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I really appreciate Playscripts and their work toward creating better theater and theater experiences for all. Jay Muldoon Theater Teacher, Fairfield, OH
General Information
We chat with the always delightful Philip Dawkins about his two new plays, “Failure: A Love Story” and “The Homosexuals”

Failure: A Love Story is a magical, musical fable about the the three Fail sisters, who, by the end of 1928 will all be dead. Moving backwards through time, The Homosexuals follows Evan, a gay man, and his close-knit group of friends and lovers as they navigate the changing meaning of being gay in America. We talk with playwright Philip Dawkins about Chicago, the writing process, and finding inspiration in unusual places.

What was your inspiration for writing Failure: A Love Story?

It was two-fold. One source of inspiration was a kind of visual prompt, and the other was a little more existential/Oprah. The visual impulse came when I was taking a last minute road trip through Indiana with a buddy of mine, and we decided to drive through a graveyard somewhere near Gary. You know…because. I came across this giant headstone that just read FAIL. I stopped the car and told my travel buddy, “Stop everything! This is very important.” We soon discovered the headstone was the family marker for an entire FAIL family, all of whom were demarcated by smaller name plates around the larger stone: Nelly Fail, John N. Fail, and–I kid you not–Roxy Fail. My mind started spinning. Who were the Fails? How did they live? How did they die? What were their lives like?

Cue the playwright obsessive questions.

Also during this time, I was going through a period of lots of grief due to deaths of friends, deaths of friends’ family members, and feeling generally hit in the face with loss. I’d been wrestling a lot with just the fact of sadness, and how to find happiness and joy in the process of creeping inevitably toward the ends of our lives. I mean, not to be super depressing about it, but we’re all just in the active process of dying…and sometimes it seems impossible to find the gratitude in that process. I was looking to write something that would help me rediscover that joy. I wanted to work on something that would allow me to ask those questions in a massively collaborative way, with a project that would involve a full community of people, in a format that would be inviting and welcoming to all audiences to share in that conversation.

Then I met the FAIL headstone, and it all started to click.

I know nothing about the Fail Family who I found in the graveyard, and they lived much earlier than the Fails in my play. But I’m grateful to them for providing the spark.

And we’ll ask the same question about The Homosexuals.

I had been invited to a party–a mix CD sharing party, so that tells you about how long ago this was. The idea was to make a mix CD of a bunch of songs you want to share, then make five copies and bring them to the party. You give your music away to strangers, and then you go home with five mix CDs from five other strangers. Like a Tupperware party, only with less burping and buyer’s incentives.

Anyway, this was a circle of friends to which I was more or less tangential. I knew some of them a little bit, but none of them well. So, as the night went on, I watched them all begin to “perform” the roles of themselves for me, this newbie in the group. I saw all their history on display in front of me. I felt pulled into and pushed out of the group, and I realized that every introduction to a group of friends begins by dragging you back in time.

“Well, Dan and I met when we were in college…”

“Maggie and I grew up together in Tulsa. Our dads were on the same bowling team.”

“I used to serve Greg waffles at this diner that’s no longer there in Rogers Park.”

It’s like this ongoing trip back in time just to explain current existence as a group, to get the WHY NOW of any friend group, it’s necessary to go back to the WHAT WHEN of each member?

I went home that night with about a hundred songs from strangers. I listened to them all, filled up my head with strange melodies, went to bed, and dreamed the entire story for what ended becoming The Homosexuals. The next morning, I began writing.

Time plays an important role in both of these pieces, and both plays take place over the course of several years. What drew you to this device?

I don’t know that I believe in time.

That’s not true. What do I mean? I mean that I don’t understand time. I’m not sure that it works the way we all assume it does, along a timeline. (Also, I have nothing to back this up with, I just have a gut feeling that maybe all the experiences we’re taught to think of as linear are probably way more squiggly than we could ever imagine.) So, this idea that time is either our ally or our nemesis…

Well, with the Fails, no one achieves their goals. No one. Spoilers, sorry, but you learn that pretty much in the first line of the play. The point isn’t about the destination, it’s about the TIME spent getting there. Time, in that sense, becomes measured more by quality than quantity. All the sisters in Failure: A Love Story die tragically young, but the point isn’t their deaths, the point is how they spent their time before it was out. Investing rather than spending time. Fulfilling rather than filling it.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it does to me. I hope when I go, that people don’t talk about how I died, but how I lived, if they find the time to talk about me at all.

And with The Homosexuals–aside from what I mentioned in the above answer–investing time also comes into play. A circle of friends isn’t formed overnight. There’s a difference between a chosen family and a biological one. You try out your chosen families, walk around in them for a while to see if they fit, spend an amount of time deciding if this is truly where you belong. Your circle, your group, is no accident. Accidents take no time at all, but relationships take all the time in the world. I knew if I wanted to show a strong, complicated group of friends, I would need to show them over a period of some time. I’ve always described The Homosexuals as an exploration of friendship through the lens of sex. And that, by my best reckoning, should take at least a decade, yeah?

