Conversations

Nathan Alan Davis and Abe Koogler on Finding One’s Voice

Nathan Alan Davis, Abe Koogler

Nathan alan davis writes plays defined by sensitivity, musicality, and formal ambition. Whether his characters are historical figures, like the protagonist of Nat Turner in Jerusalem, or fictional composites, like Sam the hip-hop emcee in The Wind and the Breeze, Davis gives each an ethical quest, an intricate psyche, and a lyrical, indelible voice. His productions often explore the experiences of Black Americans living in the shadow of chattel slavery and pose deep questions about family, myth, and faith. But the answers to these questions are rarely made obvious; Davis’s plays are too rigorous and morally complex to offer easy solace or neat narrative closure.

Davis holds an MFA in playwriting from Indiana University and an Artist Diploma from Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program, where he first met the playwright Abe Koogler. Like Davis’s, Koogler’s characters are earnest, idiosyncratic, and suspicious of hierarchy. Often bitingly funny, Koogler’s plays—including Kill Floor and Fulfillment Center, about workers at a slaughterhouse and an Amazon-style shipping center, respectively—reveal larger truths about the economic and racial systems under which we all live.

The two playwrights spoke on the phone in late September, Davis from Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives and serves as a Lecturer in Theater and a Berlind Playwright-in-Residence at Princeton University, and Koogler from Sheffield, Massachusetts. (He teaches at Primary Stages in New York City and recently served as Visiting Professor of Playwriting at Bennington College.) They discussed the value of conviction, the ethics of writing racially diverse characters, and the theater’s uncertain future. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

—the editors


abe koogler One of the things I love about your work is the cultivation of a kind of dream state. In every play, something luminous and strange hovers just beyond the horizon of the playing space, whether we’re talking about the ghost in The Refuge Plays or the snowflakes contemplating the meaning of life in Eternal Life, Part 1 or Nat Turner looking for God out the window of his cell. There’s a consistent depth to the kinds of questions you pose, even though their subject matter is wildly different. Do you see all your plays as part of the same project?

nathan alan davis You and I studied together at Juilliard under the playwright Marsha Norman. She used to talk about “Stuff,” with a capital S. She told us, “I’m a really great writer when I’m writing about my Stuff: women who are trapped. But I’m a mediocre writer when I’m writing about anything else.” I remember her saying, “You’ve got to find your Stuff, and whatever your Stuff is, that’s what you have to write about.”

She said it with such certainty that it was impossible to ignore. On the one hand, it made a lot of sense. But there was also part of me that wanted to rebel against that: “Don’t put me in a box, Marsha Norman! I’m more than whatever Stuff you think I have!” I don’t ever want to think, “Oh well, this is what I have to offer, and that’s it.” In fact, I feel that playwriting can launch us beyond what we already know, toward something other, something new. I’m wary of being reductive about myself.

Then again, I also remember another influential teacher and mentor of mine, Ken Weitzman, who used to run the MFA in Playwriting at Indiana University Bloomington, encouraging me toward the idea of “leaving blood on the page.” When I proposed writing a mythic play dealing with the transatlantic slave trade, he seemed certain that I was on to something. The play (which later became Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea) was about a young Black man who wants to recover a lost ancestor who died in the Middle Passage. It was the first proposal of mine that made Ken’s eyes light up. So I wrote the play. And honestly, that play broke open a lot for me. I was dealing with stuff that I cared about deeply, with conflicts I couldn’t reconcile. It’s not that I think slavery is my Stuff. But dealing with oppression, with legacy, with how you try to recover what’s lost when you can’t—those things resonate.

Maybe what I’m saying is: I can feel the Stuff sometimes, even if I can’t articulate it. The idea of Stuff is more about, to me, the part of the play that you feel in your bones or your heart or your guts.

How do you expect people to live when you’re not paying them for their time but you’re using their art?

ak I relate to that. I do think I have Stuff, but I hope that my Stuff is something deeper and harder to quantify than “working-class people confronting structural inequity.” Because my first two New York premieres, Kill Floor and Fulfillment Center, both had such a clear hook, my Stuff was actually really misunderstood for a while, so much so that I started to misunderstand it myself. Everyone, including me, thought I wrote realistic plays about economic class.

