Christopher Shinn and I spoke over the phone and decided we’d have our conversation at New Dramatists, where we’re both member playwrights. Because it’s summer, the building is relatively quiet and relatively air-conditioned. I’ve long been an admirer of Chris’s work, since he studied with me in the dramatic writing program at New York University in 1994–95. I encountered many promising young writers during the time I taught at NYU, but Chris was one of just a handful whose work demonstrated not only a high level of talent and intelligence but a genuine seriousness of purpose.
Since his graduation from NYU, I have enthusiastically followed Chris’s career. His play Four received critical praise when produced recently at the Tribeca Playhouse and Manhattan Theater Club. He has received equally fine responses for plays produced in London at the Royal Court, including Other People and Where Do We Live. A new play, What Didn’t Happen, premieres this fall at Playwrights Horizons in New York.
Chris depicts a world plagued by emotional and social poverty and disconnection. It is a world populated by characters who an audience comes to realize have much more in common with one another than might initially be apparent. What they have in common, though, is often not very pretty and, more often than not, ushers in further impoverishment, if not downright catastrophe.
You don’t exactly leave Chris’s plays humming the tunes. But you do come away engaged by his perceptive and thoughtful portrayal of human interaction.
David Greenspan One thought I had while reading What Didn’t Happen was how frightening and unsettling the play is. I sense immediately that something bad is going to happen. I think that’s true of all of your plays—something ominous is lurking, something catastrophic. Is that intentional? Do you agree with what I’m saying?
Christopher Shinn I do agree, and I’m wondering why that is true of my writing. As a teenager I read A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey into Night. We listened to Death of a Salesman, the Lee J. Cobb recording, in 10th-grade English class. The feeling of dread overpowered me in each of those plays. I remember the physical sensation of coming to the end of Long Day’s Journey into Night; I was unable to breathe. Something about a play ending frightened me. We were witnesses to people’s lives and then it was over, done. In a novel, because there’s so much more room, that sense of dread isn’t necessarily present. But in a play there’s always that sense for me of what’s going to happen and that there’s not much time.
DG In the Poetics, Aristotle says that certain people are drawn to comic portrayals and others to serious, tragic portrayals. Though there are humorous elements in your plays, in the main, they’re serious. They’re a dramatic examination of people’s behavior. Your characters’ distortions are very painful.
CS The characters are in tremendous pain. I suppose in a way the plays are my attempt to understand my own pain; that’s partly what’s motivated me to write them. I’ve found the world and my life to be overwhelming, so it makes sense that that would be written into the plays. I see my writing in the poetic tradition of Walt Whitman, of excavating the self and discovering something much larger in the process. I try to make sense of the conflicts I have through characters and I hope in the process open up to something much larger than the individual.
DG Another consistent element in your work is that the characters are gravely mistaken about what’s causing them problems.
CS The characters can’t see what’s really troubling them, but I hope the audience can. That’s what makes my plays work. Usually it’s quite difficult for the characters to see their own behavior, despite how earnestly they try to come to grips with how their behavior affects them. There’s a real pathos in that, if the audience can locate what’s really ailing the characters, what’s really getting in their way.
DG Rereading the plays, I found that certain characters had more in common with each other than initially struck me. Dave in What Didn’t Happen and Stephen in Where Do We Live. They’re both very articulate, have a high moral sense. Their worldview is generous, and logical, but their obsession with social issues obscures what’s really going on around them—and inside them.
CS It masks their narcissism. Both of those characters are artists. An artist often utilizes a grandiose sense of self to be able to write, to create art, and to ask the people to watch what they’ve made. I’ve always found that a little troubling. It’s almost as if an artist has to speak from a position of grandiosity in order to have that strong sense of right and wrong. I’m a little uncomfortable with that as well because it’s not a complete picture of who I am. Behind the art is the artist. These plays are about my coming to terms with myself as someone speaking from a position of moral authority as to what constitutes correct and incorrect behavior versus what’s really happening. Those plays are explorations of what it means to be an artist and how easily one can disown very real parts of oneself in creating art.
