The Interrogation of Desire

Memory holds the key to playwright Christopher Shinn’s resonant dramas of the psyche

By Christopher Wallenberg

For many writers, the process of putting words onto the page can be a painful, even tortuous experience. But for playwright Christopher Shinn, it goes much deeper than the challenges of plotting out a story, penning realistic-sounding dialogue and capturing the nuances of character. As a staunch devotee of psychoanalysis (who meets with his therapist five days a week) and an adherent of such self-scrutinizing giants of modern drama as O’Neill, Ibsen and Chekhov, Shinn knows that his writing process is going to be a soul-scarring, emotionally grueling and, one hopes, cathartic experience. By burrowing deep down to excavate and confront traumatic and painful periods in his past, Shinn hopes to reconcile and understand his own behavior, the often inexplicable actions of the people around him, and the brutal truths that are part and parcel of human nature.

Indeed, when Shinn was in the midst of writing his wartime drama Dying City, a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he became psychically enmeshed in the pain of his first serious relationship from years before, reliving the experience of falling in love for the first time and opening himself up to that person, then being rejected by breakup and betrayal.

“These memories of this guy, when I was 20 or 21, who dumped me after saying that he loved me, and remembering what that felt like in real time—that utter agony and pain—that feeling was horrific to revisit,” Shinn recalls of his writing process for Dying City. The three-character drama—which premiered in 2006 at London’s Royal Court Theatre in London, followed by a Lincoln Center Theater mounting in early 2007—is set in the years just after 9/11. It grapples with issues of sexuality and betrayal in an intimate relationship, and posits that latent, primal impulses related to sex and violence may have manifested themselves in the scandal at Abu Ghraib and in the U.S. decision to wage war in Iraq.

“Writing plays can involve getting angry at these people that I don’t ever think about on a daily basis, that I haven’t thought about for years—and suddenly they’re in my psyche like they never left. They’re just as alive. They are right there, and it’s all real again.”

As much as Shinn wants desperately to escape the pain of accessing those traumatic memories, he knows that he must hold steady and confront the unsparing truths that have shaped his view of the world. “I’ve always had a feeling that if I don’t confront the truth, I’m going to be in big trouble—psychically,” he says on a bright November afternoon, reclining in an armchair in the apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side that he shares with his partner of six years, who recently became licensed as a psychoanalyst. “I don’t think you can exorcise things, but playwriting allows me to stay in touch with parts of myself that I would otherwise have an impulse to deny. It allows me to feel more complete and integrated. If I didn’t write, I’d lose touch with those deeper and more troubling parts of myself.”

The writing of his latest play, Teddy Ferrara, which has its world premiere at Goodman Theatre of Chicago Feb. 2–March 2, came after Shinn had been captivated (as was much of the nation) by a rash of suicides by gay teenagers in 2010, several of them linked to cases of bullying. The most prominent of those incidents was the death of 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. After a roommate live-streamed images of him in a dorm-room sexual encounter, Clementi leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Set on the campus of a large state university, Teddy Ferrara features Shinn’s largest canvas of characters yet—a cast of 13. The story revolves around Gabe, a gay college senior who runs the Queer Students Group and, along with his straight best friend Tim and Tim’s girlfriend Jenny, is looking forward to his final year of study. Gabe has a boyfriend, the magnetic Drew, and he’s considering a run for student assembly president, a position that Tim held the previous year. But when a suicide occurs on campus, Gabe’s world is turned upside down. He begins to question the popular assumptions and knee-jerk reactions that are engulfing the traumatized campus—and is forced to face the dark side of his own behavior.

At the time he began thinking about the play, Shinn was reexamining the roiling emotions of his own late teens and early twenties. “The pain and loneliness I felt, the agonies of coming out, the anxieties of rejection—these feelings of my own late adolescent experience were suddenly very present in me,” says the 37-year-old playwright, “and these older, unmourned traumas from the past were sort of waking up again.”

These reflections were stirred, Shinn has no doubt, by a course he was teaching, an undergraduate class at the New School for Drama, where he’s the head of the MFA playwriting program. Shinn was spending time with 19- and 20-year-olds, observing their interactions and absorbing glimpses of their psyches through their writing assignments. He also remembered seeing The Laramie Project in the late ’90s and feeling mystified about the absence of Matthew Shepard, another casualty of anti-gay bigotry, in a play ostensibly devoted to telling his story.

