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11/12/2010

Justin, Meet Dan. Dan, Meet Justin.

In our final installment of First Person RAW artists interviewing other Festival artists, Justin Jain of shiFt/transFer interviews Dan Hoyle of The Real Americans. It turns out these two strangers know the same folks and share some interest. America is a small world, indeed. Read Robin Gelfenbien’s interview with Elna Baker here and Heather Metcalfe’s interview of Heather Ross here.

Dan Hoyle is an incredibly talented artist whose work fascinates me. The following interview encapsulates two things I love – talking with actors about their process and scrutinizing the question: What does it mean to be American? As a Philadelphia-based theatre maker myself, I continually found myself inspired both by what The Real Americans is about and the process Hoyle used to create it. When First Person Arts approached me to conduct this interview, I was immediately excited (having only seen videos of his work and hearing about him from colleagues). Reading Dan’s thoughts on traveling the country and creating this piece are sure to make the experience of going to show that much richer. Below are excerpts from our interview. Enjoy!

J: I’m so excited to be talking with you after having looked at all your stuff online.
D: Well, I’m excited to make my Philly debut. The one group I know from Philadelphia is Pig Iron Theatre Company. And they did a show in San Francisco about 5-6 years ago that blew me away. And I kind of know Geoff [Sobelle, Rainpan 43 and Pig Iron].

J: He talked very highly of you and I guess that’s how you’ve come to be in the First Person Festival.
D: Yeah, I owe everything to Geoff. If it weren’t for Geoff, then I would never be in Philly.

J: How long have you been in San Francisco?
D: I moved back here in 2003. I grew up here. I went to school in Chicago – Northwestern. I lived in Spain for a year in school and then I went to Nigeria for a year in 2005-2006.

J: I did a show in San Francisco not too long ago and then I also have been working with a playwright there. Do you happen to know Matthew Graham Smith?
D: Oh! Yeah, he directed an initial version – the very first version of The Real Americans. It wasn’t called Real Americans then.

J: Wow.
D: Yeah, I know. It was at The Aurora Theatre Company. […] I can’t even remember what it was called back then. I don’t even know if it had a name.

J: Wow. Crazy small world. Yeah, he wrote a play that I did in Philly and then toured to San Francisco. And he wrote me a solo piece – my one and only solo piece I’ve ever done. That was a terrifying experience. So I can only imagine what your life is like as a performer.
D: That’s wild. That you know Matthew Graham Smith.

J: So, tell me more about documentary theatre – the kind of theatre you do. Cause this is totally out of my scope of the world.
D: Well, people when they think of documentary theatre, they think of Anna Deavere Smith. I guess anyone who is doing solo documentary theatre work owes a debt to what Anna Deavere Smith did. My characters are more composites. It’s not verbatim theatre. I go out, have an experience, ask some questions that I want to ask, generally – and then come back and make a show about that experience.

J: For The Real Americans, is there a framing device? Are you a narrator of sorts, and then cut in and out of these characters?
D: The whole trip was basically launched and the show is launched in having brunch with my yuppie friends in San Francisco and drowning in: “Hey you guys want some of this fruit compote? The pears…” It’s like, AGHHH! Get me out of what happened to my city! It’s become this caricature of itself. And so I wanted to get tough country wisdom. So I buy this Ford van, with a bed and a fridge and head out to small town America for three and a half months.

J: By yourself.
D: Yeah, by myself. And along the way, I go to all these places to sock it to urban liberals who don’t really know what’s going on in the country. And I do that. There’s a lot of jabs at “us” or the people that live in the urban liberal bubbles.

But what I found on my trip more than anything else was people were really angry at the way the country’s going and there’s this populist anger of “we want our country back.” The kind of Sarah Palin reaction. We have these two worlds that don’t really interact and are increasingly different. So, what does that mean? What do we do? As people who still wanna be a part of the country, but feel like “oh, where’s my place in all this?”

J: So have you performed this piece for these people? Have they seen it?
D: No, I haven’t gotten a chance to yet. I would. Since I knew it was going to be performed for theatre audiences, it is created to sort of sock it to theatre audiences. And I find generally that theatre audience are pretty liberal leaning folks, especially in cities. I would be interested in performing it somewhere else, going back to those places. I mean, my last show about oil politics in Nigeria, I took to Nigera and performed there.