And I did feel very animated for a long time by writing about people with shitty jobs, and bringing to life the tough conditions that capitalism often forces people into. But those plays were also written during a specific period in my life. By the time they were produced, I was already in a new place. Twenty years from now, I’d hate to be writing the same play but just set at a Walmart instead of an Amazon shipping center.

All along, I have also written other plays that have nothing to do with those subjects: plays that are much wilder and stranger, even if they also share a similar interest in people coming up against powerful systems. Maybe a playwright’s Stuff is actually about a style or rhythm or linguistic approach, more than a specific type of content. I know when I’ve tapped into my Stuff because I feel like I’m playing a piece of music; I can sense the rhythm and the melody and the pauses completely organically.

nad I agree, and I want to create an atmosphere, when I teach, in which students can find their Stuff for themselves. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great teachers in my life, and teaching is very important to me, but I’m not sure if I know any better how to teach playwriting now than I did ten years ago.

I think students often are looking for rules and guidelines, and of course I try to provide those—but they also need much more than a set of principles. They want inspiration. They want to be given a vision to live up to. They want their intellectual and creative horizons expanded. I’ve come to believe that teaching is about the exchange of ideas and anecdotes and especially energy from one person to another.

When you’re teaching, do you think about trying to guide students to connect with what matters most to them? Or do you focus more on craft, on helping them shape the expression itself?

ak I try to get out of the way as much as possible and just set the ground rules so students can write whatever might emerge from them organically. I try to help them get rid of the fears and blocks that keep them from producing their Stuff. Even totally inexperienced writers have an intrinsic style: ideas and rhythms that are alive in them.

Maybe I’m less comfortable than I should be wielding power and claiming authority as a teacher. In my teaching now, I’m trying to allow myself to make definitive statements that students can then rebel against if they choose, rather than constantly qualifying every claim. I do think it can be helpful to have a teacher tell you something definitively, even if you disagree with it.

The act of teaching for me always involves moving through the initial imposter syndrome and then realizing that my experiences have given me some useful knowledge to share. When I was getting my MFA in playwriting at the University of Texas at Austin, my professor Steven Dietz in particular was capable of making bold statements about the nature of art and our missions as artists and writers—statements that were almost too extreme. But because he totally believed these statements, everyone else began to say direct, clear, bold things about what we were all up to as artists—things that a non-artist would probably find irritating, but that I found to be useful. At some point you have to admit that you’re trying to do something big, that you’re not just fucking around. Steven’s conviction made him a wonderful professor, and I’d like to step into that conviction more fully as I continue to teach. But you can also become ridiculous doing that, so you have to have someone checking you.

nad I always feel strange about making public comments, which may be odd for a playwright because a play is a big public comment. But when it’s just me trying to explain my work or my process or my philosophies about theater, I always feel I’m going to get it partially wrong, and then it will be etched in the sands of time and live forever as a record of a statement I’m not fully comfortable with. I’m sure a lot of writers feel this way.

Writing plays makes me very introspective, and makes me doubt myself as much as anything. As I write, I question more and more what I think about a given situation or subject; I need to embrace the fullness of my ambivalence about things. I’m even ambivalent about saying that! There’s value, as you say, in expressing certainty publicly. And it’s not that I don’t have strong feelings about various things; sometimes I’ll even give a lecture or a speech and look back and think, “That sounded pretty good; I feel good about that.” But at the same time, I’m haunted by the possibility of getting something wrong.

ak Do you think this quality is characteristic of playwrights? A lot of playwrights I know are ambivalent when it comes to making statements about their own work or even about theater more generally. I notice this hesitation in myself, too, and I actually like it in other playwrights, especially when their plays are crystal clear and sharp. But it does seem as though many of us try to avoid statements of certainty when we speak. Maybe that’s why we like allowing our characters to embody different points of view—so that the play can contain our own uncertainty, or help us work something out.

