Behind the scenes at Orlando Shakespeare Theater

More about The Exit Interview – A Brechtian Cocktail with William Missouri Downs

To view the original article on the NNPN website, visit A Brechtian Cocktail with William Missouri Downs by Danielle Ward.

by Danielle Ward
Literary Manager, San Diego REPertory Company

Note: The Exit Interview will receive its Rolling World Premiere in the 2012/13 season at Orlando Shakespeare TheaterRiverside TheatreActor’s Theatre of CharlotteInterAct Theatre CompanyThe Salt Lake Acting Company, and San Diego REP.

Let’s pretend for a moment that “The Exit Interview” is a man that I bumped into at a Brechtian cocktail party for theater geeks like me. I know Mr. Interview would be the witty wiz kid holding court in the corner. His jokes and stories would make us all laugh. But later, in the quiet of our own home, those laughs would lodge in the soft folds of the brain and quietly grow into thorny questions about fate, faith, and our own purpose in life.

Serving as one of the dramaturgs on this play felt like an adventure from “Alice in Wonderland.”  As I dug deep into the script’s psyche—peeling layer after layer away like a cosmic onion—and got to know more about its creator William Missouri Downs—I began to discover more about myself. I thought about what my role is here on earth and challenged my own beliefs on what happens after death.

I said to myself “I bet these are the sorts of sticky topics that Professor Downs puts up for discussion in his religious studies classes at the University of Wyoming.” I found myself feeling lucky that Downs merged his writing skills, his comedic timing, and his passion for the spelunking of human existence into an entertaining class we can all attend.

When Sam Woodhouse, Larry Alldredge, Dawn Moore, and I attended the National New Play Network’s showcase last November, the reading of “The Exit Interview” rocked the theater with laughter. Afterwards, we actually did meet William Missouri Downs at a party. It was clear to all of us, though we chatted with him for only five minutes, that Downs’ mind was a match for the REP’s devotion to intimate, exotic, and provocative theatre. And every interaction I’ve had with him since has offered another step on a surprising adventure.

Last spring Dawn Moore (co-dramaturg) and I asked Bill a gaggle of questions. So I now invite you—with drink in hand—to get a little taste of William Missouri Downs (WMD) and his intriguingly irreverent perspective on the play and the world it reflects.

What is your educational/experiential background in relationship to theater history, philosophy, psychology, religion, science, and the German language?

WMD: I spent ten years at university and earned three degrees including an MFA in acting (Illinois) and an MFA in screenwriting (UCLA). In my book The Art of Theatre, I wrote extensively about theatre history. I also teach classes on atheism, deism, and agnosticism in the Religious Studies Department. What I know about psychology comes from working every job in the world, from waiter, to professor, to janitor, to actor, to television writer, to mortician’s assistant. Plus, I’ve read philosophy all my life – Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Ayn Rand are a few of my favorites. As for my knowledge of German, that comes via Google translate.

Were you raised within a certain religious belief system?

WMD: I’ve spent my life attending churches, synagogues, shrines, temples, and basilicas. In just a few weeks I’m heading to India to study Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism.

So how would you characterize your relationship with God?

WMD: A few years ago, while driving on one of Wyoming’s winter highways, I slid on black ice at 75 MPH. The SUV somersaulted twice, coming to rest only a few feet away from a rocky cliff. The rollover was so violent that I had glass in my shoes and teeth, yet I walked away from the demolished vehicle unharmed. The next day a friend said to me, “You must be thanking god for saving you?” I answered, “No, because if I did I’d have to blame god for putting the black ice there in the first place.”

Which side do you fall on in science vs. religion?

WMD:  I think the most beautiful word in the English language is “Doubt.” Because every great thing that ever happened in human history happened because someone had the courage to doubt.

From the moment the audience enters the theater, they are confronted with a smorgasbord of different thoughts and ideas. Why did you choose to structure the play—even the pre-show—with such jarring elements?

WMD: This is a Brechtian Alienation device. Brecht thought that most theatre affects the audience on an unconscious level. The audience absorbs a play; they really don’t think about it. Brecht was trying to make the audience do more than just absorb. He wanted them to reflect and consciously consider. Brecht was saying “Wake up! Think! Reason! Apply the thoughts of the play to your life!”

Professor Downs, what was your inspiration for the Dick Fig, the Brechtian professor?

WMD: Dick is in search of the rarest of all commodities – an intellectual conversation. This comes from my life. My wife is from Alabama and whenever we are in Dixie most of our acquaintances spend hours talking about the weather (sans global warming), Alabama football (Auburn sucks), how their snap beans are doing, and which new flavor Blue Bell Ice Cream is introducing next. This is followed by more talk about what the weather will be like during the football game, which would all be okay if at some point they talked about something, anything significant, original, or moderately thoughtful. We are all going to die and be forgotten. Perhaps we should give that a little more thought between our shouts of “Roll Tide!”

So then, what would be your favorite topics for dinner conversation?

WMD: Politics, Religion, Economics, Philosophy, Playwriting, Art, Current Events, and how cute my dog is – he’s my little fur-baby and a real doll.

What would you like your epitaph to say?

WMD: “He took the time to read Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Will and Arial Durant.”

What themes are you playing with in “The Exit Interview”?

WMD: Theme is overvalued. I want the audience to think. I present them with thoughts that might add up to theme, but it was not my overriding intention.  Ultimately, I want the audience to realize that illusions do not help us with reality.

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