Connected in Disconnections
Interview with John Dotson on Without Why
Apraksin Blue, No. 14, Different Game, 2007
Arroyo Seco, California
A full-color edition of the issue, in Russian translation, is available at Apraksinblues.narod.ru/Apraksin_Blues_14.pdf
1. How did you, a poet, come to feel drawn to playwriting?
Since I was in my first-grade class play, I have always been enchanted by the stage and by stage productions, and throughout my life I have worked to connect with audiences in many dimensions. Several years ago my life was changed by reading a line by Octavio Paz: “I have always thought of the poet not as one who speaks, but as one who hears.” I began to listen more closely to the speaking of others and to the interplay of voices all around as the prima materia of working in dramatic mode. Listening to others and letting characters form themselves to embody their own voices is a powerful way of connecting with people.
2. What gave this play its genesis, both circumstantially and topically?
Since September 11, 2001, I found myself unexpectedly developing a parallel life in New York, traveling there often and joining with a community of long-term and newfound friends and artists. I needed to respond to this new life and its radical emotions. New York, naturally, is a center for connecting with larger planetary realities, and I found that I urgently wanted to reach the world. I worked on a film concept for a while with a group of poets on both coasts, and then I found that, if I could, I was going to try to transport a Carmel audience to Central Park to share a day in the life of Galileo (Leo) Caviot, the main character. In briefest terms, Leo states, “Reality is something we’re always discovering,” and one reality he is discovering is the Void within himself and in world life. For example, in the play, Leo’s good friend Preston is struggling to ride his bicycle downtown and re-visit Ground Zero. The play does not specify what Preston’s exact difficulty is, but clearly he is dealing with personal trauma, and that trauma does come through. Another major concern of Leo is global warming and climate calamity on a global scale.
3. In what ways might the play both draw upon and diverge from situations in your own life?
There are many undisguised links between the characters and situations in the play and some of my own life situations. Still, the characters are original and stand and speak for themselves. This is my second produced (and third written) play, and the power in this work comes from the freedom and necessity of the characters to live their own lives and situations. That is how drama works to bring forth discoveries that couldn’t happen any other way. The play is, in fact, something of a credo statement, but in dramatic mode. As I see it, this play is an important bridge to future work I’d like to do—reaching, potentially, for global audiences.
4. What were some of the greatest obstacles to the play's technical realization onstage?
The greatest obstacle was that we had a very small budget but simultaneously had very high technical aspirations. We explored a lot of multi-media possibilities using images and audio recorded on-location in NYC. Conrad Selvig, the director, had a lot of trouble casting the play because of its unusual nature. Namely, all of the characters relate by means of cell phone calls or email; none of them has face-to-face contact.
5. You played the lead role. What was this experience like for you, as the work's author?
Originally, another actor was going to play the lead, but that didn’t develop, and there was no alternative to my taking the role. In the end, that seemed natural and best. However, it was never my aim to create a self-portrait. I wanted all the characters to reveal themselves and do the work required by the art form, so that through them (including the leading role) the audience could see the world from a Central Park perspective. I think we accomplished this. Asking fellow actors and crew to make commitments with me as performer and also as playwright was very intense. On my part, it was eerie to play a part of a character so much like me, written by me, but not me. Ultimately, as performer, I was caught in the spell I had cast as author. In every performance, I fell into the depths of Leo’s problems, which are not exactly the same as my own, and, fortunately, I also felt something of his way out of them also.
6. Did your sense of the play change over the course of its rehearsal, and then of its run?
As the deadline for casting and rehearsing was rapidly approaching, I hoped the script was good enough to move into production, but I had not had time to ponder it as deeply as I wanted. While there are many alterations I would have made had there been more time, it was actually surprising to find that it all worked as the cast and crew discovered the play in performance and as audiences reacted.
7. Did the involvement of the director and the actors cause the work to become something other than you had imagined?
I worked line-by-line with my director, Conrad Selvig, and I also listened carefully to actors in read-throughs and would modify the script whenever something better emerged. The rehearsal and performance processes led to many changes, but the work as a whole did accomplish what I had set out to do, in continually surprising ways.
8. Within New York, does Central Park have a separate significance for the play? Does the setting become a symbol in itself?
The park has great significance for me personally—and for several million other people! But it was a surprise a few years ago to find myself often wandering alone in the wilderness of Central Park. I was able to bring something back out of that formlessness in the forms of the play. The play itself is the "why ask why?" of form/formlessness in interplay. And yes, in the park, I found a powerful symbol. First off, the park is a completely designed and engineered locale—almost nothing of the original topography exists today. But more so, in the play, the Metropolitan Museum and the nearby Obelisk are points of reckoning. Of course, in the museum reside works of many millennia; the Obelisk is nearly 4,000 years old. These are powerful compass points for pondering the human race and life on Earth in the early 21st century. Leo sits on a park bench beside the Obelisk, which is always a destination for me. Throughout the play, by the way, we project visual images of New York, and we have the continuous sounds of the city. These visual images and sounds were vitally important in communicating the symbolism of the park.
9. Regarding the characters' communication exclusively by means of cell phones and email. First, just to imagine how this works: are both actors present onstage while conversing, or is one offstage? Second, how much importance did you place on this artistic decision? Did it strike you as the best way to communicate certain key ideas? Was there something symbolic for you in confining human interaction to this medium? Does the idea of a play as a play, with traditional human interaction, appeal to you less at this point, whether in this case or thinking about other potential contemporary theatrical productions?
