In this podcast Robert Icke joins writer of Against Christopher Shinn to discuss classic plays, his playwriting process and the theme of violence. Christopher explores his journey as a playwright from America to London, differences in theatrical landscapes and the inspiration for his latest play.
Robert Icke: I should introduce you at this moment. So, my name's Rob. I'm the Associate Director here at the Almeida, and I'm sitting here with Christopher Shinn, renowned international playwright. I was actually thinking when I was looking at your bio last night, I can't think of anybody else who's had... You've pretty much had equal numbers of premieres, here and there, haven't you?
Christopher Shinn: Yeah. It is about fifty/fifty.
RI: Some in London, some in New York, and it's not even like there's a run in London and then a run in New York. It's kind of one [in London] and then another one [in NY], and another one [in London], and another one [in NY]...
CS: Yeah, yeah. It is sort of back and forth. It has been. We'll see if that continues!
RI: Do you think of yourself as an American playwright in that sense, or do you just think of yourself as a playwright?
CS: I do think of myself as an American playwright just because that's where I'm from, that's where I live. I think about my country a lot, and I feel very American, but I certainly feel I have had better experiences here [in London]. If I had to tally everything up, I think I've had slightly more plays premiere here, and my experiences have just been overall a bit better. So, even though I think of myself as very American, I feel like London is pretty much my artistic home, certainly where I feel most comfortable, and most like, this is where I do what I do. This is where it all seems to really make sense to me.
RI: When you say better experiences, what do you mean by that?
CS: I think, just on a very simple level, your ticket prices are still cheaper than ours, and your audiences are younger. In New York, you're always trying to climb this hill of everyone's old and rich. Whatever schemes exist to get younger people in for lower ticket prices, it doesn't really put a dent in that. It's a weird thing if you're a young writer... I guess I'm 42 now, so I'm not exactly young anymore, but actually in comparison to the audience, I am still very young.
It feels like a challenge. You're already starting with a big challenge, which is, how do I reach this generation and this level of wealth when I'm not a part of their world? Here I always feel like however many rich people or older people are in the audience, it feels like there's a younger energy and a more diverse audience. I just feel initially like, okay, there's more of my world in this audience, and that is a really good feeling.
And again, you have longer rehearsal periods here than we do. We tend to have a shorter rehearsal period and then a longer preview period. I suppose there's benefits to a longer preview period, but there's just something really nice with my work about having five weeks, and I think we have a little bit more than that here, in just the room. It really pays off, I think, in the work. So when we go into previews, it's like, we're going to still learn a lot and we're going to change things, but we know what the play is.
Often, I've found in New York, you don't really know what the play is when you have three and a half weeks before you're in front of an audience. I think there's only so much you can do when you have that much time, because after a while you feel like we just need to open this thing and have the critics come in and move on. So, for that reason I think too, I've just felt like the way the process is structured here, makes more sense to me. And as exhausting as it can be, I like that feeling that every preview counts. You're not thinking, well, we have weeks. You're thinking, we really only have a few cracks at this before folks are coming, so we really need to take a big step every night.
I feel like if I answer any more I'll be accused of anti-Americanism. Those are the politically safer answers. I think if I were to be a little provocative, I would say for whatever reason, I think my psyche just aligns a bit more with the European psyche. I just feel like you guys are more aware of the world. I don't know if that's just proximity to other countries, or... there's just a bit more social historical awareness than in America, which I just think fits the kind of work I'm trying to do a bit more. That's sort of the nice, polite way of saying that. A kind of tricky answer for me, but...
RI: I had an experience when we were doing 1984 this time in New York (which was the first time anything of mine has been anywhere near New York) which just sprung up in my head then, when you were saying that about European-aligned psyche. A woman said to me after the show, an audience member, rich, older woman, said, "That wasn't about Donald Trump at all," very aggressively. And I said, "Well, you know, it both is and isn't," and she said - and this was the take-home quote - "nothing is and isn't," as if I just hadn't picked up the idea of that. And of course, I think your plays are like masterpieces of "is and isn't-ness," where you kind of think ... I don't know, I watched Against last night, and one of the things I kept thinking about is, "What is he against? And what is he for?" Of course, in you characteristic style, every time - you have this ability - when you push one side of the argument, to imply the other. The play is in many ways against violence, in a way that one might expect from a sort of left wing Western thinker and writer, but of course on the other hand there are also many moments in the play where it feels like violence is necessary.
One of the things you also dramatise is the cul de sac of some of those conversations about what we're not allowed to do, and the way that by saying, "Well, you can't say that because of these people, and you can't say that because of these people," it feels particularly alive at the moment. Sitting in an audience yesterday, having listened to the news, you thought well, this play is, even though it's two years ago that you wrote it, feels like it talks very specifically to a kind of left wing self-inflicted inaction. You know, a desire to be so politically correct that in fact the only politically correct thing you can do is sit on your own in a room while the right wing run rampant across the world. I was thinking about this yesterday and thinking about what the play's for and what the play's against. That title, it's a provocative title, I think. I think it sort of... I mean, it's great. It's a great title. Single word, boom. As to quite what that means to the play, that's a whole lot of work. I don't know whether you... do you recognise that description of "is and isn't?" My woman who said, "Nothing is and isn’t?"
CS: Yeah, I'm always trying to create a dialectical tension, because that's dramatic and it's interesting in itself. Whatever my exact beliefs are is less important than really giving intensity to multiple sides of an argument. But I think one of the things that the play is saying is that there is violence everywhere on every level, big and small and overt and very subtle, and one of the dangers is if you do see violence everywhere, it does tend to lead to a logic of complete stasis. You know, there's so much potential for violence that you can never say anything or do anything.
It was important to me, I think, in crafting the play structurally that you keep discovering violence in different forms. Hopefully by the end there are so many diverse representations of violence that you are able to look at it abstractly through all these really concrete and specific stories.
