An Interview with Playwright Christopher Shinn

Lisa Timmel, the Huntington's Director of New Work, sat down with playwright Christopher Shinn to discuss his career as a playwright and the challenges that come with writing a political play.

You’ve enjoyed sustained relationships with artistic institutions. Many of your plays, including this one, premiered at the Royal Court in London, and you’ve worked a lot with director Michael Wilson at Hartford Stage. How has your relationship with those theatres affected your growth as an artist?

Playwright Christopher Shinn & Director Michael
Wilson together in the Wimberly Theatre

I was born in Hartford and attended Hartford Stage from the time I was a little boy, but when Mark Lamos was the artistic director there, I did no better than form letter rejections when submitting my plays. When Michael Wilson took over, the theatre reached out and applied for a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communication Group Residency Grant for me, which we received. It was incredibly meaningful to be embraced by my hometown theatre, and I spent a year there working (a difficult year as my father was being treated for leukemia in Hartford at the same time). It led to my building a relationship with Michael that’s lasted over a decade now.

The embrace I felt from the Royal Court was profound, and it influenced the course of my writing in a deep way. They did my first play, and when they passed on the commission I wrote for them, they produced another play of mine. They commissioned me again before that second play opened; the same thing happened with my next play. To receive commissions before critics chimed in made me feel so valued as an artist. It signaled that I could risk following my own path as a writer and not worry about creating work others would praise. The fifteen years I was embraced by the Court allowed me to become the artist I am today.

Now or Later touches on many complex and familiar political and personal issues in a mere 80 pages. What was your point of origin with this play?

I started writing in 2007. At the time I was going to write about megachurches. As a part of my research, I interviewed a friend who worked for Barack Obama. He told me that an Obama strategy was to reach Christian voters by explicitly talking about Obama’s faith, to reach out to the religious right in particular. Fascinated, I began thinking more about political strategy.

Of course when you start to think about the religious right, you think about issues like homophobia; and once you think start down that road, Islamic fundamentalism becomes a compelling subject, as well. So as I began rolling with the idea of political strategy, all these various issues began to come together in a very condensed play. But the most important thing for me to do was to find a personal story to tell, so once I settled on a college-age kid, recent scandals involving freedom of speech on campus started to fascinate me.

Did you find it challenging to weave together the personal and political?

Not in any special way. As I researched recent presidential candidates, I was struck by reports of Al Gore’s difficult relationship with his son and John Edwards’ son who died in a car accident. I began to build up a story from what I imagined to be the immense pressure of being a politician’s child. As soon as I realized that at a certain age a child’s actions could easily have a political impact, the links between the political and the personal became very clear. All political issues have a personal component and vice versa. That some people don’t see this connection is one of the things that upsets John, Sr.

The play takes place in real time. Why did you choose that structure? What opportunities and/or challenges does the form give you as a dramatist?

With every play, I try to give myself a formal challenge so I keep growing. I’d never written a real-time play and I thought, why not give it a try? There are very few of them because it’s not easy. You have to sustain tension without creating drama in a way that feels fake or melodramatic. It’s easy either to ramp up the drama in unrealistic ways or focus so much on how things actually happen in life that all the air gets let out. Luckily, the realities of an election night and the speed of the media in today’s world lent themselves to a realistic approach that still maintained tension and excitement.

There has been a four-year gap of time between the first production and this, its second. Has anything changed for you with regard to the play in that time?

I think the biggest change is that this is now a “history play” more than it is a “current events” play. Looking back at 2008 from 2012 allows us to think about the then, the now, and the future — whereas I think four years ago the play was more about that unfolding moment. I’m excited to see what four years’ perspective opens up for audiences as they watch the play, having the opportunity to think about where we were and where we are going, rather than just where we are.

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