J: So how is this different than that show… Tings Dey Happen, right?
D: Yeah, Tings Dey Happen.

J: And any of your past shows? And how is it the same?
D: Well, I think with what I try to do in my shows is have the writing be as rich as the performance. I think a lot of times in solo shows, there’s a really great performer and they can play their whole family, but at the end of the show you’re like: “hmmm. God, that guy’s really talented…”

I go out into the world and try to encounter the world with objective discerning eyes and bring back a piece of theatre that really makes people think, and question what they previously thought. I think if there’s something that I try to put in all of my work, it’s not to tell people how to think, but just to encourage critical thinking.

Now, before everyone goes: “Ohmigod. That sounds like a horrible dissertation book. Why would I want to go see that?” It’s theatre, and it’s a show, and I take a lot of pride in trying to make it a show and make people laugh. I think those are the two things that I’m always trying: It’s as much dense interesting content and as entertaining a package as I can put together.

J: Do you do freelance acting outside of your personal work as well?
D: I haven’t really. I mean I did, throughout college. In college, I started getting into this solo stuff because I was a little bit bored with the kind of mainstream theatre scene at Northwestern. I love Northwestern, it was a great school. I started walking around Chicago late at night. I’d take the red line down and get off at a random stop and walk around and talk to strangers – you know, gigolos, ballroom dancer, street hustlers… all these people. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to get something that felt more interesting than just a whole bunch of nineteen year olds trying to interpret a piece of literature that maybe was beyond them. I’m not trying to slag people off or anything, I just wanted something that felt more immediate, you know?

So I started doing that when I did this 20 minute piece about being the only white guy at an all black basketball court in Chicago. And you know, everyone calling me Dan Akroyd and Wayne Gretzsky. They’re not basketball players but they’re just white so that was me. And then I won this crazy grant to go around the world studying globalization in eight countries and that became my first show. I think I’ve always thought the solo show is pretty dynamic. It’s a unique medium. […] But I’m not wedded to that. I think it would be great to have some collaborators – besides the mirror.

J: Yeah, I know. It’s very scary… My one foray into that world I found I was very scared, very lonely. There’s just this feeling of: “I have no idea if what I’m doing is good.” I mean, you get that in a regular show, but it’s quadrupled when you’re the only person onstage.
D: Yeah, I’m lucky to work with a director I’ve worked with for a long time. My initial process is I work a lot in front of a mirror. I take recordings when I’m going out there. I listen to those recordings. Then I create characters in front of my mirror. There’s that initial four or five month period where I’m just trying to create something out of nothing. Although, I do have this block of experience and material. So I try to create things up out of that.

J: Is that pretty formulaic? That four to five month creation period – before you jump into actual rehearsals?
D: I wish it was formulaic. I wish I could just discover the… I could be teaching master seminars on “creating knock-dead, sure-fire, linear characters!” Although, I think I’m teaching something at the festival…

J: Yeah!
D: But, obviously, I have a few tricks that I do and I’ll pass those on. But it’s excruciating. Writing is definitely the hardest part. And then I do workshops. I do always several workshop performances over months and as you know, the audience never lies. And if something’s not working, then you know it. You can do the post-show feedback sessions, but you kinda already know what worked and what didn’t.

J: This whole concept of “going out into the world, gathering information, interviewing people and then bringing it back to the stage” is actually new to me and my personal process. And this is something I’m doing with my show right now, with my ensemble. We’re all just gathering our stories. How have you felt people receiving you when you go to interview them? Have you had any resistance? Have you had any really good successes? What’s that like?
D: Right. There’s a whole interesting art to that. Generally, I find if you are honest with who you are and at the same time are able to show a respect and curiosity for the other person’s culture or background, then they’re going to want to take you in and show you. There’s a fine line between pretending that you’re “down” when you’re not – that’s not where you’re from – and having a curiosity and interest and a fascination in it. Then there’s this weird thing of wanting to blend in, in a respectful way of: “I want to see. I want to have this experience.” You’re never going to be able to necessarily enter into that world the same way those people are. But it’s similar to what an actor does, really.