“I remember thinking, well, I want to write a play about Matthew Shepard, with Matthew Shepard as a character,” he recalls. “I didn’t quite know how to do it. I didn’t want it to be a literal, biographical play. I wanted it to be pure fiction. But what was in his head—what he felt—that seemed to me like the most important thing to dramatize.”

The problematics of victimhood and the chaos, confusion and complexity of sexual desire were the central ideas that Shinn wanted to “interrogate separately but integrate dramatically.” Those two thematic strands became entangled with each other as he wrote; the figures of Shepard, Clementi and others like them were absorbed into the fiction.

Shinn viewed desire as the most fundamental force of one’s late adolescent years—the primary engine driving people’s choices and behavior at a time when they are fleeing the family nest for the first time and being thrust into an environment with minimal adult supervision, structure and control. Strangely, Shinn observes, “In the news reports of these suicides, desire was never mentioned. The pain of a really acute, desperate longing—which is so common and familiar to people in their late adolescence—it just wasn’t spoken of, as if it didn’t exist. It was as if sexuality was merely an identity but not a desire, a drive, a feeling.”

The essential dynamic of victimization and desire—which manifests itself in the play’s Gabe-Drew relationship, but also in the enigmatic actions of the title character, Teddy—found its emotional roots in the excavation of another real experience from Shinn’s past. “I remembered a boyfriend in college who, on the one hand, seemed very traumatized by childhood and adolescent experiences, and by how hard it is to be gay. On the other hand, there was a manipulativeness and a cruelty to him that didn’t seem like it could be explained by deprivations and traumas. I struggled with whether I should think of him as a victim or as somebody who exploited being a victim in order to victimize others.”

The many questions engendered by his memories included: “When someone is destructive, why are they destructive? Is it a result of trauma? Or is it because they’re an inherently destructive person, and they derive gratification from it, and they know what they’re doing? And even if they know that trauma is part of that motivation for destructiveness, is it possible they don’t care? That they don’t use that knowledge to try and change? Is there a pathology that can’t be linked to the trauma and pain?”

These tensions, Shinn avows, “have always been with me on a very personal, affective level, but also an intellectual level.”

Shinn cautions against identifying Clementi with his character Teddy Ferrara, but he confirms that both figures, the real and the fictional, are emblems for him of unsettling questions about victimization. “If one feels oneself to be a victim, does it follow that you’re allowed to do bad things? Is that something you want to move past? Do you feel like its society’s responsibility to change? What is the balance?”

Teddy Ferrara director Evan Cabnet figures that, while the play deals with issues ranging from bullying and suicide, to gay rights and gay marriage, to the politics of insular university campuses, it’s most important to remember each of the characters’ underlying drives. “It’s hugely topical,” Cabnet allows. “But the real engine of the play and the thing that we talk about constantly is all of these characters’ desperate desire for love and affection and attention. Ultimately, that is what guides all of the characters’ decisions in the play—good or bad, right or wrong, or undefinable.”

Shinn’s fascination with psychoanalysis stems from the confusion and frustration that consumed him during the troubling period in his late undergraduate years at New York University. On the brink of adulthood, he had become increasingly mystified at the self-destructive, self-deluding behavior that seemed to be swirling all around him, and the lies and betrayals that he saw simmering just under the surface. Not only was he struggling to understand his own behavior, but his relationship with his first serious boyfriend had hit the skids, and his friends were making seemingly irrational choices he couldn’t reconcile. “I felt that what I’d been taught about human motivation could not be sufficient, because people seemed way more complex,” Shinn reasons. “People seemed to be acting in ways that couldn’t be explained by any set of principles I knew of.” He heard one his mentors at NYU, playwright Tony Kushner, discuss the usefulness of psychoanalysis. Shinn took the suggestion, and as time went on, he became increasingly focused on making sense of the murky, complex universe of the psyche—both in his life and in his art.

“It was the first branch of psychology that seemed to me to have a comparable complexity to great literature—but it was in a different language, and it was applicable to real life,” Shinn says. “It was another way for me to feel less alone, like I was able to get some grasp on why people do what they do.”

