AMA: Christopher Shinn

AMA: Christopher Shinn

Posted by: Amanda ReCupido at 02/19/2013 12:18 PM

We at the Goodman understand that once the final curtain goes down, the dialogue about a play is only beginning, and Teddy Ferrara is no exception. We’ve appreciated your comments so far and wanted to keep the conversation going, so we sent out a call for your questions on social media and forwarded them to Teddy Ferrara playwright Christopher Shinn, in the Goodman’s first “Ask Me Anything” (or “AMA” as it’s been popularized). Check out his responses below, and let’s continue the discussion!

Lou Harry: Once a play is accepted by a major theater, what's the most nerve-wracking, self-doubting moment for you? I'm curious if that happens early in rehearsal, just before opening, or at some other time. Thank you. (Or perhaps you are the rare case where it doesn't happen at all?) 

Playwright Christopher Shinn  

Christopher Shinn: Earlier in my career I was a nervous wreck all the time. I felt so vulnerable when my work was exposed that often I couldn’t even look at it. For the first production of Four in London, I spent large portions of the rehearsal process curled up in a fetal position, in the rehearsal hall, sleeping. During rehearsals for Other People in London I would suddenly leave the rehearsal room and go outside and pace and smoke. Looking back I realize I must have seemed like a total crazy person! But as time has gone on I've gotten more and more confident about my work. I've also come to learn that everyone is different and just because someone doesn't understand or enjoy my work it doesn't mean that there was a failure on my part to communicate effectively or entertainingly, it just means that something in their psyche needed to reject something in mine. This has lessened my nerves considerably. So even when a work of mine isn’t well received, I tend less to doubt myself and more to wonder why people had a hard time connecting with what made so much sense and seemed so compelling to me. A nerve-wracking moment (which is different than self-doubt) is always looking at the big reviews—the ones, like it or not, that you know will determine what the future life of a play is. 

 Allison Bodnar Jaros:  I read your interview on BuzzFeed LGBT about the “It Gets Better” movement. To quote, you said, “In some ways it gets better but in other ways it stays the same, and sometimes I wonder if the increased acceptance of queer sexuality will cause a backlash that occasionally makes things worse.” I’m interested to hear what your predictions are of what will be made worse and then how you think we will overcome those new issues. Thanks. 

CS: I think it should be clear by now that sexuality is not primarily genetic or otherwise structured by our biology in a fixed way. There is some obvious evidence for this—otherwise heterosexual men who have sex with men in prison for example—and then there is evidence that maybe is more controversial, like men who have sex with men then become heterosexual later in life (the controversy being: were they always gay and lying to themselves, or did they make a choice about their sexuality somewhere along the line?). My prediction is pretty simple: as homosexuality becomes more and more culturally acceptable, more and more people will have homosexual experiences. This will increase the possibility that some who are threatened by a more fluid sexuality will react with anger towards those who are embracing a more wide ranging sexuality. I think this will be especially fraught for teenagers, for whom sexuality is a pressing biological urge and who are less “fixed” in their social roles due to their age. As there will still be tremendous pressure, overt and covert, to conform to heterosexuality, both those with increased urges to broaden their sexual experiences and those who need to more severely suppress and repress such urges in themselves may resort to violence to deal with their feelings.

Joel Kim Booster: What's the biggest difference between working in Chicago versus New York?

CS: Chicago’s young actors seem less obsessed with personal advancement. I am sure the actors here are ambitious, but the ambition never seems primary. I would joke to [Teddy Ferrara director] Evan Cabnet that in New York we’d constantly see young actors on their phones, talking to their agents or looking otherwise all-consumed during breaks etc....Here it feels like there is a simple focus on the work at hand. To me this translates into non-narcissistic, ensemble-supporting performances that tell the story rather than seek to make an individual actor shine. There are fantastic young actors in New York but the obsession with fame can get in the way of the work there.

Lydia Stazen Michael: Thanks for this play. What I have been mulling over is the portrayal of many different relationships, all of which seemed unhealthy to me. Could comment on that?

