Weekender | Playwriting and politics with Christopher Shinn
A look behind his drama ‘Now or Later’
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 25, 2012 01:10
When creating a work that incorporates current events and politics, there is always a risk that it will become dated in later years. Themes can quickly become irrelevant as the social and political climates change.
Even though its world premiere took place in 2008, the recent U.S. premiere of Christopher Shinn’s play “Now or Later” appears to be even more relevant in the wake of global events in recent months. Shinn is a renowned playwright who has written 10 plays, seen his work premiere at theaters like the Royal Court Theatre and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He recently took the time to do a phone interview with the Daily to discuss the playwriting process, college culture and how the American concept of freedom of speech conflicts with other cultures.
Shinn was originally attracted to writing for theater because of his love for both writing and acting.
“[Playwriting is] the closest you could get to the best of both worlds,” said Shinn.
His passion for live performance and stage acting stemmed from his experiences during his childhood in the ’80s.
“We didn’t have video cameras and easy access to recording things the way people have today,” he said. “So I always thought of acting as theater acting. Something like film or TV felt very far away. And I think I just really fell in love with it once I started doing it and saw how exciting and powerful it was.”
The main premise of “Now or Later” centers on the gay, college-aged son of a favored presidential candidate. When developing the idea for the play, Shinn’s first inspiration came from his views on the gay marriage debate drawn out through the 2007 presidential primaries. As he watched politicians like Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton explain why they were opposed to gay marriage, Shinn got the impression that their public political views probably did not match their private ones. This realization prompted him to consider what it would feel like to be the gay son of a presidential candidate who did not support gay marriage.
“One of the major inspirations for the play was trying to personalize that situation and, instead of seeing it as a sort of abstract political issue, see it as a very intimate familial issue,” he said.
Since the play had been commissioned by and was debuting at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Shinn had to consider how to make “Now or Later” applicable to British audiences. It is therefore relevant that his play’s plot also focuses on the repercussions stemming from the son’s decision to go to a college party dressed as Muhammad. Given the then-recent London Underground bombings in 2005 and controversy over Salman Rushdie’s knighthood in 2007, Shinn believed this plot point would resonate with British audiences.
“I thought that the conflict between Western ideas of freedom of speech and Islamic fundamentalism would be something that British audiences would be very deeply engaged with,” Shinn explained.
Four years after it first opened in England, “Now or Later” has finally made it to the United States, and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston is currently performing the American version of the play. Shinn said that the Company approached director Michael Wilson to direct a play for the current 2012-13 season, and Wilson was the one who brought “Now or Later” to their attention. After being signed off by Huntington Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Peter DuBois, work immediately began on the production, with Shinn taking an active role in working with the director and the cast.
“I love the give and take of the rehearsal process. I love the energy and excitement that surrounds collaboration,” Shinn said.
Shinn refused to explicitly explain where the title “Now or Later” originated because he ultimately wants his audiences to come up with their own explanations. But he did shed a little light: When he wrote the play in 2007, there was no way of knowing what the news headlines would be in 2008, after the play premiered. Despite this uncertainty, Shinn believed that the topics in his play would be significant to viewers at some point in the future — “later” — even if they did not seem to be topical or immediate at the time — “now.”