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He Built This City

Locally grown playwright and Pulitzer Prize shortlister Christopher Shinn talks about Obama, death and his play

By Karen Bovard

January 06, 2009

Dying City

Jan. 8-Feb. 8, 50 Church St., Hartford,

(860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org

Wethersfield native and playwright Christopher Shinn is 33, and has had a number of plays produced in London and New York over the last 10 years. His play Dying City, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize this year, will be produced at Hartford Stage in January. He spoke with the Advocate by phone from New York this week.

Advocate: In 2003, TheaterWorks produced your play Four, and now Hartford Stage is doing Dying City. What's it like to return to your home territory and have your plays produced?

Shinn: When I was a kid, my mom took me to shows at Hartford Stage. I won a high school playwriting contest sponsored by Oddfellows Playhouse in Middletown when I was 15 the play was called Safety. As a teenager, I dreamed of having a play of mine produced at Hartford Stage. So it's very heady, very powerful for me.

Have you worked with the actors or the director who will stage this production of Dying City before?

I've known Maxwell Williams, the director, for years. I first connected with Ryan King on Facebook, believe it or not. Maxwell's pulled together a group of new young designers for this production and that's exciting. Michael Wilson, the Artistic Director at Hartford Stage, is really opening the doors to a new generation of artists. I'm glad to be part of that.

Why do you think your work found a home in London before NY?

I'm drawn to exploring individual psychology as it interacts with social and political realities. In the US, we tend to think of the individual as more isolated. Focusing on the dialectic between society and the individual is more in line with European traditions. I think that may be why.

Given that you are so tuned in to social and political realities, what's your reaction to Obama's election?

Symbolism is really important, and so his election is, too. But policy shifts are even more important, and we don't really know what he's going to do yet. He ran as the most conservative Democrat in the primaries, and sometimes used his rhetorical power to attack progressive policies. It may be that his centrism was a brilliant political ploy, necessary to get him elected, and he will emerge as a real progressive. But we just don't know. I'm fascinated by the enigma of Obama, but I'm also a skeptic by nature, and I think skepticism is warranted here.

How do most of your plays start?

Usually I start with an idea, which leads very quickly to a very particular character. I try to pay attention to what springs up from my unconscious.

What was the genesis of Dying City?

It clicked for me when the Abu Ghraib photos came out. I thought they revealed something we had become even before the war, something having to do with degradation and infantile sexuality. You can still see Puritanism at work in contemporary American culture, but it's also true that mainstream TV and music videos and other cultural products share a vocabulary with pornography. I'd say we live in a pornographic culture that leads to a dehumanization of the self and the other. It seemed like a time to explore the links between sexuality and violence in America.

Your adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, with Mary Louise Parker in the title role is opening on Broadway too. How did that project come about?

Mary Louise wanted to do the part, and that's what got things started. I remember seeing Sam Waterston in Master Builder at Hartford Stage when I was growing up. I've been an Ibsen fan ever since. Dying City even contains a gesture of homage to Ibsen. What's so radical about Ibsen is the extraordinary integration of the social and psychological. His plays are traditional in some structural ways but a courageous breakthrough in others. And his later plays become both more dense and more knotty.

Do you like to sit in on rehearsals of your plays?

I love being in the room as the play takes shape, finding out about the practical realities of staging what's been in my head. Sometimes I find out that an actor can do something with just a look, and I don't need a line; sometimes I find out that something I thought was clear but implicit needs to be more explicit. The actors' relationship to language intrigues me. It's really exciting to engage with different subjectivities in service to a common goal.

Tony Kushner was a teacher of yours, and now you're teaching playwriting at the New School. He's written about the conundrums in teaching something so dependent on individual vision and voice. What's your approach?

You don't want to present a normative model. My way is not the only way of writing. Brecht, for instance, didn't care much about deep inner conflicts in his characters, the way I do. But at the same time, the arts are not "anything goes." There are standards for judgment. Some things work better than others, and you can point this out.

Are you working on something new?

For a long time I've been fascinated by death clearly, it's one of the great subjects of drama. We live in a time of environmental degradation. We use technology both as the agent of death in warfare and to manage death in medical settings. I think a time may be coming when we may have to think about death more; it's not something we much like to do in this culture.

So you're walking into the dark?

We all are. There's something about the unknowable nature of reality that we share. As a writer, you have to face the existential fact that it's really hard to make great art. All you ever really have is your own personal sense of truth.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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