You know, it's always funny when you listen to really smart people talking about Shakespeare. There are people who can read Shakespeare in a left wing way brilliantly, and then people who can read Shakespeare in a right wing way brilliantly, and I always think these great writers are trying to provoke questions and thoughts and feelings in audience members, and they're not just trying to put forward a point of view. They're creating drama, and drama is the clash of ideas and questions and complexities and contradictions. So, hopefully politics, however much the play does, which I think it does have a kind of anti-violence core -
RI: Or maybe even beginning point. I mean, that's the kind of line it starts running from, but I'm not sure whether by the end... because of course, the thing that the, without giving a spoiler, one of the things you're clearly interested in formally is the story of Jesus. The sort of New Testament structure and rhythm. One of the disturbing things about that story, as you re-tell it in Against, is of course that it ends with a deeply meaningful act of violence. I was walking back home last night thinking it's a very complicated thing, isn't it? You can't be... he's [Jesus] the guy who is for love and for peace and against violence, and yet he proves his point by allowing himself or engineering a way in which he himself is subject to unimaginable violence. And that is the image that goes on the church wall. In some ways the violence is both reprehensible and useful or kind of meaningful, and it feels like the play is very aware of that contradiction and has no way of resolving it. It's quite happy to leave me to sit with it.
In a strange way, that feels to me like that's got more in common with a Shakespearean dramaturgy than it has with the dramaturgy of say Arthur Miller, or whatever. I always think you get those big moments in Arthur Miller plays where you're invited to un-ironically agree. You know, "They were all my sons," and you go, "They were all his sons." Or you know, "I've still got my name," and you're not supposed to find that ridiculous or slightly like, "Oh, come on, they're going to kill you. Like, what does it matter?"
I think the ending of the play is elliptical and difficult and feels like a kind of emotional, luminous response, or a luminous final chord, but not really a legible one. Not one where you can go, "Well, that's the answer. That's what we do next." I mean, is that part of your design? Do you like the idea of leaving the field sort of full but open?
CS: I think probably I do rebel a bit against the plays I was raised with and was told these are classic and these are great. I mean, I think they're all really good but...
RI: What were those titles?
CS: I think the plays we came across were Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A Streetcar Named Desire, Glass Menagerie, Long Day's Journey into Night. Those might be the only American plays. I remember in my final year I had a really good teacher who gave us Beckett, and that was a revelation, I tell you. I think you can feel that in my work, that obviously Samuel Beckett was not writing in that political naturalism that a lot of American canonical playwrights wrote in.
So, yeah, I think I always thought, these plays are good and they're powerful, but they didn't capture to me the complexity of my experience. So I did gravitate... I remember discovering Caryl Churchill in college, and feeling like oh, there's this other way. Feeling like... and I love that that tradition of naturalism is in me and part of me, and it's a theatrical vocabulary I like and use, but there is a kind of view of the world that is beyond that. Beyond the hyper-individualism of a lot of the classic American plays.
I remember an artistic director early on in America telling me my plays didn't have satisfying climaxes. That they became too subtle and cryptic and lacked energy, and I remember thinking that's what I'm trying to do, you know. Not every play needs to end with somebody screaming and rending their garments, and they don't all need to have a Stanley Kowalski yelling "Stella" in every play, or whatever.
I think the play, again without giving too much away, it ends the way it ends in part because I don't believe in the journey of an individual who either ends tragically or heroically with a big cathartic moment that encapsulates all the meaning of the play. But also you know, I think I was really interested in Jesus' story of, if you decide to try to do something about violence and you try to do something new that hasn't been done, think in new ways and be with people in new ways, what does that provoke and what does that inspire?
I became really interested in Jesus as someone who didn't fight back and didn't run away, and I thought okay, that is a really unique character trait, to be accused of something and to get in really serious trouble and not say, "Well, I'm going to fight," or "I'm going to run," but to give yourself to a process with some kind of understanding that it fulfils your belief system and that it may have an impact that is far more important than your individual life.
There's a really simple and concrete story that goes along with that. When I was working on the play there was a... on the Metro in DC, on the subway, the tube there... It was July 4th weekend, and there was a young man who was on the train and another young man came up to him, tried to take his phone or whatever he was listening to music on. There was some kind of scuffle and then the guy who tried to rob this person took out a knife and then just started stabbing this guy. I think by the time the train stopped at the next station and the killer ran off, the man who had been stabbed had been stabbed like 30 or 40 times. He'd had his head stomped by the guy as well and he was just completely brutalised.
RI: Was this like an empty carriage, or was it...?
CS: No, there were ten people on the train.
CS: Again, when I read the story, I saw that some of the people... They'd interviewed somebody who was like 70, and I thought okay, I don't want to judge these ten people necessarily, maybe they were old, maybe they were disabled, maybe there were reasons they didn't try to intervene, but I thought ten people witnessing a murder at that level of...
RI: And the guy died, presumably. Yeah.
CS: Yeah, he was brutalised and killed almost instantly. I thought it was really astonishing that nobody tried to intervene. Of course, they were frightened, they were in shock, but also a part of me wondered, were they also just thinking of their own self-preservation? In a way that there's something about... a belief, a world belief in that, that is really worth exploring.
It wasn't too long after that, that I think... and I just read about this again, because the guy died, a really old man, I think he was like 78 or 79, who tried to intervene when Jo Cox was being stabbed.
RI: That's right, yeah, he died last week, yeah.
CS: To me, the two... he had injured... he obviously lived for... he died of cancer unrelated to his injuries, but he risked his life.
RI: I think that someone said he never fully recovered from the injuries he sustained on the day of...
CS: Oh really?
CS: So, he risked his life because of a principle greater than self-preservation, and these ten people ... and he was just one person and he was quite old. There are ten people on a train who couldn't get it together to try to intervene to do something about what was this minutes-long just gruesome attack on somebody till they were dead.
