Keeping the Faith

A Conversation with Will Arbery

Playwright and theatremaker Will Arbery seemed to burst onto the theatre scene out of nowhere last year when his panic-laden, melancholy, and surprising dramedy about three sisters, Plano, was seen first in New York City as a ClubbedThumb production before transferring to the Connelly Theater. Garnering critical praise and audience and industry buzz, the play had a devoted following that whetted appetite for more of his work on stage. So, when Heroes of the Fourth Turning was announced as the opening slot of Playwrights Horizons’ season line-up, there was much anticipation in the industry about what Arbery had up his sleeve this time.

Little did many know—except those who helped develop the piece—that what was in store was a dense and dark night of the soul with characters, who identified as Catholic conservative intellectuals, having it out over matters of faith, world order, and how to confront God. As soon as previews began, intense love and chatter for the play began in the Twittersphere. By the time it opened to mostly glowing reviews across the board, there was talk of “finding” one of the plays of the year, possible Pulitzer nod, and much more.

All that said, my desire to initiate this conversation with Arbery had less to do with notions of “success” in the field, and more with what it’s like to write about faith and faithlessness in this day and age—or, as author Pankaj Mishra calls it in his 2017 book of the same name, the “Age of Anger.” In my own work, matters of both faith and faithlessness in relationship to the body politic are central, even in plays of mine that on the surface seem not to be about such. Sensing a somewhat kindred spirit across the so-called aisle, I reached out to Arbery during the run of his show. This conversation was conducted via email in late October and early November 2019.

two actors onstage

Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights' Horizon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Caridad Svich: More than one colleague recently reached out to me to say they are finding it difficult to produce dark plays—that is, plays that face bleakness and despair, even if there is scant light at the tunnel’s end. Something to do with the times we’re in, I suppose. Although I would counter that we likely “need” such stories even more because healing doesn’t come easily. And perhaps, as a nation, we’re in the state we’re in partly because patterns of patch healing and easy fixes have been covering/shoving/pushing away at darkness for a long time to such an extent that genuine healing for national traumas has never occurred.

I say all this because some of your recent plays, despite their wry humor, are wrestling with the effects of characters caught or trying to break free of cycles of so-called easy fixes that didn’t fix anything. This feels especially true in Plano, which focuses on the trapped lives of three sisters living in a suburb of Dallas over the span of years, where their relationships with men are haunted (figuratively), fraught, and damning, but also in Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a tough and tender look at a group of Catholic conservative intellectuals wrestling with matters of faith, conscience, and far-right ideologies.

Might you chat about the patterns and cycles of damage your characters are in, related to a wider rubric of national consciousness? (I am aware that speaking of “nation” is a dicey thing, but for the sake of thinking about how your figures are positioned in a broader landscape—the frame of the frame they are in—it might be helpful. For instance, how these figures met on a dimly lit night in a Wyoming backyard both of their geographic space and also reflective of United States as a whole.)

To force too much artificial hope on a play seems strange and lazy. Let the hope be weird. Let the hope look different every time.

Will Arbery: It’s interesting, this need for there to be light at the tunnel’s end. Or for a play to broadcast that light. I think even a play at all is such a testament to hope. The fact that we’re still making them, still gathering in rooms and sharing air, looking for clues about our fears and desires—what a hopeful thing! To force too much artificial hope on a play seems strange and lazy. Let the hope be weird. Let the hope look different every time.

I think theatre is what hope looks like, so to prescribe some sort of “solution” at the play’s end wouldn’t just be dishonest—it’s actually unproductive. I love that you say “healing doesn’t come easily.” Yes. That’s exactly right. Art has the power to heal, but healing isn’t easy, and so the art shouldn’t be easy either. Providing pat answers, in art, is a recipe for forgetting the art, or else not remembering it as art.

I’d say I’m more interested in questions, but even then I’m not sure that’s right. When someone leaves a play saying: “It left me with these three questions”—that’s not what I’m after either. I’m interested in something much more primal and lived in. A memory of a room. A lingering that goes beyond rational thought.

In regards to breaking cycles, yes, my play Plano is trapped in a literal loop, but you’re left with the feeling that perhaps some small new awareness will make things different next time for these sisters. Perhaps not, but you know they’re courageous. You can feel it. You’ve been through it with them.

In Heroes, too, you’re not left with the feeling that anyone has had some huge epiphany, but there’s plenty of opportunity for hope. At the very least, we know there’s more time. We’ve experienced that time with them, and we know that there’s more of it ahead. I believe in taking time, with and for each other. I believe in plays as gifts. I believe in listening and reflecting back as a gift. Even if it’s a difficult gift. The more we do that for each other, as a nation, the more we reflect back to each other not only what menaces us in each other’s beliefs and work and platforms, but also that which we find beautiful and true.