You live in Chicago, where both of the plays are based. What inspires you about the city? What do you feel is the benefit of being a playwright based in Chicago?

Actually, I never state that The Homosexuals takes place in Chicago. It was just important to me that it be a major city in the Midwest. I know that narrows it down a bit, but I didn’t want to specify the city because the city was less important to me than its vibe. This isn’t an LGBTQA play from one of the coasts. This is a story from smack in the middle of the country, and if that’s Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, or Detroit, that’s all fine with me.

In fact, one of the amazing gifts both of the plays have given back to me is seeing how each different community performs them. I feel like I’ve been given a nationwide masterclass on the specifics of queer enclaves around the country, just by showing and watching a play that I “should” know everything about. It’s been so amazing to show up to these communities I know almost nothing about, and then watch them perform back to me this highly specific story that then becomes specific to their experience. It’s so inviting to me. Because I know what’s in the script, I can pick out what’s specific to the production, and that becomes an education for me in…oh, say…queer life in Durham, NC (Where ManBites Dog Theater did an excellent production) or Detroit (Ringwald Theater. Also a superb production). I can’t explain how gratifying it is, I feel so invited into these communities by watching them perform this myth that I came up with. Appropriately enough, my circle of generous queers and fanciful radicals is growing due to this story I wrote about a circle of queers. I couldn’t be happier about that.

The same is true for Failure: A Love Story, which is technically the first story I ever specifically set in Chicago. I’ve always thought of myself as a Chicagoan, even though I was born in Arizona. I feel like my soul was born in Chicago, and seventeen years later, I moved out here to claim it. With FAILURE, I knew I wanted to write a play that would help me personally deal with loss in a joyful way. And to me, that’s the epitome of Chicago. This is a city that refuses to stay down. Hell, we burned the whole thing down once, and instead of giving up, we shrugged and said,”Guess we better start over.” I mean, our lakefront parks are built on landfills created by all the disaster-trash left over following the Great Fire. We took our greatest tragedy and built public park space on it. THAT’S Chicago. People often associate Chicago with gang violence (both Capone and current), and sadly that reputation is earned. But Chicago is more than that. It’s not just tough, it’s resilient, and the difference has everything to do with generosity. Chicago runs on tough love, but it’s still love.

And that felt apropos to the Fail family for me. The spirit of Chicago felt present in that family.

As far as the benefits of being a playwright in Chicago, I honestly experience zero drawbacks living in this city. I feel very lucky that I participate in an element of Drama that does not necessitate my physical presence. So, I don’t feel required to live in one city over another. The internet is a wonderful thing. I can live anywhere and connect with theaters all over. A school in South Korea just did three of my plays for young audiences. What?! Amazing. Chicago feeds my spirit, so it only stands that it feeds my writing.

What is your writing process like? How often do you write? Where do you like to write?

I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t write as often as I would like. I probably shouldn’t cop to that, but look, life is hectic. I teach, and I take that responsibility seriously. My students are very important to me, and I’m dedicated to giving them each the time they require in order to learn the tools to help them tell their own stories in their own ways. That takes a large chunk of my creative real estate. I think something a lot of playwrights have to grapple with is whether to take a job that has nothing to do with our art (which uses up our time and tires us out), or to take a job that has something to do with our art (which takes up our time and uses up our creative energy). Sadly, it’s incredibly rare (translation: nonexistent) that a playwright just writes as a sole means of income. The sad fact of overemployment for every professional artist in this country is one that I think we all need to be talking about. How do we continue doing what we’re doing without having to take on so much that we can’t do it well? It’s a challenge. I don’t have the answer, yet.

So….when do I write? Whenever I can. On the bus. Sometimes I shove my phone between my helmet and my face while I’m biking to and from wherever, and then I call my own phone and dictate scenes into my answering machine. Honestly, I find myself doing that more and more often. I write a lot on sticky notes, and then arrange them all on my floor where I put them in order, and then my cat rearranges them. She’s very opinionated about the work I do on the floor. I write in the margins of books that I’m reading for research, or for tone or style. I write on playbills and napkins and coasters. It’s been forever since I’ve actually written on a ruled piece of notebook paper.

The nice thing about living in such a linked-in world is that now I can write out loud in public and people just assume I’m talking to someone on the phone. So I do a lot of that. If you see me out and about, and it looks like I’m talking to myself….I probably am.

Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

Forgive yourself. No one anywhere ever has lived a perfect life, so take comfort in knowing you’re totally human. Make big, bold choices, and forgive yourself in advance if they don’t work out. And forgive those around you, too. We’re just as not-perfect as you are.

Also, be patient. Theater is a waiting game. As I mention above, chosen relationships take time. Invest your time in the theater, make it a relationship, let it take the time it needs to grow into something fruitful. Don’t stop working, but do be patient.

I mention forgiveness and patience as reminders to myself as well. Both are easier advised than practiced, I think.

 






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