If Shinn writes intimate, personal stories about primal human emotions and instincts, the resulting dramas nevertheless reflect the conversations, questions and conflicts percolating in the wider social and political sphere—whether it’s the nature of victimhood and social stigma (Teddy Ferrara), the intractable conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and Western values of freedom of expression and sexuality (Now or Later), or the violence and humiliation perpetrated by soldiers during the Iraq War (Dying City). “My feeling is that the best way to approach the political is through the psyche, through emotion, through the level at which people live,” Shinn attests. “You have to reach people in a very primitive, emotional place—closer to the animal level of experience.”

The language of Shinn’s plays—the clumsy stops and starts, the awkward pauses and evasive silences, the jagged poetry of everyday speech—reflect not only the complexity of our psyches but the way that we obscure our true feelings and emotions. Shinn’s great skill lies in being able to draw out the subtext of conversation—what we really mean when we’re struggling to communicate with each other. But his dialogue is also grounded in the reality of a character’s particular circumstance—demonstrated in the richly varied modes of expression he provides for the cerebral son of the President-elect in Now or Later, the charming yet manipulative actor on-the-brink-of-fame in Dying City, or the grasping, fumbling college students in Teddy Ferrara.

In 2008, Shinn’s Now or Later was staged at London’s Royal Court, the first company to produce him professionally and where many of his subsequent works have since originated. A politically laced domestic tragedy about the soon-to-be First Family, set on the eve of a U.S. presidential election, the play earned largely rave reviews from U.K. critics, attracted prominent attendees (including then British prime minister Gordon Brown), and was shortlisted for the prestigious Evening Standard Award for Best Play.

The drama, starring then up-and-coming actor Eddie Redmayne, revolves around the son of a Democratic senator about to be elected president. A student at a prestigious Ivy League university, the young man finds himself at the center of a growing international imbroglio when incendiary photos of him dressed up as the Prophet Mohammad surface on the Internet, threatening to derail the first days of his father’s presidency. Now or Later grapples with the contrast between finding a palatable middle ground and succumbing to a compromise of conviction that threatens to obliterate the very core of one’s identity.

Critical praise in London failed to translate into a production of Now or Later on this side of the Atlantic. “For a number of different reasons, producers had reservations about the play,” says director Michael Wilson, a longtime champion of Shinn’s work and the former artistic director of Hartford Stage. “Some people were worried that Chris was being too frank and too candid and too starkly honest in his comments about the tension between the West and the Middle East. The Rachel Corrie controversy [stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] was also looming in the background, so that made some producers shy. And there were also some producers who thought the play had a shelf life only as long as an election cycle.”

Shinn was crestfallen, and to make matters worse, his translation of Hedda Gabler for Roundabout Theatre Company of New York’s 2009 revival, directed by Ian Rickson, took a hit as part of an overall critical drubbing of the production. The back-to-back rejections sank Shinn into depression. During that low point, he wrote Picked, about an up-and-coming young actor whose career stalls out after he’s launched to stardom in a James Cameron-esque, technology-driven Hollywood film. Picked was produced in spring 2011 at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre to warm, if not rave, reviews.

“I wanted to dramatize the pain of rejection, which is a universal feeling—but that play, too, had trouble finding theatres that understood it and liked it. It’s not a feel-good subject,” Shinn concedes. “But it holds a special place in my heart for how it helped me get through a difficult time.”

More than four years after its London bow, Now or Later finally received its American premiere last fall at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, after Wilson suggested the play to Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois as the 2012 elections were kicking into high gear. During rehearsals in September, a video promoting an American-made film called Innocence of Muslims, which denigrates Mohammad, started making the rounds on the Internet. When Islamic extremists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, reports at the time indicated the assault may have been fueled by rage at the crude video, though it was later deemed to be a coordinated terrorist attack, which became a point of contention in the presidential race. While the parallels to the photos and videos that are the subject of Now or Later were less than exact, the play still felt “incredibly prescient,” says Wilson.

The Huntington production earned largely positive reviews, but once again generated no subsequent engagements of Shinn’s play. “For whatever reason, people don’t feel like this play has anything to say to the moment,” Shinn says with a shrug. “And that’s life.”

