A few weeks ago, I watched a staged reading of David Strattan White’s play Simulations, at The Walking Fish Theater in Philadelphia. Simulations is a play inspired by the world of the computer game, The Sims. It imagines two people in the real world, two people in The Sims world and one person who might come from either.
David recently left Philadelphia for a teaching job in Indiana, but after we talked for a little bit after the reading we had a more thorough discussion about his work on-line.
Like the previous interview with David Kessler, this interview has a companion exterview (a talk about everything else) over at This Too Will Pass.
BradyDale: From where I sit, we are only starting to see literature that deals with the new technology that surrounds us. Do you agree? Jonathan Lethem came to Philadelphia’s Free Library a little while back to talk about his latest book. I remember two things about that visit: first, that I didn’t think he’d be that boring and, second, that he said he just adamantly did not write about email or cell phones or the web in his books. It just didn’t feel right for him, and I empathize. Your play, Simulations, is all about a video game, though. Was that something you had to overcome or is it weird that I’d even bring it up as an issue?
DSW: I think that we are only starting to discover our technology – period. I remember eight years ago when I was moving to Philadelphia, my mom insisted that I get my first cell phone. That was eight years ago. Plays take a while to create. They are written, then they’re workshopped, then they’re marketed, then if, they’re chosen for production, there’s often eight to eighteen months between selection and production. I think the current technological lag is partly due to the fact that technology is moving so fast right now. It’s hard for artists to keep up. The difficult thing about writing for the current moment is that the current moment is often gone before you finish your first draft. I think that’s why a lot of writers avoid it. Because it’s hard to judge what will be an enduring sort of thing and what will become silly.
In Simulations I think I was just so fascinated by the idea of Betty creating her own fantasy happiness. And how easy it is for us to sort of surround ourselves in our own fictions. The most daunting task in tackling a video-game play (if that is a thing) was the question, ‘how do I portray a bridge between real world and Sim world.’ But that was never the point, so I just sort of decided that she’d just wish upon a star and be done with it. The video game just comes to life and the audience will deal with it.
I think that the Sims is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a technological one. Our age is somehow both voyeuristic and escapist. We as a people seem to want technology to transport us away from our problems and on to identical problems. Somehow we relax from our mundane existence by creating an alternate mundane existence. And somehow we find love in our fantasy world, but we hide away from the exact same things we create. It’s a rabbit hole in an Escher painting.
I have read, seen and acted in other plays that deal with the moment in technology. Y2K by Arthur Kopit comes to mind. I participated in a developmental workshop at the Wilma for a play called Agency* by Ken Linn. which was about a pedophile Catholic priest who volunteered to be made into a cyborg assassin for the government in return for curing him of his urges. It was fantastic.
I think technology is something that always will color the landscape of art and literature. Shakespeare wrote about sea travel, Dickens wrote about the Industrial Revolution, Death of the Salesman is greatly influenced by automobiles and telephones, The Fountainhead is an epic story about progress in architecture and journalism. Changes in the world are the most fascinating subjects, and technology is a big fat harbinger of change.
BradyDale: I really liked your response about the bridge between the real world and the world of “The Sims.” Not going into it was a really good choice, though as an audience member I did think about it.
From what you said during the feedback session the other night, it sounds like you plan to revisit the script pretty seriously. How hardcore do you get about rewrites? I saw Chuck Palahniuk speak once and he said that he writes a complete new ending every time he revises a book. Just for fun. It sounded miserable to me because the end of the book is the most stressful part to write. All the stakes are on the end.
Where does the current version fit in your revision process and how much do things change over time with you? Will you put in whole new elements? Do you get re-inspired? Where do the biggest changes happen in the course of writing one of your scripts?