I was dealing with stuff that I cared about deeply, with conflicts I couldn’t reconcile.

nad Yes. I might even go so far as to say that the form of a play doesn’t allow us just to say, “Hey, I see this thing.” Or, “Hey, think about this.” It’s inherently more insistent than that. It’s more like, “Hey, this piece of theater I’ve written represents us.” But different people also have different personalities and approaches to how to arrive at this representation. I’m thinking of Tony Kushner’s essay on political theater in which he talks about how theater is inherently political, and he doesn’t see the value in trying to pretend otherwise. He makes the point that “preaching to the choir” is not necessarily a bad thing. That there’s value in this; the point of preaching to the choir isn’t to get them learn something new, it’s to galvanize them. Needless to say, I don’t think a passionately held belief and the ability to inhabit multiple perspectives are mutually exclusive. I imagine that whatever gets you most inspired and excited as a writer is going to lead to your best and most authentic work.

I wouldn’t use the word political to describe my own work, only because that word tends to carry connotations that limit it to partisan politics, to taking pre-selected stances on sets of issues. I don’t want to write a play to speak on behalf of a position that has already been articulated and defined. What I’m trying to get at as a writer is perhaps altering our perspective of the social landscape itself, to the extent that I can. I’m tired of seeing history repeat itself. I’m asking, “How can I open up a pocket of understanding that will allow something new to happen?” I don’t know if a paradigm based on contention can create that possibility.

ak I like that idea, that instead of the work being overtly “political,” it’s an act of opening up some new possibility that can shift political realities. We’ve talked in the past about feeling a little frustrated or bored by plays that are about something politically worthwhile but also seem confined to the four walls of the stage—plays that don’t have something unsayable and alive inside them. The political sentiments are often sayable. “There should be justice.” “People shouldn’t work for shit wages.” “People should be treated equally regardless of skin color.” Most audience members are probably going to be on board with those ideas, at least in theory if not in practice. Presenting those ideas in a new way can definitely be valuable if, as Tony Kushner says, it galvanizes people into action. But it feels important to me that the play also contain something that cannot be put into words, like the edge of something mysterious and unknown. (Which Kushner’s work, of course, does!)

nad I often find myself thinking, “If I knew exactly what message I wanted to get across, and I knew exactly how it needed to be said, I would just say it, not write a play.” Why would I write a whole play in order to say it? That’s a very hard, roundabout way of saying something. What’s the value of creating an entire theatrical world and putting these characters into motion and doing all these things? What’s the value of saying something that way that you can’t get from saying it directly? Whatever you want to call those forces that are partially responsible for art and beauty existing in the world—the creative spark, or spirit—I do believe to a certain extent that those forces are subconscious and beyond us.

I get blocked if I’m thinking, “I’ve got to get this point across.” There’s suddenly a limit, a cap, to how far the play can go. But when you write a play, do you have an idea in your mind? Do you think, “I want to write about this subject?”

ak For a long time I thought I could have a good idea and write a play about that idea. When I was in graduate school, I learned about this tradition of female basket weaving in medieval Europe. I remember that these women would gather after dark to weave baskets together, and that they used these gatherings to exchange information and make plans. Their power became threatening to the male power structure in many towns. The image of these women weaving by candlelight seemed very theatrical, and I applied for grants to write a play about it, and I got the grants. And then I couldn’t write a single word of the play because I had zero authentic connection to the idea.

Maybe I need to be holding two sides of a point of view so that the play is an act of reconciling them. And maybe the subject matter also has to be connected to some other impulse, like a piece of music that carries some emotional weight that won’t leave my head. When I was writing Fulfillment Center, I became obsessed with the song “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell, a song that carried for me a sense of intense loss and longing. Joni Mitchell is singing about Woodstock, a festival that she didn’t even attend. She had to watch it on TV from a hotel room in New York because her manager convinced her it would be better to go on the Dick Cavett Show. Listening to the song, I felt a great sadness for that generation of activists and folksingers and idealists. Sure, we can make fun of certain qualities of those people now, but the idea of them dying and being gone forever, and their vision of the world being gone—that felt like a real loss to me. So I created a character who represented that feeling and put her inside an Amazon-style shipping center, which felt like a setting that embodies many of the possibilities and cruelties of modern life. Suddenly I felt I had the beginnings of a play.

