The creator of one of the year’s cleverest, funniest and most character-driven new plays (Vagabond Theater Group’s ode to the Comic Con, True Believers), Best New Work nominee Thom Dunn brings verbose witticism and the year’s quirkiest “headshot” to the Nominee Interview Series.
Read what he has to say about his real-life inspirations and what he did when he met Joss Whedon.
What is your favorite story?
Well that’s certainly a very broad question! My favorite book as a whole is probably the complete series of Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. But I think the agnostic in me (sorry Mom!) actually wants to say The Bible, because I think that, as a story (or at least as a collection of stories), it’s the basis for every story, and has undeniably shaped all of them. It’s such a part of our culture that those symbols are so ingrained in every story we tell, so it certainly seeps into all of my writing.
What drew you to playwriting?
I like the idea of collaboration, creating art with people, and I like the idea of seeing other people bring my stories to life, because they can sometimes find stuff that I never even realized I wrote, which is always exciting. I also think the live and personal aspects of theatre are exhilarating, and I like the human connection that can be made with the audience. Theatre is also limited, and most writers will probably agree that (some) limits make for better art.
Have you always been a writer? What genres and mediums?
I’ve always told stories. When you really break it down, I think that’s all I’ve ever done. I write fiction and short stories, I’ve had a few comic books published and I’m working on some more (and I’m not counting the ones I used to write & draw when I was 6). I’ve been writing songs since I was about 13, so that’s telling stories as well. And of course, I’ve written screenplays, because everyone’s written a screenplay.
Can you tell our readers about the plot and characters in True Believers?
True Believers is a dramatic comedy set over a weekend at a comic book convention. At one point I realized that I kind of accidentally made it a geeky retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, and maybe I should try to add that to the marketing material in the future. It’s an ensemble play, but the action mostly centers around Chad Mailer, a comic book writer who I like to think of as a douchebag with a heart of gold. He’s a constantly aspiring writer, and he’s really looking for his break. He had some minor success about 5 years ago with a book called Night Shift which he created with Kt Watts, only Chad never finished writing the book, leaving Kt to finish the script and artwork herself, and now 5 years later she’s a huge deal in the comics scene and he’s still a bum. Chad and Kt reconnect at the convention for the first time in 5 years, and chaos and hilarity ensue. Kt is a badass Feminist with a quick-witted sense of humor, as well as a great artist. There’s also Ted Thompson, who was the editor on Night Shift and is now a hotshot at DC Comics. Unfortunately, his wife left him not too long ago, and took his entire Star Wars collection with her in the divorce, which his left Ted particularly raw. He has a new girlfriend named Chloe, whom he met playing video games online. Chloe is flying to the city for the comic book convention to meet Ted in person for the first time, but of course, there are complications, and this sweet, naive girl from Kansas is stuck wandering around in nothing but a Slave Leia costume and a zip-up hoodie. Then there’s Billy, who’s basically an Internet troll. He’s a belligerent comic book fan who comes to conventions essentially just to heckle people and post it on YouTube, and this year, he’s really out to get Chad Mailer. He’s also a cyborg rights activist, because he has a pacemaker, which apparently qualifies him as a cyborg. Billy is accompanied by his friend Calvin, an aspiring comic book artist who walks around dressed up as his own original superhero Avenger (no “the”). Calvin and Billy have been friends for a long time, but Calvin is starting to get a little fed up with his friend’s constant negativity. And finally, there’s Box, a comic book creator and chaos magician who thinks he’s best friends with Chad, even though Chad views him as a rival. Box seems to lack some basic social skills and spends a lot of time hanging around in bathrooms, but there’s a reason for that that goes back to his affection for Chad.
How did you develop the idea?
I know a lot of people in theatre who are interested in comics, but I rarely meet comic book fans who are interested in theatre. So I was trying to think of a way to tell a story that would appeal to both comic book fans AND theatre people, something that could get them both in the audience and that both groups could relate to. I think I was first struck upon the basic maxiplot of the story when the idea of Comic-Con: The Musical popped into my head, but then I remembered that I absolutely hate the common theatre trend of Something Irreverent That We Normally Don’t Associate With Musicals: The Musical, so I scrapped that idea and just wrote it as a play. I’m also a big fan of video projection in theatre, and I wanted to integrate that into the story in a new way that would be interesting for both of my target audiences, so that’s how I thought of then scenes set in the MMORPG (originally, I only wanted Chloe to interact with her boyfriend through the video game because I wanted it to be a big mystery about who she was supposed to be meeting, but that didn’t work out dramatically). I workshopped the play over 2 weeks in the summer of 2011 at the Berkshire Fringe Festival, and later submitted it to Vagabond Theatre Group, who hosted a reading and talkback of the play in February 2012 and later produced the world premiere. Vagabond Artistic Director James [Peter Sotis] was absolutely invaluable in helping me craft the story I was trying to tell. High five for James!
Have you attended conventions? Do you have a story that you can share about an experience?
I usually attend New York Comic-Con every year, but I’ve only been to the crazyfest of San Diego Comic-Con once. I really like having the chance to hang out and drink some beers alongside comic book creators, and I always have a lot of friends at the conventions who I don’t otherwise see, so it’s cool to catch up and geek out (and drink some more). I’m less into the flashy trade show booths and the long autograph lines, and more into the panel discussions and Artist’s Alley stuff. It’s always exciting to be in the room when they first announce some big news (although more recently they’ve kind of been spoiling that by making the announcements about the announcement before they make the announcement at the convention, which is stupid).
