This whole thing started because of my interest in nature. I was a city boy and nature came to me via the colorful tapestry of sky that loomed above the tenements… But after a while watching nature in the big city felt like trying to butter toast in a cyclotron. So I decided to get on an airplane and go to the heart of where these monstrous whirling dervishes huffed and puffed and I wound up in this motel room in Oklahoma City, probably one of the best viewing platforms for extreme whether systems in the country. I try to blend in, digest the alien ambience, the fast food and slow-motion days.
Ariel Stess (Rail): This quote is from your character The Monk, who goes to the Star Lite Motel in Oklahoma City to “watch the weather.” The play weaves in several vastly different landscapes with characters ambling through them. Where did the play begin for you? With a mountain? That motel room? A creature being made? I would love to hear about a first image or the first traceable inkling of these worlds.
Gary Winter: Much of the writing was a complete surprise to me. It came during one of the 10-day silent retreats led by Erik Ehn that I (and a few other hardy writers), do in the Texas Hill Country every year. Being out in that eerie and vast landscape brought out some mysterious writing and images. I had no idea what it all meant, and was to file it under “What do I do with this now?” But then I became intrigued by the idea of working with the material without trying to make sense of it. I thought, well, maybe the writing has value in and of itself, and that’s a good start. That’s when I approached (director) Meghan Finn and said let’s create a theatrical world around this and see what we have.
In a way it feels like I’m working backwards: working with surface values before, or even instead of, traditional storytelling. Resisting meaning or linear storytelling has been an important part of the process. Not that I deny story, meaning, or ideas, I’m just talking about the approach. The process has been one of working against the way I normally work, and trying very hard not to fit the play into a recognizable shape until it had a shape that was uniquely it’s own. It’s been very satisfying to trust the process and let things go.
The imagery in the hotel room is inspired by George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries. Kuchar (from the Bronx) was a pioneer of the DIY small-camera movement in the ’60s. In the Weather Diaries he would go to a motel in Oklahoma during storm season, and while the weather raged outside he would create these profoundly funny and personal video diaries. Kuchar sitting in this cheesy motel room with the TV on and the storm raging outside might just describe the feeling I have when I’m in the great outdoors: the dumb city boy in awe of and yet isolated from nature. I always feel like I need special permission to be in nature.
Rail: And the other narratives?
Winter: Jacques Lusseyran was a blind French resistance fighter during WWII. Since he couldn’t fight he would interview recruits to determine if they were spies. And he was right all the time! He inspired the character of Elizabeth. Daredevil, the comic book hero, is blind but all his other senses are heightened. Thus, Daredevil.The short stories of Laura Riding Jackson (1901 – 91) inspired the story of the Clumsy Girl.
Rail: Toward the beginning of your play, the Stage Manager, the Sailor, and the Person Who Tells the Story of the Mountain join together to tell the Story of the Mountain. The Story of the Mountain plays with my expectations of how a story behaves in terms of resolutions. I keep stumbling across a happy resolution (what I will call the Happy Resolution). But then moments later, the Happy Resolution realizes she has made a big mistake and tumbles about or turns inside out. Are you concerned with resolving stories in your play? How do you think about resolutions when you write?
Winter: Ideally I’d like a resolution to be an opening up. Maybe it’s optimistic or just leaves you with a bigger, more disturbing problem to think about, but that’s more satisfying than telling people what to think or feel, something I’m not at all comfortable with. I like the challenge of leaving an audience with space for thought. That’s a fine resolution. That the resolutions are slippery in the play are about my awareness of (or the play’s awareness of) and wariness of manipulating the audience. Whatever resolutions you come up with should feel happy, or organic, but they’re also pretty random. At least writing Daredevil made me aware of that.
Rail: Your play conjures up so many places: some kind of epic mountain abutting water, the Oklahoma City hotel, what feels like a tenement building in 1950’s New York City, a sleazy L.A. hotel room, the edge of a forest, a forest that reminds me of a forest in Lithuania during some war or another. Yet, as far as I understand, the play does not ask for full-scale representations of these places in the production. Are you interested in your audience conjuring their own visions of these places? Or does your script reflect the reality of the budget constraints that we face as playwrights?
Winter: It’s simply about the fun and pure joy of asking the audience to use their imagination. It’s what makes the theater experience pleasurable. Lisa D’Amour and Katie Pearl’s Nita and Zita, for example, when all that handmade stuff-sets, costumes, houses come flying out of a suitcase. I like simple and evocative objects. Ambiguity runs through the play, particularly Harry and Elizabeth’s “forest” scenes. My hope is that Ambiguity is another tool to activate the imagination.