CS: One of my favorite plays is The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare, a play about a man whose jealousy and rage are utterly irrational. We watch as his irrationality causes horrific destruction to those he claims to love. I became obsessed with this play a few years ago because it seemed to me that Shakespeare was very clearly trying to come to terms with his own psychopathology—a propensity for envy that had likely made his personal life a living hell at times. Inspired by this, I was determined to write a play where I dramatized my pathology in an attempt to work through it. Now, in The Winter’s Tale the pathology is limited, more or less, to Leontes; but I wanted to extend my pathology to all the characters, something more in line with a tragedy like King Lear. So I think the narcissism you perceive in the characters—the rejection of vulnerability and longing in favor of power and control—is what I was trying to work through personally in the writing of the play. My theory is that all writers are either interrogating and trying to work through their pathology in their work, or else they’re trying to justify it and even idealize it. The great writers, in my opinion, always try to interrogate it and transcend it and that’s why they’re my role models. When you read Ibsen’s late plays in order you see a heroic attempt to face his own narcissism before death arrives. I admire this use of writing so much because it offers the audience the opportunity to work through their pathology as well, and because it puts into words secrets of the human heart that have never before been uttered.

Patricia Lang: Can you comment on the character Jay? He seemed to have a positive inner self, but to me, the play seemed to gloss over him a bit. 

CS: I think of him as a secondary character rather than someone glossed over, and I’d argue that he has quite a complex story in the second half of the play: someone trying to make the move from friends to "something more," which, at least in my college years, was a common and usually very frustrating situation! While I agree with you that Jay has many positive traits, to me he is not very different than anyone else in the play (spoiler alert!): he desires someone who does not desire him back nor treat him particularly well, and when that person for whom he claims to care so deeply is in need and reaches out, he ignores his calls and mocks him (“Boo hoo”). So I think we see a narcissism and cruelty in Jay alongside his positive traits. 

Maureen Murphy Imbrosciano: The technology aspect of this play really hit the mark—the scenes where the actors are texting other people instead of having real face to face conversations, even with the person they are next to, is so true with the younger generation—I would love for you to comment on that part of the piece.

CS: You know how you see a production of Romeo and Juliet and all the young people come onstage with swords? I wanted smartphones to serve the same function here. They are fashion statements, they are weapons, they are tools—people have always felt the need to display and utilize objects of aggression in public and in our era, smartphones serve this purpose. That they convey aggression through self-centeredness as well as through the creation of physical and emotional distance makes them incredibly subtle yet powerful devices for storytelling. 

Dange Russ Price: What are your thoughts on the presentation of hook-up culture in the play and how it would impact an incoming freshman? I’m delighted that you brought up the incestuous nature of the college community, but it seemed like there were only two polar representations: “the socially awkward yet sexually explicit” and the “let’s hookup, we started dating last week.” And even the sexually repressed characters wanted to get it on when the chance arose...if I were an incoming freshman or even a high schooler, I’d be intimidated of what would be expected of me as your play presents. But as a grad student, I'm glad you went there. Thank you.

CS: When I wrote the play I was just trying to remember what sex felt like to me as a college student. All I knew then is that some people had anonymous sex, some hooked up at parties with people they did or didn’t know, some went on “dates” and had sex immediately, which produced a serial monogamy that did or didn’t last... I didn’t really understand as a bewildered 18 year old how one chose what to do, how one communicated one’s wishes... it all felt overwhelming. There were so many options and possibilities. Sex is confusing that way—even in an age when things are much more open and there are more opportunities for transparency and lack of shame in negotiating intimacy. That’s all I wanted to capture in the play: the mystery of what to do with one’s body, of what others do with their bodies, of how longing and the need for love “show up” or don’t in sexual situations—of how the whole thing works. Some people seem to have an easy time of handling their desire and others seem to suffer tremendously. Widespread availability of pornography makes things even more complicated. It was my hope that by dramatizing all this as realistically as possible, I’d get people thinking about how desire functions in their own psyches —maybe make them remember experiences from their past, but also make them think about how desire works inside of them now. Desire is so problematic, but our culture often acts like it’s a simple objective fact that we have easy access to at any time. Maybe for a lucky few!

(Spoiler alert!)

Hilary Patience B.: Did you ever consider having the best friend's sexuality stay unanswered to add another dimension?

CS: You are offering an interpretation, a very valid one, but I would argue one of many. I’d prefer not to give my interpretation of what Tim’s behavior means about his sexuality, but I would hope that others have differing ideas of what’s going on in that scene.

I can't believe no one asked about my cats!!!

Catch Teddy Ferrara now until March 3 in the Owen Theatre. Get tickets now!


  • Posted by: Pete Forester at 02/19/2013 01:48 PM

    Why are your cats so awesome?

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