I feel like a dead body with a heightened sense of panic. It’s been hard to write.

nad Even though I didn’t know that particular origin story of the play, I immediately recognized when I watched Fulfillment Center that that character, Suzan, represented all those things. You can feel it as an audience member when a character stands for so much. On the subject of character formation, I’ve had some students express hesitation recently about writing certain kinds of characters, especially in the wake of what’s being called a racial reckoning. (I’m not arguing that it’s not a racial reckoning, but I guess I wonder when we haven’t been in one.) White students of mine sometimes say things like, “Well, I could never understand a Black character.” I think they’re doing it from a deeply conscientious and well-meaning place of not wanting to overstep their bounds. They don’t want to assume anything, or to push their idea of a Black person on a Black character, for example, or a character from another marginalized group.

I think it’s a good thing to have that level of consciousness and intention behind what you’re making. But I also think it’s problematic to say that you could never understand another person because they’re not the same race as you. This represents some of my feelings of ambivalence more broadly around the way we talk about race now. We know that the racism we’re seeing and living through is not acceptable, so we make and repeat ad nauseam statements that seem to be opposed to the status quo. But it’s dangerous to limit our imaginations to only what we feel we have permission to imagine. There must be a way to do both of the things you want to do: respect the full humanity of others and reach beyond your own horizons.

Do you feel as a white playwright that your arena of possibility has narrowed, based on current public discourse? Do you feel more limited in terms of what you can write about, or who might be interested in your work, or how you should express your thoughts in public?

ak I feel more cautious, certainly. I am more conscious of the ways that I can cause either offense or harm through a character I create or through something I say. That makes me want to be more intentional about every part of the play, which I think in many ways is a good thing. I felt a lot of freedom early on in my career—which probably is connected to being white, that feeling of freedom—to write characters of color and place them at the center of my plays, which I did in both Kill Floor and Fulfillment Center. And I definitely made some mistakes, and there are things I wouldn’t write the same way now. But I also love those characters. I feel close to them, and I’m deeply glad they exist.

But the actors playing those characters had to do all their rehearsals in a room that didn’t have a lot of other people of color in it—a fact I now wish I had been much more intentional about. I’m looking forward, hopefully not in a fear-based way but in a joyful way, to creating different rehearsal processes for my plays, and to being more conscious about the ways I write characters of color. I agree with you that there’s a real danger in assuming that I can’t bring a character of a different race to life onstage. I think that’s a very bad outcome for writers, to adopt that belief. We have to attempt those empathetic leaps as writers; otherwise, what are we doing? But speaking as a white writer, I do think more caution is necessary now, and deeper thought and intention. At the same time, that caution can turn into fear, which stops you from making the attempt in the first place. I’m trying to figure out how to proceed.

nad That makes a lot of sense. These ways of talking about race and identity tend to put the difference at the center, and suggest, “Well, this is what you inherently are.” I never fully subscribed to the belief that you inherently are your race, your sexuality, your gender—that those identities are at the core of who you are. They may be indelible, but that, in my mind, is much different from essential. It’s critical that the way we talk about these things allows the space for us to truly know each other.

I grew up in a mixed-race family. I lived in a Black neighborhood, went to a mostly white school, and had a wide array of social groups. I had my Black family in Chicago and my white family downstate. That was normal; that was my life. I did recognize to a certain extent that that wasn’t everybody’s experience. It could also be part of the reason I have difficulty reconciling a lot of conversations on race: I never saw race as being necessarily totally dividing, because that wasn’t my experience.

Still, in moving through the wider world, I had to begin asking myself, “Which side of this line do I need to stand on? How do I position myself in this conversation? And where?” These are questions that I’m continuing to ask, implicitly at least, in some of my writing.

ak The rough material from which you draw as an adult artist is often your childhood: the landscape you remember deep in your bones. I also think you end up being most fluent in the problems that are presented to you as problematic in your childhood. It’s interesting to me to hear you say that moving somewhat fluidly between different racial groups made race feel to you like less of a dividing line than maybe it seems to you as an adult.

I felt very aware of class difference as a child and a young person. It was something I thought about constantly. My family talked about it constantly. But racial difference just wasn’t something that entered our lives in a very direct way. It was a left-wing environment, and people expressed racially progressive beliefs. But the little island in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up was almost totally white. And so my deep subconscious landscape is pretty racially homogenous in that sense.

