Heather Morrison has her BFA in Theatre Arts from the University of Saskatchewan and is a graduate of the Actors Conservatory at the Globe Theatre in Regina. She has worked as a radio host for Magic 98.3 and 98 Cool. She is also a playwright (2016 SATA winner of Outstanding Original Play for Thicker than Water), a public speaker, a mamma, and a mover and shaker.
I’ve always admired Heather’s uncanny ability to say it like it is, and I thought the work/life balance she tries to achieve as she balances her one-year-old Judah and working as an actor (most recently in a two month run at Shakespeare in the Saskatchewan where she performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and J. Caesar) would make for an interesting interview!
I meet Heather at W.P. Bate Community School in Saskatoon where she’s an artist-in-residence through the Saskatchewan Arts Board. She’s waiting for me in the library surrounded by energetic ten-year-olds who have finished gym class. She tells me it was quiet a minute ago but now it’s “too loud to even hear yourself think.” We decide to venture outside for a coffee and a chat. The nearest coffee shop is a Starbucks inside an IGA. We both laugh knowing that artists will make themselves a corner just about anywhere when they need to work! So we get down to it in the grocery store Starbucks! I want to get into her brain and see where her passion for words live…
We’ve known each other for years. I’ve known you as an actor, radio host—you’ve in fact interviewed me a few times—and now, discovering the mama and playwright in you.
Should I be nervous?
Nah. Alright, let’s jump in because our time is limited.
If I’m back at the school in 45 minutes we’re okay.
Fabulous! So, as a ‘wordsmith,’ how do you go from the blank page to words?
Ooh, I don’t know that I’m a wordsmith! I don’t write that much. There are too many projects and not enough time. But when I have written, in my mind I have to think that I’m writing six bad plays to get to one good play.
So the pressure’s off in a way because the jump from blank to words will be ‘bad’ regardless? Or at least, not something you keep?
Yeah. For my play Thicker than Water I went through so many bad drafts! I also worked closely with my dramaturge Yvette Nolan who I felt almost cared more about the play than I did. She was so dedicated to telling the story and making it better. She really rode my ass!
How did you start writing? With scenes? Words here and there? Characters? Images?
With a series of really dumb monologues. Direct address type stuff. Jokes. I had all this writing but didn’t know what to do with it. Yvette helped me so much. Writing is hard and takes so much time.
What’s the best part of the writing process?
I like how everything around me started becoming a part of the play. I’d hear a conversation and it would go in the play. I would see someone walking and they’d become a character. You’re the most dangerous you will ever be are when you’re writing!
Is it hard to transition from the all-consuming act of writing to home life with your partner Joel and little Judah?
It’s all all consuming: creating, work, home, life.
And on top of that you were doing one of the most difficult acting contracts this summer—two physically and emotionally demanding Shakespeare plays all summer. Eight shows in one week and sometimes five shows in three days! Talk about all-consuming.
Yeah, I knew it was going to be hard. And honestly, I wouldn’t do it again anytime soon because it was a lot of pressure on me but also on Joel. I get rewarded artistically for taking on that job but meanwhile he’s at home waiting for his turn. He’s also an artist. So we take turns. This summer was my turn and next it’s his and so on. We try to take care of each other that way. It’s hard.
Did you read Shakespeare to Judah when you were learning your lines?
Oh yeah! Joel and I read Shakespeare to him and quote Shakespeare all the time around him. Like I would be changing his diaper and practicing the Funeral Speech in J. Caesar. Judah is highly developed when it comes to language, which is cool to see. We’ve never ‘talked down’ to him. When we brought him home from the hospital, we gave him a tour of the house and explained what everything was. Words and language are important.
What was his first word?
It’s hard to say. I thought things like that would be so clear and obvious. Like a first step… was that a stumble or a first step? Who knows! He stood up and moved a little… was that it? So it’s like his first words… he said “door” but didn’t point to a door. So he knows the word but doesn’t know what it means. Does that count as the first word?
Parenting is fuzzy!
Yeah! He says “poop” all the time. I don’t want that to be his first word but maybe it was. He knows what it is because every time I change his diaper he says “poop.” He does say “Mama” and “Daddy.” I think he knows what that means. (Laughs) Oh, and he associates “boo” to “blueberries!” That one’s fun.
Do you geek out over words?
When I find the perfect word to express how I feel, yes! But since I’ve become a mom, I feel dumber. Words don’t come as easily. I used to pride myself on my ability to express myself. I would write perfectly crafted emails and witty Facebook posts. I don’t have the time anymore and when I do take the time, nothing comes to mind. It was Judah’s first birthday recently and I wanted to post something meaningful on Facebook. All I could manage was “Our little monkey is one.” (Laughs) In the end who cares—it’s only social media. But it’s still alarming. Where did my words go?
Did that start when Judah was born or even earlier during your pregnancy?
During my pregnancy. It all went downhill. (Smiles) I wouldn’t end my sentences because I’d lose track of what I was saying or would forget the words to say it. They weren’t even at the tip of my tongue. There would literally be no words there waiting for me. I’d leave Joel hanging and then realize he was waiting for me to finish talking and I’d just say “end of sentence” in the middle of an idea. I did hear that when you’re pregnant your brain starts changing. I wonder if it’s the start of “Is my kid okay?” I think about that ALL the time!
There’s a real pressure on artists to dedicate themselves wholly to their art. And then the real pressure of parents dedicating themselves wholly to their children. How do you balance the two?
Artists are usually treated as people without families. But we do have families. I have to really consider all my projects now. I wanted to audition for a few out of town shows and residencies and then the thought of leaving Judah would make me feel sick to my stomach so I thought “okay, those projects are not for me anymore.” Or not right now. I am doing a show soon in Prince George for six weeks but Judah will come for some of it.
Do you feel less ambitious?
I do but it’s not a bad thing. I feel more ambitious in my personal life. I want a healthy home and family. I’d rather have that than an endless incredible career.
So do you feel your ambition has balanced itself out?
Balance is the working mom’s unicorn.
It doesn’t exist.
(We both sigh and consider the plight of the working mom.)
Any parting words on words?
Well… I watched this documentary that really touched me on how we’re the last generation that will have used critical thinking to solve problems in our youth. What will society lose when we lose critical thinking? We all go to the Internet. We ask the Internet to solve problems for us. We’re shortening everything… shortening words and emotions by using emoticons. We’re developing a new language, I guess. But we can’t shortcut everything in life. We can’t shortcut relationships. I think we need to keep our ability to work and think critically.
Heather ends her inspiring speech by checking the time. She needs to head back to W.P. Bate Community School where I hope she’ll do that same speech for her students there. Let’s not forget about critical thinking! And our words! Emoticons are fun… but we still need our words! That’s my takeaway!