Five Questions with Jonathan Taylor

Photo by Annabelle Cousins

Jonathan Taylor is the Artistic Director of In the Water Theatre Company. I met him upstate in 2015 at the SITI Company Summer Intensive, where we made a notably sweaty performance composition using a kitchen timer and some fluorescent tube lights.

Jonathan and I reunited for a post-show conversation in the “Five Questions” format after Sunday night’s performance of his company’s new play, Panic Everything’s Fine (which continues its run at The Tank, with performances on November 16th & 17th at 7 pm and 19th at 8pm). The piece is a constellation of possible responses to news about an imminent apocalypse.

  1. I’m interested in hearkening back to the summer of 2016, during which your company produced a reading of Driftwood, which is a short play of mine about the end of the world. What are the major differences between directing a play about disaster in summer 2016 versus now in 2017?

Disaster no longer feels like a fictitious conceit. It feels like the water that we’re swimming in. It feels like my everyday. It feels like what I hear in the morning when I’m listening to my news podcast, and what I read when I check the news throughout the day.

When we did Driftwood it felt like a story that was a great fiction to place our contemporary experiences inside. And now, it feels like [disaster] is not the fiction. The fiction in Panic Everything’s Fine is the acceleration of the events, but not the events themselves.

2. How has the conversation about how we process information in 2017 affected the look and tone of Panic Everything’s Fine?

I think that the way I’m receiving news often feels like a bombardment. It feels like [the news] is coming at us from every angle with no room for relief. That’s the tone we try to capture in the play, and we’re trying to expound upon that feeling of bombardment and make it really palpable in the room. When we have these moments of softness or delicacy or humor, they’re coming out of a relationship to that feeling.

It’s nice because it gives us the opportunity to dream up anything, so long as it’s coming from a response to something difficult. We all respond to difficult things in such different ways.

I do think that the perspectives we are missing are ones that are actually not so hopeful. We’ve written a very hopeful apocalypse. We see a lot of characters who will actually be okay inside the panic. Our guiding point was that it feels more useful to see people who deal positively and functionally with disaster. We don’t see anybody who takes the opportunity to make a lot of money or go on a killing spree or take revenge on the person they’ve always wanted to.

While those sort of hopeless responses to the disaster came up in rehearsals, no one in the company ever wanted to track them down. No one ever said, “Oh yeah, I want to see that person.” Because I think in devising plays, we typically tend to allow characters we love to have more stage time. We never fell in love with any of those [hopeless] characters and no one wanted to play them.

3. Can you name a place in the piece where the guiding force of love seeps into your imagined apocalypse?

The apocalypse starts in New York, and one of the first featured characters is in Yallingup, Australia, which is the exact opposite point on the globe. And Yallingup, in the aboriginal language, translates to “the place of love,” which in this imagined world is the only place that survives. As we’re going through the ripples of the apocalypse, the kernel we have left is a place of love.

4. Can you talk about the choice to create a play about a crisis that hasn’t happened, as opposed to a crisis that has or is happening?

We talk a lot about the fact that we created half the play, and a big part of what happens for audiences is the play that happens inside their heads. We’re trying to have a lot of space for audiences to create worlds inside what they’re watching, which is why there’s so much space.

We found that audiences fill in the blanks with things like 9/11, with earthquakes that have happened recently, with hurricanes. People are filling them in with war in the Middle East. The little events of the play are sparking the audience’s own real life events. It leaves it open for the audience to call upon their own resources.

We’re not educating about anything that’s happening now. We’re not shedding light on anything new. We’re creating a vehicle for people to process what’s already happening. And if they end up thinking about how they can help Puerto Rico, or about how they can’t write a paper, or about a cut on their hand, they are using the session as a place to process what they need to process.

5. What are you most excited about in the second weekend of performances?

For the first weekend of performances of a devised work, it always feels like a groundhog sticking its head out of the ground asking, “Do you like it?” over and over. But, we haven’t run away! So, next weekend I hope the actors take more of their own space, and I’m excited to see them grow through it.

I’m also so excited for people to have conversations about it. I’m excited for any conversations that will happen in bars or in the lobby or around the city. We want to hear how people are walking away from the show.


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