It’s Christmas Eve, 1975, and my stepfather tells me that he has to go on a road trip. I ask if I can tag along. We drive for hours. I fall asleep with my head on his lap. When I wake up, we are in the driveway of some house. I watch my stepfather sneak into the house—climb in through an open window—and leave something on the kitchen table. On the way home, my stepfather explains to me that a mentally retarded youngster lives in that house. He explains that for many years he has secretly left an over-sized pop-up Santa card for this youngster. My stepfather says that he has no idea why he still leaves the card—he doesn’t even know if the kid (now 25) still believes anymore—but deep down, my stepfather says, he feels that if he didn’t leave the card something bad would happen.
For me, that is what it is like to be a playwright in the United States in the year 2000: I break into houses and leave over-sized, pop-up Santa cards, anonymously, for unsuspecting adults. I do so because I have done every year to date, and now I am stuck keeping the tradition going. I have no idea if my audience believes anymore—I rarely stick around to crafting theatrical events that intentionally intrude upon the other human beings.
For me, this is a process that involves more than just staging King Lear in a diner. I am interested in playwriting that stalks rather than calls. I want to expand theatrical space to include the real world of the audience: your glove compartment, your closet, your underwear drawer. My play will never take place literally inside these intimate spaces, but in my imagination it does. And when the play is performed, the characters aren’t locked safely behind a proscenium, but come as close to entering your real world as you allow.
My motives are not totally sinister. While I do enjoy the active invasion and manipulation of other people’s experience—and while I consider the enjoyment of such a flagrant encroachment to be an essential requirement of being a playwright—my ultimate goal is partly altruistic. I try to keep the excitement of Christmas morning alive for adults. I leave you a treasure map behind your refrigerator so that the rest of your day can be spent searching for treasure. The play becomes much more than a theatrical hoax. It is a detour from the day-to-day, a real-world quest in which you participate.
When my own four-and-a-half-year-old son wakes up on Christmas morning and sees the presents under the tree, he feels intense joy. But he also experiences fear. His euphoria from getting all those toys is tempered by the realization that there has been a stranger in our house. When I write a play, I am interested in creating the same uncertainty in the audience. Yes, I want you to feel joy in discovering a magical, lost world—but I also want you to have that sickening feeling in your stomach that your personal space has somehow been violated by the playwright.
I am less interested in suspending disbelief than I am in compromising belief. More and more, in this materialistic society, we suffer from a kind of experimental fundamentalism. We trap ourselves in the day-to-day believing—without question—in the authenticity of our perception of the world. I try to shock audience members out of this delusional state by creating fictional life experiences for them.
When a play is presented on a stage the audience perceives the drama as a work of fiction. But when a theatrical journey has taken place in a space identified with the real world—when the drama has seamlessly interfaced with our lives—the distinction between what is real and what is fiction becomes blurred. Art no longer imitates life, it infects life—like a virus infects the operating system on a computer. When the play is over, the audience member doesn’t find herself sitting in row G, seat 106. She finds herself sitting in a seedy motel room in Des Moines with a dead state trooper in her bed. That profound delusion that she calls her personal experience—the accumulation of her beliefs and memories—has been compromised forever.
I resist writing plays for the stage because the stage is no longer part of my imagination. The stage is not even part of an artistic convention for me. Theatre buildings are no longer included in the flavor of the work I make—they are more like a flavor from a lost childhood. Staging one of my plays in a proscenium theatre would be like Dorothy starting her journey in Munchkin Land instead of in Kansas.
When I see a play performed on stage, I often feel that the drama has very little interest in becoming part of my life. The performance is a self-contained system, and the burden is on me to enter the world of the play. The only problem is that I don’t know the secret code that will let me through the door. I spend the performance trying out all sorts of combinations, but nothing seems to work. Since I never gain access to the play—and since all the publicity materials have told me how moving it is—I often leave the theatre feeling stupid, like I’ve done something wrong.
Am I suggesting that a play has to be performed in an abandoned laundromat in order to move me? Of course not. But I do believe that our main struggle as theatre artists living in a highly fragmented society is to find new spaces where the audience and the play can work together in a communal dream. The playwrights I admire most are writing plays that are like the whispered last requests of a dying art, but the architecture of traditional theatre space forces them to scream to be heard. And those whispered requests are getting lost in all the noise.
A new play by W. David Hancock, Ordering Seconds, will be mounted in November at Frontera@Hyde Park theatre in Austin, Tex. Hancock is working on two other plays, Ghost Cannister and Sisters of Eve, for the Foundry Theatre in New York.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!