DG But the situations are different. In What Didn’t Happen, Dave is an older, established writer, a mentor. Stephen in Where Do We Live is younger and not well known, and the only artist in the play. What Didn’t Happen seems more about artists in general. There are a number of them in the play, all with distinct intentions, and they’re all rather well educated. Part of what’s being examined in What Didn’t Happen is how Dave’s grandiosity compromises his work.
CS And also sabotages his relationships. His inability to be himself transforms into rage. He sets very high standards for himself as a person and as an artist. The play, in part, is about how difficult those standards are to live up to and how our ideals or ambitions are always compromised by material forces.
DG But Dave doesn’t really know himself, so how can he maintain his principles? Why is he interested in the younger writer, what does he make of his relationship with his actress/girlfriend?
CS He has an idea of himself, and with that idea he’s created the way people view him. It’s a narcissistic sense of self.
DG A false belief.
CS It crumbles when those around him begin to withdraw their approval. He finds himself at a loss as to who he is and reacts with an infantile rage and lack of identity.
DG How do you see What Didn’t Happen and Where Do We Live in the context of your earlier plays, Four and Other People? What were you trying to do in these new plays that you hadn’t in the earlier plays?
CS The plays always begin as a challenge to myself. It comes time to write another play, and I want to try something I haven’t tried before. In What Didn’t Happen, I wanted to write a play that was set in one place. Where Do We Live is sort of an extension of Four.
DG It is?
CS Yeah. I wanted to write a play with two stories that were separate and yet intersected in thematic rather than in dramatic ways.
DG Other People does that too, to some extent, doesn’t it? It’s set mostly on the Lower East Side.
CS The three main characters are all in one apartment, and they fall into their separate lives, but there’s a triangular thrust to the drama. In Where Do We Live it’s actually the same apartment as in Other People, but the view is larger; now the picture of that place encompasses another apartment down the hall. I’m particularly interested in staging social conflicts rather than psychological ones. It’s exciting and challenging to me to write with a number of different types of characters on a single stage. I’ve always been interested in juxtapositions. You can usually find two main stories rather than one central story in my plays. And often there are juxtapositions within each story, whether they be sexual or racial or class. In Where Do We Live I was interested in examining these two men, one gay and well educated and one working-class and black. Hopefully the juxtapositions allow the audience to see both how these characters are different and how they’re similar.
DG I think they do. The well-educated young white man, Stephen, and the less-educated black man, Shed, have a lot in common, in terms of their isolation and their being drawn into dangerous situations. Is Stephen in Where Do We Live the same Stephen in Other People?
DG And is there a Patricia also in that play?
CS Well, her name in Other People is Petra, because she’s using her stripper name. In Where Do We Live she stops stripping and so she uses her—
DG —real name, Patricia. So that’s the same character.
CS That is the same character.
DG Everybody in your plays is drawn to dangerous situations—people, places, and things that put them not only at psychological risk but in physical danger. Can you talk about why this is of interest to you?
CS I guess my characters reflect my personal longings. In my life I’ve been attracted to dangerous people and dangerous situations, because it felt like something very vital was going on there, something true and real and thrilling. There’s a long literary tradition in this country that’s reflected that idea. The most current example of this is The Sopranos. It’s taken me many years in psychotherapy, thinking both about the culture and my personal history, to begin to deromanticize dangerous lifestyles and milieus.
DG Earlier you were talking about A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Blanche, Willy, and everyone in Long Day’s Journey put themselves in danger—whether it’s with alcohol, sex or drugs—situations that could kill them.