Maybe then we can start to break some cycles. But that’s going to require a lot more difficult spiritual work on the part of white people. We need to be a lot more honest about what it means to be white in this country. This can’t be as much of a taboo as it is—and it’s a taboo across the political spectrum. We don’t know how to talk about it. People of my parents’ generation were taught that it was impolite to talk about race, that they should try to move past that kind of talk.

three actors onstage

Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights' Horizon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Now, it’s clear that the opposite effect occurred—it allowed white supremacy to perpetuate itself. Because we weren’t being honest with ourselves. Because we were fed the lie that it was immoral to think that way. But it seems deeply ethical, to me, to ask the question: What does it mean that I was born white in this country? What did that afford me? What paranoias and fears did it instill in me? If we can start being honest about that, and let that ethical question transcend any political divide, then maybe we can start wading into other difficult territories too. With a little more grace. I believe in having difficult conversations.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the radical, almost perpetually taboo, nature of love. Love is unpopular in our society right now. But I think it needs to be informed love. Seeing as much as we can of each other, and still loving. Seeing the ugliness, and still loving. And reflecting back. I’ve been re-reading Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends (1977), and I love this quote right at the beginning:

You see, that which is exposed to the exterior... is smooth and dry and clean. That which is not... underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It’s another life that is parallel to the one we manifest. It’s there... if you don’t recognize it, it eats you.

That’s everything to me. It could be my mission statement. It’s there. If you don’t recognize it, it eats you.

Caridad: I’m interested in how you work with real-time in Heroes and to a similar but different extent—in affect and style—in your play Wheelchair, and also with smashed-up time in Plano. What led to these varied explorations theatrically?

Will: When I write a play, I prioritize understanding its relationship to breath. If I can get everyone breathing in a new and shared way, then I might have a chance at changing the air in that room. Because I think that’s something audiences never forget. So for all of my plays, the relationship to time is linked to the relationship to breath. If Plano is breathless, then maybe Heroes’ breath is a little more tense and constricted. And maybe Wheelchair really breathes. Breath equals function.

We need to be a lot more honest about what it means to be white in this country.

Caridad: I always say—though I am surely not the first to do so—that acting and new writing are codependent. For example, the Method in acting, in the United States, meant that a lot of those great plays from the 1950s got written because writers were making work for the acting techniques of the time, and actors were pushing growth from writers by discoveries in their work. Where do you feel your work sits or rests in relationship to acting practices?

Will: I heard that Sarah Ruhl recently coined a phrase “quantum theatre,” by which perhaps she means a kind of multiverse theatre with parallel time and invisible worlds collapsing into each other, maybe even becoming visible. I’m drawn to actors who are able to commit to quick pivots, to sudden existential shifts. Brian Watkins calls my work “contemplative terror/philosophical horror.” I love actors who are able to capture this—to dive into that good darkness. It requires an intellectual rigor, and a gut instinct, and a vulnerability. It’s everything collapsed into itself.

Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s highly technical. It all adds up to a kind of virtuosity. I got such an education from the three actors who played the sisters in Plano (Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood, and Miriam Silverman)—the way they took ownership over the impossible mechanism of that play was remarkable. They threaded it into their nervous systems. It was somehow both A) fully organic and spontaneous and natural, and B) deeply weird and technical and precise. That play was so much about the menace of time. The actors’ virtuosity had entirely to do with them recognizing that, and not letting it eat them. They made time their Play-Doh. They dominated it.

Caridad: Heroes is having its moment, on the heels of Plano. Of course, this is fortuitous timing for you as a writer. Stars aligning kind of thing. But there must also be pressure to keep the stars in your favor, to write the next thing and the next, and stay true. I think “success” can sometimes play weird head games with a writer. In part, because people start to ask you to write something like you just did even if they don’t use those words. And sometimes too you want to do something entirely else and folx may see that as folly.

I certainly know something about this, and so I wonder: How are you handling this “moment” and honoring the wrestling with demons, which is the stuff of writing, even when those demons are clear to folx looking on from the outside?

three actors onstage

Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights' Horizon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Will: I do feel a pressure. It’s been such a wonderful and confusing thing. Of course I’m overwhelmingly grateful. But that gratitude can tip so easily into a kind of terror. I’ve become very conscious of how much of this is outside my control. I was born into a highly specific (white) environment, which happens to have tremendous resonances with our national identity crisis.

I was also the only boy in my family, and I didn’t have the same level of Catholic pressure on me to give my body away to childbirth. And I was on the younger end of the family, so I could listen and absorb the particularities of all these incredible women in my household. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. And yet I spent my early plays writing things adjacent to/removed from my own particularity, and when I finally buckled down and wrote the thing that terrified me—Heroes of the Fourth Turning—something very personal and true to life, it became this success (eek) and necessitated all of this reckoning with the people who inspired it. That was hard, but healing.

