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Cap T interviews Dying City playwright Christopher Shinn

15 January 2010

It’s not often that Capital T gets to interview a Pulitzer prize nominated playwright, but that’s just what we did after Christopher Shinn agreed to talk about his play DYING CITY with our Literary Manager Carrie Klypchak.  The 34 year old playwright, whose adaptation of HEDDA GABLER ran on Broadway last Spring, was nominated in 2008 for a Pulitzer Prize in drama for his play DYING CITY.

His plays have been premiered by the Royal Court Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, the Vineyard Theatre, South Coast Rep, and Soho Theatre, and later seen regionally in the United States and around the world. He is the winner of an OBIE in Playwriting (2004-2005) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting (2005), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist (2008), was shortlisted for the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play (2008), and has also been nominated for an Olivier Award for Most Promising Playwright (2003), a TMA Award for Best New Play (2006), a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play (2007), and a South Bank Show Award for Theatre (2009). In 2009, his adaptation of Hedda Gabler premiered on Broadway at the Roundabout (American Airlines Theatre) and he has also written short plays for Naked Angels, the 24 Hour Plays, and the New York International Fringe Festival (2002 winner, Best Overall Production). He has received grants from the NEA/TCG Residency Program and the Peter S. Reed Foundation, and he is a recipient of the Robert S. Chesley Award. His plays are published in collections from TCG and A&C Black, and in acting editions from Dramatists Play Service and Playscripts. He teaches playwriting at the New School for Drama.

CK: Can you speak a bit about your personal inspiration for writing DYING CITY and the developmental process of the show’s practical realization?

Shinn: I wanted to write about what was going on in the world and at the time I began thinking about the play, the war in Iraq was starting. After Abu Ghraib happened, I started wondering about the ways sex and violence are intertwined, something that had interested me for a long time. At this point I began imagining some characters — I wanted to keep the cast list short because I felt like I could reach something very primal by just placing a man and woman onstage.

CK: Although DYING CITY is imbued with contemporary political perspectives, just as prevalent seems to be each of the characters negotiations in establishing his or her individual identity. Could you speak a bit about how you see these two foci intersecting?

Shinn:I don’t think any work of art can be politically effective unless it is psychologically complex. So I really start from trying to create interesting, conflicted characters. It’s not that I don’t think about the political at all, just that I try to think of the individual without in any way imposing an ideological agenda onto them. I’m more interested in exploring the “why” of people than anything else, and that exploration inevitably encompasses the political. But I have no interest in putting forward my political opinions — mostly because I don’t think my opinions are necessarily correct, or all that interesting.

CK: In DYING CITY, the characters not only exhibit clear tendencies toward escapism, but also seem to struggle to achieve connections in their relationships with others. In a script with such contemporary relevancy, how do you see these negotiations as reflective of our current society?

Shinn: I think it’s become a cliche to say that “people don’t connect in our time.” Then follows a rant about the technologies we all use constantly. I actually think that people do connect, just not in ways that satisfy everyone. People are constantly doing things with and to one another that leave one or both (or all) of them traumatized. So for me the interesting question becomes, “Why do people do what they do?” Motivation is the great mystery and a terrific subject for works of art, particularly the theatre since the audience is observing action and trying then to articulate motivation for those actions, without access to the innermost thoughts of the characters.

CK: In the structure of DYING CITY, you navigate “time” in very interesting ways for the audience. Can you speak a bit about how you believe your choices might offer the audience additional insights in such a character-driven piece?

Shinn: Since the play is a lot about trauma, I wanted it to have the structure of a trauma. After a trauma, the past keeps intruding on the present, despite all our conscious efforts to escape it and move forward. I thought by structuring the play this way, it wouldn’t just be about trauma, but the play itself might actually achieve a traumatic force for the audience (in a safe and controlled way, of course).

CK: Besides DYING CITY, I know you have written at least one other play, THE COMING WORLD, that also has twin characters. What is it about this construction that attracts you as a playwright?

Shinn: I don’t think I’m attracted by twins as a playwright as much as I am as a person. From the beginnings of literature onwards there are stories of twins, brothers, doubles — which speaks to a primal, universal power. I think this mechanism in myth and storytelling allows us to access feelings about loneliness, otherness, merger, separation, autonomy, envy, desire, longing, loss, identity — our obsessions (both conscious and unconscious).

CK: Were the roles of Craig and Peter in DYING CITY always intended to be played by one actor? How do you feel that the casting of one actor in these two roles aids your effort at reaching something primal  onstage?

Shinn: I did always intend one actor to portray these roles, but mostly because I don’t believe there are too many identical twin acting pairs! Certainly not enough good ones to support multiple productions of the play at any one time. But I’d love to see two identical twin actors play the parts. I do think “looking the same” is an important aspect of the play in that it raises questions about how we become who we are apart from our genetic foundation.

CK: As a young playwright, you have already received numerous awards for your work, which includes becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for DYING CITY. How do you see that this honor has affected your work as a professional playwright?

Shinn: I don’t think it’s affected it too much. A lot of people get shortlisted and nominated for awards. I don’t think people remember most of these awards and nominations a few years after they are announced. It’s nice to be recognized and it can be painful to feel one’s work hasn’t been properly recognized, but mostly I feel that awards are just a small part of the artist’s life, and the only thing that really matters in the end is the work itself.

CK: You recently premiered your adaptation of HEDDA GABLER on Broadway, which is only one instance of diversity in your body of work. What do you see next in your playwriting efforts?

Shinn: I wish I knew! The thing inside me that writes the plays is pretty autonomous! All I can do is make room for it to emerge when it’s ready and not fight what it wants to say.