A Closer Look: Dominic Finocchiaro
SARAH SALTWICK: What was the kernel for this play? Was there a moment in its early stages when you felt it take shape and become this particular play, with these individuals? Or has it been a process of winnowing down ideas to get to this stage?
DOMINIC FINOCCHIARO: There were a lot of kernels for the play. I had read about the first professional cuddler in Portland and was immediately inspired. I'm fascinated by strange sub-cultures and people whose interests or careers are off the beaten path, and the fact that it was a phenomenon based in Portland (where I went to school and where my parents live) made it all the more exciting to me. Professional cuddling is also so much about intimacy and connection, both the need for them and the intense difficulty in achieving them in our modern age, which are big themes for me, so that made me even more intrigued. The dog plot was actually inspired by an anecdote from a professor of mine at Columbia about finding a lost cat, and as for the ribbon dancing, I heard "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" at a coffee shop one day, and I just thought, "I would really enjoy seeing a man do a ribbon dance to this onstage in his underwear."
SS: There's a specific tone and rhythm to the play, one that I experienced as this great mix of heartache, hope, and irreverence. What are some of the ways you try to communicate tone on the page to your readers and collaborators?
DF: I rely a lot on line breaks in my plays. I started writing plays that way about four or so years ago, and now there's no other way I can write. I think of my plays as a certain form of musical score, and so if you follow the musical "notes" that I give you, then the tone, pace, and rhythm that I am going for will naturally come through. I try to write in a way that, if an actor follows the rules of the line breaks, it will take them where they need to go emotionally. So much of my character's speech patterns are half-thoughts, stutter-steps, rephrasings, clarifications, misspeaks, to such an extent that phrasing and pace are kind of as integral to the meaning of the words as the words themselves. I don't care what an actor is thinking at any given moment as long as they are on the heartbeat of the text.
SS: You also give space for silence and for communication beyond text. In my own writing, I've found these kinds of moments can be challenging to understand just on the page. How do you build the theatrical world of the play, particularly silence and movement, when you're writing?
DF: I'm not a fan of using "beat" or "silence" or "pause" in my work. It just doesn't fit the aesthetic that I like on the page, and it doesn't convey to me what I'm going for. I prefer using ellipses because I think they maintain a continuity of energy that is key for the way I construct scenes. Most of my scenes are two-person scenes, and so I envision them as back-and-forth exchanges of energy, like a tennis match. The silences, then, are not places where the ball is dropped (which is what "pause" or "silence" seems to infer to me), but are instead merely a shift in communication from verbal to non-verbal. The energy flow is maintained throughout. I also like that there is a freedom to an actor in the ellipses that is also highly structured. I don't know how long an ellipses is, and I am willing to let the actors decide that themselves, but, once they come to a decision, that decision is constant. I don't know how long a four-ellipses exchange in my play is, but I know that it is twice as long as a two-ellipse exchange. How pretentious!
SS: It is a great relief to me that in a play called The Found Dog Ribbon Dance we get both a found dog and a ribbon dance. A title like that really sets expectations for an audience. How does an audience and their expectations inform, or not inform, your process?
DF: That's tricky. I don't think audience expectation can guide your process, but at the same time I think, as a student of theater (which all playwrights really are at heart), you must be aware of what an audience expects, and then make your writing decisions in relation to that knowledge. When I mentor writing students, I always say that the two most important questions to me in my writing are "What am I doing?" and "Why am I doing it?", and so I think the choice to either fulfill or stymy an audience's expectation has to be conscious and intentional. So I intentionally give you both a found dog and a ribbon dance on page one, but hopefully by fulfilling that expectation at the very top, I can trick an audience into relaxing and then later go against their expectations in a way that is more surprising and feels earned. I've had collaborators that have questioned the efficacy of the title of the play and also of the opening dance, worrying that it's too wacky or quirky, when the play is actually darker than the title suggests, but I like that it's a whimsical, wacky title. That way, when it gets dark, you actually feel it in a way that you aren't fully prepared for, and that hopefully makes it linger in a different part of your body.
SS: Lastly, I have a personal love of animal characters and am interested in anything you want to share about the Dog. Could you imagine it played by a real dog? One that was perfectly trained? I have to admit, I can't, but I can't quite put my finger on why.
DF: Dog can't be played by an actual dog, as much as I would enjoy being in rehearsals with one. So much of the scenes with dog are about a specific type of communication, about unveiling yourself to something and being literally unable to receive that same unveiling back. For me, having Norma speak to another human being (that is also dog) that can look at her and connect with her, but who is unable to verbalize and speak, makes those scenes mean more and resonate more than if Norma was talking to an actual dog, or to an empty space where dog was supposed to be. I think it also helps with the energy of the scenes. There is an energy exchange, even if dog cannot speak, and I think that energy exchange is different if it is human-to-human rather than if it is human-to-dog. Also, I think the dog is the place where the theatrical nature of the play is most potently contained, where we acknowledge and push against the reality of the world we're seeing. A real dog would make the play too naturalistic. With a human being, we're never inoculated to what we are seeing. We are always aware that it is a person, we can't not be, and that makes us view the exchanges in an entirely different manner. Save the dog for the movie.