When I thought of myself in that situation, I thought, I can imagine all the thoughts in my head that would tell me not to do something, and would I have the courage to say actually I need to try to do something about this even if it means risking myself? I don't have an answer to that. It's an abstract question, but it was something that I thought was full of drama and certainly you could relate it to the Jesus story in a really obvious way, and a dramatically rich way.
To circle back to what you were saying just before, that question of individualism. If you're willing to sacrifice yourself for someone or for others you're not thinking in a hyper-individualistic way. So, what is a world of hyper-individualism? What does it mean for violence? Are there solutions to violence in a hyper-individualistic culture?
So, that's where Jesus is so interesting. Obviously on one level he was an individual of immense specificity and uniqueness, but he had a way of thinking in non-individualistic ways, and the tension that that created is really interesting.
RI: That's the play that it’s become, I think. The other thing that popped into my head when I was watching was that you tweeted a while ago that you were, I think in one of the grand dialectics of contemporary times, that you're a Mad Men man rather than a Sopranos man.
CS: Yes, I know you disagree.
RI: Well, you know what, I love both. I love both, but for me Sopranos is somehow closer to my heart, but maybe that's because ... maybe this is a cultural difference. You're from the land of Miller and Williams, where people say things and they're not very violent plays, actually, the sort of grand American canon. And of course, British drama, from the 1500s onwards goes, "Oh, let's have them cut their hands off and let's kill everybody and put them in a pie."
It's one of the things I think has been extraordinary about the American response to 1984, and I realised actually that I think one of the differences is that our audience is really used to a whole lot of stage blood sloshing around. The American audience? Actually, not so much.
In this I think it's quite like Teddy Ferarra. It's a play of ... what is dramatised very often is internal violence, and there's a moment in the play where the subway story comes through actually, towards the end when a character emphatically says, "Well, we're in this dangerous situation and I have a family, so I should go." You feel the audience implicitly agree with that, and then there's I think a room where they, which is very common in your plays, go, "Huh? Is that ...? Should I be ...?" I think one of your real gifts is to plant us, and an audience in general, into a place where they're not quite sure ... there's 60% of them that thinks they know what the correct liberal response is, but then there's 40% that isn't sure whether this counts.
There's also a moment I think in the play of humour like that: where, last night at least, I really felt the audience unsure as to whether this character was being parodied by the play, whether the position of this character was supposed to be comic. I think very often for you it is comic to some degree, but of course, it's also completely valid, and they're also putting forward a point of view that is put forward un-ironically in our contemporary culture.
One of the things I love about it is it's very difficult to work out where you, the writer, stand, because you clearly enjoy smashing them together.
CS: Yeah, I mean it's a little sadistic of me maybe, but it's also really exciting.
RI: It is.
CS: You just get kept on your toes as an audience member, and you're not sure, you don't know immediately the relationship you're meant to have to the characters you're watching. It activates you I think, and it's exciting, I hope, to be activated as an audience member. You have to really think and process and debate with yourself.
So, I'd like to be that veil. I've always wondered if I had to just write everything that I believe in a blog post or something, would people say, "Oh my God, that's what he believes?" Because I do try to, in the plays, create doubt and complexity around what I believe or what anybody believes is rightness or wrongness, just because I think that makes for the more interesting dramatic choice, and hopefully conversations afterwards, as people go home and think about the play.
RI: Do you think that that's ... I mean, it seems to me that that's an experience your audiences have in common with many of your characters, that on the Mad Men/Sopranos dialectic, the violence in these plays is internal, psychological, soulful, spiritual, interpersonal, rather than "man with club hits other man."
RI: You used the word "cryptic" before, which doesn't feel quite right to me, because I feel like sometimes the characters don't know and you don't. I mean, "cryptic" implies a solution that is buried, whereas sometimes I feel in your work that I don't know where the solution is. I remember talking to you after I'd seen Teddy Ferarra about that incredible moment where a disabled character asks an able-bodied character on a date, he sort of hits on them and says, "Why won't you? Why is this a no?" and the able-bodied character says, "Because you're in a wheelchair."
It's this extraordinary moment of what is a tremendous social faux pax, something you're not supposed to have noticed as a left wing audience member and yet there the play is stating it back at you. The internal violence of that is tremendous, but no blood is spilled. I wonder whether that's ... I don't know, that seems to be a territory you inhabit very naturally, the internal contradiction, and I wonder whether if you were to write that blog post, do you think you'd contradict yourself?
CS: I probably would. I probably would be unable to be absolutely transparent, because I think just the nature of thought itself maybe lends itself to contradiction and to complicating a dialectical energy. And I guess, probably I am very suspicious of anybody whose beliefs are so absolutely down the line that they can articulate them clearly and eliminate contradiction.
I think I'm just always ... well, I'm into complicating thought, whatever it is, no matter how right it is. Maybe there's some way that's not a good thing or that can be dangerous, or maybe there's something a little indulgent in it. Maybe there are things you actually do need to be simple and strong about.
I guess I come from a tradition that I think is at the heart of tragedy, from the Greeks and Shakespeare most powerfully, that we don't fully know ourselves, and so we can never be complacent when we look at what we think and feel and believe. I think the dialectic there is, you have to know what you think and feel and believe, and have a certain confidence in it, at the same time as you question it and doubt it and try to critique it.
RI: I think that's the thing that, if I think about the play you wrote for us for Decade and Teddy Ferarra, the recent Christian plays, I can see that character tries to know his or herself with debatable results, as a repeating theme. Because it does seem to me that one of messages that Luke gets in the play, “Go inside”, is also a thing I can imagine written above your desk. I wondered about the former of those as well. Why was it ... I mean, "Go where there's violence" is obviously a thing that the playwright is also doing, and approaching a territory, in Ian Rickson's production, when the audience come in there's a kind of ... I don't know what it's called, one of those plastic tents that's put up around the scene of some sort of violent incident, and you're immediately presented with the fact that you are entering a territory that is right on the proximity of violence.
Can you talk a little bit about where that ... I know it's a thing you thought about for a long time, because we've spoken about it on and off for years now. Why violence? Why at this particular moment, do you think?