Meanwhile, you’re sharing all of it with total strangers, who just come in and eat it. It can make you a little terrified to ever do it again. I keep thinking about the next thing I want to write, and how different that play is—how it won’t fit into any neat box, how it might not feel topical or “important” in quite the same way. Or whether it won’t “terrify me enough,” as though tremendous pain is the only valid incentive to make a thing. I want to move past that.

One thing I say a lot is: “I just want to make beautiful things.” And that’s true. But it’s hard not to feel the pressures of the marketplace: How will I be judged, sized up, appraised? Am I upholding my responsibility to my consumers? Am I seasoning myself to their liking? Is the contradiction of me selling enough of their papers? When will the contradiction of me become less salable?

Caridad: Tricky dilemma. Indeed. I know what you mean. On the one hand as a writer, the task is to make the best, and most beautiful (depending on your definition of beauty) art object that you can. But this still may or may not be what the industry or an audience wants or is attracted to. There’s also the fact that if you are known or get a reputation as an artist that illuminates human contradictions in their work, and you yourself as the artist embodies some of those contradictions (and more), is this fact what makes you and your work in demand? Were you to not play into those contradictions, as you say, would the industry find the work and you less interesting to pitch?

Will: You start to feel cannibalized. I’ll try not to think this way. I’ll try to just make beautiful things. But it’s hard not to get a sniff that something else is going on, something totally outside one’s control. There are the stories you tell, and then there are the stories they tell about you.

As much as I endeavor to honor my sisters, my mother, my female characters, I’ll always be a man writing about them.

Caridad: I grew up Catholic; the imprint is all over my work. And even when I try to mask it, it shows. Mine was a heady mix of Spanish influence and Irish (I went to schools where Irish nuns and priests taught and practiced their faith), and I remember being really torn as an adolescent, which was right about the time I was starting to think about writing as a possible something I wanted to do for real and not just as a hobby.

I couldn’t reconcile the patriarchy of the religion with, well, a desire and need to smash that patriarchy. I see your three sisters in Plano wrestling with the same, and even in Heroes, which fashions itself somewhat matriarchally; the patriarchal dogma hovers over them all. I have also been thinking a lot about the act of writing itself and how most of the structures inherited in codified language in English are male-written, encoded historically.

As playwrights, this becomes an issue with which to contend as well. I have always been drawn to Sor Juana and to the writings of Theresa of Avila because they were seeking/enacting what we call now feminist escriture. I think in Plano’s faceless ghost—the ghost of male-embodied patriarchy—but also in Heroes—especially at the end, in that heart burst aria (as I call it)—contending with all this is manifested. Where and how do you see the plays positioned around the weight of this?

Will: I write, more than anything, about women trapped in (and upholding) a system designed to limit their autonomy. So I see these two plays—Plano and Heroes—as very much positioned around the weight of all that. As I mention constantly, and perhaps obnoxiously, I grew up in a household with eight women. I was the only boy among seven sisters. Despite my household very often feeling like a matriarchy, and despite all the powerful particularities of all my sisters, there was still a sense that the patriarchal structure was the name of the game. Catholicism has the Virgin Mary—and there’s a real reverence there—but there are still very few models outside of sainthood and motherhood. And both of those revolve around extreme bodily pain.

And then here I come, with a little chip on my shoulder—“I have seven sisters!”—as though that gives me any real understanding. It doesn’t. It gave me my best friends. It gave me my heroes. But as much as I endeavor to honor my sisters, my mother, my female characters, I’ll always be a man writing about them. I’ll never escape that. And nor do I want to. Zadie Smith said in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books: “The hard truth is that we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

I hope that’s true, that my outsider status can be of use to these stories that I can’t stop writing. But Zadie goes further, in the same essay, saying that we always need to question that sort of attempt: “Is this [work] before me an attempt at compassion or an act of containment?” And maybe it’s inevitably both. I want my works to be acts of compassion, but I don’t think they’ll ever escape the ways they contain the characters too. That’s why in so many of my plays, there’s a sense of dread, of unease, a feeling of being trapped, an uneasy hum. I’m the one trapping them there. I’m the uneasy humming. I try to make it beautiful, even though it feels awful.

three actors onstage

Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights' Horizon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Caridad: Your play Evanston Salt Costs Climbing premiered at White Heron Theatre in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 2018. It tackles the intersection of environmental change and characters that need to adapt to and/or cannot adapt to future time. In effect, characters caught in patterns of industrialization and its legacies, and the possibilities of being free of such legacies. But also: Where to next? It’s a comedy of panic. And something about it reminded me of silent films—the comic ones, especially those of Buster Keaton. There’s a kind of human tilted against the falling-house quality about the play.

