Forging New Paths with Thomas Gibbons

Playwright Thomas Gibbons is not afraid to tackle tough questions. His previous work includes two plays that Florida Studio Theatre produced in the mid-2000s: Bee-luther-hatchee (2004) and Permanent Collection (2007). Both plays dive headfirst into complex issues surrounding the narratives we inherit and the stories we leave behind.

Today, Gibbons is continuing to use theatre as means to explore the complications and contradictions of the human condition, and is hard at work developing new plays for the stage with FST’S Playwright Collective.

We sat down with Gibbons to learn more about his work with FST’s Playwright Collective and how his theatrical vision is shifting to investigate the issues and stories of the digital revolution.

Thomas Gibbons. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You were one of the first members of FST’s Playwright Collective, signing on with its creation back in 2017. What’s your experience been like as a Collective member?

It’s been wonderful having a place to develop my plays-in-progress. Catherine Randazzo and Jason Cannon – two leaders of FST’s artistic team – have very generously acted as sounding boards for my work. They’ve scheduled Zoom readings and given me feedback, suggestions, and other perspectives to consider.

Most recently, I’ve been focused on two plays – Steal Her Bones and Crisis Actors, the latter of which I started as part of FST’s Playwrights Project. I’ve also participated in several Forum events with FST patrons.

Tell us more about Steal Her Bones.

Steal Her Bones is about Diana Goodwin, a well-known evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, who often debates religious scholars about Earth’s origins and Intelligent Design. After Diana passes away from cancer, a bitter public battle erupts over her memory when one of her religious rivals publishes an article claiming she was secretly a believer.

It dramatizes the clash between faith and reason, but also explores a deeper mystery: Is it possible to truly know the person we most love?

What has your process been like in creating Steal Her Bones?

My process has always consisted of writing a draft, holding a table reading, and then incorporating useful feedback in the next draft. I like to have actors read the script “cold” – meaning they have no chance to skim it beforehand. Their genuine choices and responses in the moment reveal to me whether the play is working in the way I’m intending it to.

I’ve been fortunate to be associated with InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia for many years and have developed many plays – like Steal Her Bones – there. FST has held several readings of different drafts of the play, and both theatres have been an integral part of the play’s development.

Debra Whitfield and Kim Sullivan in Permanent Collection. Photo courtesy of FST.

Crisis Actors tells the story of a grieving mother fighting with a conspiracy theorist about her murdered daughter’s mere existence. What inspired you to take on this project?

Originally, the play was called Believers, and it consisted of interwoven monologues by three characters who subscribe to various conspiracy theories – that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is hollow, and that humans are ruled by a race of lizard people. There was also a fourth character – a woman whose daughter has been killed in a school shooting. But then, this woman is attacked online by a stranger who claims that the shooting is a hoax and her daughter never existed. They even claim that the mother is a “crisis actor,” a performer hired for a staged disaster or emergency.

Partway into the development process, my wife suggested that I just focus on the mother, whose story was the most compelling. Although Crisis Actors touches on gun violence and conspiracy theories, at its heart is the horrifying prospect of having a central part of your life denied as a fiction – of having to prove that your child existed.

Some of your earlier plays that FST audiences might be familiar with, such as Bee-luther-hatchee and Permanent Collection, deal with issues of racial identity and representation. Your newest plays, though, like Steal Her Bones and Crisis Actors, seem to focus more on science and modern technology. Was there some sort of shift in your creative inspiration?

Connie Winston in Bee-luther-hatchee. Photo courtesy of FST.

I focused on the American racial divide in five plays over the course of ten years. At that point, I felt I would just be repeating myself if I continued to examine the same subjects, and knew there were others I wanted to address. I have always been interested in science – how it shapes virtually every aspect of our existence, and how it outpaces our ability to accommodate its discoveries on a human level.

What’s next for you? What’s the next step in getting these plays-in-progress on their feet?

InterAct is planning a virtual presentation of Steal Her Bones in January or February 2021.

As for Crisis Actors, I’ve been developing it with FST through readings held over Zoom. I’m working on my sixth draft of the script at the moment, which is early in the process for me.

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. His work has been performed across the country and garnered numerous awards, including the NAACP Theatre Award and two Barrymore Awards for Outstanding New Play.