A lot of moments in True Believers were inspired by actual experiences from cons, but one of my other favorite stories is when I may or may not have bumped into a fairly well-known DC Comics writer at a bar and spilled his drink. We were both pretty drunk, but I was ordering a drink at the bar when he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face him and basically tried to start a fight with me. I told him that I genuinely did not realize I had spilled anyone’s drink, and that if I did do it, I was very sorry, and I’d buy him another one. He seemed kind of disappointed that I didn’t want to get in a fist fight with him (I think he saw my Red Sox cap and assumed that I was some Boston hooligan and he was just drunk and looking for a fun pub brawl). We ended up hanging out and chatting for a good part of the evening, and he ultimately ended up paying my entire bar tab, which was cool.
Oh, and I also armwrestled Joss Whedon.
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
A lot of the play is based on experiences I’ve had, though not necessarily people I’ve “known.” There is a real cosplayer who insists he’s Avenger (no “the”), which is an “original creation” and decidedly NOT “made up” (except that guy is a total jerk, not at all like Calvin). I did meet a TV producer in San Diego who was recently divorced and after a few drinks started crying to me about how his ex-wife took his Han Solo In Carbonite Coffee Table. Kt Watts is certainly inspired in part by comics writer Gail Simone, and her roller derby name was actually on the reject list for a good friend of mine who plays derby. Box is heavily inspired by comics writer Grant Morrison, combined with a fascinating fan that I saw in San Diego. This kid stood up at a panel to ask a question about the end of a storyline which had its first issue released literally the day before, and he had a lot of difficulty understanding the answer he got to ‘Read the comics,’ and then talked himself into mass confusion in the middle of it. Me and a Marvel writer I know were talking about it at a bar that night, and the next day, when that writer was on a panel, the same kid got up and asked “What is the hardest thing of art?” which kind of baffled everyone. Later that day, I was in the bathroom when he came up to the urinal right next to mine (though there was space for him to leave a buffer!), dropped his pants all the way to the ground, and peed the way that little kids do. It was horrifying, but at least it gave me the idea for Box.
How do you think of the stories for your plays?
I have weird brain things. I don’t know. I read a lot, I think a lot, and sometimes I land on some idea or high concept that interests me or that I think might be cool to explore some more, and then I try to find an emotional hook into it with a character. Ish?
Talk to us about the process of staging a world premiere. What was the hardest part?
Making sure it didn’t suck? I went through a lot of development for the play ahead of time, but I was still making small script changes all through the process. And as much prep work as I did for that, there were still some things that looked good on paper but that we discovered really did not work as well as we had hoped once we had an actual audience in the room. Even rehearsal could be nervewracking — I trusted everyone in the room, but of course there ‘s only so much that you can do in a rehearsal room, so I was always getting nervous about things, especially pacing, as they were still learning their lines, etc. There were some scenes that I really never saw working the way I wanted them to until we were actually in performance.
Have you ever staged a world premiere before? Would you do anything differently now?
I’ve been involved in staging world premieres before, but not as a writer. I guess technically I’ve had one-acts that have had “world premieres,” but those are different. I’m sure as I go that I’ll learn to give over a little more control to the director and actors and not feel like I have to be in the room every single night, but it was really important for me to be closely involved this time out.
Tell us a little bit about your theatrical background. Why playwriting?
I like playwriting because the writer’s words are actually cherished, and because there’s nothing quite as powerful as the intimacy of a live performance. I think the limits of the medium are also one of its strengths as well, because it requires the artists and the audience to use their imagination. As for my background, I have a double degree in Theatre Studies and Writing, Literature, & Publishing from Emerson College, and during the day I work as the Web & New Media Manager at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. I’ve also done some directing, and lots of pit band music work for musicals. And like most people, I did do some acting once upon a time.
Do you have any themes or ideas that you continue to explore in your writing?
It’s not intentional, but I have noticed that I tend to be more interested in fringe groups and under-represented subcultures. As I mentioned The Bible above, I’m always interested in archetypes, and the fact that we continue telling the same stories over and over again in different ways,, and these larger symbols fit into so many other stories on a macro level. I’m interested in creative impulses, and how people create and cultivate an image of themselves. And finally, time and death tend to find their ways into my work because I’m weird like that.
What projects are you writing or working on now?
Too many? I’ve got a children’s book and a comic book that I’m collaborating on. I’ve been writing a lot more prose fiction in short story and novel form. I’ve got another play that I’ve been working on kind of intermittently between these things which is still pretty nerdy but much less comedic than True Believers.
If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?
Either Multiple Man, or Hawkeye. Multiple Man because he can do and be anything he wants, all at the same time, and Hawkeye, because he’s the man and doesn’t even need superpowers.
What draws people to conventions? Why does this location and atmosphere make for good storytelling?
People go for different reasons — I guess I go for networking, to meet and hear from creators I respect and admire, and to get the inside buzz on what’s going on in the industry. Some people go to show off the costumes that they work so hard on, and I’m sure there’s a certain feeling of empowerment that comes with the attention from that. I think it’s a good setting for a story because it’s already inherently theatrical with all the crazy costumes, and the presentational style of the panels. It’s also full of passionate people with dynamic personalities. I also think there’s kind of a class thing going on, between the super fans, the casual fans, the famous creators, the aspiring creators, etc.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
My biggest challenge as a writer is writing more gooder.
Is there anything you would like to tell or share with our readers?
Enjoy every sandwich.