Oct 4, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 66: Christopher Shinn
Hometown: Wethersfield, CT
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm writing a new play. Experience has taught me that the more I talk about what I'm writing, the less I write, so I'll have to leave it at that!
Q: What are your classes like at the New School?
A: I teach two classes -- a class for first-year writers, and a thesis supervision class for 3rd year, graduating writers. The third-year class is easier to describe: because the student plays are going into full production, I see my role as a kind of producer-slash-dramaturg, giving the kinds of notes, feedback, and guidance that I got when my first plays were being produced at theatres like Playwrights Horizons and the Royal Court. I feel like the students should have an experience that mirrors what they'll be going through in the real world -- and that's something very different than the teacher-student dynamic. I don't completely take off my teacher's hat, but I'm very aggressive in making suggestions and passing judgment on what works or doesn't work in the play. I also encourage the students to be aggressive with me: if they disagree with a note of mine, tell me why. I explain that they're free to ignore my notes but not free to fail to engage with me about them -- producers will demand no less. In short, I don't want them to interact with me as a student, but as an autonomous playwright putting his or her work up on the stage in collaboration with a producer whose opinions may overlap as well as diverge from theirs.
The first-year class is challenging. Every year I agonize about it. In short, I don't want the students to have a little Chris Shinn in their heads while they write, saying, "This monologue is too long" or "Disguise the exposition more!" or "What is the protagonist's objective?" etc. (I've also found that almost all rules have been broken in great plays, so what's the point of generalizing?) Instead, I want to open up a process inside the writer that is primarily his or her own. The rest of their lives will be spent looking at something they've written and trying to figure out, "What is going on in this play? Is it good? How can I make it better?" The things I do in class are meant to help them answer these questions themselves.
For example: when students bring in writing exercises, I try to get them to look at their own texts to discover what they are trying to explore and where they go awry -- let the critique come from within the work itself, not from my playwright-superego terrorizing it from without. The evidence is in the text: what someone says, when someone changes the subject, when another character interrupts, when someone moves from speaking to action, etc. What do these things tell us? Is a character changing the subject because she feels frightened of continuing? Or is the text itself changing the subject because the playwright is frightened of continuing? Or is it both and if so, what are the implications of that? The self-critique emerges in the tensions among these possibilities, always hewing closely to the text itself. I suppose this method owes something to deconstruction, but the aim is for a better reconstruction. "Look at what the text is doing" is different than "I think the text should do this" -- less arbitrary, less authoritarian, more supportive of the writer's unique subjectivity. Fostering the student's relationship to their own work in this way hopefully will allow them to eventually overcome the universal temptation to appeal to an external "authority" (real or canonical) in order to feel secure about what their work is communicating and its value. The text becomes its own authority, something we can always return to in the midst of our pain, doubt, and confusion about our work. I could boil my method down to this: "Part of you knows what you are trying to represent in your play and part of you doesn't, and the evidence for this is in the text itself. The only way to better understand your text and find a more successful representation is by referring again and again to it, rather than by applying external concepts and ideas to it." Of course we all have these ideas and concepts -- there is no pure text existing outside of them -- but I remain constantly amazed by what opens up when the text itself is examined, in as far as this is possible, on its own terms and in relation to itself. As intellectual as this might sound, it's actually about the primitive emotional impulses that guide us in our writing, a further opening up to that part of ourselves and the traces it leaves on the page. Boiled down to its essence: "Dreaming while awake."
There's a lot besides that that we do in class, but I have to maintain a little mystery for the benefit of current and future students!
Q: Many of your plays have been done in London before being done in the US. Are there big differences between American and English theater? What do you like most about opening in London?
A: It's cheaper to produce plays in London, so theatre tickets don't cost as much -- that means younger and happier audiences. Also, more government funding means theatres can take more risks in their programming -- especially in producing writers in their 20s. The lack of a subscription culture also makes for more enthusiastic audiences, since they deliberately picked your play to go see. Also, the short preview period, though it has its anxiety-provoking aspects, also gives tremendous excitement and momentum to a new play -- a handful of previews and the critics are there, as opposed to the 3 or 4 week system we have here, which gives too much power to audiences in shaping the final product. So all these are big differences. That said, at the end of the day, I've had extraordinary experiences with productions and audiences both in the US and in the UK. The power of doing creative work is still strong enough -- for the most part -- to transcend some of the unfortunate economic realities and limitations of our theatre system here.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was a kid, my mom would play tennis at a tennis center in my town. The tennis center had a small daycare center where the kids would go while their moms played tennis and, afterward, sat and had coffee together. One day a black boy around my age -- four or five -- was in the daycare. I had literally never seen a black person before (except on TV) and I was very curious about him. He had a huge afro and I couldn't stop staring at it, it was so strange and exotic to me, fascinating. I thought about asking the boy if I could touch it, but I was too scared to do this -- I felt it was taboo. I thought I might just reach out and brush my hand against his afro so quickly that he wouldn't notice. So I did -- and he noticed. Immediately he recoiled -- scowled and refused to play with me anymore. I felt tremendous shame and confusion since I had felt only a positive feeling of curiosity and longing for him. Why did he reject me? When I later told my mother about what had happened, she tried to explain to me why it was rude to reach out and touch someone's hair without their permission. I remember having a sad and strange feeling that there were things in the world that not only I didn't know about, but that I couldn't know about -- couldn't ever understand, couldn't ever "touch." For whatever reason this idea to me was very traumatic, and I think writing became a way not only of representing my own experiences, but also attempting to represent the experiences of others outside of myself. I still think I am largely writing about otherness and difference -- especially the otherness within oneself (what we don't consciously know about ourselves) and the otherness of the world and its traumatizing refusal to support our narcissism.
Q: What is the purpose of theater?
A: The purpose of theatre is to create a space inside the audience member in which they can safely submit to another's subjectivity and, in that process of submission, grapple with and enlarge their understanding of themselves and others in an active way.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like plays that try to represent the deepest layers of human experience. Any genre can do that -- or fail to!
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Work hard!
Q: Any plugs?
A: There are so many great writers out there that the list would be too long, so let me limit plugs to plays I've seen in production that I'd encourage people to seek out if they happened to miss them in performance. Keith Bunin's The Busy World Is Hushed, Jessica Goldberg's Get What You Need, Bekah Brunstetter's Oohrah!, AR Gurney's Indian Blood, Jez Butterworth's The Night Heron, John Belluso's "The Rules of Charity," and Itamar Moses's "The Four of Us" are all extraordinary plays. This list could be longer, but I have to stop somewhere!
More on Chris: