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Theater In Conversation

Staying Alive in a Dying City Christopher Shinn with Mark Armstrong

Christopher Shinn was born in Hartford, Connecticut and lives in New York. His first play Four premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1998 and put Shinn on the map when he was 23. His subsequent plays include Other People (Royal Court, Playwrights Horizons), The Coming World (Soho Theatre, London), What Didn’t Happen, On The Mountain (both Playwrights Horizons) and Where Do We Live (Royal Court, Vineyard Theatre, OBIE award for Playwriting). In his latest play Dying City, a young therapist whose husband dies while on military duty in Iraq is confronted a year later by his identical twin brother. Dying City begins performances February 15 at Lincoln Center Theater, following an acclaimed run at the Royal Court in 2006. Shortly after rehearsals began, Christopher Shinn talked to Mark Armstrong of the Rail about the production, subjectivity, morality and surviving as an artist in today’s commercial theater landscape.

Photo credit: Matt Otto

Mark Armstrong (Rail): Dying City is your fifth play that has opened in London. What are some of the differences between working in London and working in the U.S.?

Christopher Shinn (Shinn): In London, in my experience, the text is seen as sacred. If there are any notes before going into rehearsal, they are delivered with tact in a non-paternalistic way. And here there seems to be a greater expectation that the text can, should, and will change during the rehearsal period and preview period. And there’s one really clear way this is borne out: In London, at the Royal Court for example, you’ll have three or four previews before press and opening, while here, in a non-profit theater, it’s usually between three or four weeks of previews before press and opening. So you see the different philosophies manifesting in the performance schedule. Because they don’t expect many, if any, rewrites, in the previews in London you only have a few days before you invite the press, whereas here the expectation is that there will be work done on the play during that time. It’s a really big difference.

Rail: Your work is really honest about your life and your experiences and is a really distinctive body of work, which is instantly recognizable as your unique voice. Do you think it’s harder now for playwrights to create their own distinctive body of work over time?

Shinn: That’s a good question. I’m really lucky that I got produced right away and felt that my uniqueness in particular was what was valued. Now, if those initial plays had been rejected, I wonder if I would have tried to write plays that were less specific, or less unique. Probably I would have. I can’t see that I would have kept doing what I was doing if it hadn’t worked. So I did have that opportunity. I think that’s what’s special about an artist, that they’re so unique that you’ve never seen anything like what they’ve done and through the uniqueness of another subjectivity, you further discover and discriminate your own unique perspective.

The thought that individual voices should be homogenized in order to fit into the marketplace is a disturbing thought and I think what you’re implying is correct—that if individual, unique voices are not supported then those voices will disappear. The writers will not feel that their unique subjectivity is being valued. And if you don’t feel that your unique subjectivity is valued, you’ll look to what the culture already values and mimic it. To me, that’s the destruction of art by the marketplace.

And it would seem that that is happening, and will continue to happen, because now that the marketplace is king, the focus is on what people are thought to like and want. It seems that right now a really crass voyeurism and exhibitionism is the order of the day, and either conservatism or cynicism. You either have Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart. But deeply felt subjectivity is pretty rare in the popular culture. If you really want to find the expression of deep subjectivity, you have to go to the margins. There are a few established artists in different mediums that are doing great work, but it’s increasingly rare to find that in the mainstream.

Rail: Where did the impetus for Dying City come from?

Shinn: I was intensely interested in what was going on in the war in Iraq and I wanted to write about it. I was really interested in what was happening internally: why would this decision be made? We understood what was being articulated, but I wanted to know what else might be going on, which is just a great question of drama. It’s what the Greeks asked, and Shakespeare: what else is going on with these people who make big decisions to fight wars? I was interested in exploring a younger generation fighting a war and coming to terms with war. And I was also really interested in the hatred of George Bush in my generation and the cynicism that attached itself to it. I also saw acquaintances who held a certain disdain for war and violence on a global scale, but who didn’t seem to have problems doing violence to other people in the interpersonal realm. They were cruel to others, they were violent, they were deceitful to people they liked or loved, or claimed to like or love. I thought that was a paradox. If what you object to is violence or deceit, why wouldn’t you object to it in your own life as well?

So it seemed to me that however justified the hatred of George Bush was, it was also complicated and seemed to be serving other functions. It wasn’t just a rational response to an unjustified war, but also was a way of using the war to deal with, or not deal with, their own inner world. I was also thinking about trauma and loss, the legacy of Vietnam, fathers and sons, the first President Bush, and I was going back to those great plays, The Persians, The Oresteia. All of that sort of coalesced and I began to write.

Rail: You’ve written about twins before, in The Coming World and Sockdolager. What interests you about that dynamic?

Shinn: It’s a couple of things. It gives the lie to genetic determinism. It’s a really simple way of saying the social world exists and it has an impact on who we are, that it’s not just genes. One theater that turned down this play said “Isn’t it homophobic? Aren’t you saying that being gay is a pathology, because these are identical twins and one is straight and one is gay?” I told them that anybody who believes that science has discovered what causes homosexuality is wrong. Nobody knows. There are different theories about genes, hormones, environment, but in actual identical twins, if one is gay there’s only a 50 percent chance that the other is gay. In at least half of these cases you have a straight identical twin and a gay identical twin. Which means genes cannot be wholly responsible for sexuality. I’m interested in the ways that the social world determines individual psychology as much as other factors do, that maybe are getting more play in the popular culture.

Also it’s very theatrical. It’s great to have one actor playing two parts. They love to do it. Audiences like it. It’s virtuostic and it’s cool. It allows you to have a three-character play with only two actors, thereby saving the theater even more money. And it’s a way of exploring narcissism and also the split in each one of us. We have different parts to ourselves and it’s a way of concretizing that fact.

