BWW Interview: Christopher Shinn of AN OPENING IN TIME at Hartford Stage Company
Obie-winning playwright Christopher Shinn grew up in central Connecticut (Wethersfield, to be precise) and attended an arts magnet high school in Hartford. He saw lots of shows at the Hartford Stage as a teenager, which has since also produced his play DYING CITY. Now 40, he's currently rehearsing the world premiere of his new play AN OPENING IN TIME at Hartford Stage, at the same time the second production of his play TEDDY FERRARA is rehearsing in London. He's back and forth. BroadwayWorld caught him on this side of the Atlantic for an interview followed by a public conversation in a library he frequented when he was young. What follows are highlights from both conversations.
BWW: So you're quite busy right now with two plays opening on two continents! What's that like?
CS: It's exhausting, but a good problem to have! One concrete difference is that the show in the US gets just 3½ weeks of rehearsal--for a world premiere--and the London show, a second mounting, gets 5 weeks of rehearsal. I also teach playwriting at the New School, and I've had to delay and reschedule classes until after both shows are launched.
BWW: Your first big success was in London, and you've had a string of plays produced there, despite being an American playwright. Why is that, do you think?
CS: Plays that have a social or psychological focus are more welcome in England. And most of my work is in that vein. Brits find such topics easier to talk about than Americans do, I think.
BWW: You wrote TEDDY FERRARA in 2011; it premiered in Chicago in 2013; and now it's going up in London with a new director and a new cast. I've read that you were moved to write it after Tyler Clementi's suicide following his discovery that a college roommate had videotaped his sexual explorations with another man. Are you making many changes to the text?
CS: The play is about youth and love and desire and sexuality and that's all pretty timeless. But things have changed dramatically in youth culture and technology and the social surround since I wrote the play. The sudden rise in visibility of trans people is one example. So there's plenty to rethink.
BWW: Tell us about AN OPENING IN TIME. It's set here, in central Connecticut, where you grew up.
CS: Right. It's really a play about love. A woman returns to the place she used to live, 30 years earlier, after the death of her husband, in hopes she might rekindle an old connection. The epigraph is from Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE: "Come and lead me/Unto these sorrows."
BWW: I understand you've lived through a significant health crisis, requiring more than a year of chemotherapy and partial amputation of one leg.
CS: Yes. I chose an older protagonist for AN OPENING IN TIME because I felt closer to my own mortality after being so sick. Illness aged me, psychically. I was left thinking about love, and home. There was an undeniable nostalgia.
BWW: What helped you get through such a dire health crisis?
CS: I clung to my dreams as evidence that I was still alive. The dreams weren't just about illness. They were about my past, about relationships. The first draft of AN OPENING IN TIME was all internal fantasies, even hallucinations, in the mind of the main character. Only later did dialogue emerge.
BWW: How do you arrive at structure for something that begins that way?
CS: For me, structure is intuitive. It is similar to the way dreams unfold. The less I think about structure, the more an interesting structure emerges for each play I write.
BWW: You like to write about the psyche, but plays have to be physicalized in three dimensions. What's your take on set design?
CS: I hate busy set design. I hate excessively detailed design. I like design that evokes the reality of the concrete situation but I want the tension between reality and imagination to be visible. A little alienation (in the Brechtian sense) is a good thing. Sometimes people call my plays naturalistic, but I think this isn't really accurate.
BWW: I know you like to be involved in casting. What are you looking for in actors?
CS: I'm very intuitive. I usually know within 10 seconds if I'm interested. Something of the actor's soul gets communicated right away. I'm always careful to reserve judgment and give the actor more time since I know I can be wrong but I really believe that the soul and the psyche of the actor is being communicated directly to the audience, along with the text I've written. Could a bad person play a good character? I would say no. Since the gap between what someone says and what they actually mean is where great acting is essential, I take an active role in casting.
BWW: Both you and director Oliver Butler went to high school in CT. Did you know each other back then?
CS: No. I didn't meet him until after I saw plays he'd directed with his company The Debate Society. When I heard him speak about a Will Eno play he'd directed, I felt an instant connection. I recommended him to Darko (Tresnjak, Artistic Director at Hartford Stage) who was very receptive. In fact there's a small world quality to all this. Oliver was an intern at Williamstown Summer Theater Festival when Darko directed there, and wanted to become a director based in part on what he saw Darko do. It's great to bring them together.
Library Patron: Tell us about your writing process.
CS: I have to make the space and the time to write. If it's daylight, ideally I'm at home keeping open the possibility I will be able to work. I'm unlikely to accept a lunch invitation when I have a project in the works, because that's likely to derail me for the whole day. But it can't be forced.
BWW: What are you reading now?
CS: I've just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It's a novel written by a woman about the friendships among four men. Fundamentally, it's a novel about trauma, and the question of whether love can heal trauma. That's a central question for me. I've read a lot of Murakami. Next up is Jonathan Franzen's newest novel, Purity. I read novels more than plays--though I see a lot of plays--because the interiority appeals to me and I don't get snagged by feeling competitive with other playwrights.
Library Patron: Care to mention any plays you've seen recently and liked?
CS: One is Halley Feiffer's play I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD. It's great on the obsession with validation from others and the addiction to fame and how alcohol and drugs play into that. It's very upsetting but also very brave and deep. Another is YOU GOT OLDER by Clare Barron. It's about illness and the inability to accept mortality, issues that hit me hard now. There are a lot of good emerging woman playwrights right now.
BWW: Do you have advice for young people contemplating a career in the theater?
CS: If they tell me they want to be an artist, I try to make sure they know how hard it is, without getting sadistic. It's a tough career. And it never really gets easier. If you make it as hard on yourself as it should be, really diving into your own psyche and trying to bring what matters up into the light of day, then it can also be really meaningful.
Library Patron: What do you want audiences to take away from your plays?
CS: I want audiences to think and to feel, but I don't want to tell them WHAT they should think or feel. If there's too much invested in controlling audience response, or too much didacticism, I'm not interested. I guess you could call me libertarian in that sense--though not politically!