CS So many people have talked about America’s individualistic culture. As a people we do tend to look for individual solutions to our pain. Streetcar and Long Day’s Journey are both examples of people turning to drugs and sex to help them escape from pain that’s not primarily caused by psychological factors but more likely caused by social ones. In Streetcar, a very smart, well-educated woman has little opportunity, at that point in history, to utilize her intelligence and sensitivity. And on one level, at least from my perspective, the play could be about that: when a woman turns to alcohol and sex in lieu of anything meaningful for her to do in the culture. In an Eric Hobsbawm book I was reading not long ago, he said that he felt young people today live in a perpetual present with no sense of either history behind them or future before them; their lives have been reduced to a solipsistic sequence of finding pleasure. They know something is missing but they can’t theorize or test a long-term solution to their longing. I see that in this city and in my life. The need for pleasure can become so consuming. The easiest, quickest routes to pleasure remain the same. Sex and drugs remain a great power.
DG I want to address that in terms of Where Do We Live. Do you feel that social aspects have a greater impact than psychological, familial relationships in determining a character’s behavior?
CS I think the social informs the psychological and that’s what I hope to show. The social and psychological can’t be neatly separated but I believe there are social origins to what we act out interpersonally. If we want to get to the root of the problem personally in our own lives and in the culture at large, then it’s better to look to the social origins of our problems rather than their psychological manifestations.
DG I’m thinking of June in Four; his circumstances don’t seem extraordinary—at least not on a social level—and yet he’s deeply troubled, confused, and isolated. Where do you see the social factor there, as opposed to, say, the experiences he had growing up in his family?
CS He’s terrified of going to school. He’s afraid that people will discover he’s gay. And that fear, that self-hate, manifests in a sexual encounter with a really inappropriate partner. I argue that if June felt safe enough to be openly gay in school then he’d be able to ask another gay schoolmate out and have an age-appropriate relationship. The social problem of homophobia manifests in a psychosexual way for June. We would be better off thinking about homophobia rather than asking, What’s psychologically wrong with June that he needs to sleep with this inappropriate person? I think we need a social perspective to confidently answer that question.
DG What are the social circumstances that impact Dave, a successful writer, in What Didn’t Happen?
CS As much as Dave talks about multiculturalism and the need for various points of view, he has a strong sense of privilege and entitlement both to a certain kind of career and to being seen as having a certain kind of authority, which I think comes from being a straight, white male. He can’t disidentify from that sense of privilege and entitlement.
DG How did you develop the character of Shed in Where Do We Live? A young black man involved in the drug trade.
CS I’m sure there are a variety of reasons, some of which I’m aware of and some of which I’m not. But this particular character was a neighbor of mine who had a father, as he does in the play, who had lost his leg in a car accident. The father went away to the hospital for a very long time to recover. And during that time this young man, at least as far as I could deduce, was dealing drugs out of the apartment and throwing very loud, very raucous parties. When the father returned from the hospital, that stopped. I had a conversation with the father about what had been going on in their lives. That said, I had to fill in a great deal to be able to write about Shed as a character; it’s really just my imagination. If the audience knows I’m a gay white man, then they know that this character is very far from my personal experience and is based on—
CS Observation and credible guesswork rather than any real personal knowledge.
DG I found him very credible. Although you would have to identify more with Stephen, a young white gay man.
CS The only way a community or culture can work is when people from different backgrounds identify with one another on a very basic level and understand that another person has a right to live in peace as they want to, as long as they’re not hurting or infringing on the rights of others. These very basic identifications are essential to a community functioning as such. I wanted to challenge an audience, as I challenge myself when writing the play, to be able to identify with people whose experiences and histories are very far from their own.
DG Even though Shed is the victim of bad economic circumstances, he, like your other characters, creates his own problems. Yet because you draw your characters so thoroughly, we are able to sympathize with them. Even though we could almost hit them over the head for the predicaments they’ve gotten themselves into.
