Some seasons seem to be made for specific theatrical themes to compliment the common people’s psyche.
Although Spring has traditionally celebrated life and renewal, Why Not Theatre’s presentation of Little Death at the Theatre Centre April 17 – May 3, 2015 shows that emotional tumult never has a calendar expiry date.
The delicate drama about a husband confronting his own mortality which leads him to hotel bars in search of sexual connection is by no means a novice theatre experience.
A shining cast that includes Shauna Black, Sarah Dodd, Kate Hennig, Christopher Stanton, Elizabeth Tanner, and Nicole Underhay explores concepts of marriage, infidelity, masculinity, femininity, eternity in a 50 seat space. It really can’t get more intimate than this.
While it’s true all narratives originate from a place close to its conveyor’s surrounding, Daniel Karasik doesn’t deny his personal proximity to the storyline but adds there are no autobiographical traces to be found. His approach to the playwrighting craft is more than distinct, it might just start a new revolution.
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Little Death has caught the attention of a powerhouse cast. What are your thoughts when you reflect on this new offering?
I’m proud that the women who have acted in its workshops and production (it’s a cast of five women, one man) generally seem to think I haven’t failed abysmally at writing women. Or maybe not “proud” – how very male to be “proud” of writing women non-egregiously! But pleased, anyway. If it’s true.
What kind of themes are you dealing with in this play and how do they come to light.
I really like the expression “come to light.”
In Little Death I’m asking questions about desire, maybe male desire in particular, and how it’s affected by the awareness of one’s own mortality. The play has the kind of themes, about sex and death, that people sometimes call “timeless,” though of course they exist in a particular way in our time and the play is inescapably a document of our time.
Those themes come to light in dialogue that’s poetic in its rhythms and sensibility but also highly naturalistic.
Did the play start off in one direction but inevitably venture off into another?
Not really. It’s pretty linear, if spare and enigmatic. It’s more akin to a poem than to a novel, say: lean, longer on suggestion than exposition, without major tangents or subplots. Though it holds some surprises, I hope.
Which one character drives the story that playgoers need to keep an eye on?
The characters who aren’t Alex and Brit (the married couple at the centre of the play).
These other characters have relatively limited stage time, but they’re fascinating people inhabited by fascinating actors and they deserve, I think, an audience’s close attention. They offer up a little of themselves – their wisdom, tenderness, longing – and then they’re gone.
In Playmaking: A Manual for Craftsmanship William Archer says, “Specific directions for character-drawing would be like rules for becoming six feet high. Either you have it in you, or you have it not.” Do you agree or disagree?
Hmm. There’s a lot to parse here. For starters, there are rules (albeit fallible ones) for becoming six feet high: they have mainly to do with nutrition!
And “character-drawing” seems a pretty inapt term vis-à-vis playwriting, since the playwright evokes character through action, not through static description: the dramatic character doesn’t stay still for long enough to be “drawn.” Hamlet has no centre; he’s the totality of his activity, which includes his mental activity.
At the other end of the quote, Archer’s “Either you have it in you, or you have it not,” seems like a version of the old “Writing can’t be taught” gambit. Which is certainly true to a point, but things like “craftsmanship” and “character-drawing,” to the limited extent that they’re relevant to the theatre, certainly can be taught: you can suggest to a talented writer what kinds of considerations constitute character, and you can suggest she think about her characters in light of those considerations.
The process of revising Little Death did involve some careful thinking about my characters’ worlds. I find the process of revision sort of cubist: I add layers as I consider my characters and themes from more and more angles. That’s what I did with Little Death, anyway.
Speaking of his work methods, Henrik Ibsen said, “When I am writing I must be alone.” Do you isolate yourself from others when you write?
Sort of. I isolate myself from people I know, but I tend to write often in coffee shops and libraries, around other people. Until I’m distracted by their conversations and iPod soundtracks, and I retreat to my apartment. Which is often a pretty good move, I get a bunch of work done, until I feel I’ll be somehow more alert to the world if I step away from my desk, and I land in a coffee shop again.
I wrote most of the first draft of Little Death at a coffee shop in Stratford. That place was mercifully quiet. There were nice booths.
In conceiving a new idea for a play, which comes first for you—conflict or character?
The idea comes first – the problem, the feeling, the tug in the gut. Then character and conflict together. Character implies conflict, for me, and conflict teaches me about character. I’ve never found the purely formal development of character outside of conflict, e.g. the biographical sketch, to be helpful. I mean, I’ve written that sort of sketch, sometimes at great length, but invariably I drop that character into a scene and she contradicts all my prose speculations about her.
With Little Death, I think the initial idea was about a man who goes on a kind of sexual odyssey after he receives an ambiguous medical diagnosis. And then, in the course of writing, I discovered the man was married and the play became something else, something different from what I’d first intended. At least that’s how I remember the process.
It is said that Arthur Miller used to type out a one-sentence controlling idea for his plays and then tape it to his typewriter to constantly refer back to it during the writing process. Do you work with that one-sentence controlling idea?
I don’t. Though usually I have a sense of the theme or question that interests me most, in a particular project. But it evolves: the question that I think animates the first draft may prove to be uninteresting, and another theme embedded in that draft, almost accidentally, may prove to be the work’s real core. And then later drafts bring that core out.
Little Death is unusual among my plays for how little its central investigation changed over the course of rewriting. Sometimes my first drafts and last drafts bear only a passing resemblance to each other, but Little Death has remained pretty stable – I’ve just added more layers and cut extensively where I felt there was overstatement.
There is a wonderful phrase of William Faulkner’s that goes suggests if one is to write stronger prose one must “kill your darlings.” Are there any ‘darlings,’ meaning scenes or characters that you have had to drop from your plays in favour of story structure?
I find that if you set aside a piece of writing for six months or a year, those “darlings” often turn out to annoy even you, the writer, and aren’t that hard to cut.
Often I’m embarrassed I included them in the first place. I cut characters and scenes all the time – my fiction in particular has a tendency to shrink by at least half, in the course of rewriting. I don’t particularly miss anything I cut from Little Death.
What’s more difficult for you when writing a play—starting it or ending it?
It’s harder to start a draft than to end it. It’s harder to end a play than to start it.
How often do you suffer from the colloquial writer’s block?
I don’t suffer from writers’ block or really believe it exists, though sometimes I suffer from a deep uncertainty over what’s worth writing about and how to write about it.
Reading helps. So do exercise and friendship. And more reading.
Actually, I think it’s useful not to write from time to time. There’s something a bit thought-starved and lame about the writing-as-content-free-compulsion trope (“I’m a writer, I need to write!”). If or while your heart doesn’t cry out for justice or burst with eros in a way that overflows itself and needs a public expression, I think it’s honourable to remain silent.
Maybe there’s something more important to do in the silence, in that moment of your life. Maybe you need to attend to love, in that moment. Maybe you need to take care of your community. Or just to read and follow your curiosity. Your work as a writer is always in dialogue with the world and other art, so it seems pretty important to keep your relationship to the world and other art robust.