Interview with Heidi Armbruster

PlayMakers is hosting the world preimere of playwright Heidi Armbruster‘s Dairyland, a hilarious (and sometimes awkward) story of what it means to find your roots and get your hands dirty while doing it. Dramaturg Jacqueline Lawton sat down with Armbruster to find out about her inspiration, writing process, and balancing being both an actress and playwright.

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
I love reading. I was one of those bookworm kids, and I think it was my love of the written and spoken word that landed me in the theatre. But I grew up in a small rural town in Wisconsin and had never met a professional actor. I was only familiar with the myths of the starving artist and the movie star. I didn’t understand that it was possible to be a middle-class theatre artist. But I LOVED the theatre, so I did some theatre in college while getting my degree in other stuff, and in my last year of undergrad, a theatre professor suggested I continue my training if I was interested in a career in theatre. A career?! Ha! But, I took her advice and auditioned for grad schools while continuing to study for my LSAT (thinking surely this is just prolonging the inevitable law degree). Then, in the summer between my first and second years of grad school, I did a play at California Shakespeare Festival and for the first time in my life, I met real actors—worked with actors, became friends with actors. And I realized, “This is a viable option. This is something I can do.”

LAWTON: What do you hope to convey in the plays that you create? What are they about? What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
I write a lot about the Midwest. I split my time between New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, and especially in this moment of extreme divisiveness—where we are all so quick to make assumptions and judgements about people who are different from ourselves—I feel a duty to explicate the people I know (both in NYC and Wisconsin) and offer some attempt at collapsing the space between people and places. I often write about people straddling two worlds and trying to find a home for themselves. I also write a lot about second chances, probably because I always try to allow myself the possibility of reinvention.

LAWTON: What inspired you to write Dairyland?
A conversation with my dad. The scene at the top of Act Two where the father and daughter are fixing the bull feeder was basically transcribed from a conversation with my dad. I wrote this play some time ago. So, coming back to it as a slightly older (and wiser?) version of myself has been a gift. When I read it again in preparation for this production, I felt so much compassion for Allie—I recognize a younger version of me in her—and I want to sit her down and tell her she can stop looking for a fight.

“I feel a duty to offer some attempt at collapsing the space between people and places.”

At the time I wrote this play, I was feeling like an outsider in my own life and I was yearning for the sensation of integration. I was yearning for a sense of home. Maybe I still am? Maybe we all are? I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin. I just got back from Dorset, Vermont. I’m heading to North Carolina soon. At some point I’ll stop off in Brooklyn to grab my cat. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, how do I come home? What do I have to do to feel like I’m at home, no matter where I am? That’s the yearning that inspired the play, and I think it still drives my writing. I hope audiences can relate to that yearning.

LAWTON: Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
I don’t. Maybe I should. I write in a lot of bars. But I hate to think of that as a ritual. However, I do find that places with a lot of people and ambient noise are productive. Also, I write best when whatever I’m writing is due in less than 24 hours. I would like to do that differently. I probably need to do some work on my writing rituals.

LAWTON: Describe all the sensations you had the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed.
Is it possible to feel extreme heart-swelling, chest-exploding pride and profound shame and embarrassment all at the same time? Watching my work performed gives me all the feelings. Pride that the work is being embodied, awe at the many human souls whose vison is captured on stage, delight at the ways the production came together better than I imagined it would, surprise at the eternal well-spring of “theatre magic,” embarrassment at having so much of my inner life exposed, and desire to do it better the next time.

LAWTON: In addition to working as a playwright, you are also an actress. How do you balance both professions? Do you feel that being an actor helps your writing and vice versa?
Being engaged in both pursuits is really good for me. My acting fuels my writing and vice versa. But more importantly, when I need to hide out from one, I can escape to the other (this “straddling two worlds thing” is becoming a theme). I identify as a mid-career actress and an early-career writer. It’s a trip to do new things when you’re 40! Learning is great—we all agree on that—but I think people forget how difficult it is to learn. It’s a painful act. I try to be kind to myself about making mistakes. But when I start to feel overexposed as a writer and way outside of my comfort zone, I like to return to acting. I’ve already put in my ten thousand hours towards mastery as an actor and it feels good to relax into that. But the writing keeps me sharp, challenges me, helps me feel a sense of forward movement. I’d be lost without it. I wonder what new thing I’ll do at 50?

LAWTON: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights and actors?
This is a thing you can do! It is possible to build a balanced life and make enough money to pay off your student loans. I worried that there wouldn’t be space for me, that there were already too many actors and writers, but my mother told me years ago, “There is always space for one more good one.” That advice made me furious at the time, but I rely on it these days. There is space for me. There is space for you. Do the work. Be kind. Be rigorous. Lead with curiosity and compassion.

Don’t miss out on the next big thing. Catch the world premiere of Heidi Armbruster’s farm-to-table comedy, Dairyland, this fall. Only at PlayMakers! Get your tickets today.