CATF Talks to Playwright Thomas Gibbons

Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

CATF:  What does “uncanny valley” mean?

TOM: It comes from the field of robotics.  It is the idea that people are fascinated by an artificial being that is somewhat human-like, but the closer it comes to being more truly human-like, it becomes creepy.

CATF: Why write a play about it?Uncanny

TOM: The sound of the words – uncanny valley – really appealed to me.  I didn’t have a title when I started the play, but I like to have a title as early as I can.  I also liked that no one knew what it meant.  I have a weakness for cryptic titles.  Also, when I go to the theater, I like a certain element of mystery – not a “who-done-it”, but a certain amount of mystery where I don’t quite know what I’m in for.

CATF: What do you want your audience to have realized after seeing “Uncanny Valley”?

TOM: That’s the kind of question that I really don’t like to answer. I hope that 20 different people will walk out with 20 different things. However, one of the things I want people to think about is this: as technology blurs the line between human and mechanical, artificial or whatever word you want to use – how is that going to change our definition of humanity?

bina 48

LifeNaut’s Bina48

CATF: “Uncanny Valley” has been described as traveling “to the ethical heart of humankind’s bid to outrace mortality.”  What’s that about?

TOM: The idea for the play came from a National Geographic article [click for story] that I came across in my dentist’s office a couple of years ago.  The article was about the LifeNaut Group in Vermont [visit LifeNaut website here] which is exploring the idea of downloading human consciousness into a mechanical or artificial body in order to extend our life span by hundreds of years.  People in this field seriously talk about immortality. That article included a photo that I found absolutely fascinating and haunting . . . I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of the LifeNaut engineers is sitting in a chair facing a table on which is an artificial head. This head is called Bina 48, and she is probably the most advanced robot in the world right now. I’ve since found out through research that lots of other people are working on this very idea.  In fact, an article in the New York Times last June entitled, “This Man is Not a Cyborg, Yet” [click here to read article] is about a Russian multi-millionaire named Dmitry Itskov who is putting a lot of money into this idea because he wants to live for a long, long time.

CATF: Do you want to live for a long, long time? Do you want to be immortal?


Playwright Thomas Gibbons. Photo by Seth Freeman.

TOM: No, I don’t want to be immortal, but it is hard to answer that question.  What does immortality mean?  Dmitry Itskov is having a cyborg created that is basically identical to him. By the way, I had never heard the term, “uncanny valley” before I read that National Geographic article.  So I started to do some research.  It’s a really well-known concept in the field of robotics, artificial consciousness and the whole field of computer animation.

As I began to work on the play, the word, “valley” became very important because it has many metaphysical implications: the valley between life and death, the valley between the creator and the created, the valley between parents and children.  I’ve come to realize that this play is very much about parents and children.

CATF: What was the first play that made an impression on you?

TOM: The year I graduated from college, I went to England and saw a lot of plays.  One play in particular called, “Destiny” made a huge impression on me.  It was about the rise of right-wing politics in England, and I was struck that “Destiny” was about something happening in England at that moment. I decided that I wanted to write plays that were very urgently of the moment. “Uncanny Valley” actually takes place 40 years into the future, but it’s of the moment in that is deals with research that is happening now and just extrapolates from that.

One of the important questions the play asks is this: Is Julian (the artificial human) conscious?  Even though the field of study I’ve been researching is called, “artificial intelligence”, it seems to me that what researchers are really talking about is “artificial consciousness”. They are a little bit slippery about the distinction.

CATF: What is the distinction?

TOM: In my play, Claire (the human) says, “There are people in my field who don’t make much of a distinction; they say that to be conscious is to know. But that’s not true.  To be conscious is to know we know.”  This is the fulcrum of the play.  What is consciousness?  How do we measure it? How is it signified? Can an artificial being be truly conscious?

On the face of it, the play is very simple: two characters in one room and the relationship between a neuroscientist and an artificial being, but as the play goes on, it gets deeper and deeper and deeper.

CATF: Do you like one character more than another? And why is the scientist female and the artificial being male?

TOM: I like them both. I first wrote the play for two actors I knew and they, in fact, did the first reading of the play.  But the more I worked on it, the more I realized that the scientist really needed to be a woman.  I thought the play would be too icy if it were two men.