I’ll tell you something. A number of months ago, before I first read Where Do We Live, I had this idea for a play about what I felt was a reemerging hedonism in gay culture. For a time it seemed that a chemical and sexual sobriety had taken hold in the gay community. I’m thinking about the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, a period during the epidemic where we had a wakeup call and an opportunity to reexamine how, as gay men, we were living. But I’ve noticed things reemerging. I don’t go to clubs, but I know enough from the papers about what’s going on. So I had this idea for a play and then I read your play and thought, I don’t think I can write this play anymore—he already wrote it.
DG Your play is an excellent depiction of a new epidemic of thoughtless, self-destructive behavior that probably has its roots in some of the same old issues of self-hatred. Was that on your mind as you depicted the gay community within that play?
CS Absolutely. This generation of gay men, in their twenties now, is a generation that suffered greatly in school, suffered great abuse in their homes—both psychological and physical—a generation that was terrified to come out of the closet.
DG More so do you think than in the previous generation?
CS No, but certainly it wasn’t easy. I felt in my relationships and friendships that the self-hate I was seeing and the self-hate that I, to some extent, shared had to do with homophobia that was not being recognized.
One thing that allowed for a reemergence of chemical and sexual hedonism was this fantasy that there was no more homophobia and that being gay was accepted and celebrated by the world at large.
DG It’s odd to discuss this topic because given where gay people were 30 years ago, it’s almost unbelievable how far the movement has progressed.
CS But my generation doesn’t know that history. Part of the problem is that there is no transmission of gay history. You would be astonished to hear gay men my age speak of the time before AIDS as a time of great sexual freedom, joy, and free love. There’s a sense among these young gay men that the greatest time to be gay was the time right before AIDS. And I’ve always felt there must be a more complicated story than that.
DG I think “gay liberation” unleashed a lot that had been pent up for many years. But the club scene was only a part of the culture; other people were settling down, they still are. And anyway, hedonism was not invented by gay people. One could argue it was perfected by straights. They were the original jet-setters. Gay people have done plenty of partying, but it’s no more a part of the gay culture than it’s part of the straight culture.
CS Growing up in a homophobic culture complicates the ability of gay people to love. If we’re going to love successfully, we have to look at how who we are has been in part created by the traumas we suffered in a culture that didn’t make room for us and in many ways still doesn’t.
DG I want to talk somewhat technically about your plays for a moment. Let’s start with What Didn’t Happen. The ordering of its scenes changed. You went from a chronological ordering to intersplicing the scenes that took place in 1999 with those from 1993. How did that come about?
CS Two reasons. The first is that I overestimated my talent. I thought I could create a strange structure and be so good at it that the audience would follow the play’s leap forward of six years, three-fourths of the way through.
DG When did you find out that that didn’t work?
CS I did a workshop of the play in Los Angeles.
DG They weren’t following it?
CS It didn’t work as it was structured.
DG And what other changes did you make in the play?
CS Well, there was always a strong element of competition between the men, and in the earlier drafts that competition was a bit more sexualized. In continuing to work on the play, I’ve submerged that, thinking that a lot of it can come through in the performance rather than being made explicit in the text. The dialectics were much clearer and sharper from the start in previous drafts. Now some of that energy is negated by social ritual, social niceties. Now I hope the audience can move into the play more gently and more organically. I continue to work on drafts throughout previews. I enjoy rewriting.
DG I found that by entering the play through the young writer, Scott, you know something is very off with his daughter, but the mystery is how it happened, and that made it more dramatic. Where does the title What Didn’t Happen come from? You told me it was in part a reference to Gertrude Stein’s essay “Plays,” which you read in my class at NYU.
CS Yeah, you read it out loud.
DG At New Dramatists, right! I performed it as a monologue. But what doesn’t happen in What Didn’t Happen?
CS Well, the play, first of all, as a representation of reality. I made it up. It’s a story. And then the play is structured around choices people didn’t make that come back to haunt them. I wanted to write a play in which the character is faced, in full consciousness, with a difficult situation and chooses not to respond to it. That happens quite a lot in people’s lives but it’s not often staged.