Leo is on-stage at all times. Three other actors appear, one at a time, on-stage but behind a scrim or screen. Three additional characters performed on video, which is shown by rear-screen projection, with Leo standing behind the scrim and in front of the screen in silhouette. These were very important, primary artistic decisions expressing key ideas: the disconnectedness of our connections, that is, the simultaneous, paradoxical difficulties of connecting along with the impossibility of disconnecting. Leo spends his day “alone” in Central Park—that’s something of an oxymoron right there. First off, he checks the online news on his laptop, and we hear his subjective responses, his feelings of powerlessness, by way of voiceovers. Then the sequence of cell phone calls and emails begins. The play addresses multiple layers: Leo’s inner thoughts by means of voiceovers, his cell phone and email relationships, his dys/connectedness with the world online. All the while, he also manages to hear the birds sing. Putting it all together, the play is about the vast eruptions of change on this planet, on all personal and global scales. And yes, absolutely, I am very much interested exploring greater possibilities that stage and screen can allow—if I have opportunities to go further.
10. Do you think of the aspect of the play that dwells on technocracy as important in bringing out deep themes, or was this more a nod to fashion, including traits without which the play might have seemed less in touch with the present moment? Could the play be better thought of as a diagnosis of modernity, or of human nature, or both?
Technocracy would not be the term for me, rather, cinemaesthesia—a term I coined. I feel that human beings in the 21st century are living cinemaesthetically, and that is a key element of the play. This theme is very much where I find myself in the present moment, in its pathology and its diagnosis. Technology and human nature are not opposites. Love it and/or hate it, technology is an expression of human nature that also shapes the development of human nature. Awareness of this is pretty much required for being awake these days. Techné means “knowing how” to do something. Grammar and syntax are technical inventions that are still emerging; the invention of the alphabet was a powerful technological innovation. Technology has brought great success to the human species, and as we all know, this very success is threatening our survival and is bringing the extinction of countless species. To examine honestly and genuinely the powers of technology requires nothing less than an examination of ourselves—individually and as a species. That is to state my own motivation as playwright and artist.
11. Do you hope for your creative work to achieve some kind of ideological influence? Do you see the dramatic form as particularly effective for this?
I hope to achieve influence, yes, of a particular sort. No one can claim to be free of ideology, but I’m not sure how I could place myself ideologically. At the core of the human condition, and planetary condition, today is the enigma of how we are living out our symbolic—shall we say ideological?—nature, and the basic elements of food, water, air, shelter, energy for a rapidly expanding global population. Clearly, generations now living are participating in magnitudes of change on planet Earth without precedent in human experience. Every day that we live and breathe, every one of us, everywhere, is an unprecedented day when we recognize that we are living in an intensifying global state of emergency. Since I find that I have various opportunities to communicate, I am committed to those possibilities, so long as this heart beats and I occupy space! I am profoundly drawn to stage productions, and I have a life-long involvement in film and other media as well. I do want to reach the world—and we did that in Without Why. Reaching the world does not depend on audience size, but rather on audience discernment—connection—along with the awareness of cast, crew, musicians, and everyone involved in the production.
12. Did you feel that any of the play's messages or techniques were a hard sell for the audience? Were there aspects of the play that the audience seemed to agree with readily? Did any of this come as a surprise?
The play uses some advanced devices script-wise and production-wise that may have challenged some. And of course, there are definitely weak spots in the script that I wish I could have improved. That said, there were many aspects of the play that many audience members connected with readily, yes. This was our intention, all of us, but it was still a wonderful surprise to me to discover, hey, somehow it worked!
13. What kinds of feelings or actions would you hope your play would inspire?
The messages of the play were numerous and plain-spoken (sometimes too plain-spoken, probably). Cinemaesthesia expresses for me the intention and the message very simply: We are connected in our disconnections. As long as it is possible to choose other-than numbness, then I will choose aliveness and I will reach out to others in aliveness (which includes, of course, the reality that we are all also, always, dying). I walk on feet of clay, but I am committed to walking onward as long as I can, eyes wide open, into a future that is dangerous. Whether we realize that or not, all of us human beings are now—right now—walking together into a future that is very dangerous. The next script that I am writing is titled The Plant (referring to the building of an chemical plant in a rural area of the Southern Appalachians in the 1920s); this script has as an epigram the famous phrase of Alfred North Whitehead: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” Facing the Void means respecting the missing information—what we do not know, cannot predict, and cannot control. Surely it is an ultimate human arrogance to think that we can know enough and predict enough to control the future. I don’t think we are facing reality—as performers and audiences—if we are not aware just how dangerous things are. We are experiencing planetary emergencies in so many dimensions that we can hardly recognize them all. The practice of these art forms is my personal faithfulness, reaching out to all living, through the abyss, accepting the Void and even learning to love the Void. We cannot disconnect; none of us can—what are we going to do? In the process of writing The Plant, I again embrace the attitude of why ask why? I trust these forms as they appear, if they appear, and they are, and am devoted to this work. I hope to inspire a deeper sense of urgency and a greater sense of interconnectedness—which is to say lovingkindness and compassion, however incomprehensible that might sound—in the world.