Future History: An Interview with Playwright Philip Dawkins

By Sally Ollove, Azuka Dramaturg

Azuka was lucky enough to be able to bring Philip Dawkins to Philadelphia, but not until after FAILURE: A LOVE STORY had opened. One of the unique challenges of working on new plays in the new world is the tension between the proximity and distance afforded by the Internet. On the one hand, Philip was so accessible by email—questions could be asked and answered. And the answers were so visceral as to give an illusion that we were all old pals. On the other, he was more or less a disembodied figure sending words our way with no body or voice to ground him.

Which is all to say, that when I sat down to come up with some questions to send Philip for this interview, I wanted to send really “interesting” ones as a means of forming some tangible connection—which I can imagine might have been a little overwhelming to receive. Philip handled it all beautifully, though. Here’s a taste of what I mean when I say “visceral” responses:

AZUKA: FAILURE engages with one of Chicago’s most notorious historical incidents as well as one family’s memory of their own history. When do you most feel history present?

PHILIP DAWKINS: When do I feel history MOST present?  Hmmm. I mean,,, that’s kind of a … question.  I mean, we are history. As of the millisecond after I typed this word, it’s already history. But does that word become HISTORY with a capital everything?  Probably not. And that may be for the better. Often HISTORY is something recorded for the purpose of people looking at is as HISTORY, studying it, making it something to cram inside of a textbook in order to substantiate a specific perspective or agenda.  When, really, at the time it was happening, it was just … life.  I think I prefer history in lower case, history that’s not trying to prove anything, but just exists in the past because that’s when it happened. But we do drag history around with us, don’t we?  I think it’s interesting that “history” has become synonymous with “baggage.”

“Oh, me and her? We have history.”  Or

“I don’t hold it against him, that’s history.

When did “history” slip into the vernacular as something assumed to be a bad past, something we recognize from context as meaning: “Don’t ask, it was awful and melodramatic and we’re not talking about it, and I believe I’ll have another mimosa?”  I can’t ever remember someone saying with a big old smile on their face, “My ex husband and I have a long HISTORY!”

I think of the things that are often listed as belonging to history:  A history of violence, a History (meaning “having served time in prison), a History of depression, a history of diabetes.  We don’t so often hear: A history of compassion, a history of inclusion, a history of invitation, a history of bravery.  You know? Wouldn’t it be nice if we did?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the HISTORY we carried around with us like baggage was the kind of history we were eager to open up to everyone we met, instead of the kind of history we were anxious to keep in the past?

“Hi, I’m Philip, I have a history of story telling, a history of educating, and a history of artivism.  Nice to meet you.”

I think we should be living our present in such a way that makes us exuberantly proud of our future history.

AZUKA: As a playwright, there are probably bits and pieces of yourself and people you know in every character. Do any of the characters have certain character traits that you see in yourself?

PD: I’m John N.

Interestingly, my boyfriend, when he first read this play, looked up midway through it and said, “I’m John N.”  And a lot of people responding to this play have mentioned that they’re the John N. in their family.  I think John N. is familiar to a lot of people (myself included) because he’s an outsider. He’s the one who feels tangential to the fury and fuss of the world. But the world of FAILURE, his family doesn’t see him that way, they embrace him fully, they encourage his peculiarities. They love him. Part of the love story of FAILURE: A LOVE STORY is the love that each of the sisters has for their brother, and the quiet lengths each of them goes to protect and encourage him.

I think people are prone to feeling like outsiders, like the ones who never belong. Which is funny because if everyone in the world is standing outside the Popular Circle, then technically, we’re all standing in the Popular Circle.

But, I think there are aspects of myself in each of the sisters.

And don’t tell anybody, but I absolutely, one hundred percent can speak to animals.  Shhhh.

AZUKA: What are some of your favorite uses of the chorus in dramatic history (or contemporary plays)? Why? Were any particularly inspirational to you as you were working?

PD: You know I really dig on the use of chorus in Jean Anouilh’s ANTIGONE.  I dig on the Stage Manager in OUR TOWN, and I think it’s probably clear that I stood firmly on the shoulders of Thornton Wilder in order to reach the world of FAILURE.  I love the way Paula Vogel uses chorus in pretty much everything she’s ever written. Even when she doesn’t specifically designate a chorus, there’s a chorus. For instance, in THE OLDEST PROFESSION, what are each of those characters but individual thespises waiting to step out of the chorus and have their moment, waiting to perform…or to take a final bow?

With FAILURE, I left the designation of who says what in the chorus sections up to the production team because I always want performances of my plays to teach me something about the people putting them on.  I want to learn about other communities through a story about my own.  In another one of my plays, THE HOMOSEXUALS, I wrote about a specific group of folks in a specific stretch of ten years time, and having seen that play performed in other communities, I’ve felt like I’ve gotten all these amazing tutorials on what it’s like to live everywhere ELSE.  In plays about families, I want to see the fingerprints of the family putting it on.  I want to learn about this group of story-tellers almost as much as I want to learn about the story, so, I left the chorus somewhat open, and nondescript. I made the chorus more of a container to be filled with whatever you want. Water, pudding, frogs, teeth.  You fill it as you see fit. That’s what I think the best choruses do, they tell us about ourselves, by telling us someone else’s story.

*********************

Philip Dawkins’ critically-acclaimed play The Homosexuals received a Joseph Jefferson Nomination for New Work after its world premiere with About Face Theatre in the summer of 2011, under the direction of Bonnie Metzgar.  Upcoming productions are slated for ManBites Dog Theater in North Carolina and New Conservatory Theatre Center in SF.  His play Failure: A Love Story premiered in 2012 under the direction of Seth Bockley at Victory Gardens Theatre, where Dawkins is an Ensemble Playwright.  Future productions of Failure: A Love Story are slated at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia, Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal in summer, Marin Theatre Company, and many more.  His play Miss Marx or The Involuntary Side Effect of Living received a staged reading as part of Steppenwolf’s 2010 First Look Series.  Other credits:  Dead Letter Office (Dog and Pony Theatre); Yes to Everything! (Chicago, NY,CA, DC); Perfect (The Side Project); Ugly Baby (Chicago Opera Vanguard/Strawdog Theatre Company); A Still Life in Color (T.U.T.A. Company).  His plays for young folks have been performed all over the continent, and are published through Playscripts, Inc.  A graduate of Loyola University, Chicago, Philip is an Artistic Associate of About Face Theatre, an Ensemble Playwright at Victory Gardens, and a founding member of Chicago Opera Vanguard.  Philip teaches playwriting at Northwestern University and through the Victory Gardens ACCESS Program for writers with disabilities.  He also teaches Kung Fu to little Chicago kids through Rising Phoenix Kung Fu.  Hi-Yah!

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