BWW Interview: Philip Dawkins Talks New Play THE GENTLEMAN CALLER
Philip Dawkins's latest play is making its New York premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The play recounts the fateful meeting of William Inge and Tennessee Williams prior to the Chicago premiere of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Inge, a newspaper critic, invites Williams to his St. Louis apartment for an interview, which ultimately begins a relationship that would forever alter the course of American theatre and the lives of both of these now celebrated playwrights. We sat down with Dawkins to get the inside scoop on this sexy and searing new drama.
Where did the idea for this play come from?
Well, it's an entirely true story. These meetings did happen on these dates, in this time, and this is - to the best of my imaginings and research - my guesstimate of what happened inside there. But, I came across this story when I was a resident at the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kansas. That's where playwrights are invited to go live in his childhood home, work and write, and also teach at the local high school and community college.
In the house that he basically based PICNIC on, I was living in Miss Rosemary's room in this town where he grew up, which was full of people who had lots of anecdotes about him, fond and weird remembrances of him, and who still didn't know much about him. He was was deeply private. Being there, I just got so very interested in his work. I got very interested in the person who grew up in this space and went on to write these plays. And, somebody - I can't even remember who - told me about this meeting between Tennessee Williams and William Inge, and how Tennessee Williams really discovered him [Inge] and helped him grow his voice. I thought, "Well, that's fascinating." I really love stories of artists seeing other artists, and queer people seeing other queer people, and drawing them safely out to this other space where they can flourish and thrive.
Then, for me, it became a question of, when you draw somebody out, when you make yourself vulnerable, when you give of yourself, it has a safety about it, but also, it has a disruptiveness about it. And, is it possible to keep things 100% thriving without also ultimate destroying yourself, as these two men unfortunately did? That's where this play came from.
What is it like for you, an American playwright, to write a play about great American Playwrights who kind of paved the way for your own work?
I mean, I wouldn't say they kind of paved the way. I would say they paved it. These artists and these queer people writing from the middle of the last century and previous to that were really the people who pushed all the boundaries and created this space and built the rooms that we all stepped into. So, in many ways, it's a huge task to come in and occupy those rooms. And, in another, it is absolutely my obligation. They cleared the way. We absolutely have to step into it. It doesn't mean I have to write biographical work about them, but, in this case, it feels like honoring people who mean very, very much to you, which is exactly what it is. In other ways, it sort of feels like reading the love letters of your ex out loud in public because it's so private. It's so private for them. It's so private for me. And, it's about people who I have a very special relationship with, even though I've never met them.
Looking at your work and your own body of plays, are there any things in your plays that you feel are definitely homages to these playwrights from before you wrote THE GENTLEMAN CALLER?
Oh, certainly. Very much so. I tend to write actor porn. I tend to write plays that actors can get into and just chew up. They require somebody with a lot of breath support and a lot of willingness to go there. I think if you're going to do a Tennessee Williams monologue, the best advice is to take a deep breath and pay attention to the punctuation. I think that I have a similarity there, and I really let myself go with that in this. What Tennessee Williams and William Inge get away with in their writing would not fly today, so, for me, it was finding that balance between what can I get away with being true to their voices, and what can we tolerate on stage today from a voice that's not theirs.
But, I take a lot more from Inge: the subtle pain of just trying to exist and the constant, double-sided humor and pain of the undoable task of living. I think those are always palpable and present in Inge's work, and that's something that I'm pretty much always interested in in my work. I don't write angry plays. I don't write plays where people are throwing things at each other and being hateful and awful to each other. I write plays about people trying to make dinner, about people trying to do something nice for somebody else, and it still doesn't work because it's difficult just to be alive. I think that's what I learned from William Inge.
That's really beautiful, especially thinking back on the play that introduced me to you, FAILURE, A LOVE STORY.
Yeah. And, I think that one is a good example of what I try to do. These are all people actively trying to help each other out, and be good to one another, and yet, it is still painful. You know? And, where I'm more like Inge is I'm less interested in writing about rich, white people screaming than I am in people who don't necessarily have all the money in the world, or these big, white-collar gigs, but who are just trying, and trying well with good intentions. There's still pain and beauty in that.
With THE GENTLEMAN CALLER, what is your writing process like?
I always think I know the answer to that question, and then each play shows up and tells me that I don't. [Laughs] I sort of do each play differently, but there's always a few things that are the same. I always do a heavy amount of research upfront. With this one, because it was historical, I did a heavy amount of research. I have a whole bookshelf at home that is just basically Tennessee Williams and William Inge material.
Then, I usually let it sit. I put Post-It notes inside books. I do everything on Post-It notes to the detriment of the environment. I'm sorry. I put all of my ideas, themes, thoughts for characters, and lines on Post-It notes, and I just sort of arrange them on the floor in a way that makes sense to me. Then I storyboard it that way, and I look for where there are holes. It's like, "Oh, I have a huge hole from getting from this to this," or "This isn't fleshed out," and I'll write that out. And, I'll put those Post-It notes in that order on my wall in front of me, or, sometimes, I leave them on the floor, and I'll begin writing. I'll have my bullet points in the form of Post-It notes, and those will be my goal posts that I need to reach as I go through it.
Then, about halfway, or two-thirds of the way, through the play, I'll abandon the rest of the Post-It notes because it's changed and morphed into something I couldn't have imagined, and I start going rogue.
THE GENTLEMAN CALLER premiered in Chicago, and now it is here in New York City. What has that been like getting to transfer from one city to the next?
Well, it's still running in Chicago! They actually close on the same day, I believe. They might close within one day of each other, actually. But, they close on the same weekend. I get production reports from both too. It's amazing. I can't believe that it's happening, and I feel very, very, very grateful.
It's also like being told that your wife and your mistress are giving birth on the same day and both live in different cities, you know. Who do you go to, and who do you send flowers to? [Laughs] It's wonderful. It's really great, and the productions are very, very different from each other, which I find reassuring. That to me, says the play has legs and staying power. It doesn't just have to be a recreation of the thing it was before, even if the thing it was before is currently running. So, that's good. I like when productions are super different from one another.
Do you have an idealized future of THE GENTLEMAN CALLER?
I mean, yes. Every idealized version is that it runs in every major regional theater, does f**king great, and changes the world. What that translates to is we're putting it out there and seeing what happens. [Laughs]
Sounds good. So, what advice would you offer to someone who maybe is wanting to kind of follow in your footsteps and do what you're doing as a playwright?
I have two answers. First, exercise and cultivate patience because theater is a slow-cook movement. It's the considered response to things, not the quick response, and things happen really slowly. If patience is not your bag, theater may not be your thing. Or, work on patience. That was the advice I needed when I was very little, and it's the advice I still need.
Second, if you're young in the field, network laterally. Use your friends. Work with the people who are right next to you, who you value and believe in because if you're constantly reaching up and trying to throw an overhead pass, it's going to be difficult and your script is always going to be on the bottom of the pile. But, if you work with people you admire, who are standing right next to you, and who are also trying to do the same thing, you're going to make something amazing. And, in five years, you'll be running things anyway, so it goes along with patience. Work with the people you already admire instead of trying to get in to some building that you don't even know if you like. That's what I always tell my students on the last day of class. That and don't forget to turn in your projects.