Dallas — Science fiction writer Gordon Dahlquist is known for his novels and his plays, the latter of which have mostly premiered in off- and off-off Broadway spaces. Undermain Theatre, known for its affinity for experimental, contemporary writers, began its relationship with Dahlquist when it premiered his play Tomorrow Come Today in 2014. Next is Red Chariot, a science fiction thriller set in the downfall of civilization after the Internet has created a mysterious Tarot Deck that, when read, can affect the past, present, and future. The play takes us on a journey through time as we explore the chaotic effects of new technological advancements and the role humans have, or haven’t, played in stopping that chaos. Dahlquist’s novels include The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (2006) and The Different Girl (2013). He resides in Brooklyn with his wife, Anne Washburn, a playwright known for Mr. Burns, a post-electric play and 10 Out of the 12, which Undermain has also produced.
TheaterJones chatted with Dahlquist on Aug. 31, in anticipation of the opening of Red Chariot and Undermain’s 36th season, its first without co-founder Katherine Owens, who died this summer. (Read our interview with her widower, producing artistic director Bruce DuBose, here.) Interviewer Teresa Marrero saw the staged reading of Red Chariot in Undermain’s 2019 Whither Goest Thou America? festival, and Dahlquist graciously sent a copy of the script.
Red Chariot begins previews on Wednesday, Sept. 18, opens Saturday, Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 13. Directed by Blake Hackler, the cast includes Jovane Caamaño, Kristi Funk Dana, Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso, Anthony L. Ramirez, Molly Searcy, and Dean Wray. The production features scenic design by Russell Parkman, lights by Steve Woods, costumes by Amanda Capshaw, sound design by Paul Semrad, properties by Amy Poe, and fight choreography by Jeff Colangelo.
Also, the theater has just announced that beginning Sept. 26, the exhibit Katherine Owens: Artist, Painter, Photographer/ A retropspecive collection of her life an legacy will be on display in the Undermain lobby.
TheaterJones: I just finished reading the script of Red Chariot and it is a wild ride.
Gordon Dahlquist: I'm glad, I'm glad.
My first question is how might audiences prepare to view, or rather experience, the play?
Well, more than anything, don't come in with preconceptions. The play takes some pretty drastic, or pretty sharp turns throughout the course of it and covers a lot of ground. I think the play is a mix of fairly hyper-real things in terms of character but set in a slightly strange, maybe even a little science fictional world. So, there is just a mix of real things and strange things.
It's a play that's talking about what is really going on right now. So, in a way I think it's a realistic play. But, the realism — whatever I would call realism — takes a surprising form sometimes. Just go in with an open mind and enjoy the show, knowing that it's going to be a ride. Enjoy the ride.
You sort of answered the next question, but I am going to pitch it anyway. The play is billed as a science fiction/thriller. It also feels a bit absurdist in a nonsensical way, the characters seem to be playing a game where those roles are not entirely fixed and keep shifting. So, do any of these categories resonate with you more than others?
Well, they do. I probably said this when we did the reading in the spring. But, to me the origin of the play is really me trying to come up with a metaphor to talk about how new technology and different technologies have been having applications other than what the people who made them intended or were thinking about.
Those applications can end up being the most important thing. One minor example for me are cell phones. We're talking on a cell phone, but most people don't use their cell phone to talk. They use them to take pictures, or they use them to text, or they use them to connect with the internet. When people were designing phones, that wasn't probably the first thing they were thinking.
As of right now, especially in terms of the camera and the movies, our sense of the news, of espionage, and politics is completely dominated by social media. It can be dominated by what people have captured on their cell phones.
That's a huge force in our society, that’s pretty much uninhibited.
So, in terms of the play — to me anyway — this play is trying to find is a metaphor to talk about how I think about that phenomenon of unintended consequences, and unintended usage with regard to social media. Think of how social media has been sort of weaponized, and re-weaponized past the point of any original intention to where it has really destabilized or transformed, not only our social conversations, but how we even consider ourselves as a community or as a democracy. But just what constitutes speech and what constitutes identity, and really what constitutes the facts? I think this has drastically changed in the last four or five years because of social media. It's a deeply profound change that we are trying to catch up to.