CATF: So a woman brings a certain warmth that you needed?

TOM: Exactly. And then Julian ended up being much younger, so the two original actors were no longer right for the parts.

CATF: So this is where the mother and child dynamic comes in?

TOM: That is part of it, yes. Whenever you write a play, you always hope it will go in directions you didn’t plan or expect.  I didn’t realize when I started it that it was so much about parents and children.  My wife and I have a son who is now in his first year of college. When I started the play, I was acutely aware that he wasn’t going to be around here much longer and very much thinking about how much I was were going to miss him. Those feelings worked themselves into the play . . . in some things revealed about Julian and in some things that Claire reveals about the past and her own daughter.  The play really is about actual and metaphorical parenthood.

CATF: What is the best thing and the worst thing about being a parent?

TOM: There are so many great things about it.  The best thing is just seeing how this being that you helped to bring into the world grows and develops and changes; and how completely fascinating that is on a day-to-day level.  The worst thing is realizing that you raised your child to be a separate being and there is something definitely bittersweet about that. You can raise a child and be with them constantly from the time they are born and – any parent knows this – you will be surprised by something at some point. You think you know everything about your child, but you don’t.

CATF: Here’s a “101” question: what percentage of the play you originally wrote ends up being the one we see on the stage?

TOM: At the moment, I’m working on draft #15. The reading and research never ends. I finish a draft, and then it away for a couple of months. Then I go back to it because I want to make the play deeper and richer — to have what I call, “poetic density”. It’s not just what the characters are saying, but also what is being suggested.

CATF: Why do you keep your eyes open like you did that day in the dentist office?

TOM: I read the papers like a mad man everyday because most of the ideas I have for plays have come from things that I’ve read.  I know I’ve hit on a good idea when I can’t forget something I’ve read, but I deliberately don’t start writing right away.  I let it sit, and if I still can’t forget it in a couple of months, it probably needs to be written.  And I’d like what I’ve written not to forgotten by the folks who see my plays.


The CATF production will be directed by Tom Dugdale.

“Uncanny Valley” is presented as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in conjunction with San Diego Repertory Theatre and InterAct Theatre Company.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.

GIDION’S KNOT…hitting all corners of America

GidionsKnot_webThis past weekend, CATF visited Philadelphia to see a production of Johnna Adams’s GIDION’S KNOT at InterAct Theatre Company, under the direction of artistic director and co-founder Seth Rozin. They did a wonderful job with the play. Terrific performances by Alice M. Gatling as “Corryn” (that’s the role Robin Walsh played here at CATF for the play’s premiere) and Karen Peakes as “Heather” (played here by Joey Parsons). It runs through February 9 and more info about the Philly production, including a video interview with Johnna, can be found by clicking here.

InterAct is a core member theater of the National New Play Network–a collective of theaters across the country committed to the promoting the PRODUCTION of new plays, perhaps most famously through the concept of a “rolling world premiere”.  CATF was invited to join NNPN as a core member last summer. Hopefully, we’ll have an important related-item to report in a few weeks as it pertains to NNPN…

GIDION’S KNOT is not only playing in Philly right now. In fact, it opened this weekend in Austin, Texas at the Capital T Theatre under the direction of Lily Wolff.  Lily was a directing assistant at CATF the year we produced GIDION, which makes this performance all the more special.  Performances through February 8. Learn more here.

Finally–at least for now–is a production currently up at Profiles Theatre in Chicago under the direction of artistic director Joe Jahraus. This Midwest Premiere runs through March 9. Check it out here.

Upcoming life for GIDION’S KNOT is in February/March in Minneapolis at Pillsbury House and Theatre (click here) and more close to home in July at the Forum Theatre (Silver Spring, MD).

In total, there are 12 productions of the play scheduled for the ’13-’14 theater season, making this Shepherdstown-originated play the 11 most-produced in the United States. In addition to being published in American Theatre magazine in the December 2012 issue, it was the citation award-winner of the prestigious ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award.

Here’s a video of Johnna’s acceptance speech for the ATCA/Steinberg during the 2013 Humana Festival in Louisville:

The Off-Season

One of the most common questions we receive during this time of year is: “So, what do you do during the off-season? Is it just down time?”

The answer, in a word, is ‘no.’

The answer, in multiple words, is ‘No, no, no. No. Hardly.’

