5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Brian Dykstra

Michael Stewart, Trump Demon Mask, 2017, glazed earthenware (detail).

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David Tully, Rebecca Challis and Oliver Conant
in Hiding Behind Comets. Photo: Katie Rosin/Kampfire PR

It has been my view for some time that Brian Dykstra is one of those American playwrights that we ought to be paying much more attention to. He hasn’t been birthed from the cocoon-like settings of one of the graduate school programs at one of the major universities, so you won’t necessarily read about him reaping stacks of commissions from some of the major institutional nonprofits or getting a nifty workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (though if Wendy C. Goldberg, who is artistic director of the O’Neill’s Playwrights’ Conference were smart, she’d bring Dykstra in right now for the 2010 summer season). But his plays are dynamic and emotionally charged and distinctively funny — and they have a sense of pacing, of style, of soul, of anger, of conciliation, of mindfulness about what does and does not make a dramatic moment. I’m increasingly fascinated by Dykstra, and so it’s my opinion that Nicu’s Spoon’s production of his play Hiding Behind Comets, directed by John Trevellini, is important to see.

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Hiding Behind Comets runs through July 26 at the Spoon Theater (38 W. 38th St.); for tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.spoontheater.org. It runs 90 minutes, no intermission.

And now, 5 questions Brian Dykstra has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The trouble with the “most perceptive” questions is that they lay in wait, surprising you later, only after having time to cook. Questions that inspire better work usually do it in ways that are subversive in the best sense of the word. Because of that, the questions themselves are not all that accessible. I can’t remember the specific “most perceptive” questions because they always work best on the subconscious and don’t announce themselves in the moment. The example that comes to mind was something I heard after a draft of a play was read and a friend made a statement about how the play was surprising because it was so much about love. Now, I didn’t know it was about love, I didn’t think it was about love, I didn’t see where he saw it was about love. By the time I had done rewrites and sifted through the problems of the play, I discovered that the solutions were all orbiting the relationship that the long time partners (the characters are in their 50s, married a long time) shared, and how rare it is to find older characters rediscovering love in a play. Not a lot of plays are about that kind of love and maybe without the comment the play would have found itself there (after all, the guy saw that element before I did) but hearing it may have enlightened me more quickly and more fully about what I was working on.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Well, the idiotic questions are the ones that do the opposite of the above. For instance, if my play had not been assisted by the “love” comment and I got stuck in some spiral about force-feeding the thought that “this play is about some kind of love” when it wanted to be about something else, then that’s a disservice. It is why hearing about your work in early stages can be helpful or dangerous. That, however is not the question. Most idiotic question I can remember came from Hollywood. A producer hired me to write a screenplay. She made a statement followed by the stupid question. Here is my best recollection of that: “I love your dialogue. I think it’s some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read in a screenplay. But, don’t you think the conversations go on too long?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Maybe weird questions all run together. I can’t really access one. Someone once asked if I thought I was getting better as a playwright. I thought that was a strange thing to ask.

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4) Your plays cover various topics, but it seems as if you favor single character and/or character-on-character dynamics more than plays of four or five developed individuals. Would you agree with this? And what inspires you to write a play?
I don’t actually agree with that. The things that have found their way to a bit more commercial success have been the one-man shows or small-cast plays. Of course there remains a financial reality whereby theatres don’t want (or can’t consider) anything with a large cast. But I have written mostly multiple-character plays (as many as 11 characters in a play I really like called Silence). The play I am currently working on has five characters and it wants to grow. I’m tackling issues of censorship and the play wants some representatives of the religious right to make an appearance but I’m fighting to keep them out. Not because I don’t think it’s right for the play, but because five-character plays are already difficult enough to get theaters to consider — seven or eight may preclude it from consideration at too many places. It is unfortunate to be writing with those kinds of worries, but the realist in me always wants to keep cast size as small as possible.

I am inspired to write a play in myriad ways. Sometimes it’s fooling around with a short play that wants to grow into something bigger. Sometimes it’s a article I read. I wrote a play after reading about the concept of companies being able to sell pollution credits. It was an article I read in 2003 and it wasn’t something that was going on much, but the article covered the potential of deals like that. Now, of course, it’s the whole “cap and trade” bullshit, but then it just seemed like an idea hatched out of the devil’s imagination and one that could never happen. Little did I know.

5) Have you ever had the experience of watching a play of yours performed and fighting the impulse to stand up and scream “No!”?
Sure. I fight the impulse, and move on.

Bonus Question:

6) What the most subversive quality to your work?
I hope to reward intelligence and punish stupidity.

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