Nichols is talking about the beginnings of his critically acclaimed Escher's Hands, a very funny yet dark "noir romance" now in its California premiere engagement at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood. He says it was probably the nature of acting that was his inspiration for the play--the absurdity of rehearsing so that something appears natural. Two worlds, two realities rubbing up against each other, existing within each other: the play itself and the actor playing.
So it's safe to assume, then, that Nichols' play is about actors? Nope. It's about writers. Let this be a lesson to anyone who makes assumptions about Nichols or Escher's Hands, or accuses either of playing it safe.
"Safety is usually uninteresting," says Nichols with a smile.
The title of Escher's Hands refers to artist M.C. Escher's sketch of two hands, each with a pencil in hand drawing the other. Which hand is drawing and which is being drawn? Where is the beginning and where is end? Where are the connections? Who is in control? Who's making the rules? These questions can take us into some pretty dangerous territory, in life or on stage. It's a good thing that Nichols makes us laugh along the way.
In Escher's Hands, Gary and Sandy are two very different writers coming from very different directions in collaborating on a writing project for a fiction class. Their only instruction is "No going back!" A bombastic, abrasive technical writer, Gary is driven to pen a brutal slice of life crime novel, whereas the diplomatic Sandy--who writes for an ad agency--wants an idealistic love story. Together, these yuppies decide to write the characters in their piece should be a prostitute and a pimp. The writers take turns steering the action, and the plot surprisingly twists as the characters develop a life of their own.
"I'm very gratified by the reception to the play," says Nichols, "particularly when it's described as 'puzzle pieces fitting together,' because that is central to the script: how the writer and the writing fit together. The dilemma of the writers in the piece is that they want to expand their horizons and, at the same time, want to be in control. And, really, those are mutually exclusive."
Trained as an actor, Nichols struck out on his own early in his career by fearlessly venturing into the field of solo performance. "I'm a little like Gary in that," he says. "You got to take things to the extreme; that's when something interesting happens." Making up the rules as he went along, Nichols soon carved a niche for himself on the touring circuit. He first found success with his award-winning one-man show I Might Be Edgar Allen Poe throughout the U.S. and Canada, and just returned from an international tour of his latest solo performance, Virtual Solitaire.
It was during a run of Poe at Seattle's Aha! Theatre that Nichols was offered a commission by the company. The result was Escher's Hands, which premiered in 1997 to sold-out houses and critical raves, garnering nominations from the American Theatre Critics Association for both the prestigious New Play Award and the Elizabeth Osborne Award for Emerging Playwrights.
"It was a big deal for me--my first ensemble play to be really recognized," says Nichols. (His more recent works include The Ant Play at The Empty Space in Seattle, and Fetch, commissioned by ACT.) "I think that solo performance has a real limitation because theater at its best is about interaction, with more than one character onstage."
Nichols says that, although working with director Robert Sindelar at Aha! in developing Escher's Hands was invaluable, he intends to steer clear of the play from here on in. He has not been involved in any other productions, including a 1999 revival that Seattle's Theater Simple took to the Edmonton Fringe Festival and to the Spoleto Festival. "I make myself available," he clarifies, "but I have no desire to sit in on rehearsal. That makes me too crazy. I'm a person who believes pretty firmly that theater is a collaborative art, and there's a reason why there's a director."
The director of the play for T.H. Espian Productions is Michael Rainey, a founding member of Seattle's Annex Theater. "It's such a pleasure to get my hands on a play that doesn't have ragged edges all over," says Rainey, who served for several years as Annex's developmental work programmer. Since the company predominately produced new scripts, he relates, "I often had to coerce people into re-writing."
So Rainey s used to working closely with playwrights. But, with Escher's Hands, he has had no reason to phone Seattle. "This play is so fully developed and self-contained that, any time I had a question, I could just investigate the play more fully and find an answer," he explains. "And I think that has a lot to do with Dawson's background and diversity as a theater artist. He sees things from multiple perspectives, which has contributed a lot to how stage worthy the play is.
"It's a play about reality," Rainey continues. "The challenge has been to formulate separate realities that work for each of the characters. The big question has been 'Who's in control here?' Each character has different takes on the issue. And, with a play like this, even the actors don't necessarily have to agree!"
Says Nichols, "I want audiences to identify with these people. They should laugh because they see something that is real." Even in a surreal situation. Which brings us back to the title, Escher's Hands. "That's a very obvious sort of central mechanistic metaphor, making a reference to an image," the playwright continues. So, then, Escher's famous sketch must have been completely integral to the construction of the play from day one?
"The dirty little secret is the play was called The Story up until about three weeks before opening," whispers Nichols. As a matter of fact, he admits that he sort of stumbled upon the title well after the play was finished. "And the promoters were very pleased," he notes. "They had been saying to me, 'The Story?' Come on! You can do better than that! You're a writer!'"