As a general rule, CATF operates on an annual calendar that is segmented into various activities and areas of focus.  For the general public, July is our most visible and seemingly bustling time—which it is.  As is the month of June when the full company has arrived in Shepherdstown, the shows are being built, rehearsals are happening, etc.

But what about the other 10 months of the year? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that though CATF during the summer is a company of theater professionals that numbers nearly 90 people, for the rest of the year there are only three of us on staff to—along with our extraordinary volunteer board of trustees—make it all happen.

Once the Festival has closed, strike has been completed, and our guest artists have departed (all in the first week of August), we do, admittedly, take a breath, lick our wounds, and recover from the whirlwind of the season.  It normally takes about four or five weeks to reconcile the previous year, assess the organization’s financial picture, review attendance figures, submit funder and union reports, and post mortem the successes and challenges of the just-completed CATF season.

In September, we meet with our board and report back.  At the same time, Ed has begun his reading of scripts for consideration for the next year (he’s read upwards of 120 so far this fall, for example).  Meanwhile, Peggy and I work with our board Finance Committee to begin the budgeting process for the next year.

We dream. We think of ways to grow the Festival. We clean the office.

Oh, and we start raising money.

By November 1st, we have closed the books on the previous year (except for the annual audit, which will actually begin next week—and let me tell you, nothing screams the holiday spirit quite like three straight days of digging through deposit slips, invoices, check stubs, grant letters, journal entries, and bank statements…) and started a new one.

Around now, Ed narrows down his selection of plays—normally to his top 10.  At that point, we work on season scenarios with a mind to casting, venue, production value, etc.  This is a complicated matrix of sometimes competing demands.  With a commitment to “repping” our actors, and also the wide variance between each of our three theaters, it can be an arduous process—and yet, incredibly exhilarating.  You see, once the plays for the next season are chosen, they will become our best friends:  we will think and talk (obsess?) about them – promote and develop them – for the next seven months.

Oh, and we raise more money.

The fall is also a time of organizational “housekeeping.”  We review policies (by-laws!) with the board, strategize new programs, develop marketing strategies, get our committees situated, establish our board leadership positions for the year, and get caught up on the industry.  What others in the field are up to becomes blurred from the spring into summer as we are up to our elbows in pre-season prep, rehearsals, and performances.  One way to re-engage is to attend conferences and showcases with our theater colleagues.

This fall, we have been to two excellent events that deserve mentioning:

In early November, Jenny (our board chair), Ed, Peggy, and I were in New York City for the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) Fall Forum.  The topic was diversity and featured fantastic panels and breakout sessions and a kick-ass keynote speech by playwright Katori Hall. You can see video from the weekend on the TCG website (click here).  Our good friends Teresa Eyring and Kevin E. Moore, along with the TCG staff, put on a heckuva show.

That same weekend we had a CATF reunion with over 35 former CATF actors, designers, and staff covering almost 10 different seasons.  We also saw Samuel Hunter’s THE WHALE at Playwright’s Horizons (featuring CATF actor Cassie Beck), DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center, and a reading at the terrific new play development center The Lark (click here).

This past weekend, Ed and I attended the National New Play Network Annual Showcase, hosted at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC.  We saw six stage readings of new plays and rubbed elbows with numerous playwrights, literary managers, and artistic directors from around the country.  It’s an excellent organization that works to encourage theaters to collaborate and produce “rolling world premieres” of new plays to ensure that writers get multiple productions of their new works. Check out NNPN (click here) to learn more. Many thanks to Jason Loewith and Jojo Ruf for inviting CATF to participate.

There is much to report in future posts—the new building, American Theatre Critics Association, an update on the commissioned plays, the season.  But first, there is more money to raise (donation, anyone?

Until next time: think theater.


P.S.//And in case you’ve missed it, AMERICAN THEATRE magazine has just published its December issue. It features the full script to Johnna Adams’s play GIDION’S KNOT, which received its world premiere this summer in Shepherdstown (the magazine features photos from the CATF production!). Click here to check it out.

P.S. (part 2). Speaking of raising money…we are thrilled to announce two recent grants:  The National Endowment for the Arts has just awarded CATF a project grant (thank you our fellow Americans!) and a new grant was just received from the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation.  We couldn’t do what we do without this amazing support.