On a Clear Day

From Christopher Shinns On the Mountain, Sophocles wavers in the distance

Photo by Matt Otto "I'm obsessed with reality. I'm obsessed with the truth, almost to a pathological degree. I always want to know who said what, where did they say it, when did they say it, why did they say it. I want to know in the most intimate detail what happened—and then to find a way to represent that in a way that really adheres to the reality of it. I feel like we live in a time when reality is so manufactured and obfuscated by media and by the people in power that it's really important to have a place [like the theater] where you can see something real, that isn't reality but represents reality in a way that's faithful to actual experience."

Christopher Shinn

You don't fuck around with ChristopherShinn. Though the New York-based playwright/wunderkind is friendly and empathic, he's got a low tolerance for idle talk, for the obvious dishonesties and evasions that most of us let pass in everyday conversation. Though he's unpretentious and seemingly heedless of what you might think of him, he speaks in carefully rounded sentences that generate both depth charges of complex feeling and impressive flights of heady intellect. Though he stakes a claim to the classical tradition of theater that runs from the Greeks through Shakespeare to O'Neill, his own plays are strikingly contemporary, taking on subjects like interracial, intergenerational gay sex (sometimes explicitly rendered); the repercussions of Sept. 11; addictions of every stripe; and, in a play called On the Mountain that opened Jan. 7 on the Julianne Argyros stage at South Coast Repertory, the legacy of Kurt Cobain. Though the first few minutes of dialogue in On the Mountain are flavored with blithe references to iPods, Ashton Kutcher and Radiohead ("Do you like them?" "Um—yes and no? I'm not really hip to the whole hyperproduced weird electronic dystopia thing"), his play is ultimately about that eternal malady called "sadness" and how difficult it is for humans, particularly Americans, to face loss. (Sample bit of the 29-year-old Shinn's conversation: "Sadness is an inevitable ubiquitous element of human life: we are beings who want to live in a world that constantly threatens us with death or that reminds us of death, if not literally then symbolically, through loss and aging and disappointment. And to me, a healthy life has to integrate sadness. Only by integrating sadness can we resist the temptations of fleeing from it in ways that are destructive to others or ourselves." He can also, by the way, tell you in detail why Eminem's most recent CD sucks.) And though he's modest and approachable, there burns in him the quiet flame of confidence and chutzpah that enabled him in 1998, at 23, to become the darling of London theater with the production of his first play, Four, and a few years later to take on New York with a flood of plays (seven to date) that have Tony Award-winning actresses (including Daisy Eagan, who's in the SCR mounting of On the Mountain) dying to work with him.

Also in this issue To read Joel Beers' review of Shinn's new play, click here. Plus, the man's not afraid of voicing an opinion. About Quentin Tarantino: "I didn't like [Pulp Fiction]. I think it's racist and homophobic and stupid and violent and gross." He didn't care much for Moulin Rouge, either: "That was just like chaos. I couldn't watch 10 minutes of that. I thought I was going to die." And then there's Sideways, which seems to be popping up on everybody else's list of Oscar contenders for Best Picture: "I thought it wasn't a convincing or insightful evocation of straight male relationships. I don't believe that the film represents an honest experience of straight men and their sexual conflicts. I just didn't believe it." Or, finally, about the chasmic divisions separating the biggest pop icons of the '90s and the double-zeros, respectively: "Kurt Cobain sang a song called 'Rape Me,' and Eminem has rapped about sexually, violently attacking women, and that's about as far apart as you can get. I think Kurt Cobain sang a lot about child abuse and what it feels like to be abandoned, and Eminem has a song where he raps with his daughter, and in the song, he's miming sniffing cocaine, and his daughter sings on that—and that's child abuse. That's about as depraved a moment in pop culture as I can think of in the past decade."

He's not, by the way, "being negative" or provocative with this stuff: Shinn speaks calmly and thoughtfully and gives off the distinct impression he's reached that enviable if exhausting stage in psychological development (facilitated, one guesses, by his five-days-per-week sessions with a strict Freudian) where all he cares about is honesty—where what matters is an open congruity between what he feels on the one hand and what he says and does on the other. Where his writing for the theater has to answer only one question: "Is it true?" Which explains his impatience with media cant—with the "manufactured, obfuscated" electronic babble that surrounds us—and that "obsession" of his with "truth" and "reality."

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