You wrote this play at Northwestern University, where you got your MFA, yes? How’d it come about, besides the city of Evanston obviously, which is where Northwestern is located?

Will: I love that, “comedy of panic.” Also, Buster Keaton was my hero when I was a kid! So that makes me feel great. I wrote the beginning of this play when I was in Evanston, but I wrote the rest of it during my time in the ClubbedThumb Early Career Writers’ Group. Yes, it came out of panic. It lives in the thin space between comedy and despair. I wrote it almost on a whim, actually. My teacher at the time, Thomas Bradshaw, asked us to write short plays inspired by newspaper articles. I knew everyone was going to look for salacious or bizarre stories, so I deliberately chose the most boring article I could find in that day’s local paper.

It was about salt costs in Evanston. The salt costs were climbing. I wrote the play, and it was mostly about depression, which is something I struggle with. But then I thought: What if I took this salt costs thing really seriously? And then I learned everything I could about salt, and city planning, and public works, and heated permeable pavers, and Jane Jacobs, and polar vortexes. It became something so much bigger. Just by zeroing in on something almost random, I opened up whole chambers inside myself. How do we help in the face of enormous uncertainty? How do we chip away at despair? Maybe by choosing to care.

I know that I nourish my faith by sitting with others, by sharing my fears with them, and listening if they choose to do the same.

Caridad: I loved your play Wheelchair. It made me think a lot about graphic novelist Chris Ware’s work. There is a “being with” aspect to this piece that the others don’t have in quite the same manner. Taking time, as it were. (Although Heroes does, but in a world where the spiritual and the material are less fluid.) You wrote it for three specific performers. How’d that happen? What was the process?

Will: I’m glad you love it. It’s close to my heart. Yes, I wrote Wheelchair for three specific performers: Rachel Sachnoff, Alexander Paris, and Matthew S. Joffe. I built it around their needs. Matthew had a full-time job on top of several disabilities, which meant that the schedule couldn’t be exhaustive. We only rehearsed on Saturdays and Sundays. We performed it for one night at New York City’s Dixon Place. It was a strange and special night.

It’s a play about saying goodbye to a room you’ve grown used to. For the writing of it, I spoke most of the play out loud in an old barn in Minnesota, which was about to be torn down. Its wood was wet and rotting. The play exists now at 3 Hole Press, sort of a holdable memorial to a specific night in December 2016. It’s full of panic, as usual, but it’s also about taking a moment when everything is telling you that you have none.

Caridad: When the world’s in a state of chaos, how does one sustain faith? How is faith defined, by self and others? These questions feel central in your works thus far. A part of me wonders about the horrible noise in Heroes—that death-metal sound; demon? daimon?

five actors onstage

Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights' Horizon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Will: I don’t know how to sustain faith. I know that I nourish my faith by sitting with others, by sharing my fears with them, and listening if they choose to do the same. I certainly think that’s why I’m a playwright. Because it replenishes my faith over and over again. Regarding the horrible noise in Heroes: I’ll never say anything that will satisfy anything. That’s the point. It’s the unexplainable.

I’ve started to wonder if it would be fun to give a different explanation for it every time: it’s the land, it’s social media, it’s me, it’s n o t h i n g itself. The one thing I don’t believe it is is demonic. I’m resistant to that interpretation for a lot of reasons. I could talk about that for hours. That being said, one reviewer shrewdly pointed out that Hildegard of Bingen had an opera, Ordo Virtutum, which has a devil character who cannot harmonize with the divinity inside the other voices. He can only shout. I feel some resonance with that, especially since I refer to my play as a fugue.

Still, daimon is more interesting to me because that’s different than the Catholic notion of a demon, right? It’s something existing in between. What if the play is performing some Hermes-like purpose, convening between the land of the living and the land of the dead? What if the sound is benevolent? What if hearing that screech is useful to all of us? (Now I’m just being perverse.)

Caridad: To end our conversation, what are you reading/listening to/etc.?

Will: I’ve been inspired by Claudia Rankine and the Racial Imaginary Institute. I’ve been inspired by Zadie Smith’s essay “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” which I mentioned earlier, and have just dipped into her 2018 book of essays Feel Free. I’ve loved listening to Bill Callahan’s new album Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. I think about Mia Chung’s still-unpublished play Catch As Catch Can twice a day (her play premiered in New York City with Page 73 Productions and will be seen later this theatre season at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago). I’ve been poking through some Flannery O’Connor and some Wendell Berry. Mostly, it’s really hard to focus. I get it all in bits and pieces.

Something happens to me when I do a show (after opening one; in this case, Heroes). I stop being able to see. I feel so watched, you know? And it makes my eyes retreat to the back of my head. Then, with a little time and distance, the world opens up to me again. I start noticing some miracles. I can’t wait to get my seeing back.

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