AN INTERVIEW WITH TORREY TOWNSEND, playwright, Night Workers
What is the genesis of Night Workers?
Though it’s always difficult to describe the linear journey of writing, the beginning of Night Workers essentially sprang from conversations Knud Adams and I had during the rehearsals for our last play, The Workshop. One of the concerns of The Workshop was with the role of art in contemporary American culture. The Workshop interrogated certain ideas our culture has inherited from the past about what it means to be an artist and the kinds of relationships artists have with the public. The Workshop was a dissection of long-standing aesthetic concepts that I think we tend to take for granted and overlook. There is a streak of nihilism and grandiosity that runs through much of the art that we make and consume, and through the identities that we forge around being “artists”, but that’s not something people talk about very much. The notion that artists are these superior, extraordinary individuals is something that’s been passed down to us from the 19th century. It’s a historically fabricated myth that you can trace back to Flaubert and Baudelaire, and then all the way up through T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the hostile nihilists of the theater: Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Edward Albee, etc. In the romantic cult that surrounds artists like these lurk some very negative and very destructive ideas not just about what it means to be an artist but about what it means to be a human being.
So, that was something Knud and I were discussing constantly with everyone who collaborated with us on The Workshop, and at some point during the course of putting up that play I shared a story with Knud and our producers, Fern Diaz and Matt Kagen, about a formative relationship I’d had with an artist when I was young. Basically, an older, well-established theater-maker talked me into trying to write plays when I was 19 years old. I met this person, by chance, at a point in my life when my outlook and perspective toward theater was for lack of a better word confused. I suffered back then under the unfortunate illusion that writing is some grand, sacrosanct art form accessible to only an elite few. I believed that the theater was the exclusive terrain of exalted “geniuses” like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and therefore an ordinary, limited human being like me could never write plays. This person convinced me I was totally wrong, and not only that I could do it but that I should do it. Without a doubt, my life changed because this person made me believe in myself. Over the years, he became a kind of teacher and guide. He instilled in me a sustained faith in the miraculous power of the theater, and he showed me the falseness of the image of the artist as someone who exists in some other realm above that of ordinary people living ordinary lives. This person died a few years ago from a struggle with alcoholism and addiction. I was deeply shaken by his death, and looking back at it now this is probably why I was talking to Knud, Fern, and Matt about it during The Workshop. Eventually, Knud said that he thought I should write a play about that relationship — a play that explores in some way recovery from addiction and alcoholism — and I took his suggestion. Night Workers is the play that emerged. The writing process led me in a hundred different, surprising, and unexpected directions, but the way it began was with that conversation with my friends, and then Knud’s prompting.