Oct 11, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 267: Jason Chimonides
Tallahassee, Florida. Moved there when I was two – born in Tuscaloosa though, Alabama. I guess I’m a southern ex-pat.
I split my time between NYC and a tiny little place called Indiana, PA where I teach theater at a reasonably sized public school called Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Indiana is about an hour east of Pittsburgh and Jimmy Stewart’s hometown!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It’s a thing called serverLove and it’s a bit difficult to describe – it’s set in a “futuristic” paracosmos in which a vast superintelligence called “server” (imagine if the internet became conscious) is exponentially integrating itself with humans at a rate that’s becoming difficult for our species to keep pace with. If you’re familiar with Transhumanism, or The Singularity, Virtual Reality, etc – this topic will not be exactly new to you, science fiction writers have been exploring this terrain for eons…
What I hope will make serverLove fresh, (and why it’s a play in the theater and not a film or novel), is, that as our man made machines become more and more intuitive and “organic” seeming, more natural, then to me it follows paradoxically, that live theater becomes the perfect medium through which to explore “Virtual” reality.
I became fascinated by the idea that an audience could watch onstage characters that existed in an utterly fleshed out, vivid, three dimensional virtual reality world - in utterly fleshed out, vivid, three dimensional time and space - and that the play itself could toggle back and forth between both the “virtual” and the “real” and that if calibrated well, the audience would feel, in a visceral way, all the simulacra folding in on themselves - which is how neuroscientists and philosophers increasingly see consciousness itself and does this make any sense at all…?
Anyhow. Topically, the play examines exponential technological evolution – and its implications for human relationships – but at a completely mundane level: youngish professionals falling in and out of relationships.
All of the characters in the play have been “mated” by server (try to imagine a kind of SUPER E Harmony matching your brain’s “lovemap” with another person’s at the minutest of neuronal levels) and are, in an objective sense, highly suited to each other, yet, despite their consonance, they still find themselves unable to form lasting relationships. The reason? server is always improving. The mating is always gaining subtlety and just like next year’s iPhone promises to be better than this years, there is an ingrain societal expectation that no matter how successful a pairing, one could always do better; The Paradox of Choice.
I’ll stop there.
Q: How do you manage to balance your teaching life with your playwriting life?
A: Teaching has actually provided the financial and psychic stability to seriously pursue writing, not to mention it’s given me the necessary time to really grow – I teach only 28 weeks a year! And since I don’t necessarily consider myself a “writer,” first, but more of a “generalist” generally – teaching’s a nice structure for a guy like me to keep his unruly brain occupied.
I write one full length project a year and have done so since about 2003, and balancing these projects with teaching, directing and music allows my creative interests to feed and talk to each other – life becomes integrated and that’s incredibly important to me. I also really enjoy attempting to contribute value to other people’s lives and to elicit growth. One isn’t always aware of the effect one is having on students, but I rest in the illusion that I’m doing some good. And just like in my Playwriting – I no longer read reviews.
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 7 years old I had a “Death Meditation” on my Big Wheel. I knew, intuitively that everything would one day come to an end and yet I simultaneously realized that things were infinite (the ultimate “BIG WHEEL”) - I think it was Joseph Campbell who said “The image of death is the beginning of story…” That day on the big wheel is where mine began.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: My overwhelming feelings of guilt that I don’t see enough of it, know enough about it or care enough about the medium AS a medium if that makes sense.
I’m 37, when I was in college I was OBSESSED with theater, (in addition to cinema and Brit Pop), I consumed as much of it as I possibly could, had dreams of joining the RSC or starting my own company, etc. Now, in a way, I’ve moved on from it and only enjoy seeing plays as a rare treat. Sure I’ve been burned by seeing a lot of uninspiring professional theater, but simultaneously there are SO MANY other human endeavors that I want to explore and for too long theater has siphoned off too much of my attention: visual art, physics, experimental music, space, Buddhism, neuroscience, are just a few examples of my current “Subject Crushes.”
And though I teach theater, ostensibly, at the undergraduate level, for me, it’s simply a lens, a container through which to view life and to develop as a human. And beyond writing my plays, that’s how I attempt to contribute to the field. Theater is a really great thing to do as a young person! For a certain type of personality, it can be the keystone of a truly transformative education. It certainly was for me.
Beyond that, the central thing that keeps me devoting large amounts of my life to making it is, that, as an art form, it’s open. And most importantly, perhaps: theater = the present.
And it’s always the present…
So what do I want to change about theater? Nothing. I only want to stop feeling guilty for it no longer being the center of my life.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: George Judy, my mentor at Florida State University - now at Louisiana State University. He was the first person who showed me that one could be something other than one of the conventional options the culture offered up. He was and remains one of my greatest inspirations.
I liked Peter Brook and Growtowski and Stephen Wangh and Sam Shepard and Shakespeare and Moliere and a bunch of writers and actors; I still feel that Anthony Hopkins is a soul mate.
Oh, and Morrissey! Can’t forget him! He’s my ULTIMATE theatrical hero!!!
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: It’s always changing, but essentially I like stuff that’s cosmic in nature. I like stuff that deals with the BIG questions: the ultimate nature of reality, the self, relationships, death, love, inner paths to outerspace, etc. I’m engaged by theatrical inventiveness and endlessly impressed by it, but it’s not what I really care about – at my core, I’m a naturalist and I like (and write) chamber pieces.
I saw “The Aliens” by Annie Baker this spring and that play totally met my test for Cosmic Naturalism. It was clear to me that she writes from an instinctual, intimate, yet ultimate kind of place. There was a moment at the end of the first act where a dude is watching a sparkler burn out and he’s saying something like: “It’s going, it’s going…” (I’m butchering it, sorry) And I thought: “YESSSSSSSSS………THE TRUUUUUUTHHHHHH…….”
The theater that excites me the MOST however currently, the very most, is the play that Phillip Seymour Hoffman directs over 50 years in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synedoche, New York.”
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
• Play to your strengths and use the writing as meditation – a listening for personal truth, work for yourself first and then invite people to dialogue with your play but don’t operate from a place of trying please anybody – this will only lead to SUFFERING;
• Cultivate a “growth mindset” as opposed to an “outcome mindset” and be comfortable knowing that it will take thousands of hours of practice to achieve ANY expertise at all. This approach will also help you to relax when you’re totally LOST in a script by reminding you that the more lost you are the more possible it is that a truly extraordinary creative discovery lurks JUST beyond your winking “I beam!”
• Don’t read reviews. If they say it’s good it’s not that good, if they say it’s bad it’s not that bad.
• And most importantly, DO IT FOR FUN….. Just for fun. Everything else will follow naturally and if it doesn’t – who cares…? You’re invested in the PROCESS! And the process is the only thing that actually exists.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: serverLove is being read on Oct 18th through MCC playlabs! Marin Ireland and Thomas Sadoski star – Josh Hecht directs!
I’m also in a band called the Cinema Twin, type us in to Facebook or iTunes and listen!!!!