Robert Caisley considers himself a generally happy person, for a playwright. “For a long time, I thought, ‘Shouldn’t I have a deep, psychological scar that I should write about?’” he muses. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, Caisley couldn’t identify any scars. Instead, the inspiration for his newest play, Happy, sprang from a play studies class he was teaching at the University of Idaho, where he is the head of the dramatic writing program.
“My students were discussing the flaws of the greatest characters of the Western canon,” Caisley recalls. “What dawned on me was that more often than not, the tragic flaw of a character is negative—jealousy, ambition, blood-lust. Then I thought, ‘What if the flaw of character was something positive? Their happiness, contentedness or agreeability?’”
And that reversal became the conceit of Happy, running at the New Theatre in Miami through Dec. 16 as a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. A blissfully content man named Alfred—who has a good job, a happy marriage and a daughter (albeit a special needs one)—meets a woman named Eva who is a chronic pessimist. Over the course of a dinner party, Alfred starts to question the authenticity of his own happiness.
This is the third play of Caisley’s that has been produced at New Theatre, which he considers his second home. “Rob is the perfect mix of daredevil and artisan,” exclaims artistic director Ricky J. Martinez, who recommended Happy to NNPN’s National Showcase of New Plays in 2011. “Plot-driven plays aren’t risky—to me they are predictable. What’s risky is surrendering to the world and language of your characters like Rob does.”
Happy premiered at Montana Repertory Theatre in October and will go on to run at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, Calif., April 5––21 and New Jersey Repertory Company May 30–June 30. Questioning the validity of happiness prompted Caisley to look deeper into his natural joie de vivre. “There have been times in my life that I wanted to not be happy,” he assesses. “If you are generally a buoyant person and you have a bad day, people begrudge you this. But if you are dour, you can have all the bad days you want!”