DSW: Personally, at this point in my life, I don’t have a set method. I sort of let the story dictate the process. Maybe I could write more if I did have a set process, but I feel like fitting the process to the story allows each story it’s own kind of form. So I’m always a little off-balance as far as what happens next. I can tell you for Simulations that I’m definitely not happy with the ending yet and that I think the play needs another layer – whatever that means. I’ve been trying to think about what that is, and experimented with some ideas that I’ve more or less thrown out. I think, except for the end, that every scene that is there will be there. And much of the end might be there. So in this circumstance it’s about writing more and finding a way to re-situate the new stuff so that the structure is still harmonious.
BradyDale: You had one scene in particular where you said in your stage directions that maybe the walls would change color for a moment. We were all watching a staged reading, so that didn’t happen. There is also the issue of the hearts floating over the two characters heads when they fall for each other. Do you hope to incorporate new technology on stage? Would you, ideally, like to be a part of the first staging of “Simulations?” If so, what would be your top priority to see happen in a full staging of the play (at least as it’s written now)?
DSW: I think that directors like to find solutions. I know I do when I direct. I think that’s one of the fun things about creating theatre. A lot of times when I write, I’ll come up with an idea and then something in my brain will say, “Yeah. But how are you going to do it on stage?” Then a different voice says, “That would be really fun to figure out.” I really pride myself in not backing down from impossible things. I think that’s one thing that most really great theatre artists have in common.
That being said, I’ve seen lights really change the color of a room in an amazing way. And there could be new technology or really old technology. I see no reason hearts couldn’t simply be suspended from the ceiling. Ultimately, we don’t even have to see the hearts. But I do think it would be cool if we did. Also, why stop with hearts? there could be plusses, minusses, all other things that hover above Sims’ heads.
I will undoubtebly be a part of a staging. I won’t be the director. I like seeing what others bring to my writing way too much to do that. I’ll be the writer. I may be in rehearsals some or not at all. It depends.
As for the top priority, I’m really not sure. That depends on what the actors bring to it. This particular play, for all the talk I’m finding that it inspires, is really mostly a good time. I don’t think it’s ideas will change our lives, although it’s not without thought. I think for this one, success depends on how much fun it is. That simple. Get it? SIM – ple? Okay. That’s bad.
BradyDale: No, no! Don’t regret a pun! I’m tempted to request a pun in every answer! Your answer is just the opposite to one I once heard Kevin Smith give about his movies. He said he knew he was a bad director but just didn’t trust anyone else with his scripts. I thought, “But if you know you’re a bad director…” Some people have strange logic…
When I saw the staged reading of Simulations, there was a sort of talk-back at the end of the session. It seemed like most of the people in the room were involved in theater to some degree. I’m not, but I am a wannabe writer. As I remember, there was a lot of talk about the characterization of the Sims. Moments that confused people a little. The issue of the gobbledygook language the Sims spoke and how much the audience needed to be educated about The Sims in order to “get” your play. Overall, people were really positive and supportive of the play. I mention all this just to provide some context for folks who weren’t there.
What did you take away from the feedback you got? I could see everything people said churning hard through your head. You didn’t write much down but that seemed to be more because you were processing everything so intensely. What did you take away from that feedback? Did the things people said help or did the whole process help you to reveal even bigger questions about the script? I guess the real point of this question is to try and find out what was going on in your head during that discussion.
DSW: I got a lot from the discussion. Most importantly, that people followed it, even though they weren’t educated about The Sims(TM). That was good news. After that, I was kind of seeing the play fall together in a new way, and all of the specifics just sort of swirl into a new image of the play that was happening. When I wrote it, I’d just discovered Sara Ruhl’s plays. I love her simple, magical humor. I think that sort of aesthetic found its way into what ultimately became a farce in my play. I heard Tom Stoppard say that he doesn’t try to write a play until he has two or three ideas for a play, then he writes them all together. So I was thinking about the play being less direct. I almost think it’s too clear what it’s about. The talkback was great. And the reading was very informative. I don’t think I’m a comedic writer, so it was a little scarey wondering if people would be excited about this one. So it was cool to see the actors so attracted to the story.
Now read the exterview with David.