Rail: The stage direction “something interesting happens,” which appears a few times throughout the play, is exciting because it leaves a lot of room for collaborative invention. Have you and Meghan talked at all about what makes something “interesting” yet? Did you visualize anything when you wrote it? A sensation? An image? A sound?
Winter: We haven’t, and we really should get on that! I’m really interested to see what other people come up with—this has been a huge part of our collaborative process. Meghan and our actors have worked with a terrific sense of freedom and imagination. I’ve become particularly excited by the more surreal elements that we’ve discovered; something I could not have come up with on my own.
This is a good time to add that when I started this process I literally handed Meghan a bunch of scenes that seemed compelling in and of themselves. I was interested in exploring “surface values” in a play, and wanted to get out of my own head of trying to make sense of the thing. If I had written the play completely on my own it would have melted and become Our Town in the desert. I’ve always loved Meghan’s work and was thrilled when she took the play from me and ran with the ball.
Rail: Your Stage Manager, who has a speaking part, says that if we, the audience, get bored, we can leave during the boring moments (or rather when we find the thing going on to not be interesting, we should leave). Are you interested in audience's walking out or becoming bored? Do you expect audience members to leave? Does Finn? Do you encourage it?
Winter: No. I hope no one leaves. I just happen to have a very odd Stage Manager.
Rail: Your characters often either lie to us and/or to their scene counter-parts, or their reality changes mid-scene. This lie or shift in reality causes me to be perpetually surprised by their confessions, observations, and desires—to continually care about their relationships, even as, and perhaps because, the truth of those relationships are called into question by characters who contradict themselves or contradict what we, the audience, initially think are their immutable realities. I find myself tossing away my desire to try to follow psychologically relevant character arcs. It feels very freeing to find that I care a great deal about characters I cannot quite trust and realities that keep shifting beneath them. Should we trust what your characters say? Should we trust where they say they are?
Winter: I’m really glad to hear you cared about the characters and relationships, because I haven’t tried to “develop” characters with much psychological insight (though I did care about them). So it’s fascinating to know that this approach builds characters that an audience can feel empathy towards.
I think the “struggle” for a character like Harry is reality versus the seductive power of the imagination. And his need to be a hero, which I’m sure we all fantasize about. So despite Harry’s skepticism about Elizabeth joining the resistance he is, at times, sucked into the situation. Sounds like a night at the theater, eh?
Rail: Transitions. Your play got me thinking a lot about transitions. What do you find to be magical and/or what is silly about transitions in the theater (transitions between scenes)?
Winter: In the transitions I was playing with fluidity and theatricality.
In terms of structure, a huge influence is Len Jenkin’s plays Dark Ride and Poor Folk’s Pleasure. These plays use the spook house (or fun house) ride as a structure. You ride along in the dark, something or someone pops out at you and tells you a story then disappears into the darkness. Seeing those plays right when I began grad school was quite a revelation. Dark Ride was produced at Soho Rep and Poor Folk’s Pleasure was done at a small theater around the corner that later became The Flea.
Rail: Characters in your play (The Monk and Elizabeth) seem to have strong desires to “watch” nature and to make contact with it (in a deeply meaningless or meaningful way). From the vantage point of Harry and Elizabeth’s kitchen in what seems to be a Manhattan apartment (but that’s my vision and I suppose we could be anywhere), Elizabeth urges Harry to “look across the sea over at the mountain”:
Where? What sea? What mountain? There isn’t a sea or mountain within 90 miles of here.
I don’t see anything.
I look across the ocean I see this profound fissure I can perceive things
Through the odor of things
The sense of things
The feel of things
Through the forms they assume
The exhaustion of things.
In what grows
In what has ceased growing
In what echoes
In what stays
In what doesn’t stay.
In the murmuring of the trees
In the metamorphosis of the insect.
Maybe it’s just this world Harry
Or the enchantments of a world I long for
That, in silence, I no longer hear.
I don’t know how to explain.
I don’t know how else to name this feeling I feel.
This exhaustion of things.
Rail: Do you tend to go searching for nature in life? How does “watching” it affect you? Is it empowering? Scary? Calming? Foreign? Familiar?
Winter: As I mentioned above, being a city-born person I always feel like I need special permission to be in nature. At the same time getting into nature is absolutely necessary to surviving living in the Big City. It’s totally calming and I could live in a cabin in the woods for a very long time.