Economic difference felt so much more immediate to me; it felt like something that needed to be struggled against and understood, something I knew I had to define my relationship to. It’s only as an adult that I have come to understand—in ways that now sound shamefully obvious—that race is something I also needed to define my relationship to. Not just as a piece of history but as something that requires action from me in the present.

nad We all probably have the tendency to think of our lives as normal, and to think of everything else in relation to that. I’m thinking about Athol Fugard, the famous white South African playwright, who wrote powerful and heartbreaking plays about apartheid, including Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and “Master Harold”…and the boys. They’re so good. My father acted in some of those plays at New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois, where I grew up. I was too young at the time to see the productions, but I know some of the most fulfilling moments of his life were connected to his performances in those Fugard plays. I was talking to my dad recently about who has the right to write whose stories. And he said, “Remember, Fugard wasn’t just randomly writing those stories. He was writing about things he experienced.” He was writing about his own family, for example. He also closely collaborated with Black actors as part of his writing process.

Athol Fugard feels a certain way about race, and he feels it deeply. He’s writing about what he sees and hears. Whatever hesitation he might have had about writing those stories, he pushed through it. Or maybe he didn’t really have any hesitation because of the time and place in which he was working. But to my mind his firsthand experience of the situation elevates him from a person just trying to paternalistically say a good thing to a person endeavoring to reflect what is unequivocally true about a given place. In today’s terms, it would almost seem impossible for a white writer to do that.

There’s definitely more than one way to look at it. On the one hand, it’s awesome that we have these plays. On the other hand, to what extent is Fugard celebrated where Black South African playwrights aren’t in terms of mainstream or global recognition? There are a lot of different questions to be asked, but you can’t argue, I don’t think, with the power of the plays themselves. And I would never say that he shouldn’t have written them, because they do have a specific, undeniably truthful heartbeat.

ak Absolutely. As a white writer, I have the urge to ask myself, “Am I a good guy in this fight? What are the actions that I’ve taken that have helped create the world that I want to see? What are the actions I have not taken, or the actions I have taken that go against the world that I want to see?” Those questions can lead to action that is helpful and productive, but they can also lead to action that is fear-based and cosmetic. Both those impulses live in a lot of white people and white-run institutions. I also don’t think they’re mutually exclusive impulses. People and institutions can implement short-term, somewhat meaningless cosmetic change to preserve their social standing and essentially virtue-signal while at the same time undertaking much deeper internal and organizational change that may not show up in immediate ways. I do think both things are possible. I’m curious about what happens when the fear and shame dissipate and what’s left is the genuine desire to help create justice. I hope that’s what remains.

nad I’m thinking about the way that both Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin framed the racial problem in America. They both repeatedly brought up the idea that as much as racial oppression was dehumanizing to Black people, it was even more so to white people, in the sense that they had to convince themselves that what they were doing was okay—a self-justification that resulted in a disfiguration of their humanity.

I hear a lot of impatience in our current public discourse that more change hasn’t happened. There’s a sense that if change hasn’t come yet, we can’t keep waiting for it. We’re asking people to show their cards, to virtue-signal, as you say, but also to go beyond that: to show material evidence that they’re taking concrete actions to back up their words. But in order to restore our collective humanity in the face of these injustices that we’ve never fully addressed and have never yet been able to stop, I feel that we need to find a way to connect with the part of ourselves that sees justice. And I don’t think that instilling the fear of public castigation necessarily brings us closer to the fundamental change that’s needed. It’s the human heart that has to transform.

I definitely think that art can be a part of that transformation, but it’s not going to do it by itself. It’s very tempting to think that there’s a panacea; we’re always looking for the magic key that’s going to solve the problem. But I believe human beings, and our relationships to one another, are the key. As far as it concerns the theater industry, we’re definitely at a point of reconsidering our relationships, especially in the context of producing organizations and institutions.

