May 13, 2013

The Shinn Files

He's only had one other L.A. production previously (Four at Celebration Theatre), and one high-profile premiere at nearby South Coast Rep (On the Mountain), both in 2005. But now Christopher Shinn's lean, searing Dying City, which I saw and loved at Lincoln Center in 2007, will get its L.A. premiere with the estimable Rogue Machine Theatre. This gave me a great excuse both to revisit Dying City on the page, where it struck me anew, and to talk to Shinn (on the phone) for the first time for a piece in the Los Angeles Times. He was in good spirits despite his current fight with cancer* (on the subject of which, he sent me two minor corrections to the Times piece: 1. It's his left leg from which he's had a part amputated, not his right, and 2. Though Ewing's sarcoma often appears in bones, in his case it's turned up in his soft tissue).

One quote that didn't make it into the story was about his writing process. I wondered if his finely chiseled, often jagged dialogue, in which what characters don't say is at least as important, if not moreso, than what they do say, was the product of an actual chiseling process—whether he ever overwrote his characters' gut-spilling, then pared that away so their true thoughts would remain mostly subtext. His reply:
It’s pretty rare that I do that. Usually by the time I begin writing, even if it’s not conscious, some structure is very clear in my mind. That’s sort of how I know when to begin. One reason for that is that I tend to keep the plays in my mind for a very, very long time before I begin writing. It begins with dialogue, characters, an image. If I did begin writing sooner, I would have a lot of scenes I wouldn't use. I hear enough about what the characters saying, and then I know who they are as people. I’ve created them internally enough that what they say comes very easily when I begin writing. They’re inside of me, they exist as human beings inside of me.

What I always do is, I open a new file next to the old one, and retype it all from the beginning. I’m able to move very quickly, almost in real time, through the play that way. Then because I’m in that rhythm, I can usually keep going. When I used to start working on an old draft, I end up just reading through it over and over and I'd get stuck.
That process tip reminded me of an outtake of an interview I did with Tracy Letts (and Sarah Ruhl) last year. Letts was talking about how he'd moved off the computer to work an actual old-fashioned typewriter, but even before that drastic step he'd already begun a regimen akin to Shinn's:
What I had been doing with the computer was writing the thing on the computer, printing it out, then deleting it completely off the computer. Because the actual physical act—I would rewrite stuff that I would not have rewritten if it were just on the screen. So I was doing that already; now I’m retyping them from scratch.
I learned to type on a manual back in fourth grade, if memory serves. I don't miss much about that laborious process, to be frank...except the ding at the end of a line, which was like a little reward for getting to the end of another line. (Is there an app for that now?)

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