By Jill Sheets
I have never gotten the chance to interview anyone who wrote plays before until now. I am absolutely thrilled I got to interview Elizabeth G. Honaker. She started writing plays when she was very young and is still going. Read on and learn more about her, her plays, and her advice for anyone who is interested in becoming a playwright themselves.
R: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start writing plays.
E: I have always been “dramatic.” I bugged my first-grade teacher (a nun) to let me participate in Saint Gabriel’s annual Christmas show – and I was allowed! In 8th grade, I wrote science fiction scripts and tried to persuade my friends to rehearse them during recess (it didn’t work!). As a young adult living in England with my husband Allen and children James and Christine, I started becoming interested in Christian drama – especially writing three-minute skits; so I wrote them for our church’s family service. When our family moved back to the United States, I was asked to take over our church’s Easter presentation of The Living Last Supper. It was interesting, but it was a static presentation, so I asked if I could add Mary’s testimony regarding the Resurrection of the Lord. The next year, I added more of the Holy Week events, and in 1994, I wrote my first play that focused on one character. I have written somewhere around twenty different full-length Easter scripts, half of which are in print. I intend to publish them all eventually.
R: Tell us about some of your plays and how you got the idea for them.
E: I have long recognized that the ultimate ideas for all of my scripts come from divine inspiration – the work of the Holy Spirit. And I say that in the sense that He gets all the glory for touching lives, and I get all the blame if there are defects in the script. In any case, I most often get ideas that inspire me and get me wanting to write during communion or during a sermon. The Pascal Lamb came from a communion service, as did The Bread of the Servant. I’ll admit, though, that I got the idea for Journey to Life while vacuuming the living room! Behind every single script, though, is my own struggle with a particular issue; I think that’s why strangers walk up to me after performances and say, “You wrote that play just for me.” I share my life problems, and the Lord, in the person of Jesus Christ, provides answers.
R: I found this book and I couldn’t help but buy it! Tell us about Mizz Liz’s Five Steps to Good Writing.
E: I have been teaching students how to write good papers for decades now. It started when I taught high school English, and continued when I began to tutor students at my home. I boiled down everything I knew about writing into five steps that are not difficult to understand, but they take explaining (for instance, I used to integrate these steps into my high school curriculum over the period of five months). At one point, I wrote them down with bullets for my college classes, and then I started to develop handouts for students who had been absent from one or another lecture. Finally, I decided that a book written at the 8th-grade level would help me to teach my at-home tutees more efficiently. I now use that book with everyone – even my college students.
R: What is your writing process for your plays? How do you come up with the ideas?
E: Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I attribute all the good ideas to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is funny, though – it’s as if the Spirit and I have an annual “appointment” during the Christmas break (which is something all teachers look forward to for relaxation, not for producing a script!). It all starts with a story from a Gospel. I will contemplate a person or group of people and how they might have encountered Jesus – what He would have done for them, how He would have drawn them from the suffering, etc. The concept will “simmer on the back burner” for months, until the day after Christmas. (That is pretty much the “last minute” for producing a workable script for the Disciples to perform for the following Easter.)
When I was teaching high school, I would close the door to the study where the family computer resided and type away all day every day until the play was done. Sometimes, it would reveal itself in three days; sometimes it took a week or ten days. Once I had worked out a story, it seemed that I would see the action of the play, hear the dialog, etc. I would just type it as I saw it. Occasionally, I would write an entire scene and then realize it didn’t fit the story. I would just set it aside and move on. I never obsess over “now where did THAT come from?” because the ways of the Spirit are much bigger and more complex than I am. Who knows? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great classic The Scarlet Letter came to him from a short story he had written years before – which didn’t even focus on a woman pregnant with an illegitimate child.
Nowadays, my main computer is in my study upstairs. Instead of locking myself away – which doesn’t really work because my study is our balcony, not an enclosed room – I now ensconce myself in the family room, and Number One Husband (Allen) pretty much leaves me to do my thing however long it takes. Of course, he stills feeds and waters me, and nags me about going to bed when it gets to be one a.m. But without little ones running around, it is easier to “rule the roost” this way. I still get the script ready for the Wesley Grove Disciples (in Maryland – they still present my plays each year at Easter) by their first scheduled read-through in January.
