Tuesday, 26 September 2017
Christopher Shinn
Written by Simon Piening   
Monday, 02 August 2010 20:04

Described by the New York Times as “among the most provocative and probing of American playwrights today,” Christopher Shinn is a writer whose star is clearly on the rise.

Born in Connecticut and now based in New York, his works regularly premiere at the Royal Court in London and the Lincoln Center Manhattan and have been performed around the world. He is the winner of an OBIE (2004-2005) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting (2005) and in 2008, his play 'Dying City' was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In 2010, his first full-length play ‘Four’, written in 1998, is about to be turned into a film.

This week 'Dying City', written in the aftermath of 9/11, will receive its Victorian Premiere by independent Melbourne company, Hoy Polloy.

Christopher Shinn spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening.



Christopher ShinnWriting for the stage was clearly something you were drawn to from an early age - your first full-length play, ‘Four’, was written while you were still at university. What was the attraction to the theatre? What does the theatre offer a writer as distinct from other media?
I think I was attracted to the theatre initially because of the immense gratification of performing live. That will never go away, for me or for the broader culture, I think. (Comments on Youtube videos, for example, are that medium's attempt to recreate the pleasure of the experience of live performance.)

‘Four’ was turned down by every major theatre company in the US before receiving its premiere at the Royal Court in London. Why do you think US companies had been so reluctant to produce the work? Did it make you question the quality of your writing/your decision to be a writer? Were you (indeed are you) tempted to rewrite/change your work to make it more appealing to US producers?
I have no idea why Four was rejected. I was unknown at the time and it's always hard to break in. There were a few American theatres that liked the play enough to send me a personalized rejection letter - so at least I had a little positive feedback to keep me going. I never thought that the play wasn't good. I knew it was good and would reach audiences if performed.

I won't rewrite my work to make it more appealing to folks. Usually producers and theatres can't really articulate what they don't like about a play anyway, so I never have to worry about that. Small rewrite suggestions are often incredibly helpful, but those usually come when a theatre has already committed to the play.

I used to say that the American theatre was becoming more conservative, but now I'd put it differently: many of the people who work in it seem to me to be in denial about emotional pain and tragic situations. It's not so much that they understand and then reject the work, but that they never actually experience it in the first place. That's much scarier to me than conservatism. Denial and negation are very hard, if not impossible, to undo.

When you submitted ‘Four’ to the Royal Court Theatre, you included a note boldly declaring the play was better than at least two other works that had recently received premieres at the same theatre. After being knocked back in the US, where did that self-confidence come from and what was the reaction from the Royal Court? How did it feel, seeing your work performed for the first time?
I can't believe I wrote that in a letter when I was 23. When I was younger I was arrogant. I did feel angry that a play I knew was good had been rejected by every theatre I had sent it to, mostly by form letters, so my tone probably had to do with that. Also, the two Royal Court writers whose plays I had seen in New York were portrayed in the press as very brash, so I was probably mimicking them, seeing as they had found success with those personas.

I remember the Court's then literary manager Graham Whybrow coming to New York and taking me out for a drink, telling me about all the recent young Court writers who had become successful. It was a bit melodramatic, but very exciting to hear him tell me I was about to join their ranks. We were in some dive bar in Times Square. It was all so exciting and romantic. I don't think he spoke too much about the play other than to say that they had all read it and knew it was the work of a real playwright - an immensely gratifying thing to hear.

The very little feedback I'd gotten about the play in America had to do with the ending being too passive or undramatic. For example, more than a few people suggested that at the end of the play, the two couples should meet at the fireworks and the father and daughter should have an explosive confrontation - which, of course, would have been very conventional and taken away from the loneliness and isolation, the lack of catharsis, I was trying to represent. I am simply incredibly lucky that the Court validated my early attempt at doing something slightly different and new. It gave me the confidence to continue in that direction.

Seeing my work performed for the first time was excruciating. Someone made the mistake of telling me Harold Pinter was in the audience at the first performance. I found a little private space at the back of the theatre and sort of regressed into a fetal position. I remember very little of anything other than my profound anxiety!

‘Four’ is currently being adapted into a feature film (with Neil LaBute as Executive Director). How much involvement have you had in that process? Have you written for film before? Is it something you enjoy?
Many years ago after seeing my play Where Do We Live a young filmmaker named Joshua Sanchez got in touch with me and I was so impressed with a short of his that I gave him the film rights to Four. I had liked the writing in his film and told him that he should adapt the play into a screenplay himself. To me, in film the director is the artist and I wanted the film to be his vision. He has written an absolutely beautiful script with a visual language that I would never have myself imagined. As I read it it felt like the work of another artist - it was profoundly beautiful to me in the way that only something foreign, outside oneself, can be.