One way I sometimes think about what I’m doing is it’s just like a really intense three month acting exercise. Where I’m going out and instead of writing down given circumstances for these characters, I’m going out meeting these people, hearing their given circumstances, hearing their stories, hearing their cadences, hearing what it sounds like when they’re telling those stories, listening to the people that are interrupting them… Basically seeing the drama of their lives first hand.

J: What is it about solo performance that attracts you? As opposed to working in ensemble or in a bigger process.
D: People didn’t pay attention me as a child. Nah, I’m just kidding. (laughs) I dunno. And this is true about all theatre, but of solo theatre its just you and the audience. It kinda goes back to people telling stories around a fire. Its also like really good bar stories. And so even though most solo performance kind of occupies this bougie place in our culture, really what it is is pretty ‘everyman.’ It’s a guy getting up there and using really just his own personal tools to tell a story, you know? And almost all solo work is 90 percent about the person onstage. Yeah, you’ll have a few sound effects, a few light cues, but I don’t have a set. My costume… I have three hats and a guitar. And a chair. So, yeah, you can kinda do that anywhere and I think that’s kinda cool.

J: In The Real Americans, without giving any spoilers, what is your favorite moment? Or the moment that you love that the audience is reacting to?
D: Gosh, there’s a lot of pleasure in performing this show. There’s this character, Jack, from Kentucky, who starts out (impression of inaudible talking)… He does this whole thing and the audience is going: “that the ___?” And then he just turns and says (impression) “That’s small town people, you know everybody.” And the supertitles come up.

J: That’s amazing.
D: All of a sudden, the whole show, the whole character… You have to have supertitles. This is somewhere outside of our normal America. There’s a character who is saying all these really racist things – he’s kinda this Southern Alabama small town guy – and he’s a difficult character to do cause he’s saying things that are kinda hard for people to take. But its really interesting because he’s right on this edge. It’s like he’s performing this redneck identity. And it’s the identity politics that we never really talk about – what’s it like to be an unrecognized redneck? Saying (impression) “Yeah, I mean they got that united negro college fund. Can you imagine if we had the united redneck college fund?” And its kinda like oooohhh… on the edge. There’s another character who is in Mississippi and he’s (impression) “My whole life…” I mean, its sorta hard for me to talk about these characters without going into them, you know. I’ve been doing this show now for almost ten months, so they’re kinda like your best friends. Your imaginary friends.

J: So how many people are we going to meet when we see your show?
D: Gosh, including the brunch people and everything, its somewhere between a dozen and twenty. I guess it depends. Some have one liners and at least a dozen are full characters.

J: And the show follows a kind of arc? Or does it follow your exact map as you went through?

D: It’s a little bit of both. We go through the south, then we go through Appalachia. Part of the show is me being like “Oh my god. I’m meeting all these really angry people. How am I going to be able to make a show about this?” There’s this whole thing of me sorta freaking out about it. But at the end, the final third of the show, I start to break through a little bit. And start to meet people and you get characters who are right on the edge. So, I think there’s a lot of stuff that the show is trying to say, but at the end we’re all in this together.

I think a lot of times people just try to totally write off small town America as being: “that’s not our America.” Or they say “I’m just gonna be in my liberal bubble. I’m not going to try to participate in this country that’s becoming so polarized. I’m not gonna participate.” You know, after traveling around, I felt like… I dunno, I started wearing American flag t-shirts for the first time in my life. Not ironically. Kinda like “hey! This is my country too. I want to take an active part in being a part of its identity.” Not letting guys, rednecks, claiming the flag as their own. And all the liberals in the city have to go on vacation in Europe or something to feel culturally at home.

J: Did you ever feel unsafe or scared when you were traveling?
D: Yeah. I hung out with this Aryan brotherhood guy late at night in smalltown Nebraska. And there was a moment when I thought I was gonna get my teeth kicked in. But I didn’t (laughs). And he’s actually not in the show because he got radicalized as an Aryan brotherhood guy in the California prison system. So his story is really more about the crazy prison system we have in California and not so much about this kind of rift between small town, what I call “Palin country” and “Obama-nation.”

