CATF: About storytelling in Chester Bailey you said, “I believe part of what makes us who we are is a mixture of what we remember and what we imagine.”
Joseph Dougherty: Storytelling is vital and finding our narrative is vital. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell observed how evolution gave humans a short gestation period which, in turn, gives us a longer childhood. We have to learn a lot about who we are, where we’re going, and what things mean. Childhood is the time when the imagination is looking for what to latch on to, and what it latches on to are stories or facets of narrative that we experience.
What stories did your imagination latch on to when you were a kid?
I would not have a career if I hadn’t had parents who let me indulge in Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone”. There are 160+ episodes, but the greatest one I remember is one of the hour ones called, “On Thursday We Leave For Home.” It’s about a colony that takes off and lands on a planet that was supposed to be their new home, but it didn’t work out at all. So, for 30 years, they keep trying to get off. To hold the community together, the leader of the group, played by James Whitmore, tells stories about what the earth was like. Then one day, the rescue ship shows up, and he has no function.
The real impact of “Twilight Zone” on me was cumulative – the point of view, the language, the morality. The most important lesson I learned from the show was that there is such a thing as a writer. When Rod Serling introduced each episode, he also introduced the concept of storyteller as a career. There he was, an adult in a grown-up suit, inviting us to sit by the campfire. Writing was a thing you could do for a living. And if you did it well, with generosity, craft and appropriate pride, what you wrote might endure.
The structure of this play is two woven-together monologues by the doctor and his patient that address recollected moments as well as the present time.
It’s a structure that a lot of people found very challenging when it was just a thing on paper. Ron Lagomarsino (director of CATF’s production of Chester Bailey) immediately saw the potential for it and took it to the American Conservatory Theater (ACT).
Chester Bailey looks the way it does because I started writing it at a time when I was able to write without worrying about my end result. I could simply write and see what I came up with. The only real conscious decision on my part, having written a lot of television over the past few years, was I wanted to make sure there were no restrictions on the language. I wanted to go for a more compact language. I wanted to stimulate the imagination. I, selfishly or altruistically, wanted to specifically know some people would be leaving the theater with images that would stay with them.
Is that what brought you back to live theater after so much success in television and film?
Chester Bailey was like a gateway drug for me to come back to theater. What’s happened since then is that I’ve gotten access to a kind of writing and storytelling I either did not have access to earlier or had not quite developed.
The best writing a writer does is writing for which he feels the least responsibility for. I always go back to the last paragraph in A Whole New Life: An Illness and A Healing, the cancer memoir by Reynolds Price [Dougherty reads aloud the following]:
I’ve long since weaned myself from all drugs but a small dose of antidepressant, an aspirin to thin my blood, an occasional scotch or a good red wine, and a simple acid to brace my bladder against infection. I write six days a week, long days that often run till bedtime; and the books are different from what came before in more ways than age. I sleep long nights with few hard dreams, and now I’ve outlived both my parents. Even my handwriting looks very little like the script of the man I was in June of ’84. Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, with more air and stride. It comes down the arm of a grateful man.
When you are really flying and really writing, you are not writing so much as the pen is there to catch it.
This is the second production of this play. Ed Herendeen has said that, “second productions are sometimes harder to get than first.”
I would say that they are always harder to get than the first, and I don’t quite know why, which is why I’m really happy to have this production.
This production will benefit from everything we learned at ACT. One of the things we learned is that audiences are more trusting and smarter than we thought. Because the structure is a little odd, we were concerned that people understand these two characters, so there’s a lot of information that you get before they actually meet each other. How will audiences take this information in? Will they become impatient? It never came up with the audience.
Why set the play in 1945?
In one sense, ruthlessly, period plays don’t date so it will remain relevant because it is not dependent upon contemporary references or language. In another sense, I wanted to set it in a time when there were less technological solutions to the medical issue, i.e. no computer information. I wanted to remove all the medical technology over the last several decades so people think it would really have been better if Chester had died.
All information is person-to-person which allows two people to be in the building not communicating with each other.
I also wanted a clear time of right and wrong in morality and expectations. That might sound a little facetious, because all times are complicated.
Last, I wanted to take away this cocoon of communication that we have right now – cell phones, wireless contact. So much of the play is about face-to-face communication, I wanted audiences to be able to concentrate on a language they might not hear on the street or read online.
Setting the play in 1945 turns down the noise and allows the audience to sit and have an intimate experience with two characters, to lean in and hear the story. We’re all creatures telling stories by the fire.
You’ve said, “We’re storytelling creatures. It’s the only thing we have over every other animal on the face of the planet. . . . sometimes we base our narrative on fiction without realizing it.” Does this explain the narrative of our country today?
Satire has failed me. My theory now is that satire only works in a world where shame exists. What we are dealing with now is the absence of shame. Satire has failed and now has devolved into rude jokes like you get from the White House. We’ve actually been pulled down to that level. It’s not going to change, and it makes me unhappy.
I know people are trying to write about this period now, and I don’t think it’s the primary responsibility of theater to do that. If you do that, no one is going to read your play in five years. They do Arthur Miller because he’s not talking about the Roosevelt administration. It never holds. You’re too close. You can’t see it. You are preaching to the choir mostly. You are not going to change anybody’s mind. The function of theater is to show you an aspect of something you may not have been aware of. So much of all fiction is, “Oh my god, I don’t know what I’d do if I were that person.” and “What would I do?”
The egotistical part of my life is that I want to ask those questions. I want to go out to the lobby and see people who haven’t left because they’re talking about my play. I want to know that I went home with people. I want to be in people’s heads, and be of use to them later when they think of an image or a word.
In your play, Dr. Cotton makes this observation to Chester Bailey’s father, “Your son, Mr. Bailey, is the author of his own mercy. He stitched it together out of what was around him. Just like the rest of us.”
How have you been the author of your own mercy?
We all are authors of mercy, so therefore I am. That may be one of the more true statements that I’ve ever given to a character. I’ve ended up being very honest and very loyal to the kid who went to the movies. I shaped the narrative, and I’m aware of places where I’ve screwed up, and I’ve tried to come back and correct them.
That’s a line that comes down through the pen and you just get out of the way. I’m very proud of that statement. I’m very proud of the play.