Credit: Korde Tuttle
Will Arbery is a playwright and filmmaker. His play Heroes of the Fourth Turning has been named winner of the 2020 Whiting Award for Drama.
In April 2020, during the COVID-19 crisis, Will did an e-mail interview with MUSEUM.
Interview with WILL ARBERY:
What is the most recent lesson you learned, or were reminded of?
My eyes keep spinning over this word “lesson.” I remember my 6th grade history teacher, walking silently into the room and writing in big cursive: “ATTENTION TO DETAIL IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS.” I think about that lesson a lot. But I don’t really care about the key to success right now. A more relevant lesson might be something I’ve discovered through therapy — which is that as wounding as language can be, it’s also one of the only tools we have (especially right now) to be good to each other. We have to find the words for how we’re doing; otherwise people won’t know. We need to tell each other how we’re doing, what we’re feeling, what we’re fearing. It’s an act of service for the people we love. The words come up short but they get us closer.
In a 2019 interview in The Brooklyn Rail, you said “I guess I believe in mystery, I believe in the unanswerable.” Can you elaborate on this belief? How does this belief impact your writing today? And how does it inform your way of inhabiting the current global situation regarding the novel coronavirus?
I don’t really know how to elaborate on it, since I’m referring to the things that go beyond language, beyond understanding or elaboration. People encountering my play Heroes of the Fourth Turning often ask me about this loud “generator” noise that interrupts the action. At the end of the play, one of the characters admits that it’s not his generator making the sound. Instead, he says, “I don’t know what that is.” And I don’t either. And that needs to be okay.
Of course I hope that the novel coronavirus is “answerable.” I hope its mysteries are exploded. I hope we learn every fuckin thing about it and shield everyone against it. But I also think that once we do that, there will be more unknowns coming. There are already more coming. They’re unknown, unanswerable antagonisms or blessings. There’s a Maria Irene Fornes quote that I love: “It’s there. If you don’t recognize it, it eats you.” I don’t know what “it” is, and she doesn’t really define it. But I believe her. And so I recognize it.
What is the aspect of your work that’s most important to you?
The most important thing to me is not letting the audience walk away from the play knowing exactly what the play was “saying.” Not that you doubt its coherence. You suspect it coheres. But it’s itchy. It’s annoying. I want to create work that lingers for a very long time. Work you can’t shake off. For this reason, I sometimes wonder if being an artist is as cruel as it is anything else.
From Plano (2019). Photos by Elke Young.
How consciously do you try, if at all, to create something different from what currently or historically exists in the landscape of theater or literature?
I would not say that I do this very consciously. Of course, I try to be vigilant about getting rid of clichés or things I’ve “seen before.” But more than that, I just want to make things that feel true. More than striving for the radically different, I want to offer people something that they recognize, but they can’t place its source. When I write, I try to get into a headspace that’s compulsively honest, and sometimes what comes out feels formally different, but if I had set out to make something formally different, it wouldn’t have come out true.
Can you tell me about your reading of the panopticon? How it relates to your work and to your life?
I’m no expert on the panopticon. I learned about it in college, and I thought: “that sounds like Catholicism, that sounds like the God I was raised on.” I was raised in a very Catholic, very conservative home and world. I experienced, and still experience, tremendous amounts of shame. And I think when I encountered the panopticon — this tower in the center of a prison, with hidden guards who could always be watching — it was in a “Postmodernism and Its Critics” course in college, and I remember thinking: “yeah, that’s scary, but also it just sounds like life.” I feel watched 100% of the time. I’ve had to make peace with that. Anyway in Heroes, Teresa says “Catholicism is the panopticon, this is a holy space.” I’m interested in the panopticon of the invisible world, a watcher with indeterminable motives. A watchfulness that exists in between every atom. Any way you pivot, it’s watching you. It’s keeping tabs.
From Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Photo by Sara Krulwich.
What does beginning a work look like for you?
I find beginning really hard, and usually have to trick myself into doing it. I’m a procrastinator. So I’ll usually only start if I feel like other people are implicated. (Read: panopticon, shame.) That’s why I love correspondence and collaboration. That’s why theater and film are good modes for me. That’s why all my poems are gifts to someone.
Aside from the actual writing, I’m always in the beginning stages of dozens of ideas — for theater, film, TV. My creative life is a tall bookcase, and each idea has its own shelf, and I just gradually put things on the different shelves. Some of the shelves are easier to reach.
Who is someone whose work you highly recommend?
I highly recommend the plays of Maria Irene Fornes. Her work terrifies me and fills me with joy. There’s a great documentary about her, called The Rest I Make Up, which is currently available here. You’ll see the kind of seeing + being she did. For a contemporary playwright, I’m obsessed with Mia Chung. For a contemporary poet, Aria Aber. For a contemporary filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel.
See more of Will Arbery’s work here.