CS: I think probably ... It had to just have started personally, I think. I started reading this guy named Rene Girard who was a Catholic intellectual who died I think November 2015, and I think I started reading him... He wrote a book in the late 50s or early 60s called ‘Violence and the Sacred’. It was basically this grand theory of Greek tragedy and early civilization sacrificial rituals and myths. It was trying to create a unified theory of violence and violence's relationship to the sacred. In a later work he elaborated that into a kind of theory of Christianity and how it was both similar to pagan rituals or representations of violence, and also marked a clear definitive break with those representations.
That was a book about myth and drama, but something in it felt just very psychologically true to me, even though he was sceptical of psychology and didn't write too much about the individual psyche. I think just being really simple about it, I was a playwright in a very competitive theatrical landscape in America. It was a lot of people vying for very few slots, the very little attention that we give to the theatre.So, I was a very competitive person, and I felt driven by powerful forces in me that I wanted to understand better. It would take too long to go into the links I found in Rene Girard and my own psyche, but combining Girard with Freud and thinking about violence and the way we represent it and the way it manifests in our cultures, just personally, I was affected by that.
I think then what happened was, living in the post-9/11 age, violence is always near with terrorism, and then we were fighting those wars, and I think I just started noticing that I didn't really feel like we were paying attention to the violence we were doing as a country. Particularly once Barack Obama became president. It had bit more under Bush, but it was suddenly ... As I was trying to come to grips with these desires in myself to be competitive and to win and to be powerful and to have praise and to have money and resources, I was seeing that yeah, we also do that as a country.
I felt like we're not really paying attention to that, because we like the president now. He's a very mature, thoughtful, sensitive person, and so we kind of were ignoring stuff, and I thought okay, this is maybe something that would be good to start exploring. That was on the big global level. Then with university life, more and more I felt like okay, there's so many of these new rules, and there's a lot of really important and good things around raising consciousness, about the suffering of oppressed people. Points of view that have been smothered or denied or ignored or not let in, are coming to the surface, and that's really important.
But there's also something else starting to happen, too. It's becoming harder to be free and open and have robust debate and dialogue.
RI: It seems to me that one of the things about university in your last two plays that have been on in London, Against and Teddy Ferarra, is that it's becoming your Thebes, the university campus. It's like a little city state, which has its own rules and its own no-go's, and you flout those rules at your peril. It's a really fascinating crucible I think that you've clearly discovered in your writing to play with.
CS: Yeah, well, they're really interesting intellectual debates. University is where the next generation is being trained, so all these people are going to be in power some day ...
CS: So, it's good to pay attention, you know, what's happening in them so we know what's going to be happening in 10 to 20 years. Also, what's interesting about university is it's so much about ideas, and yet you have young people with all their sexual drives and all this passion, and then you have this faculty who are hyper-competitive and many of whom are very unhappy in their work. You actually have a lot of drama, but in the intellectual debates that are having, that interpersonal level and just the hormonal level, is not really addressed, but drama is a place, obviously, you can involve the psyche, you can have sexuality, you can have aggression.
I think it's fun, because in all the ways we talk about university life, that personal element is not part of that discussion, so I think it is a natural for drama. I think I've probably exhausted it by this point!
RI: So, that's the big weather systems. What about the specifics of getting into this particular play and your starting point? I'm so fascinated by your process. Do you take lots of notes? Do you scribble all over your copy of Girard and then head into ...? Like, how does it happen?
CS: It happens ... We met in October 2013, and that's when you first started talking about Jesus, and that got me thinking. Basically, when I think I'm going to write a play, I have a certain idea or theme or idea or basic maybe just image, or I hear a lot of dialogue, or whatever it is. Whatever the starting point is, usually just something pretty simple. I just sort of make space to start thinking about it.
RI: When you say "make space," what does that look like? If I were to make a documentary, is that ...?
CS: It's literally either taking a bath or laying down on the couch, and drifting into a kind of ... it's not quite being asleep, but it's very close to being asleep. It's almost like a dream state, a kind of waking dream state. You could describe it as a kind of meditation.
RI: How regular does that happen in that period?
CS: It happens every day. I just do that every day.
RI: For hours?
CS: I would say minimum one hour, max maybe five, six hours.
CS: I don't write anything down, and I just let my mind go wherever it will go, and eventually I start hearing more dialogue or I just see images. I just keep that process going basically till it reaches a point of unbearable intensity. When I reach that, when I feel like I have so much in me that's been generated, and I can't bear anymore, then I can start transferring it into dialogue, and characters, and that takes some of the edge off, obviously, to get it out of me.
That's really how the writing process begins, and that pre-writing period, usually it's six to twelve months. It can be a bit shorter, it can be a bit longer, but it's usually around there.
RI: How long was it this time?
CS: Probably about a year of really thinking about it before starting, and then I took a little break in the middle, and then really towards the end of 2014, is when it really came into its final first draft form.
RI: How quick is that - from the hot air balloon of ideas being full and needing to be drained onto the page? How long does that process take?
CS: It can vary. I think the shortest it's ever taken is a month. I think my play Now or Later was about a year of pre-writing and then literally I wrote it in a month. I think it was a bit more, because it's a bigger play, and it had more moving parts. That first draft was at least a couple of months, and then the re-write was ... we did the workshop here in November right before the election in 2016. Yeah, it took about six weeks of every day working.
RI: So, it's actually been quite a quick turnaround, hasn't it? I'm realising, when you said November, it's done workshop to stage quickly.
CS: Yeah. The one thing I do do process-wise that may be interesting to some people is I don't go into an old document to do a rewrite. So, even if I know what I want to change, I have this ... I feel like it's really bad vibes to do that.