The play posits this non-existent intention, or discovery, of some of these psychoactive images. And, that is definitely a sort of science fiction circumstance. It's very much something out of Philip K. Dick. A huge spaceship appears in the solar system. That's the given circumstance, and what happens next? And when a collection of psychoactive images come up, what happens next?
It is definitely science fiction in a very traditional way. I think, in a lot of science fiction, the idea of the intention is very much rooted in our contemporary society. I think what happens is effectively a realistic portrait of our society given a slightly extreme push. I guess I am cheating. I would say I think the play sort of straddles a line between hyper-realism and, a kind of absurdist science fiction. But I do think the reason the play is funny and the reason the play is scary is because we do, through all the weirdness, recognize the bare bones of what's happening.
Absolutely. When did you write this play? Was it before or after the last presidential election?
I think it was right after. I started writing it in the summer of 2017, or the fall of 2017. I wrote it 2017-2018.
This play feels really 'now' politically with the current administration, and the continued concentration of wealth to the one percent. I have a quote here from one of the characters from the play. Black, says "You'd be amazed at the field work necessary to torque normal citizens into supporting the one percent priorities, say fossil fuel profits, without giving away the game. You know, by simply neglecting any talk of climate change to hot-button, down-market emotional issues like immigration and abortion, we actually got people to reject not only climate science, but science period.” Given the current situation, for instance with the demise of virgin forests worldwide through fires and big industry interests, along with the U.S.’s anti-scientific push of rejecting climate change as real, this play really resonates with me and perhaps with a lot of people.
I hope so. I mean, I am old enough to remember that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was founded by Republican Richard Nixon. Back then the conservation and care for the environment wasn't a particularly partisan issue.
I mean, people back in 1969 looked at the Cuyahoga River in [Cleveland,] Ohio, that caught fire because it was so polluted and they said, "Oh no, this is terrible. We have to change this," and that seemed like something that everyone agreed on. I do think what Black is saying in that speech is completely accurate. I think the sort of cynicism by which people like Trump and company are able to exploit benefits greatly to a limited number of people, at the real expense of the rest of our clean air and water.
I find it really fascinating; I find it really heartbreaking. I understand that there's so much discontented anger, but when you see the anger being channeled in such a self-destructive way, I find it really heartbreaking, and then I also find the cynicism of the people doing that sort of destruction just astonishing.
I mean, don't they have grandchildren? I really don't understand it. I don't know how they think that they are immune from what's happening as we're watching the Amazon go up in flames. I think in that sense it's describing what's happening. It's certainly brooding the kind of stranger action of the play in what's happening right now and the forces that are in play.
Let’s discuss the role Tarot cards plays in Red Chariot. I am not a Tarot specialist, but I did a lot of Googling. Tarot cards are in this piece, but then there's also the mention of the William Makepeace Thackeray character who apparently had some sort of transformed playing cards. He was a novelist, caricaturist, and a social critic. In your play we have Tarot cards, and we even have this character named Pearson who seems to lead us to this Thackeray character who's also mentioned in the play. And in your play, Thackeray was killed two days prior to the action, but in reality, he died in 1863. So, that got me thinking about time and it feels like tidbits of information in a complex treasure hunt.
He's named after the English writer and as for me that's kind of a nod to the idea of Thackeray as a sort of social satirist. His novels are sort of these big portraits that try to sum up all of Victorian society. I don't want to say he's more cynical than Dickens, but he's a little more sober or cold.
The Thackeray reference is not meant to be a literal thing because the Thackeray of the play gets smarter, then his life shapes up. I mean, that's a real thing in the literal story of the play, but I think his name is something, to me anyway, that I find really evocative.
It harks to a Victorian age where people believed that rationality would solve things, and that the world was subject to reason. I think there’s something about him being sort of one of the two people in charge of making this deck, codifying this deck, that is significant… And I feel that when we look back at the Victorian era we think that way. My wife, Anne Washburn, once wrote a play where someone is talking about history and talking about how in every era, to the people that come after, it looks like they're walking around with a sign taped to their back that says, “kick me.” We can always see what they didn't get…
… I can only speculate how our current era of big private companies owning all of this personal information, how that's going to look in 40 or 50 years, if somebody is still looking. I think it will look like a crazy mistake that people did, made, or this incredibly naive thing that happened.
