Thomas Ward is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and teacher currently teaching acting and stage combat at Baylor University. His play Keeping Watch won the 2005 Christians in Theatre Arts (CITA) national playwriting competition before receiving its world premiere by Theatrical Outfit (Atlanta, GA) under the direction of Tom Key. It was quickly hailed as the "season's finest new work" by Curt Holman of Creative Loafing and has since been produced at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston SC.
As an actor, Thomas has performed with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Georgia Shakespeare, Theatre in the Square (Atlanta), WaterTower Theatre (Dallas) and the Cumberland County Playhouse, among others. He holds a BA in Theatre from Abilene Christian University and an MFA in Acting from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival/U. of Alabama Professional Actor Training Program. He is a member of Actors' Equity and the Dramatist's Guild of America. He is married to Sherry Ward and they have a son named Christopher.
LeAnne: You are an actor and playwright. What draws you to theater? Have you always been a performer?
Thomas: It’s interesting, but I’m kind of a shy person and I love being in front of an audience. Weird, huh? I grew up going to play practice with my mom who is still a high school theatre teacher and who directed me all through high school. My father was also an actor in college before going into the ministry and broadcasting. So I know I got a theatrical spark from them.
What draws me to theatre is the one on one with the audience. The instant feedback of the audience. The community feel. Again, as a somewhat shy person, I can too easily isolate myself, and I think with technology as it is these days (and as it will continue) it is so easy for us to become isolated, to stay home with our gadgets, so these days I’m drawn to live theatre because it forces me to take a break from that. It’s a meditation of sorts. I also crave understanding. I enjoy writing and performing the most when there’s a common experience, feeling, emotion, action, shared in the moment.
LM: Let's talk about Keeping Watch, the play you wrote that received its world premiere at Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta and dubbed "the season's finest new work" by Creative Loafing. First, describe the play and then tell what was that experience like--to take this project from the idea stage through the writing process, see it produced by one of Atlanta's finest theater companies and then receive critical acclaim.
TW: An all around amazing experience that I will always be incredibly grateful for. Keeping Watch was really two plays that came together after a few years of writing. I wrote a one-act play right after college about these guys getting together for the first time since high school in a small town in Alabama (I grew up in Florence). It's about dealing with how they had changed as well as some skeletons in the closet. Personally, I was in a weird transition when I wasn’t quite sure where home was. I was recently married, graduated from college, and it was time to be a grown up (or so I thought) and I didn’t like it one bit! So I think those three guys probably represent different parts of my personality at the time – one who is staying put with no ambition whatsoever (wouldn’t it be nice?) – one who is hell bent on being rich and successful (wouldn’t that be nice?) – and one who is dealing with some huge questions about spirituality, life and death type stuff (eventually we all have to, right?). Setting the play in a small southern town, I wrote about my experience of “southern” and what that means. I didn’t really relate to the south that I had seen in film and on stage, so I think I was reacting to that as well. That play was called Keeping Watch and it was one act, and I put it in a drawer and got on with my life.
Jump to about four years later and I got an idea to write about a preacher meeting a young woman in a cemetery. With that one, I was writing more explicitly about where I was in my faith, my doubts, my questions about the religion I had grown up with, and it was a very cathartic experience for me. I was also at a point where I was really not enjoying any of my “real jobs” and I wondered if preachers ever felt that way. I finished that one, another one act, and I had to think of a title. I kept coming back to the title Keeping Watch because it was so appropriate, though I was frustrated that I couldn’t come up with a different one. (Incidentally, the title is from a song my brother wrote before I wrote my play, and the song appears in the play itself.) But that’s probably when it dawned on me that I had two plays set in a small town with the same title. Eureka!
I revisited the guys from the first play and it turned out there were a lot of natural ways that the two stories could intertwine. I really believe that I was working on one play the whole time, and I just didn’t know it. Seeing it performed at Theatrical Outfit was amazing. I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience because Tom Key read the play and never once asked me to re-write it. I did, out of some work with the cast that he assembled, which was amazing. But it’s not like the play was workshopped to death. I think that happens a lot in American theatre right now. I’m incredibly blessed to know Tom, and I wish more artistic directors were as bold as he is. I feel like he’s my biggest fan and I’m grateful everyday for that.
LM: Next season, Theatrical Outfit is producing another of your plays, Going With Jenny. Tell me about that one.
TW: I started GWJ around the same time that I was finishing Keeping Watch. One night there was a loud party going on in the apartment complex we lived in and I got up and looked out our balcony window at these college-aged kids having a grand ‘ol time. I was a couple of years out of college. The truth is that there was a part of me that felt like I was missing out on something. So I started writing from that standpoint and it became a reflection on marriage, relationships, and my comical dating history. I finished it as a one man show, hoping to perform it myself somewhere. I gave it to Tom Key. And once again, he said he loved it and wanted to produce it, still to my astonishment. (I wonder if that feeling will ever go away?). And once again I asked if I needed to change anything, to which he said no. His only concern was that it wasn’t long enough to put in his season so I quickly said, “What if Sherry [my wife] writes something in response? A ‘he said, she said’ thing?” Tom jumped at the idea and what Sherry wrote really turned out beautiful and complimented my ramblings nicely. It’s only fair. And her writing really drives home the challenges of marriage. It’s funny for me to read it now, because it really is a snapshot of myself at a very specific time, and I’d like to think I’ve matured at least a little bit.
More from Thomas Ward on Thursday.
Coming soon: a photographer, a painter, and more