CS: Because I feel like I lose track of the play from the beginning. If I'm just going into scenes and sticking things in I feel like I get lost and confused, and I don't know how everything fits together. So, if I do a new draft I literally create a new file and have the old draft in hard copy next to me, and I just sort of look at it. A lot of times I'm just literally typing what's already there, but when I come to the section I want to rewrite, I just do it onto the computer in this new draft, because then I feel like I have a sense of the whole sweep again.
RI: You've made the whole thing again, yeah.
CS: Yeah, so I always start at the beginning.
RI: It must take ages.
CS: Yeah, it does. It adds a little time.
RI: And do you feel like ...? Say on Against, you said you begin with an image or a character or a dialogue. I'm interested in that, because it seems to me that form is a thing that comes to you subconsciously rather than a thing that you design and then colour in, if you like. In a way that's sometimes I hear about ... there's a school of writing over here Martin Crimp or Caryl Churchill, where you feel like the formal argument is as prominent, maybe sometimes more prominent than a character-led or psychologically-led argument or narrative structure, and that what you have is a formal idea. I always think about that Caryl Churchill play where everyone says, "Blue," Blue Kettle: that's a formal idea more than it is a character idea.
The same way that ... which I think is massive in Crimp's play, Attempts On Her Life, when you think that's clearly an idea that arrived formally. It's the shape of the idea rather than the guts of it.
RI: I wonder where form sits in your list of things to -
CS: You know, it's probably partially coming from America and being taught, okay, you have a protagonist. What's their objective? We were all taught in this way, that is really horrible, it's really limited and narrow, but that's how we're taught. So, that's probably just somewhere in my DNA and I can never get rid of it. The deeper answer I think is I think of form like I think of a dream, in that a dream has a form, but you didn't create it. You didn't choose it. You just have it. After the fact, you can say, "Oh, okay, that's what my psyche did, so there must be some logic. There's some reason my psyche created the narrative that it did in the way that it did."
So I became ... I was really interested in dreams maybe about 15 years ago, and I've felt like, okay, I think form is related to the dream narrative for me. So, I would say I'm led by the characters and their psyches in discovering form, but I also feel like form is my psyche making sense of itself also, as I go. So, it isn't just, "Here's my protagonist and here's what's happening to them," and the play will then reflect that journey. It's "Here are my characters, and I have a sense of all their psyches and where that's going to lead them, but I'm also in touch of my own psyche which is leading me in a certain way and a certain direction.
So, I feel like form to me comes from the same place dreams come. It's not something I choose or control but it's coming from me. It could be coming from no-one else, so if some person-
RI: You're as engaged as the director and the actors in trying to work out why Scene Three comes before Scene Four and not afterwards.
CS: Yeah. One of the things that's interesting about theatre to me is that moment of collaboration when it does become about okay, my psyche works this way, but we're in a world of other people, and a play is not just one person's psyche projected onto a stage, and then fulfilled by everybody who's just subservient to the playwright. So, it's a really fraught but exciting, interesting process of okay, well, how is my psyche unique in a certain way that actually won't travel or won't be as compelling in tension...
RI: Or sort of resonant, or whatever, with everything.
CS: Yeah, so one of the changes we made after the workshop was, Luke sort of receded at the end of the play initially. There wasn't a big final scene with him and the other stories in the play gained prominence. In my mind, it was "Oh, isn't this interesting? In writing a play about violence I wonder if there's something violent about how the central protagonist takes over the end of a play? So, let me take my character and minimise him and build up the other stories." That to me was just a really interesting and fun idea.
I still think it was interesting, but in talking to Ian and seeing the workshop, and having an amazing actor like Ben Whishaw, it did actually just feel like no, we want something more conventional here. We want our protagonist to have a bigger scene at the end. The idiosyncratic appeal of my own psyche to me, I understood that that is not on the same plane as all these brilliant collaborators who all have a different feeling. I enjoyed that aspect of form, too. When it does become collaborative then you are trying to universalise at least to some extent the unique idiosyncratic thing that drove the play to be what it initially was.
RI: And also I hear in that response a desire to not leave people behind. To not alienate a whole tranche of people in the audience who have been on the journey that far. Which is fascinating, I think, because I feel sometimes with plays, and with writers as a sort of product of, I suppose, what for the last 50 years in this country has been a culture, in terms of new writing, either defined by either an acceptance of or a rejection of the George Devine Royal Court, and that idea that the writer comes first. You know, the idea of the director's role as the servant of the playwright (which is not a term I really value or respect) but it hits its apex, I think, when that famous anecdote about Pinter being asked, "What does this mean?" and he says, "I don't know," and you think, "Well, okay. If you don't know ..." They're sort of the writer handing down their tablets, if you like.
And it's fascinating to me that in some ways you're kind of, in being so plugged in to your role, processing your own response in months of meditation, that the play is very, very personal to you and comes from you. But also on the other side of that spectrum, there's also a real desire in you to engage the audience and clearly, you think a lot about how you can generate feelings in them and trap them into positions where they feel, in a very Greek way, torn - or pulled in two directions at once.
They're sort of almost contradictory impulses. On the one hand, there's a thing that comes from you and it's an expression of a thing, and it's not as bland as ... You're not writing a play about a character called Chris who's had the life that you've had, in the way that increasingly I feel like our culture moves in that direction. But in a much deeper way it is self-expressive. On the other hand, you're also designing an experience for people who aren't you to have, and who have to come in with none of the things that ... You know, there's a strange contradiction there.
CS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think of it like, there's me the playwright, then there's my direct collaborators, and then there's the audience, and I just try to think of all three as just really important. I think a regular like Edward Albee was like, he thought he was God, he was king, and I think you can see that in his plays. To me they're just airtight. Whether you love them or don't love them, they drive to be what they are and what he wanted them to be. When he was alive and when they were in production, he wanted them to be a certain way. And there's been issues with his estate not wanting to allow people to cast it in interesting ways, his work.
