Playwright Christopher Shinn takes a long, hard look at life in NYC circa 2001 in his latest play, Where Do We Live.
Although Where Do We Live is set in a New York City apartment building not unlike the one in which Shinn lives, the drama mostly takes place during the month of August 2001. "Many dates are important if you are going to look at the history of New York City," says the young playwright. "I wanted to document the city in the year 2001 under Mayor Giuliani; that was more important to me than saying anything about 9/11. I hope this play is an exploration of the larger moment in history in which that event took place."
In Shinn's view, "Giuliani was a very powerful mayor who, amongst many things, was very racist, and I think that racism affected the daily lives of the citizens of New York. The censoring of art, the closing of clubs -- he was attacking difference. New York is built on and thrives on difference in positive and negative ways. Giuliani found negative ways to exploit difference for political gain, and it was very troubling." Where Do We Live, which deals with the intersecting lives of two young men who live in the same apartment building, offers a panoramic view of life in the city: "I was interested in a story that represents something of the truthful experience of that time," he says.
Born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Shinn moved to NYC in 1993 to attend New York University. During his third year -- at age 20 -- he wrote Four, about a quartet of lonely people including a 16 year-old boy and an older man who are trying to make a sexual connection. In 1998, the play was picked for production by London's Royal Court Theatre out of a heap of unsolicited scripts. Four heralded a precocious new talent and launched Shinn's career at age 23, but it wasn't until the summer of 2001 that the play had its New York premiere in a production by the Worth Street Theatre. In the interim, the London theater world embraced the young writer and the Royal Court commissioned him to write a new play; he began to work on that play just days after the World Trade Center was reduced to dust.
Recalling those days after 9/11, Shinn says, "I was frightened, not knowing what was going to happen. My only financial prospect was to finish that commission, so I sat down to write." The play that emerged is his most ambitious work to date. Given the current economics of producing plays in this country, writers typically tend to keep the cast sizes of their plays small; but, knowing that the government-subsidized Royal Court had the necessary resources available, Shinn felt free to write for a cast of nine. "I knew they could put on something like this," he says, "but also -- frankly -- when the smell of death is in the air, it's hard to justify compromising. It felt like there was a more pressing responsibility at that moment, which was to tell the truth about the world regardless of the consequences for my career."
Where Do We Live has a political immediacy that Shinn attributes to his attempt to be honest about his characters' lives. "I think you're going to end up writing a political play when you are specific about the socio-economic backgrounds of your characters," he remarks. "The play asks questions about community and neighborliness that are a daily part of New Yorkers' lives -- vexing questions for which I don't have the answers." He describes how living in close public and private quarters can send unintentional signals to one's neighbors: "There are times when I've felt that what I was wearing communicated that I was gay, and I've found myself in situations with people who I didn't feel would appreciated that. What does it mean to feel that even what you wear is a kind of communication -- or an act of aggression?" Shinn drew from his personal experiences in the diverse Lower East Side neighborhood where has resided for the past seven years, but he insists that the play is wholly fictional. "Hopefully, it will feel as though it actually happened," he says. "I'd be flattered if people think that it is autobiographical!"
Where Do We Live premiered at the Royal Court in May 2003 under the direction of by Richard Wilson, who also helmed the original London production of Four. For the Vineyard, Shinn decided that he would direct the play himself. "I love working with actors, and I wanted to work with them more directly than one gets to do when one is just a playwright," he explains. "This play felt particularly right to make my debut because I had seen a wonderful production of it in London and the characters are close to my age, so I felt that I probably understood the milieu more thoroughly than an older director might."
Shinn seems remarkably laid-back about letting his play take on its own life. "I don't know how it is with other playwrights," he says, "but for me, once I write a play, it seems that it's not mine any more. It's just text for other people to explore and to create in three dimensions. If the actors are naturally truthful, then they can bring their own truth to the stage. They will make choices that I didn't anticipate, and that adds a further layer of complication and ambiguity to the play. It's very exciting to watch an actor come to own his character in such a way that it moves that character beyond what you envisioned as a playwright."
After the initial push on the other side of the Atlantic, the not-yet-30-year-old playwright's career has now taken off in this country. Last season, his play What Didn't Happen was produced at Playwrights' Horizons; next season, his most recent work, On the Mountain (which deals with addiction) will have its New York premiere at the same venue following its world premiere at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Shinn is also working on an original musical with composer David H. Turner but he hopes to continue to direct as well. "I'd like to direct other playwrights' plays," he says. "It's really fun. Once you have spent enough time in the theater, you really learn about it and you want to apply what you have learned. I think it's natural for playwrights to become directors."