J: Did you ever come across… I’m asking this question from a viewpoint thinking about my piece. Did you ever come across any people that have recently immigrated to America or any minority groups that are trying to live here?
D: Yeah, definitely. There’s a whole thing happening now in tiny little towns in Wisconsin and Nebraska and places… there’s all these immigrants mostly from Central America and Mexico. That’s shaking up all the white people who have never had to compete for the jobs at the factory. All of a sudden, they are. We meet this character, Ramon, who’s a Dominican from New York who has this long story about when he has this experience with this guy in this small town café who sorta calls him out for not being American.

At the core of the show, there’s this question of: who owns the country? Right now, we have a lot of people on the right saying: “we own this country.” We’ve had that before with the no-nothings, the whole Nativist phenomenon – we’ve had that before in this country. And it’s sorta coming back. Then there’s this whole other side and the demographics are changing. Really, the country is belonging to a whole bunch of different people trying to be see how that all plays out.

J: Has this show radically changed for you what it means to be American?
D: I don’t know. You know, the other thing I really should say is that throughout the trip… I mean the hospitality of people was overwhelming. The first two weeks I had seven free meals. People were praying for me constantly. “Oh yeah, go ahead, crash in our yard… you want to stay another night? No problem… You need a shower?” And these are strangers that are taking me in. So, there is an immense hospitality and kindness. Even though a lot of times I’ll be talking to people and our views would be really different, it was almost always very civil. So, I hope the show inspires people to also get out and get to know their country. Because there’s only good things that can come of it.

I had this sorta naïve idea that you just go out, you just talk to people, and everything will be okay – its all just a little misunderstanding we have about what the whole point of America is, and that’s not necessarily true. I mean, the differences are serious and real, but by going and talking to people – especially in a kind of one-on-one setting where they’re from – you’re serving as an ambassador for city intellectuals. Saying “hey, we’re not all crazy folks that are not anything like you.” Its like: “yeah, hey, I got a Ford van and I’m driving around the country and I’m cooking my meals in my stove and I’m going camping.” So I think its really important to get outside of your bubble. I think it’s the same for a lot of people in small town America. And they would say that too – “We’re in a bubble too and we don’t really go to the city. And when we do, we try to be back by sundown.” You know? I think there’s a lot to be gained from getting out of your comfort zone.

J: Of course. Just a couple last things. Have you been to Philly before?
D: Yes. I’ve been to Philly and I’m super excited to go to Philadelphia again. When I was doing my show in New York, I went to this youth hostel place outside of Philadelphia that was super nice. In Bucks County, I think? And was amazed that there was nature because I was living in New York, doing my show six nights a week, and hadn’t literally seen a duck in like, 3 months. So I have all these photographs of ducks and leaves. I felt like losing it on nature. But I’m super excited to play Philadelphia.

J: How do you think Philadelphia fits into The Real Americans?
D: Philadelphia, I know, is not as precious as San Francisco by any stretch of the imagination. Part of the motivation for me is that San Francisco, like I said, is this caricature of over-priced brunch menu items that you cannot even pronounce and activist causes that you don’t even understand. And I know that’s the extreme of urban, liberal, yuppie tranquilism. I think that still exists in Philadelphia, and I know that Philadelphia is much more within the mainstream of America than San Francisco is. I’m interested to see how it all plays. I hope that people still recognize this gulf within their own lives and I hope that people are excited to see their country in a new way.

J: So my last question is… You do a lot of journalism as well. And so you’re marrying journalism and theatre and that’s one avenue of using the arts to make a change, or to make a difference, or make some impact. What is our responsibility as artists, in your view, either in forwarding the form of theatre or putting things out there to affect other people? What is our responsibility?
D: To all come to my show (laughs). No. You know, sometimes I feel like I wish I could write a show that is just pure entertainment. I sometimes get frustrated. Like: “why do I have to make this character? Or why can’t I make it mindless, pure fun?” But I find that I’m kinda incapable of that. I think that theatre is a tough sell for a lot of young people, and yet, when I get young people to come to my shows, they really like it. And they’re like “wow. That was super cool.”

Our responsibility as artists, I think, is to… especially as theatre artists… We’re probably not going to make a lot of money. So I think we need to keep audiences on their toes and continue to make theatre that is exciting and entertaining enough that people really wanna come and really wanna buy tickets and really wanna spend an evening. But that when they leave the theatre, there’s something new that’s implanted inside them. Either in their thoughts or in their heart that sticks with them… for at least a week.

-Justin Jain

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