So, there's that, and then there's what I think of as the hyper-American model of what does the audience think? I think a lot of younger writers, they're besieged by the producer, the director, worrying about the audience. "We have to give the audience this that, the audience wants this." You know, we have comment cards in some theatres, and they were reading them to see, does our audience understand the play? To me, it's like, yeah, obviously the writer ... there's a little of Edward Albee in me, there's a little of that producer who wants to know what the audience is thinking and then there's the collaborators that you have to choose carefully obviously, because that's a big part of it, too.
I think all three are important. In some plays maybe you pay more attention to one of the three sides of that triangle over the others, but yeah, there's me, there's my collaborators and there's the audience, and we're all working together to create something. An audience goes to a play to do something, too. So, I guess I just try to keep everything in mind. I'm careful not to ... I never want to give up something I really believe. That's the one rule. If it's something I really feel strongly about, I'll always fight for it.
RI: Of course, there's maybe another aspect as well, which, we are speaking ... By the time anybody listened to this, it will be later, but we are currently speaking on the day, or whatever it is, on the day of opening night, so as yet we've had no response to the play. No formal response. I wonder is legacy a part of the way you think about the plays, in the Edward Albee sense? You think well, in some ways he's done a really bad job, actually, of giving the plays a life beyond him, because if it's stays this rigid, creative people may be put off from wanting to enter the arena of performing them. I don't know.
But of course, there's another bit of him where you think he's a reactionary against a critical culture which demands simple legibility and clearly articulated choices that tell you why they are there and what they mean. A bit like a child at a birthday party, send you out with a party bag containing the meaning of the play. His plays I always think are surprisingly ... like, if you look at the context of him, he's really not frightened of leaving the audience uncertain. In the same way that you imagine if ... certainly over here, if the British critics were asked to review the premiere of King Lear, they I'm sure would have a horrendous time and hate the play, and say, "It's internally incoherent and it doesn't make sense and this bit isn't very good, and it's way too long, and you just never know what you're supposed to think. And the political plot is not intertwined with the personal" whatever.
You can imagine that most great works of art are in fact way more complicated than the sort of things the critics will give five stars to and say, "This is great."
CS: Yeah. I think Albee was trying to protect the integrity of his plays, and that he felt he needed to be that strict and that rigid with them. Often I have thought I should be more like that. Maybe it would really behove me to say, "This is what it is and you have to do it this way," at least initially. I just really like the collaborative nature, and I like things that I didn't necessarily intend or want finding their way, because I just think there's something really organic and truthful and just about the human soul, and individualism being something of value that I hold, that is not primary for me.
I think it's a real dilemma, how much weight you give to yourself and audience and collaborators, and then public response and all that. It's one of the amazing things about theatre, whether you're working in realism, naturalism or other, it is real in that it involves real people. So you just learn about reality every time you do a play.
You put a play up and you think and feel a certain way about it, and then people come in and they write about it, and you think, "Oh, all right. That's what they wrote. That's what they thought." And then you have to try to understand why did they think that? Why is that how they reacted? I enjoy that aspect of it. It can be devastating at times, infuriating, but I do also really enjoy it, and I think that is why I'm not super rigid and demanding in how I want the works to be done.
RI: I wonder about whether... you've talked quite a bit about the inheritance of the American dichotomy of ‘tragic’ hero versus the ‘hero’ hero, single protagonist, straight line, all the way through the evening. What is your advice to the Chris Shinn that was starting out, and maybe now would be listening to this conversation? What do you teach your students?
CS: That's a really good question. I have deep long term pessimism about art as a career, because I just feel like... What's amazing about social media is that everybody can publish their thoughts and feelings. It may not rise to the level of art, but it fulfils a similar function of expression of self. I think it's getting, at least in America; it's harder and harder to get people to go to a movie theatre and go to a theatre. People are on their devices for hours a day, looking at these little creations on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook that their friends have made, and they're making their own little creations and placing them.
I think more and more that democratisation of self-expression is going to give to the traditional ways that art has entered the culture a run for its money. So, on one level I just worry about my students, and I think will they have a chance to put their vision in front of a group of people for an extended period of time? Is that something that's going to continue, or is it going to become more and more diffuse and harder to make that happen? That's one area where I worry about dramatic writing in America in general.
In terms of if a student is really doing something risky, I definitely try to encourage them. I think art has to be about truth, and you can't be worrying too much about the market, especially at that age. But I also try to convey to my students that if you're trying to do something that isn't market-tested, market-ready and conventional, it's just going to be much harder for you. You're going to have to think strategically about how do you present yourself? How do you forge relationships with people who might take a risk on you? How do you convey that your work might have broad appeal even if it doesn't initially seem something that audiences will be able to accept?
You have to think a bit like a PR person if you're a writer now. You really do. You have your art, and then you have how do I sell it to my culture? And you need those skills. Fifteen years ago, I never thought about the market with my students. I never thought I had to help them begin to think about how they could realise their visions in the marketplace.
RI: It was all art and no career.
CS: It was all art and no career, and now I feel like it's 70% art and 30% let's talk about our culture, because you live in it, you're working in it, you want to make money in it, you want to have a career. You need to know what it is, and we need to strategise together about how you're going to place yourself within it.
RI: What about on that 70% art? What are the things you'd want to be told yourself, or what are the things you try and tell ...?
CS: I think I came of age at the last moment where you could really believe a writer or a playwright even could really be at the centre of the culture. I think Angels in America; to me it's the last play that did that in America. It was a serious play - that was on Broadway for a long time. Everyone went to see it. People wrote about, thought about it, it penetrated the culture in a really universal way, I thought.
I was 18 when that play was on Broadway, and I remember thinking that you could write a big, serious play and it could be on Broadway and run for two years and everybody could write about it and think about it. That really can't happen now, I don't think, at least with a play of that level of complexity and ambition.
So, I would've liked to have told my younger self, if you're going to write the kind of plays that you want to write, just be aware that it's unlikely that you're going to have a huge Broadway hit and be on the cover of Time magazine. That it's going to be a different world and just understand that the artist isn't at the centre in the same way as in particularly the mid-20th century. To me, that sort of golden age of ... you could be an intellectual and an artist and everyone could still pay attention to your work. It could feel that way at least in retrospect.
