Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 491: Gordon Dahlquist

Gordon Dahlquist

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Current Town: NYC

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  Right now I'm working on a couple of novels, a short sci-fi piece for younger readers and a much longer story for adults that (I think) will have a whole play inside of it. My play Tea Party was just part of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and so while I think it's pretty much finished it still feels very much alive in my head.

Q:  How does writing novels compare to writing plays?

A:  They're really different, but obviously the skills of one kind of writing overlap into another. I learned how to write by writing plays, so elements of my novels are obviously theatrical: there's a lot of dialogue, and the physical circumstances are crucial to working out what happens in a given scene (and the fact that I think in terms of scenes at all). Of course, there are huge differences, in terms of both language and scale. It's really hard in our theatre to tell stories of a certain size or scope - I'm speaking broadly, but very few people have the patience now for a new work as long as a classic four or five act play, much less a story that would last 10 hours. In terms of language, playwrights - at least writers working in a traditional mode where there are consistent characters and a real-world setting - internalize the play's world and reveal it through dialogue. In most cases, the words playwrights use are determined by the character speaking: if there are three or four words that might work in a moment, the writer knows the one this character is most likely to choose. In a novel, not only does the dialogue no longer bear this narrative burden, the narrative vocabulary that takes its place is liberated from that character's range. What gets described and why and to what degree is entirely up for grabs in a way a playwright never has to deal with. It's a lot like suddenly having about two dozen more crayons to color with - which isn't to say you have to use them, but the process of consideration is transformed.

Also, novels are pretty enticing for a playwright because you don't have to wait for the work of other people for the thing to be finished. At one time or another I think most everyone in the theatre feels the constraint of its collaborative process. Having collaborators can be lovely, but sometimes it's nice to be your own boss.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  As a kid I lived for several years on the shore of Puget Sound, near a protected area of beach sand that would be flooded by the rising tide, but without the impact of waves. This allowed me to construct very elaborate sand castles that would perish in reliably slow motion: the water would rise to the top of the walls, lapping away, until with a dam-busting rush the sand would give and everything in between this wall and the next (and there were always things in between - villages, monuments, churches, rooted in false security) would be swept away. The whole process would take hours. And the next day, when the tide was out, the beach would be flattened, empty and smooth as a page.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I would wish for theatre to be more important to our culture. Right now it feels fairly marginal, and with a very few exceptions the most prominent work isn't so interesting. This isn't news to anyone, and a lot of the theatre world is scrambling to address this gap, especially amongst younger people, and clearly it's a complicated issue: the long development process that most plays go through to reach the stage of major theatres makes it very harder to find work that's timely and immediate; ticket prices are generally ridiculous compared to other forms of entertainment; the corporate sponsors of theatre are rich people and banks and airlines - we might as well be ballet or opera, etc. I do believe that what theatre offers as a medium is really important in an ever more technology-defined world (and a more tech-dependent culture), and clearly there are a lot of smart people doing things to address these issues - Todd London, David Dower, and Polly Carl come foremost to mind, though they're definitely swimming against the tide.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket, for sure. When I think of people working now, I don't know that any particular names come to mind. There's a lot of great writing happening now - I wish it was more prominent, and I wish playwrights had more of a role in theatre as a whole. I think it's a great thing that Kwame Kwei-Armah is running Center Stage. I would love Tony Kushner to run the Public for a few years instead of writing screenplays. That he isn't is no judgement on him, of course - I doubt anyone's asked if he's free - but we'd have a more compelling theatre if that kind of thing was on the table.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like theatre that makes me ask questions of myself instead of playing to what I already know. I like sophisticated and adventurous narrative structures. I like plays where the writer has been rigorous about what they've made - whether it's a play about relationship or politics or a historical circumstance. I feel like I've seen enough whimsy and indulgence - or maybe it's just that I can't bear a theatre of lowered stakes in these times.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Very little, except to write plays that are theatrical, that push and celebrate the form, that embrace the artifice and the hand-made. I disagree with trying to accommodate theatre to more popular styles - whether that means television-friendly dramaturgy or twitter-friendly areas of seating - because those styles will always be better realized elsewhere. Aside from that, I think that most successful playwrights gather a gang of people around them, actors and directors, and other writers with whom they kick around the world. These people will make your work stronger. They'll save your life.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi, at ART and Yale Rep. It's a fantastic play. I'd also love to recommend Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage, a new novel by Honor Molloy, which is simply superb. For myself, my novel The Chemickal Marriage comes out in the US this September on Zola, a new digital bookseller ( ) that's out to save us all from Amazon.


Anonymous said...

"enough whimsy and indulgence"? What an interesting phrase. Can you ofer some more words around what you mean? Indulgent to what? Indulging in what?

It sounds like you have an interesting point of view, and I'd love to hear more.

Seth Christenfeld said...

Ah, but are there plans for a US physical release for The Chemickal Wedding, or am I going to have to order a copy from the UK and be stuck with three books that don't match each other? ;-)