Despite the success of Dying City and critical enthusiasm for his other plays, the long, hard struggle for success is something the playwright has grappled with since his days as a student in the dramatic writing program at NYU (he later attended Columbia for grad school in fiction writing). Back then, even landing a reading for his plays was unlikely. After graduating from NYU in 1997, he sent Four—a haunting piece about shifting sexual and power dynamics among a quartet of heartsick souls—to every major nonprofit and regional theatre in America and was roundly rejected. Frustrated but undeterred, Shinn flew to England and mailed copies of his plays to all the major U.K. theatres. His chutzpah paid off when the Royal Court offered to stage Four the following season.

“I was stunned,” Shinn admits. “Finally somebody had recognized my achievement. But I felt vindicated, because I knew that I deserved it.”

Since then, Shinn’s close relationship with the Royal Court and its artistic directors—first Ian Rickson, then Dominic Cooke—has flourished, with that theatre premiering five of his plays over the past 15 years. And Four was recently turned into an independent film, directed by Joshua Sanchez, that received accolades on the festival circuit this year.

What Shinn relishes most about being a playwright is the rehearsal process—the collaborative interactions with the director, actors and designers as they bring to life the ideas and the world of the play. Rehearsals for Teddy Ferrara began in early January in Chicago, but Shinn was not able to attend. Instead, he was in the midst of an intensive course of chemotherapy to treat a cancerous tumor in his foot that was diagnosed as Ewing’s sarcoma just a few weeks before this interview.

As he sits with his leg elevated, his foot wrapped in bandages from a recent biopsy, his crutches resting on the adjacent ottoman, Shinn remains undaunted and upbeat regarding the battle that lies ahead. He hopes to be able to travel to Chicago in late February or early March after his treatments are finished, before he undergoes surgery.

“I’ll be watching on Skype and answering e-mails and talking to my director on the phone. They’re going out of their way to make sure technology can support my participation,” he says. “And it will also be great to have the play happening during chemo—something out there going on that’s mine.”

In the dramas that Shinn most loves by writers from whom he’s drawn inspiration—from Shakespeare, the progenitor of psychological tragedy, to contemporary playwrights like Kushner and David Mamet—he points to the tacit acknowledgement that there are some things in life that “can’t be overcome or gotten past or made safe.”

“Look at Konstantin at the end of The Seagull,” Shinn proposes. “It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen him last, and he’s moved on. And in comes Nina, and Konstantin realizes all over again that he’s still desperately in love with her. But she’s not at all in love with him. And there’s no way out of that. The only way out of the situation that he can imagine is to kill himself. To me, that’s a writer saying, ‘There are some things that one can’t ever get past, no matter what.’ That’s a scary thing to think about, but also a brave thing to write.

“Maybe some people really do have an easier existence,” Shinn continues. “But society provides lots of opportunity for defenses and denials, and most people take really good advantage of them. I think that’s bad for the world. The future depends on problems being faced squarely. We’re starting to wonder about how in touch with reality we really are, and we’re beginning to realize that both the global economy and the environment are potential time bombs.”

Despite his allegiance to psychoanalysis, Shinn acknowledges that humans are in many ways unknowable, enigmas even to themselves. Indeed, the irreducible complexity of the human psyche is a constant theme in his works. In Teddy Ferrara, the motivation for a character’s suicide is evident to most, but the one person who asserts that he does not know why—and wants to live in that unknowingness—is Gabe.

Director Cabnet elaborates on the significance of that choice. “Gabe is the only one who says, ‘Suicide is a deeply private thing. You cannot know why someone did it. We didn’t know this guy.’ And he’s totally ostracized for saying that.” Cabnet believes that it is Shinn’s willingness to fumble in the murky darkness and ask the most probing questions that makes his plays so rewarding. “Chris doesn’t want to flatten it—he would rather have depth and unknowability, and perhaps conflict or contradiction. He doesn’t land on anything. He just keeps going. In Chris’s plays you always leave wrestling with something.”

Still, Shinn acknowledges that the quest for self-knowledge and self-improvement is never-ending, which is why he still sees a therapist five days a week—and continues to write plays. “I think you always find that there’s always more inside—more feelings and more memories. I don’t mean recovered memories, but something that you haven’t really thought about or felt for a long time. When that stuff gets unlocked, you feel fuller—you feel like you’re in a world that’s more alive. So when it comes time to write, you feel like you’re opening the refrigerator and there are all these new ingredients to cook with.”

Critic and arts journalist Christopher Wallenberg writes frequently for this magazine.