Yeah, I think I would like to know that I'm ... again, it fits into our theme of individualism, and sort of dismantling it. I'm not going to be the kind of writer that will be at the centre of the culture, but I can be a part of something that involves other people that are deeply thinking and feeling about our world, and have a really fulfilling life working with these people and being a part of the community that's just trying to further this project of art in a really complex and challenging time. That will be satisfying and maybe even satisfying in a way that being some big star, winning awards and having lots of attention, would not have been.
The other thing I would say is that you do have to really fight for your idiosyncratic self as an artist. It's not worth giving up what you think and feel and believe just to have a career. Any time I look at my career and I think what if I had taken that easier route, I'm just always really happy that I didn't. Sometimes I regret it, and I think oh, if I had more money I could be more relaxed, I could maybe take bigger risks ...
I always have some rationalisations about why maybe I might have done that, but I just know that the pleasure and satisfaction of having a life where you really are devoted to your sense of truth and then how best to realise it, in a community of artists and in a community of your peers, that is actually just deeply fulfilling and wonderful. So, I would tell myself to keep the faith and fight hard and it's worth the struggle, and I would say that to young writers today, too. I think it's harder than it was for me, so even just a 20 year difference, I think it has become harder, but I would still hope that at least some young writers out there really will want to take that harder path.
RI: It's fascinating. The strange thing about Angels in America is a cultural change moment, and I wonder if we have had one since - my counter provocation is Hamilton. And actually, when those [culture changers] appear, they always appear in a different form from the last time they appeared. It's very rare, I suspect.
The last one we had over here was Jerusalem. I suspect there's not been a comparable one, but they are always the inheritance of, and simultaneously the explosion of, an old form. You can see in Angels in America, I think, Shakespeare and The Winter's Tale, and that idea of a two-part panorama of a nation at a particular historical moment makes me think of Henry IV Part 1 and 2. In the same way that in Jerusalem you can see the inheritance of George and the Dragon and all of those British stories about people drunk in the middle of a wood. This is a modern iteration of the same thing: that almost kills that old form dead, but also sucks all of the energy from the old form and crafts something with it.
I don't know, I suspect if you were to ask Kushner before [Angels], he'd say the same thing you've just said, which is that you can't do The Glass Menagerie anymore because someone's done that. So, what I have to do is to be true to me. I don't know, maybe it's from there that those events come. In the same way though it feels to me that Hamilton is both massively derivative and massively original.
CS: Yeah, I still haven't seen Hamilton, which is crazy, but ...
RI: Oh, have you not?
CS: I know. Isn't that crazy? I think I'm the only one. I'll see it eventually. It just slipped away from me and it's so expensive.
RI: It's so expensive.
CS: Yeah, it's crazy.
RI: But it's kind of extraordinary that it's expensive, if you think that the wisdom here now is the same as there, which is you need two things if you want to sell tickets. One is a star and the other is a title, and that has neither. The pitch was it's a new hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton of whom some people have heard, but not everybody, and very few people can tell you the story unless they've read that particular biography, and it has no famous performer in it.
CS: Yeah, yeah.
RI: And you think, that is extraordinary. That that’s the thing that's going for thousands of dollars a ticket. When you look at more conventional.... celebrity actors in Six Degrees of Separation, or The Glass Menagerie, or the great American plays, that actually is harder [to sell] these days. We're waiting for, I suspect, the next one, and I'm sure it will come. It's just they're hard to predict, because they always have what Robert Hughes called "the shock of the new."
Do you feel that when you teach ... is that a thing you feel you want to cultivate? Do you teach to draw into your own writing practice or do you teach to kind of pass on your writing practice?
CS: I think I like to nurture people. So I think I just find it psychologically satisfying to help someone grow and better realise their vision and their intention. In the past it used to really be me forcing myself to articulate what I believed. I never initially ... probably actually for the first decade, it was like, "Well, what do I actually think? What do I think makes a good play?" And I had to re-think everything, because I didn't think the things I had been taught were really true.
CS: I didn't think a protagonist with a strong objective and an antagonist preventing ... I didn't think oh, yeah, that's what makes a great play, because I made plays that didn't fulfil that, that I thought were really great. So, I kind of had to create my own theory of drama. And that never stops, and I'm still always complicating that, but after about 10 years I felt like, yeah, I have a sense of what I think.
My whole thing now that I teach is tension. I always say, how do you generate tension? To me, if there's tension on stage, the play is interesting. How do you build tension and complicate it over the course of an evening? Five years before, it was conflict. Conflict became tension. Maybe in five years I'll have a new word. But I feel like I'm basically settled on what I think the basic parameters of an interesting play are, and it's so vague and abstract that it could apply to any kind of form and it's not limited to naturalism or avant garde work. It can fit anywhere.
It seems to work with students, who seem to like the way I teach and benefit from it. Because of that, I've started to feel a little bit like, all right. So, I'm looking for something new now, because that excitement of "What do I think? What do I feel?" and going into class and not fully knowing, and having to work through it in real time in front of the students, that actually has passed. But it's become a little less exciting to teach because of that. I don't really know what the next thing will be, but I do feel a need for something more than just teaching and writing at this point.
RI: That was my next question, actually. What's next?
CS: Yeah. I have this fantasy of writing a book, but I would need a billionaire to finance me for about three or four years. I'd like to write a theory of the psyche, which is a thing that's kind of fallen out of fashion, but I would like to try to integrate religion, anthropology, psycho-analysis and really get a theory of drama, too. What is the drama of the psyche? What is the psyche doing, and how does the psyche relate to the group, and the social sphere?
Just because I think it would be fun, you know. I've read so many different theories of the psyche in the last 20 years, and I've been busily in my mind integrating a grand unified theory. I've been drawn to those old theories, and I miss ... We live in this Steven Pinker age of data and ways of thinking about the cognitive functioning of the mind. I really miss, I have a longing for that era of the Freudian sort of... what is this big mysterious thing?