When I started getting my plays produced, and getting commissioned, and getting opportunities that I had always dreamed of, I had this weird experience of feeling simultaneously excited and really disillusioned by the theater. A lot of it, frankly, had to do with money. I realized I was often being asked to subsidize my work myself, even though I was working with large, wealthy institutions. I felt conflicted, recognizing how little money the actors and directors and designers were receiving, and how little money I was receiving, and the ever-increasing strain that was having on my life. How do you see the theater landscape now, in the wake of the pandemic, in particular?

Whose productions were canceled and never rescheduled? How should I reenter?

ak For a young playwright, the opportunity seems like enough. You’ve found a way to scrape together a living in whatever city you’re in, and then all of a sudden you’re offered a production. If it’s a small off-Broadway house, maybe you’re making $7,500 or $10,000 for the production, which seems like a ton of money, based on what you were previously earning from playwriting. Then you walk into the institution, and you’re warmly welcomed, and everyone is incredibly kind, and in every room you enter everyone who works at the theater—with the exception of the director and the actors—has healthcare, is probably saving for retirement, and is making at least two times what you make annually from all your combined jobs (and sometimes ten or twenty times as much, if we’re talking about top salaries in some of these theaters). You’re not really paid for your time as a playwright, between workshops and production.

I don’t want to carp about the pay, but how do you expect people to live when you’re not paying them for their time but you’re using their artistic products as the whole ostensible reason for your theater? Institutions that exist for long periods of time tend to become calcified, too hierarchical, and largely oriented around sustaining themselves. They tend to operate more and more from a position of fear of loss. Maybe we need some kind of designated shelf life or expiration date for some of our large-stature institutions, after which they would consider entirely changing their structure, or else say, “We’ve had a great run. We’ve reached the limit of our knowledge, our ability to contribute, and we’re going to stop.” I don’t know that that’s a reasonable goal, but it might solve some of the broadly considered problems we’re looking at right now.

In terms of writing after the pandemic, I’m trying to shake off the flatness of the past year and a half. I feel like a dead body with a heightened sense of panic. It’s been hard to write. I’m trying to come out of it somehow now.

When you have a play being produced, a community forms itself around you. The theater reaches out to you. You have your actors and director. You have something to say to people at parties. You have a feeling that you are valuable and that people are excited about something you’re doing. That can feel like enough for the duration of that experience.

I’ve had that happen where I’ve lost track of other friends, where my life was so full because I was held by an upcoming play. Then the play ends, and all that goes away. It is incredibly temporary. Spending multiple years writing the next play can feel a little terrifying because a lot of the time I don’t have the structure around me to remind me that what I’m doing is valuable and that there will be community again.

nad I’ve never heard it put that way, but that’s so true. I’ve gone through that a couple of times in professional circumstances where the stakes feel really high and everyone’s pushing so hard for the play, even though you all know it’s going to end. And when it does end, it’s like, “Oh.” You feel empty. Then, starting a new one, you feel like, “Well, this is going to end, too.”

It’s hard to feel the same enthusiasm for the new thing when you’ve experienced the ups and downs of the previous project. It is for me, anyway. I still do have the experience of excitement when the actors are reading a new thing, and I will always want that. That sense of community is probably one of the reasons why I need to write plays. But with the pandemic, we can’t gather. We don’t know if it’s safe or how to do it. All the negotiations of social space are so complicated that it dulls my enthusiasm for entering into that space again.

How’s it going to feel? How’s it going to look? An enthusiastic and celebratory, “We’re back!” doesn’t really feel like the right tone. What has been the collateral damage of this event in the theater? Who has been laid off? Whose productions were canceled and never rescheduled? How should I reenter? At the same time, psychically, spiritually, I also have the sensation that I never left. That return has always been inevitable, even as I wonder how it’s possible.

Nathan Alan Davis is a playwright whose works include The High Ground (Arena Stage), Nat Turner in Jerusalem (NYTW), Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea (Skylight Theatre), and The Wind and the Breeze (Cygnet Theatre). He is a lecturer in Theater at Princeton University.
Abe Koogler is an Obie Award–winning playwright from Washington State. His plays include Fulfillment Center (MTC), Kill Floor (Lincoln Center), Blue Skies Process (Goodman Theatre’s New Stages), and Lisa, My Friend (Kitchen Dog). He also works as a political speechwriter.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021

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