A Closer Look: Robert Askins and Clarence Coo
After spending many a Monday night together in The Lark's BareBones Studio, the 2016 Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop Fellows have gotten to know each other, fit in a few good work outs, and even done some writing along the way. Now, as the writers prepare their scripts and themselves for this year's Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop Reading Series, we asked them to reflect on the season by interviewing one another about their experiences in the group. Read on to hear what Robert Askins and Clarence Coo discussed!
CLARENCE COO: Much of your work is about the relationship of people to their own bodies. So few playwrights deal with this relationship even though what we watch as audience members are physical beings on a stage. I love how your characters are simultaneously doing crazy stuff with their bodies while speaking in their very distinct voices. When you start writing a scene do you envision the moving bodies first or hear the voices?
ROBERT ASKINS: I think it might start with an object? So often for me I think there is something that a character does that relates to both the idea of the play and the physical life on stage. The puppet in Hand To God and the technology in Prosthesis. There is this thing hidden in the "there-ness” of the object that informs theme. There is a thing hidden in the body that informs theme. How am I object? How do I relate to other objects? They are on me. They are in me. How do I unlock me with them? Often I feel like the thing is the play. Once the dangerous idea/thing has been introduced the world has to change. It confronts for me in the way that a “family secret" does not. Everything bends around the irreversible and the undeniable.
CC: So those voices! We have limitless coffee at the Workshop, but instead of drinking the caffeine to get me jolted up, I just listen to your pages. I’m curious about how you hear the world. Are there actual people in your life who speak with such urgency and volubility?
RA: Absolutely. I worked in restaurants for years. Everything in a restaurant is high stake. Butter can be a crisis. People speak to each other in commands and curses. The chef will threaten you with a knife if you have gotten the special wrong. I thrived in this environment, I think, because it matches the pitch of the voices in my head. And that might be due to the church. In the pocket of the Texas I was raised in, every decision, no matter how seemingly small, can save or damn. Every day is drama in which you are a hero whose sole job is to beat the devil. What could be more urgent than that?
CC: This morning I was getting a crown at my dentist and realized it was the first time in my life I was getting a fake body part (in this case, a tooth) implanted permanently inside me. It made me feel kind of sad, that I wasn’t all real anymore but at the same time had to tell myself, “It’s just a thing for chewing food. Get over your existential crisis. You’re still you.” I thought of your play Prothesis and wondered: did this play come about because you had a similar moment in your life in which you questioned the definition (or boundaries) of your “self?”
RA: The play comes from a couple different places. I was listening to a podcast about this man in the ‘70s who started wearing his computer because he was terrified of forgetting. He needed help with his trig homework and his father could not help him because he did not remember how. So when he went to MIT he strapped a machine to his chest and recorded everything. After graduation he went to a think tank and all the guys there followed suit. So there were like a dozen computer geeks walking around with this bulky plastic strapped to their chests. The first thing they did was try to link consciousness. I think this is cute. What happens when the cutters get a hold of it? What happens when rebellion looks not like The Rolling Stones but like a screen sewn into your chest? What happens when the doors are blown off of creative control of the shape of the body and young people can become whatever they want? How do you parent in this world? It ain't drugs anymore, Dad. It's surgery.
ROBERT ASKINS: I'm always fascinated by a writer's process. I noticed as you brought pages in that the scenes were not always in order. Do you write out of order? If so, how do the scenes occur to you and how do you knit them together?
CLARENCE COO: Whenever I start a new project, I try to let it figure out its own structuring principle. The last play was based on a random sequence of birds that one would see while birdwatching in New York. The play before that was based on the months of the calendar, but alternating between two different years. This current play, I have no idea, so I'm trying something with 3x5 cards that I can shuffle around. I've never used cards before. We'll see what happens.
RA: In the two plays we experienced [in the Workshop], complicated relationships with sexual dimensions were initiated or concluded in a park. What is it about parks and sex?
CC: I've never thought about that connection! Thanks for asking the question, because now I have to think about it! Maybe it's because I've been in Manhattan for so long and experience the world through a street grid. And the parks represent this other kind of space -- a disruption that lies outside the grid. I guess that's what sex is in my plays -- a disruption of the normal order. Maybe it's also like the forests in Shakespeare's comedies -- where you can escape and let wild things happen because you're hidden by the trees.
RA: Also in the plays the characters seem to be fixated on objects of study: John James Audubon's paintings, the Chinese language typewriter. What does it mean to be obsessed with something either in the future or in the past? Do you feel you are a writer of obsession?
CC: My obsessions change year by year. That's the fun part of writing -- you get to pursue your intellectual obsessions to their ends and see what comes of it in your scripts.