And how can we try to systematise it in order to make sense of it, and so then apply what we learn to improving the world? I think it'd be fun, and I'm sure I just have a nostalgia for those books I read of people who did that. Also, I think it would be interesting, to sort of try to bring the psyche back into popular discourse in an area that's so much about neuroscience and cognition and data and statistics.
RI: You mean we handed all of that on to the scientists now, rather than allowed the cultural thinkers, the artists, to engage with the art side of it?
RI: I think that's true. One thing I did think, watching last night, was knowing your work before we knew each other, and then having watched it with a different lens since we've known each other - they're getting bigger. They're getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I find that really exciting.
CS: Yeah, I know. I didn't plan it. It just keeps happening. Maybe the next one will be really 70 minutes of a just straight shot or something.
RI: Well, not even longer. I don't even mean longer in terms of time, I just mean-
CS: You mean dramatically bigger.
RI: And more characters and more focuses, more foci, or whatever the plural of that is. I don't know, I wonder whether the... following the Steven Pinker graph, I kind of got the next thing is, maybe in four plays' time it's going to be a five play cycle. You need a whole day to watch it, or whatever.
They're also getting more supernatural, I think. It's fascinating listening to you talk about naturalism and realism, because I think the earlier work is much more of that church, isn't it? Whereas in Against, we have a character who may or may not be Jesus. So then you think okay, well, the rules of naturalism have to some degree gone out the window, and the skylight is opened onto a much bigger upstairs world.
Which of course, is also one of the hallmarks of Angels in America, as I think I’ve probably said to you before, but I’ve been saying it here for years, about the plays we should do, that it’s like I think we live in an age where plays are very good at America and not very good at angels? It's that very Shakespearian crash of going, yes, it's a romantic comedy about some people lost in a wood, but there's a whole bit where there's fairies and the guy gets turned into a donkey. The crash of possible and impossible.
Of course, there are things in Against which I can't... and there are certainly not things like this in Teddy Ferarra in quite the same way. There are things in Against in a really delightful way, that are inexplicable. Things that happen which are strange and unusual and defy naturalism to explain their presence in the play. I wonder whether that road is leading you somewhere, as well. I-
CS: I think it probably is. I think part of its getting older. Part of it is certain life experiences that open you to different ways of thinking and your mysteries and things that feel beyond reality as you know it. I also think the world is in a moment that feels apocalyptic, and when you're in such a moment, you're looking for ways that form can encompass the immensity of what's happening. I've always loved The Winter's Tale. It's probably in my top three plays, and I think there is something-
RI: Come, what are the other two?
CS: Oh God. That's a good question. I would probably just ... Well, there's like old plays and then new ones, or writers who are alive now. I'd say Mamet and Churchill are my two personal gods of living writers. I love Oresteia, The Winter's Tale… I would have to be then one of the tragedies; either ... I don't know if it's Hamlet or King Lear. It's one of those two, I think. I think I'd like Hamlet more, but King Lear maybe feels a bit more all-encompassing in an apocalyptic world.
CS: So, one of those two, that would be my other one there. So many great writers, and I guess as I get older you do feel that broadening and complicating ... Psychology feels too small, and other things begin to ...
RI: And your reverence for the rules diminishes, because you've done it a few times now, and so you kind of go, "Well, why not?"
RI: It's amazing. We've managed to talk for an hour now without talking about the world and the apocalypse which is also clearly very present and important. I don't know, it's very... Against feels like to me a play that obviously emerged long before we had any idea that Trump was going to be the president and Brexit was going to be a thing. It's quite strange to think that this point of our conversation about this piece of work is in a context that seems completely flipped on its head from when we began talking. And yet the play seems quite comfortable holding hands with both of those things, which is strange.
I know we had a chat in the lobby last night about the temptation to update, and how you'd resisted that temptation to crowbar in some new Trumpisms or whatever to talk to the play. Do you see yourself as a writer that would ever address directly the status quo of the times we live in, or do you prefer ... I think I know what the answer to this is, but do you prefer the more elliptical blends?
CS: You probably think, and would be right to think, I prefer the more elliptical, but I think a part of it is I'm not as familiar with audiences here, exactly who they are: again, my impression is they're more diverse on every level than American audiences. What you have in America which is very wealthy white audiences, I think I feel that if you're too direct, you just... it's the whole thing about preaching to the choir and just telling people what they already believe and think. Again, I want to activate people in a different way, and so part of being elliptical is trying to create an experience that somebody watching the play just can't narrow down, and...
RI: It sort of has space in it.
CS: Yeah. I'm curious to see the Trump plays, wherever they are. I had a tweet that was meant to be a provocation. Maybe it was too subtle to feel really aggressive, but I just tweeted that when there was Stuff Happens in the Bush era, and now Tony Kushner announced he's doing a Trump play, and I just think it's interesting that I don't think there was an Obama play. Nobody wrote one. At least not one that got produced we all know about.
To me that's sad and it's telling. So, part of my resistance to be too on the back of the headlines is I feel like there's just, when you get to that territory, the danger of comforting people is really strong. The reason there was no Obama play was that audiences and theatre’s thought we don't want to discomfort anyone. We have a pretty good president right now. So, I always think that territory is dangerous for me as an American if I really want to provoke and challenge, so let me be more elliptical, come at it sideways. Take people... find them in an unexpected place, catch them off guard.
RI: Is there anything else that we should talk about, or you'd like to say about Against before we finish off?
CS: I think that's pretty good. We've been talking a while. Anybody who made it this long, I think should be rewarded.
CS: Yes, wrapping up.
RI: Very good. Well, Chris Shinn, it's a pleasure to have you here, and we're proud to have Against on here at the Almeida, for its world premiere. Thank you for talking to me.
CS: Thank you for talking, and all your help with the play.
RI: Thank you.
Against | 12 August - 30 September
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