One consequence of being American — or at least of residing in the West, with economic standards that are far higher, comparatively, to the rest of the world, and with all the military power that devolves upon us — is wrestling with the question of what responsibility we have to raise all boats, to bring the rest of the globe along. For decades after the end of World War II, it seemed that this question was, in fact, not much of a question: from the Marshall Plan to the World Bank, from the U.N. to nation-building across in the earth’s far corners, America was assumed not only to be a beacon of global human freedom, but the undimmed, unchallenged leader in terms of global human rights.
Severe economic stresses and strains — and, I would argue, the elapsing of more than six decades since Pax Americana — are forcing Americans to ponder the responsibility question anew. While it might be unfair to burden Anton Dudley’s new play, Letters to the End of the World, with having a say in such a discussion, the plot-line of the play pits our noble aims as a people against our nationalistic urges.
Letters to the End of the World revolves around Todd, a 20-something gay man in New York City, who, after reading an article in a fashion magazine, begins to correspond with a woman in Zambia at the forefront of the AIDS crisis. Todd’s boyfriend is, shall we say, dismayed by this seemingly abrupt humanitarian turn; indeed, this benign, endearingly old-media pen-pal relationship between Todd and his woman friend soon grows into a friendship that shuttles Todd across the world.
Produced by the At Hand Theatre Company and directed by the playwright, Letters to the End of the World stars Shannon Burkett, Francesca Choy-Kee, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Peter O’Connor and Charles Socarides. Previous Dudley plays (and if you didn’t see them, start feeling guilty now) include Substitution, Getting Home and Slag Heap.
Dudley is also an assistant professor at Adelphi University; adapted the screenplay for the short film “Davy & Stu” in Boys Life 6; touted some upcoming projects for Adam Szymkowicz’s blog; and isn’t shy about answering any of our 5 questions.
And now, 5 questions Anton Dudley has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
(as a playwright) Did you start of life as a director?
(as a director) You prefer working with a minimal budget, don’t you?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
How do you expect a theater to produce a play with so many locations?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
When my play Slag Heap premiered at the Cherry Lane Theatre, a reviewer asked me if I had ever been a prostitute.
4) Letters to the End of the World presents an unusual scenario. If you agree that your scenario is unusual, why is New York 2010 gay life so unaccustomed to social consciousness? What about your main character differs from most 20-something gay men?
There is a general escapist mentality in most people that breeds political apathy; however, I find that gay people are more socially conscious than most, they have to be. I guess my main character is different from most people in the fact that he abandons his rather sheltered life to discover what it means to be a human being on planet Earth. Most of us want to live in culturally homogeneous clusters — Todd rebels against this desire. I don’t think he’s a hero by any means, just an idealist who wants his idealism tested.
5) Can you describe the research you did on the play? What can you say about the AIDS crisis in Africa — whether it’s in your play or not — that even the media hasn’t covered?
The media, like a playwright, picks and chooses certain stories and images to create the narrative they wish to convey. I think often times the media is about showing you the “other,” to either warn you about its presence or to make you feel better about your own situation. My play is about eradicating the very notion of “other.” The AIDS crisis in Africa becomes the human crisis in us all. The news is concerned with the objectification of emotions, my play is concerned with the subjectification of them.
6) It has become very popular among certain theater bloggers to dismiss graduate-level studies as a time-waster. Do you agree? What is the single most important improvement the academy could make regarding newly minted holders of MFAs?
I believe strongly in graduate-level studies; the problem is that there are too many and so many of these programs take advantage of people’s dreams and are lazy with their teaching. It is the (rarely lived up to) duty of the academy to foster in each of its writers a personal methodology. Too many universities simply express opinion rather than give their students tangible tools of craft and process. Many students leave their institution with one or two overly developed plays and no idea how to write the next one. The MFA program should see itself as a trade school for writers, not some workshop based on taste and opinion. It scares me that so many programs focus on the content of the writer’s voice; the academy should never judge content, only craft.