Five Questions with The Big Things Playwright Mike Heath
What inspired you to start writing for theatre?
I used to work in TV - I got offered my first TV job back in 2000, after I sent a script to a Manchester TV indie, Turn On TV. They asked me to join them in development, which I really enjoyed; but I wanted to write. They sent me off on a screenwriting course at North West Vision, which is where I received my initial training. However, I realised that a movie script requires hundreds of thousands of pounds to bring to life.
Some friends had set up the first fringe theatre venue in Manchester - Studio Salford. I started going to see plays, and I was immediately in love with the medium. I loved how a complex story could be told so simply. So, I started writing for theatre, with my shows debuting at Studio Salford.
Why did you decide to write The Big Things and how did it affect you?
I started writing the piece as an exercise during my MA in Playwriting at Salford University. The task was to start a scene with the opening lines “It’s over”. And before I knew it Grace and Malcolm appeared right before me. I could hear their voices really distinctly. There was an immediate tension between them. At first, I didn’t realise what the root of that tension was. But as I explored this fascinating couple, I discovered Grace’s autism.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters of the opposite sex?
I don’t think it’s difficult to write for the opposite sex at all. I think it’s all about understanding your characters and empathising with them; recognising what they want and the unusual way they go about achieving it is half the fun, I think. I love my characters to surprise me while I write - and I guess Grace and Malcolm just emerged and grew in complexity.
I’m particularly fascinated by gender and the roles that society has in store for them. And I think that Grace isn’t a typical woman, just like Malcolm isn’t a typical man. But they’re people in love and struggling to deal with that. It was all about recognising their dilemma and forcing them to confront it.
How did you go about researching a play about a woman with undiagnosed autism?
I’ve worked quite a lot with disabled children and adults, and so I’ve also worked with people with ASD. Our work has been in creative projects - using assistive music technology to create musical performances with Drake Music. I love it - they’ve been brilliant, rewarding projects.
I recognised that there was no such thing as “an autistic” type - it’s just another way of looking at the world which is sometimes unfathomable, but frequently beautiful.
When I discovered that Grace had ASD characteristics, I set out to interview neuro-typical people who had had relationships with people with neuro-divergence, to see how they’d coped, and to get a real hold on Malcolm. Many of the situations in The Big Things are dramatisations of what I discovered through some of those interviews.
It’s difficult to put yourself on the line and present ASD through a character because everyone’s experience of ASD is completely different. I wasn’t aiming to represent ASD - I was following a character in my head with ASD and wrote down what happened.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a couple of other projects on the back-burner. I’ve written a play called The Sleeper, which I’d really like to do something with. I also recently had the debut performance of my play, Playing God, which went down very well, and I’m planning on bringing that back to Manchester in the latter half of this year. I’ve also written another called “?” which is a bit of an audience experiment about complicit behaviour in democracy.
I run the Studio Salford WriteForTheStage courses, so I’ll be helping some of my students to prepare for their shows at Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.
I’m going to be directing a piece at GMFringe, as well as running the WriteForTheStage Prize for New Writing - the first prize is a publication with WFTS Books.
I’m absolutely made-up that Kibo Productions chose my piece to produce, and super-excited that this is my London debut as a playwright.
Learn more about Mike's work at www.writeforthestage.co.uk and say hello on twitter @spikal.