DG You were talking earlier about Dave (in What Didn’t Happen) being narcissistic. Do you think Scott is, too?
CS Yeah. Absolutely. I’m apologizing for my characters, but it feels to me that narcissism is culturally sanctioned. In Scott’s case, I think his narcissism is encouraged by the way the culture values men being ambitious and promiscuous and competitive. There’s a lot working in favor of Scott’s narcissism. But I hope it’s clear in the play that he also has this little shred of soul that isn’t completely determined by his narcissism, that’s real and has something to say and is struggling to find expression.
DG You had mentioned to me that you revised Where Do We Live quite a lot. What did you do?
CS When I was in the rehearsal room in London, I felt that I had not trusted my storytelling abilities. In Stephen’s story—obviously he’s a character I am close to—I felt very comfortable allowing the audience to have a more complicated relationship with him. Whereas with Shed I spelled out quite clearly from the beginning that he was a good guy in a tough situation. As I continued to work on the piece I found that I could treat Shed as I was treating Stephen. I didn’t need to protect him as I was doing. I hadn’t felt completely comfortable writing about a morally compromised black character, so I was concerned with being as generous as possible to this character whose experience is outside mine. But the more I worked on it with the actors and the more I thought about it myself, I saw I could give this character greater complexity without fear of being racist.
DG We’ve talked about some of the criticism you’ve received because of your depiction of Patricia. Did you change the script in part because of that criticism?
CS I changed it a bit—very little, actually. But one of the criticisms people gave me was that this woman character’s only concerns were the concerns of her male friend, Stephen. It’s complicated—she’s a secondary character in this play and Stephen is the protagonist, so she’s going to function in a different way. But I did feel that since people’s subjectivities take center stage as they do in this play, and really that’s my interest in general, that I have to let the audience see where the secondary characters are coming from and what their perspective is with as equal a force as I show the protagonist’s perspective.
DG Patricia seems to live off other people’s problems because she is not really dealing with her own. Did you delete what happened to the boyfriend in the final draft? What happens to Patricia’s boyfriend?
CS I don’t think anything ever happens.
DG I must have misunderstood it in the play. I thought that they too had broken up and that for all her talk about relationships she wasn’t particularly good at them, either.
CS (laughter) That may be the third play.
DG Was the play inspired by the events of September 11, or did you add those events into the play since you were already working on it?
CS I started writing the play on September 12, 2001.
DG You did?
CS I didn’t have any money and after the 11th I was just terrified. This was not the time to run out of money. I had a commission from the Royal Court Theatre, so I thought, I better write a play. It was like automatic writing.
DG Wow, so the idea wasn’t already gestating in your head?
CS No idea at all, there was nothing.
DG I would have naturally assumed that to some extent you had worked the events in as you were completing the play but, wow . . . you started the play on the 12th of September.
CS Yes, and the reason the play is structured as it is—where two-thirds of it takes place before the 11th but we’re pretty clear from the beginning of the play that it will end after the 11th—is that when it happened, it was still so new, we didn’t fully comprehend what had happened. When you write a play you write into the future. Whatever you write, it will be at least six months to a year until anyone sees it.
DG Two or three years, sometimes.
CS The play is really about Giuliani’s New York, well before the 11th. I knew what my experience had been in the last four or five years in this city, but I really wasn’t informed enough to understand or imagine where we were headed politically or socially because of the attack. I was thinking much more about Giuliani than I was about bin Laden or the crash into the World Trade Center. I was just reading Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech—it’s a very short speech where he says that the one question haunting man is “When will we get blown up?” and how, in the face of that, what you must return to in writing is compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice. I think he calls them the eternal verities—his famous phrase, the human heart in conflict with itself. That was the spirit in which I was writing this play.
DG When do you start rehearsals for What Didn’t Happen?
CS In October.
DG Are you cast yet?
CS No, not at all.
DG You’re not cast at all?
CS (laughter) We’ll see what happens.