To me the citing for Thackeray as a theme and as a reference is really about connecting to that sort of Victorian era of both decay and arrogance.
What about the Tarot?
I find Tarot interesting. It started as a Medieval card game in Italy and then in the 1780s or ’90s [Wikipedia dates it to the mid-15th century]. Around the French Revolution, there's a guy in France who connected the fact that there are the same number of Major Arcana Tarot cards as there are letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so he started mapping the cards onto letters, and that means you can start talking about the Qabalah, because the Qabalah is all about grouping the letters and what the letters mean — all of these magical references. And people now treat that as if it's this eternal truth with these cards.
I was just reading that there are people who have figured out that if you play Pink Floyd’s record Dark Side of the Moon, and you sync it up at the beginning of Wizard of Oz, the movie, it actually creates this crazy soundtrack that sticks with what the actors are saying, like when the song starts or what the themes are. It's this kind of crazy thing. The people who are using Carnivalistic Tarot are in many ways doing something similar. It's a little akin to thinking that it's the right and the only soundtrack for that movie. You know, it's after-the-fact graphic… but I also find it really representative of how people make culture and how they justify things.
There's that angle about the Tarot cards, which I find really interesting in the way people will change history to fit what they most want in the moment. But I also think, and this overlaps with the way the play is staged, that there's also something really fascinating about Tarot images.
The ones in the play are not literally Tarot cards. They are generic and sort of empty, or just empty enough for someone to put their own emotion into it. They're not complete images so rather than literal, they're evocative of situations. There's something about the connection between a reader, a viewer, and the image that you bring to it, and what looks like a weird landscape of two people standing somewhere, or someone holding a lantern, or something reminds you of something, or makes you connect that to something else and then you've got a narrative. Then you've got a story.
That is what happens when people tell stories. I think it's what happens in the theater, you know, when a play gets completed by the audience. So, there's actually something really profound in Tarot cards as a cultural artifact. It’s almost like a Lego set for a favorite culture. You can build, you can connect anyone to anyone, and it creates different construction; I think there's actually something really profound about them whether you believe that they hold any other power whatsoever. I just think in terms of a storytelling tool they're fascinating and also the history of them having a sort of esoteric charm is also really fascinating. So they're really interesting things, but I also believe they can actually be powerful tools.
You began writing plays and moved onto the novel, and now you've stated that a sense of place, that is a stage or a setting, went into the writing of your first novel, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Has the narrative structure of the novel subsequently influenced your writing of plays?
It probably has. I mean if anything, in this play in particular, it probably has something to do with how much ground the play covers. When we did the festival in Dallas in April, one of the things that I thought was kind of fascinating was how at the end, when the lights came up and all the actors came out, you have that moment of, "Oh, right, I remember that from the beginning of the play.” And the beginning of the play seems like a really long distance from where you end up. There's something about the arc of that journey, or the sort of scope of that journey, that is probably influenced a bit by my writing bigger stories.
Could you share one or two points of interest that have come up in table talk discussions with the actors for this play?
Well, lots of things, really! I think a lot of it is trying to find the right undercurrent. I mean a lot of the first parts of the play — you quoted the line from Black — are really about people setting the table of what the world is. A lot of it has really been trying to track where does this sort of anger come from? What are people angry about? Why would people be doing these things?
The first line of the play is Sarah, one of the card readers, saying, "It's not as if I don't have any feelings." And we were talking about this in the context of the play where she's wearing this kind of costume, this sort of almost weird, ritualistic all-red [cloak] with the veil, and it looks like, not strictly like a magician, but it looks like she's some sort of [mysterious] figure. In terms of talking for the actress, Molly Searcy, about finding it, I said “imagine instead that this is a person wearing a storm trooper’s outfit and she’s saying, ‘well, it's not as if I don't have feelings.’” And in that sense, it's like, OK, so what has she done? What was the path that led her to be able to do those things? Then can we track that to the anger that we're feeling in the country right now.