I have offered Josh my advice here or there but I really wanted him to do his own thing. I am not a big control freak. There are some things in my work that I care a lot about, obviously, but in general I like to give my collaborators and colleagues as much freedom as they want. The best work comes in an atmosphere of safety and freedom.

I have done a little screenwriting, mostly for people who had a very strong vision - who, I believe, would have written the scripts themselves if they were capable of it. This isn't that fulfilling to me. Someday soon I'd like to write a script either to direct, or at least express my own personal vision - something that might attract a great director. Writing for someone who wants to control me is not very fun. Imagine an actor who was given line readings for every line in the play! It feels a bit like that.

‘Dying City’, written in the aftermath of 9/11, is soon to open in Melbourne, produced by Hoy Polloy Theatre. You’re quoted as saying “Dying City is struggling with what it means to be powerful, to appear powerful, to want to appear powerful.” Can you tell us a bit about the play and what inspired it…
This question gets asked a lot. I'm sure every answer I give is different. Someone who wants to learn about me could track all the answers to this question, put them side by side, and find it very revealing about my development over the last few years! At this moment, I'd say the play was inspired by my attempt to come to terms with rage. All the characters deal with their anger differently - have different strategies. And of course there is a rage in countries and in governments that gets acted out in wars. When Abu Ghraib happened I saw how rage was manifesting sexually, which made me think about the links between anger, pain, and sexuality on the personal level as well... I think at that time I was getting more and more in touch with all these feelings in myself and the play was simply my attempt to come to terms with the feelings, try to understand them, represent them...

Seeing my work performed for the first time was excruciating. Someone made the mistake of telling me Harold Pinter was in the audience at the first performance.


You currently teach playwriting at the New School for Drama. Is it possible to survive as a playwright? How can we better equip/support writers?
It is possible to survive as a playwright but it is not easy. Some years are okay and some are not and because you never know how a year will turn out, there's a lot of anxiety, even when times are good. Critics and the public are fickle and it can almost seem arbitrary whether an individual work is positively received or not. The ways to make money as a playwright are by writing for TV, teaching, or having some other odd job, like tutoring or restaurant work. But all those industries are fickle too, especially in an uncertain (at best) economy like the one we're experiencing now.

As in the entertainment industry as a whole, the theatre has for too long emphasized success at the expense of meaning. Critics write hyperbolic reviews (in both directions), and we become obsessed with the game of who is on top, who's falling, etc. It's human nature to think this way and it will never go away entirely, but I do hope it moderates a bit. We need to focus more on the content of individual work - what is it saying, what is it exploring and, formally, how does it achieve these goals?

In terms of helping struggling and emerging writers... I think we need a lot more investment from private industry and individuals. The money should go directly to artists, not bureaucracies. This is risky because there's then no way of tracking how well the artist uses the funds or not... but the upside is, it allows the greatest possibility for excellent work to emerge. Writers need money, they need it directly and they need it with no strings attached. A basic demonstration of achievement and competence should be enough to justify their receiving funding - not who they know or where they went to school. Also, major universities with big endowments should hire artists to teach and create art in a way that allows them to do both and maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Theatres can do this too, actually. I'm always amazed at how a theatre can raise 60 million dollars for a new building, but can't raise, say, 10 million dollars to commission new plays. Why is this? What is the perverse appeal of new buildings? This happens at the university level as well. All this money spent on new physical spaces, while what fills the spaces struggles because of lack of funds. I understand that rich people like feeling that they have contributed to something concrete and lasting, but plays and paintings and novels are concrete things too. Charismatic university and artistic leaders need to convince the wealthy to directly support the next generation of artists.

Having spent a couple of years researching and writing a play and immersing yourself in the world of the characters, how does it feel when you have to hand over your work to a director/actors?
As I alluded to earlier, I love handing over my work. Collaboration is my favorite part of it all. I definitely have my opinions and sometimes can be adamant about this or that element of a play of mine... but the thing that gives me the most pleasure is seeing an actor, director, designer create something from within their own deep subjectivity. Seeing different subjectivities come together, clash, negotiate, compromise, and ultimately cohere is one of the great pleasures of life.

Can we expect to see more of your plays in Australia any time soon?
I have no idea if you'll see more of my work in Australia, but I hope so!


Dying City by Christopher Shinn opens August 6, 2010 at MIPAC, Brunswick. Further details»
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