Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 5: Heather McDonald

Top: L to R: Norman Allen, Randy Baker, and Jacqueline E. Lawton. Bottom L to R: Heather McDonald,  Danielle Mohlman and Shawn Northrip. Photos courtesy of Arena Stage.
Top: L to R: Norman Allen, Randy Baker, and Jacqueline E. Lawton. Bottom L to R: Heather McDonald, Danielle Mohlman, and Shawn Northrip. Photos courtesy of Arena Stage.

The Playwrights’ Arena a new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute. Centering on a small collaborative group of local playwrights dedicated to the support and development of each other’s work, the Playwrights’ Arena, facilitated by Director of Artistic Programming David Snider at Arena Stage, will meet throughout the year to investigate each other’s work and develop dramaturgical practice as playwrights while creating new work.

In Part 5 of our interviews with the six local playwrights who are members of Arena Stage’s The Playwrights’ Arena, meet Heather McDonald.

Joel: What or who first inspired you to become a playwright? And why?

Heather:  When I was 21, I moved to New York City to be a writer. I went there to study at NYU in the grad fiction program because E.L. Doctorow taught there. Everything that could go wrong did blowing me out of NYC, back home, with a year apart ill in bed. My hair fell out and I had this time to read and write and think. During that year apart, I noticed in the stories I wrote that more and more I couldn’t figure out why people did the things they did or what on earth they were thinking. But I could write down what they were saying and what they did.  Gradually, I realized I was writing plays. I intended to return to NYU and I did but to a whole other program. I wrote to the head of the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch and said that I was a writer and had written a lot and found myself writing these really terrible plays, but felt that this was my medium.  He wrote back and said, your plays really are terrible, but your other writing interests us, so come. And I did. That year I saw Fen by Caryl Churchill and Plenty by David Hare and I was thrilled. I felt I’d come home.

Now, tell me about your play you featured in Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena Showcase this past weekend. 

My play has a long unwieldy title, Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is set in a museum of art and antiquities that is being used as a prison. It wrestles with what matters, what should be saved, what is a masterpiece. I hope it moves from hopelessness to transformation.

What did you want audiences to walk away thinking about after experiencing your work?

I hope that audiences were moved and considered if violence always must beget violence. Are there other possible stories? After loss and devastation, is restoration possible?

How has being a part of Playwrights’ Arena helped you as a playwright?

I have loved being part of Playwrights’ Arena. My favorite part has been watching the other playwrights’ processes unfold. It’s a remarkably supportive group. The voices are wide and varied and the plays that have emerged are so different. I’ve had a bit of a different journey than the other five playwrights. I was gone for a chunk of time caring for a dying parent. My own life had tremendous upheaval during the period we met and I found the kindness and generosity of these writers and David Snider tremendously helpful to me as a writer. Their encouragement to keep writing even when nothing seemed to matter meant so much to me. It nourished my soul.

What did you learn about your writing process?

My writing process is different now. I’m not sure why. Maybe I feel like a different person. But I find that, for me, now, text is the last thing to arrive. Images and objects and a piece of music or a sound and a moment are what I build with first. I find I’m more interested in moments than narrative. Building story in new ways. More fractured and fragmented. Which is how life feels to me these days.

What else are you working on now?

I’ll be working on this play for some time to come. What I’m hoping to learn from the workshop and rehearsal presentations is whether or not some of what I’m writing will actually work. Will people be interested? Will a more fragmented structure still hold an audience? A metaphor would be a bowl that has been dropped and shattered and what remains are the shards on the ground. I’m interested in those shards. If I lay those shards out side by side, will we still see the bowl?


Heather McDonald.
Heather McDonald.

HEATHER MCDONALD‘s plays include An Almost Holy Picture, When Grace Comes In, Dream of a Common Language, Available Light, Faulkner’s Bicycle, Rain and Darkness as well as collaborative work with choreographer Susan Shields on STAY and with composer Jake Heggie on the opera The End of the Affair. Her work has been produced on Broadway and at such theaters as Roundabout Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, Arena Stage, The McCarter Theater, Center Stage, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and The Actors Theatre of Louisville-Humana Festival of New Plays. Her work has been honored with a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, three NEA Playwriting Fellowships, The First Prize Kesselring Award and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Her plays are published by Dramatists Play Service and Samuel French, Inc. She received her MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is Professor Theater at George Mason where she gave a TEDx Talk in 2013, Why Story Matter-Locate the Ache.


Women Playwrights of DC: Heather McDonald by Jacqueline E. Lawton.

Danielle Mohlman’s website.

Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 1: Jacqueline E. Lawton.

Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 2: Shawn Northrip.

Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 3: Norman Allen.

Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 4: Danielle Mohlman.

‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 1 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.

‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 2 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.

‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 3 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins  on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Jacqueline E. Lawton’s website.


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