling clients from the road, and sharing a tiny Brooklyn apartment with 10 people, sometimes the lines blurred for the Heaths — what was real life? What was the play? Not only did the Heaths survive, they actually thrived amidst the chaos. Perfectly Normel People received four stars from Time Out New York magazine, and garnered a Theatermania Award. It was just one of 16 Fringe plays chosen for an encore run. At this point, most of the cast had returned home. Those roles were re-cast on the fly, and a new show ran in 12 weeks time. Impossible task? Fuhgettaboutit.
Back home at Threshold, the pair is launching An Evening of Words & Actors, a three-part event that showcases what they have in store for the next year. "This is a new production for this area, everyone's coming together to make it happen," says Thomas. "Tickets are almost sold out."
It starts with the world premiere reading of The Chairs, a romantic comedy with a mystical twist. Its heroine is a young Charleston woman (played by Charley Boyd) having a rough day. When a stranger tells her to go chair shopping, it provides a welcome distraction filled with intriguing characters and a love interest. Clarence Felder, Ann Caldwell, Susan Lovell, John Brennan, and Fabrice Rizzo round out the rest of the cast, with Sean X. Marino as the narrator. The actors will be sitting concert style in high-top chairs with their scripts on podiums. As each one performs, corresponding images by Trident Technical College senior Lerraine Haak will appear on the big screen behind them.
Following the reading, scenes from The Sunset Years and Perfectly Normel People will be staged, with a Q&A session wrapping up the night.
With new productions like Words & Actors, the Heaths want to spark the imaginations of local youth to get into the act. "Charleston has embraced our work and been so kind to us," says Thomas. "We believe in paying it forward by sharing a blessing we are passionate about."
Threshold's Youth Playwright Program is a summer workshop for students ages 13-18. With help from the Heaths and special guests, students will write and produce a 10-minute play. More details will be available in April.
The Heaths also work with TTC and Art Institute of Charleston students in their production company, Heatherwood Entertainment & Media as much as possible. "I graduated from NYU, I had a lot of mentoring and hands-on work there," says Thomas. "Real-world projects and portfolio pieces are crucial for these students' careers."
Threshold's Artistic Director Pam Galle expects to see artistic collaborations grow out of the Heath's efforts. "What better way to foster our eternal search for provocative theater than cultivating talented writers in our own backyard? The Heaths are accomplished writers. They are smart, passionate, and generous artists excited to share their duo writing lessons and experiences."