Vicki Caroline Cheatwood is an award winning playwright and screenwriter with seven full-length plays and several shorter plays to her credit, in addition to screenwriting projects that include one recognized at Cannes. In 2002, her screenplay Air (Escopa Films) won the Special Jury Gold Award at Worldfest Film Festival, and in 2005, the dark comedy feature 10:10 was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival. She has been a finalist for several national play writing honors, including the Heideman Award (The Risen Chris, Actors Theater of Louisville), The Julie Harris Playwright Award (An Hour South), and the Eileen Heckart Drama Award (Manicures & Monuments).
One of her more recent plays is the powerful, Ruth, a beautiful re-imagining of the Hebrew/Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi, set in contemporary America and focusing on the issue of immigration and displacement.
While we talk, Vicki and I are sitting on the terrace of this beautiful home on Lake Como in Italy drinking frothy glasses of San Pellagrino and enjoying slices of a wonderful pie.
For those of you in the Dallas, Texas area, Vicki’s play “Manicures & Monuments” opened June 2014 at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.
KB: Vicki, talk a little about your work. What are the projects you’re most proud of?
VC: Right off the bat, PUP Fest comes to mind. It’s the annual young playwrights festival produced by Kitchen Dog Theater and Junior Players of Dallas. I’ve been involved with PUP Fest since the beginning, something like 13 years now. It’s amazing to think of how many young artists – writers and actors – who have been positively impacted by the program. Very cool!
KB: I like to focus on imagination and inspiration in our storytelling. What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever inspired you?
VC: Road trips have always been a big source of inspiration for me. My play “Manicures & Monuments” began as a “Hey, what if…?” question to my husband, as we were driving down the highway in his red Ford Ranger.
On another road trip – probably in that same little pickup – headed east from Dallas on some little two-lane highway, Mark was driving and I was looking out the window. We passed this little house situated right off the highway, a little old farm house, and there was a man sitting on the porch, a farmer, dressed in his work clothes, but he had a cane. We were going 60, 70 miles an hour, so it was just a flash of this image, but it really hit me. This old man, still getting up and putting on his overalls, hat, boots, jacket – but he’s not able to work anymore. I started thinking about all the other porches, and all the other people who sat on them, sidelined, unable to participate in their own lives anymore. I jotted down some notes, and went off and wrote a play about life, death and religion: “Fits & Starts: The Sacred Heart.” It ran on Off-Off-Broadway, and was reviewed in Variety. It bombed, but hey, it was reviewed in Variety!
KB:Wow! Off, off broadway and a review in Variety. That’s more than cool.
I’m intrigued to know more about your screenwriting projects. I’ve heard of Cannes. Never been there. Have you met George Clooney? Sorry, I digress.
VC: It’s one of the biggest honors of my life thus far, to say that I had a film that was screened at the Cannes Independent Film Festival. The producer/co-director of the film, Keith Oncale and Shawn Washburn, the other co-director, did fly to France for the screening of our film “break.” There was no way that I could go. Even if I’d had the money, my husband was very ill and in treatment for throat cancer. The day of the screening, I walked around at work struck by this odd, vague depression of having something so huge happening, and being so disconnected from it. I finally told one of my coworkers, “Hey I wrote a movie, and it’s screening at Cannes in France today.” She said something like “Wow, really?” and then we went on with our work.
That whole period of time seems like someone else’s very bad dream. And damnit, I didn’t get to meet George Clooney!
KB: I didn’t realize that this was all going on during that very difficult time in your life. That has to have been very tough–having something that you would have celebrated come right in the middle of that bad dream.
I originally had an interest in screenwriting, but it seems so dog-eat-dog-steal-idea business, something I don’t worry so much about when writing fiction. What’s your take having been closer to that business?
VC: I like writing screenplays, but I don’t think I’m a screenwriter. I like the challenge of writing pictures, visuals, but my gift is writing dialogue. As far as the business goes, other than my two produced short films, I’ve had very limited success in screenwriting. I have two feature-length screenplays that got circulated around and got great feedback, but that’s as far as it went. I was a finalist one year in the Austin Film Festival, which gave me close access to some big name producers, writers, actors and agents, a couple of whom seemed interested in my work…and that’s as far as I got. My friend Stephen Dyer, a producer and screenwriter who’s had good success, likes to say, “Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement.” He didn’t originate that quote, but he’s sure lived it. As have my other friends who have done very well in films and television.
Probably the best advice about screenwriting that I’ve had as a writer came from the very fine actor Donal Logue, who brought a film that he’d directed to the AFF that same year that I was there. He told me to play to my strengths, to keep writing plays, and that they – meaning Hollywood –would come looking for me. And he was right, to a point. After the Austin festival, they did. Nothing came of it, so far, but I’ve had a couple of thrilling phone conversations. There’s not much more exciting and strange than taking a call from big-name producer, while you’re at work crouched behind a counter, wearing a zoo uniform and praying that nobody comes in.
KB:Maybe someday you can wear that zoo uniform to the Tonys when you accept your award for best play. It paints a great picture.
Since I’m currently working on my own Biblically-based novel, a re-imagining of the life of Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus, I’m most interested in how your play, Ruth, came to be. How was it originally conceived?
VC: The seeds of “Ruth” came from my participation in a Disciple, an intensive and brilliantly designed study course that looks at the Bible as literature and history, as well as theology. I had such a rudimentary understanding of the Bible before going through Disciple. The stories really came alive for me, especially Ruth’s.
KB: In addition to “Fits & Starts: The Sacred Heart,” have the Bible/religion or Biblical characters inspired you in other ways?
VC: I wrote a short play about Jonah, a vaudeville/comedy. I love Jonah. He’s so me. Pissed off at God, and constantly running off in the opposite direction. And the story of Jael, the housewife who drives a tent stake through her enemy’s head. That one really stuck with me. Pun intended.
KB:Ha! I must learn more about this Jael. I, too, sometimes feel like I’m being pulled dragging and screaming toward my own Nineveh.
Of all the plays ever produced, what play do you wish you’d written?
VC: A cash cow! One that runs forever, and ensures that even if my sons grow up to marry women who can’t stand me, I’ll never end up living in a government-funded nursing home.
Seriously – I wish I’d written “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Something that real, charming, funny, and grounded. And, fundable by the wife of a major celebrity.
KB: Finish the following: “I someday want to see a play of mine produced starring _________ and ______ .”
VC: Me and George Clooney, but of course.
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