“When I grew up,” recalls playwright Christopher Shinn, “I grew up with the image of the artist as somebody who could be central to the culture in a big way, and that was the kind of artist I wanted to be. And I remember feeling with Dying City that I might get to be that kind of artist.”
Shinn is speaking to LA Weekly by phone from his home in Manhattan about the 9/11 play — and his eighth major stage work — that he fully expected to catapult him at the relatively tender age of 30 to the forefront of the American theater. That would finally deliver him his dream of becoming a nationally recognized man of letters, a celebrated playwright of serious works.
Then, the writer continues, in spite of a successful 2006 run at London's Royal Court Theatre and an ecstatically unqualified rave by the New York Times' Ben Brantley for Dying City's 2007 Lincoln Center production, America turned its back. Or at least America's big, career-making regional powerhouses like L.A.'s Center Theatre Group. Now, Dying City will finally receive its local premiere on May 18 at the 99-seat Rogue Machine Theatre.
And while Shinn admits that the reasons for the wider public's indifference might have had something to do with the play's downbeat title or the manner in which it suggested unpleasant, audience-implicating truths about the Iraq War at a time when the country was still hopelessly mired in the conflict, he suspected something more profound was at work — what he now calls “the new normal” for playwrights and all artists.
“I think what I learned at that time,” he muses, “and I think what other writers have learned subsequently, is that we're living at a time when there is just so much cultural product… I just think there is so much you're in competition with as a writer that it's very, very hard to sort of become the focus of the culture as an artist.”
If anyone has earned the right to feel disappointed, it is Shinn, who was more or less willed onto the stage by a mother determined to give her son the cultural pedigree denied her as a girl. It helped that they lived within spitting distance of Connecticut's venerable Hartford Stage. The playwright's earliest memories are of accompanying her to that theater's world-class productions of international and American classics.
It was only as a teenager, however, that Shinn's ambition to become a fiction writer (he completed a novel at age 15) was forever transformed by seeing Michael Greif's world premiere staging of José Rivera's Marisol. “I was absolutely dazzled,” Shinn remembers. “To see a new play that put the real world onstage, you know, where there're scenes in a subway and scenes in an apartment. I mean not just for those reasons, but [for] that contemporary quality combined with the emotion in José's writing. … New plays have incredible power. Hearing it in a city, watching a play about a city, sitting in an audience of people who are alive today, watching a play taking place today — it was incredibly powerful and influential.”
The budding novelist quickly enrolled in NYU's undergraduate playwriting department. By age 20, he had completed Four, his smoldering, first full-length drama about teenage desire written in the spare, realistic style for which he would become renowned. It was flatly rejected by every U.S. theater where he submitted it. He was so dispirited that he quit playwriting altogether and enrolled in Columbia's MFA fiction program.
But Fate again intervened, this time in the form of the Royal Court Theatre's outgoing maverick artistic director Stephen Daldry. Under Daldry, the Court had aggressively supported young, untried writers and virtually created the British playwriting renaissance of the 1990s. At age 23, Shinn suddenly found himself with an artistic home (he's had five plays produced at the Court) and Four went on to become part of the American gay theater repertory canon. (Director Joshua Sanchez's film adaptation is currently being readied for distribution by Wolfe Releasing.)
Not that Shinn considers himself a “gay playwright.” “It's never a conscious decision about, you know, this is a gay play or this is not a gay play, or I'm going to explore more of my gay life in this play and this play is something else,” he explains. “I really don't ever go to the conscious level to figure out what I'm writing.” In fact, many of his plays have no gay characters at all. “[A play] is,” he says, “always whatever happens to be in my psyche at the time. … The way I write is simply I go into myself — into a kind of waking dream state, a kind of meditative state — and I access whatever is there.”
What was there when the Royal Court first commissioned him to write Dying City in 2005 was the apocalyptic trauma of 9/11 and the Iraq War. “I think [the impulse] simply had to do with the fact that there was a war going on at the time that I was going into myself to try and write a play. The one thing I did consciously think about was how the photographs from Abu Ghraib reminded me of hardcore pornography, and so I saw a link between what was happening in a war with what was happening in our sexuality. And that got me thinking about the overlap between violence and sexuality.”
The play that emerged is a searing psychoanalysis of the country's post-attacks mindset in which its three characters grope through the murk of cataclysmic shock, grief and uncertainty, searching for the tidy narrative closure that real-life social and emotional ruptures rarely provide. It is the accomplished work of a mature playwright at the peak of his craft, written in Shinn's now-signature hyper-naturalistic dialogue in which the unspoken fracturing madness of the outside world seeps in through each pregnant pause and hesitation of its poetically disjointed language.
In fact, examining the wider social and political world through the lens of his characters' private, sexual and interpersonal relations is something of a Shinn hallmark. It comes from the playwright's belief that we are all first and foremost social creatures.
“We are living in a society that is structured,” he explains. “You know, endless structures that help determine how we live and who we are. So I am always thinking in that social and political dimension. … It's never a conscious decision of mine to have a social or political element in a play, but characters live in a world, and the world has those things in it. So a play like Dying City referencing the war, being a lot about the war, a character going to war, I think that simply had to do with the fact that there was a war going on at the time I was going into myself to try and write a play.”
In that sense, the play is very much a reflection of Shinn's own mental state at the time, when he was grappling with a broader sense of something terribly wrong in the national consciousness that predated the WTC attacks. “It felt like there was something very, very dark and apocalyptic about the times we were living in,” he recalls. “It was something I had felt really from the late-'90s. That's really when I began writing. You can almost see it in all of my work in subtle ways but increasingly as time goes on. And I think that when 9/11 happened it for me was a way to then talk more directly and concretely about that feeling.”
That makes Dying City a classic piece of artistic self-analysis — a personal exorcism that makes explicit in a universal way the real horror and trauma of the country's unspoken national madness. Or, as Shinn himself puts it, “I think I found a way to link the personal and what was happening historically in a very vivid way. And so I think it was a relief for me in some ways to have that kind of concrete event to sort of locate what I had been feeling for so many years.”
Dying City opens at Rogue Machine Theater on Saturday, May 18.