Rail: Notions of morality, of what’s moral, often find their way into your plays and your comments. That’s a word that’s been co-opted by the right wing in recent years. What does morality mean to you?

Shinn: That’s a good question. Morality is not about correct or incorrect behavior, it’s about an inner orientation that manifests itself outwardly. What’s so great about drama is that drama can explore what’s inside. Conservatives just look at behavior, that’s all they care about. People should do this, and shouldn’t do that. Certainly there’s an argument to be made for behavior being legal or illegal, or seen as right and wrong. But at a certain point you have to go beyond that and look deeper. That’s something that drama can do, it can reveal what’s happening in the inner world, and what actions mean, or may mean. So understanding what is moral is a process of understanding how we come to talk about our inner worlds and what’s happening in them. And how we’re able to translate what’s happening in them to action, to language, to relationships, and to community. It’s very intangible. All we can really see is the actions—we don’t have direct access to the inner world that a novelist or a poet might. But what we’re trying to illuminate is the inner world, through action. It’s an exciting challenge.

Rail: You said recently that American critics have tended to respond to your work in purely psychological terms, and not social or political ones. From a sociological point of view how do you see Dying City?

Shinn: In the play, the two brothers are from the Midwest, and the wife of one of the brothers is not. And the brothers come from a working class background and the woman in the play comes from money. I’m always interested in social class. One of the things I wanted to explore is how where you come from in part determines your political orientation and the way you think about America. Military service, of course, is one of the big places where the individual and social spheres intersect. Rich people don’t have to go into the military in this country. In my play, one of the characters goes to R.O.T.C. to pay for school, so he does have to serve, be in the military. In the play, the audience has to think about not only the positions the characters hold, but how their positions are determined by where they come from, what their relationship to the country and the military have been, and what their family’s relationship to the country and military have been, based in large part on their economic situation.

Rail: You were one of the first and most prominent artists to speak out about the cancellation of My Name is Rachel Corrie by the New York Theatre Workshop. What did that episode teach us about the viability of politically provocative work in the not-for-profit theater?

Shinn: It showed that a theater that considers itself politically progressive cancelled, or postponed for political reasons, a play that is not very inflammatory, as proven by not only its run in London, but its run in New York. They cancelled a play with a pedigree and celebrity names attached to it. If a play like that is cancelled, then truly a progressive, potentially inflammatory political work probably doesn’t have a chance in our not-for-profit theaters. Obviously, it’s not a very inspiring message about the viability of political theater in New York’s major nonprofit theaters.

We also learned about the smugness of the theater electing itself superior to the work they had agreed to produce and deciding that that work had to be supplemented. That’s very smug and paternalistic. Once institutions start to see themselves as superior to the works of art they are presenting, I think artists are in big trouble. It means that they might be forced to submit to the desires of institutions in order to have their voice heard at all, leading to a watering down of that voice, or a contradiction of that voice even, which seemed to be what New York Theatre Workshop, from what they said, wanted to do with My Name is Rachel Corrie. They wanted a play that would contradict that play—“the other side of the story.” It’s really horrible. That’s not why artists do their thing. They don’t do their thing to be one of many voices, or have their voice undercut by others, or to please an institution with an imperative of even-handedness or community responsibility. It’s really bad news. The art has to be primary. The institution exists for the art; the art doesn’t exist for the institution. Once it’s reversed, it’s bad news for the individual creator.

Rail: We’ve cycled around to where we began with this, which is the notion of individual uniqueness and autonomy in someone’s voice, versus the will of the collective, or will of external forces.

Shinn: Yeah. I think it’s a really big deal. It’s sad that in a politically regressive time the mainstream left would become less tolerant of individual voices. We could speculate that it is fear. It’s fear of the times that we’re living in, which leads to fear of the individual voice that asks us to examine a frightening political or psychological situation. NYTW got really frightened, and wanted to do something safer in an unsafe time. But I don’t think that retreat is the way to go. In difficult and frightening times, you’ve got to do the really dangerous stuff to help the difficult conversations happen. I mean, the Middle East is an impossible situation. How do you even begin to talk about it? To begin that conversation is incredibly painful, incredibly difficult and frightening. It’s much easier to say let’s not really have a conversation. Or, let’s have lots of conversations.

Rail: All those things you just mentioned sound like the stuff of Drama.

Shinn: Yeah, they are. Then I take it down to the basic fear of feeling. My objection to Jon Stewart is not that he isn’t entertaining—he obviously is, he’s intelligent and he’s sharp. Sometimes I hear that audience laughing and I think “Do they still have the capacity to feel, have they grown too cynical?” We all need to laugh about the times we’re in, but we need to be able to cry about them, too. We also need to be able to be scared by them. And theater is a place where you can be scared, where you can grieve, it’s a place for fear, a place for mourning. That’s not likely to happen in a corporate movie theater or on a corporate television station or in a corporate magazine. Theater is one of those places where that traumatic space is still alive—and the only place where it’s a communal event. Now is the time for theaters to step up, to provide what can’t be provided anywhere else. To think we’re going to retreat from that is really disturbing. And I think it is inexplicable. As far as I can understand it, it’s fear of emotion, difficult emotion, and fear that once we start talking about these questions we’ll see how intractable and how impossible they are. That’s going to be too overwhelming for us. That’s as far as my theorizing gets about why we haven’t seen the theater get increasingly dangerous and increasingly exciting as the times have gotten so dangerous and so frightening.

Dying City, by Christopher Shinn, directed by James Macdonald, runs at Lincoln Center Theater from February 15th to April 29th. Show times: Tues-Sat at 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm.
For tickets: 212-239-6200 or
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Mark Armstrong

Mark Armstrong is the artistic director of The Production Company, whose production of Stephen Belber's Finally opens in May 2007 at the 45th Street Theater.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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