Inside the Playwrights Project – Thomas Gibbons

The Way We Live Now

Thomas Gibbons. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whose story is it anyway? Playwright Thomas Gibbons considers the implications of that question in the past, present, and future tense. His previous work include two plays that Florida Studio Theatre produced in the mid-2000s: Permanent Collection (2007) and Bee-luther-hatchee (2004). Gibbons’ more recent plays investigate issues of identity and authenticity in present day and near-future societies. The uneasy present interrupted his work at the start of the pandemic. Thanks to The Playwrights Project at FST, Gibbons is writing again – in the present tense.

What were you working on before coronavirus closed the curtain on live theater?

I’ve been working on Steal Your Bones for the last two and a half years. I was preparing for the World Premiere at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia, when the pandemic shut us down. It’s been pushed back to next season – hopefully in early 2021. I’m happy to say that FST successfully managed to do a staged reading of the play over Zoom.

What was that like?

It was certainly helpful hearing my words spoken aloud by such wonderful actors. It’s no substitute for the real thing – but it’s the next best thing.

What happens in Steal Her Bones?

It revolves around the legacy of a famous scientist. She’s a public figure along the lines of Richard Dawkins – a staunch atheist and champion of rationality. She’s been scheduled for a televised debate with a noted theologian on evolution, the age of the Earth, and other topics. But she drops out of the debate upon receiving a cancer diagnosis. After she dies, the theologian claims that he visited her privately, and had a religious conversion. That’s his story. The scientist’s partner of 22 years doesn’t buy it.

Ah. She thinks he’s changed the ending to the scientist’s story.

Exactly. And there are really two stories. The big story is an origin story. Science and faith explain the world in different ways. On a personal level, it’s all about heritage. Will this scientist be remembered as someone who had a deathbed conversion? Or someone who stayed true to her beliefs to her very last breath? Who has the right to tell her story? That’s what the play is about.

Jeffrey Plunkett and Kim Sullivan in FST’s Permanent Collection. Photo by Maria Lyle.

That’s interesting. You touched on similar themes in Bee-luther-hatchee and Permanent Collection.

It’s a basic human question – perhaps the most basic.

I’m also curious about your play Uncanny Valley. What story does it tell?

Uncanny Valley takes place in the not-too-distant future. It deals with the possibility of downloading human consciousness into an artificial body. That might seem far-fetched. But brilliant researchers and scientists are working on it right now – and they’re backed by well-funded entrepreneurs.

What drew you to this topic?

I was fascinated by the ramifications of an artificial person interacting with normal human beings. It raises so many questions: How would that impact their relations with other family members? What legal rights would an artificial person have? Would they be accepted as fully human by the rest of society? How would they feel about themselves? I wanted to ask those questions.

Hopefully they’ll remain hypothetical for a few more decades.

Hopefully so. Some very smart people are working on this technology! While writing this play, I actually had a conversation with Bina48 – one of the world’s first artificial persons. Her creators will say they’ve downloaded the “consciousness” of an actual human being into her – although the term “consciousness” is a bit disingenuous.

It occurs to me you that like to ask tough questions in your plays. You’ve probably started a lot of lively discussions on the ride home.

I hope I’ve started discussions, either in the car, over coffee, or with a drink (back when such things were possible). I feel I’ve given the audience a worthwhile experience if they take away something that sticks in their minds. To me, that’s the purpose of theatre, or at least the one that I value most highly.

What are you working on for The Playwrights Project?

Right now, it’s a play in search of a title. As to the story…I was gripped by the horrible reality of stalkers and trolls who attack the families of mass-shooting victims with vicious claims. My play’s protagonist creates a Facebook memorial page after her daughter is killed in a school shooting. A troll who calls himself “Stryker77” labels her a “crisis actor” and says that the massacre was a hoax.

What does the Playwrights Project mean to you personally?

I’d call it an amazingly ambitious and generous response to a time of uncertainty. After everything shut down, it was truly life-saving to see this open up. Richard and Rebecca Hopkins and everyone involved in the Project said, “Live theater still has a future, and we’re willing to support that future now.” It’s a gutsy statement of faith. I’m truly happy and grateful to be a part of it.

Final question. You’ve dealt with historical themes in your early work. Your more recent work wrestles with contemporary issues. Was that a deliberate decision?

Absolutely. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than a play that says something about the strange days we’re living in. I’m inspired by the title one of my favorite novels by Anthony Trollope – The Way We Live Now. That’s what I’m trying to write about.

Thomas Gibbons is the playwright-in-residence at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. His plays Bee-luther-hatchee and Permanent Collection have been produced at Florida Studio Theatre. Gibbons is currently working on a play exploring the impact of Internet trolls on the relatives of mass shooting victims as part of FST’s Playwrights Project.