R: Do you have a favorite play or book?
E: Gosh, that one’s tough! I love Dorothy Sayer’s The Man Born to be King, which started as radio plays about the life of Christ over the BBC during WWII. I love all of C.S. Lewis’ works, especially The Chronicles of Narnia. I have read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety at least three separate times in my life. I love teaching T.S. Eliot, especially the works he produced after he became a Christian. I am a fan of Calvin Miller and Ravi Zacharias. I love well-written biographies of the founding fathers (and I have David Barton to thank for getting me hooked on those). I…now how long do you want me to go on?
R: What is your favorite Bible verse?
E: My favorite verse is whatever connects me to the mind of the Lord each time I read the Bible. When I read with a willing mind and an open heart, the Holy Spirit makes the Word live to me. I have to say, though, that the very first verse I memorized when I became a real Christian at the age of twenty-one was Romans 8:28. And I remind all my students that Philippians 4:8 does not mention God or Jesus, and yet it is the best advice for anyone seeking reality.
R: What advice would you give someone who wants to write plays?
E: Study how to tell a story with actions, and as few words as possible (a la Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and – if necessary – use words”). Study Shakespeare and how he packaged his messages, including comedy in the middle of his tragedies, to focus the groundlings’ attention on what was to come next. Reflect on modern plays or episodes that move you and ask yourself, why do they move you? How have the characters impacted you? Then write your action and dialog down and have someone else read them aloud. Make your characters speak like normal human beings; don’t give them sermons to preach. Make sure you have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story. And – of course – you can always email me for advice: email@example.com . I promise I’ll respond.
R: Where can people get your plays and other books?
E: Right now, all of my plays and books (beside my book on how to write, I also have an historical novel on the martyrdom of Saint Paul and a thesis on the medieval mystery plays) are all available through Amazon.com.
R: Do you have an official website? What about social media?
E: My husband recently took down our website because of software issues – the software was no longer supported and we found that we couldn’t update our site. We are working with a third person to design a better site. The domain will be bolb.org and it will have an online store for our new ebooks on how to start drama groups in your church, make affordable costumes and props, and use inexpensive sound and lighting.
I have a page on Facebook – Bread of Life Books – where I’ve posted pictures and video excerpts from my last three plays. The plays are all presented by amateur actors (by that, I mean they are not professionals) but they really put their hearts into the production each year. I am humbled just to watch how they bring each script to life!
I also have a Linkedin page under Elizabeth Golibart Honaker.
R: Is there anything else you would like to add?
E: Once upon a time, a gentleman whose opinion I valued very much told me that drama was sinful – no matter whether it had a Christian motive or not, the actors were sinning in pretending to be their characters. I respectfully disagreed with him, but then felt I had to study the Bible more closely in order to affirm the truth of what I already believed. I discovered that God had commanded several of the Old Testament prophets to depict His messages in dramatic form – and the drama was not at all “warm and fuzzy;” it depicted real judgment and real consequences for Israel. In the New Testament, Christ told parables, which reproduced vivid pictures of heavenly truths in the minds of His listeners. When a pastor preaches from the pulpit, does he not present illustrations from real life? People watch Christian plays and dramas knowing full well that the people who play the parts of characters are not trying to pass themselves off as people they are not. The actors help the audience members “lose” themselves in the story so that the power of the Spirit can have an opening into their hearts. And knowing the impact that Christ-centered drama has had on both audience members, stagecrew, and actors, I cannot help but believe that this is a God-sanctioned phenomenon.
Christian drama is not just for the talented; it is for the taught. We learn the message of the Gospel, and we present it via drama to others. People like me write the words, so that the story flows and engages the audience, but Christian actors can come from every walk of life, and from any age level. I have had police officers and homemakers and school children and babies and retired teachers and Boy Scout members and pastors and – well, you get the picture.
Lastly, I just want to leave people with a reflection: What could be more dramatic than the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? He didn’t merely talk about the Plan of Salvation; He enacted it in the flesh! He didn’t come to save well-polished “actors” – He came to save those people who find themselves lost, with no Director in their lives. Voila!