How do we connect this effectively weird world to really practical things, real recognizable things right now? So that's basically what all the actors are talking about and all the actors are doing.
Katherine Owens was supposed to direct this play, right?
Yeah, she was. I got a call from her in April, really a week before the festival saying that she was going to have to bow out and that Blake [Hackler] was going to direct it. I had never met him, but I knew that he directed my wife's play, 10 Out of 12, at Undermain and that by all accounts it did go very well and that they were really happy with it. And I knew that he was an Undermain company member, a performer, and a director in Dallas.
In April she was going through a lot of stuff and was very, very careful of her energy, but I was able to spend a little time with Katherine, and it's very hard for me to get my head around her not being here. It's very hard to get my head around the Undermain without her. Which is ridiculous because the Undermain is completely suffused with her. The whole mode, not to discount Bruce, and not to discount anybody else at all who are proceeding in very determined and heroic ways, but she really put her stamp on that place and the community. It does feel really strange and it's heartbreaking to not have her. I had a really enjoyable time working on Tomorrow Come Today with her, so I was very sad about not having that experience with Red Chariot.
Working with Blake is great. He's a really good director and we get along great, and it's been a complete pleasure, but there's no replacing Katherine. She's a singular person.
I agree. Losing Katherine is a huge loss to the artistic community. Since you mentioned Tomorrow Come Today, do some of the themes carry over from that play into this one?
I think so. I think a lot of it is about the responsibilities that go with wealth, and power, and success, and why are we doing what we're doing, and if we care about things like democracy. I'm writing from a point of view of an American who grew up with this sense of Democracy and this sense of civics and fairness, and the plays are not really about worlds where those things are happening, partially because I feel like I'm watching those things erode.
The discussion about wealth and the discussion about what's happening to the planet, what's happening to other species --that sense of responsibility-- to me are profoundly important. Both plays have these.
Is this play utopian, dystopian, or a long overdue wake-up call, or any other option?
I wouldn't say it's utopian. I think it is very dystopian. I think the play posits a possibility of a happier ending, but it is a pretty dark play. I hope it's a kind of wake-up call. Hopefully, the best science fiction is about re-figuring some part of the present, to replace it almost with a prism where you can see something that you weren't able to see before, even though it's right in front of you. I think we all take things for granted and miss the forest through the trees. Hopefully, if the play does anything in terms of showing anybody anything, it's the wake up that these forces are really in motion and they don't care about you or us. Which, unfortunately, I think is actually true.
I am currently researching science fiction and/or futurism in theater. Are these genres becoming more popular in live performance?
We live in a science fiction age. We are in awe of these inventions that we don't know how they work and they're kind of magic and we really rely on them. And if you open — I was going to say a newspaper, but not a newspaper — if you open a website, you open the Times or CNN website you will see stories about tech, or about discoveries, or about the weather, and it's all based on new technology and science. What's happening to the economy is going to be about technologies that we don't understand and the markets around them. Only to say that I think we live in a world which very much operates in the terms of what we might have normally called science fiction. And so, I don't think it's strange, and I actually think it's almost more difficult to be truthful and accurate in talking about our world if you don't deal with those things.
Although we are all getting used to technology, that doesn't mean we understand it. Take for instance how fast technology is changing and how many different levels of technical literacy there are in the world, or hierarchies of access and how that changes people's experience. It also changes their standard of living, their education, and their opinions. I believe that theater is catching up. It has to catch up. A play like Jennifer Haley's The Nether was about the sort of moral dilemmas around virtual identities.
There are a lot of writers that are catching up, like Rob Handel. In New York right now there is an opera that is sort of about social media, a little bit about Edward Snowden and surveillance. This kind of thing is cropping up everywhere.
I'm happy for that. There's also a lot of Latinx playwrights writing some interesting work, but that is another conversation. Shall we wrap it up with the usual convention of is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
I never know what to say to this question. But, I guess, if they did see Tomorrow Come Today, this play is a different sort of play, but it is a similar kind of theatricality. The Undermain is tackling it bravely, and they're really going for it. I'm really excited to see what happens. I think people will like it. It's a really entertaining show.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen dancing tango.