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by Aaron Carter, Director of New Play Development

Aaron Carter, Director of New Play Development, spoke with playwright Conor McPherson and director Henry Wishcamper about their approach to The Night Alive. Following is an edited portion of their conversation.

Aaron Carter: The two of you have worked on several projects together. What sustains that repeated collaboration?

Conor McPherson: It’s always been very enjoyable and Henry to my mind is great with new plays and great with actors.

AC: Henry, what is it about your approach that makes you good with new plays?

Henry Wishcamper: I love the challenge of new plays. Conor is a writer who, when he sees something that an actor is doing, his initial response is “Oh I love what you did,” and he will write something just out of inspiration from that. I feel like my directorial approach is similar in that it’s about responding to what I’m seeing and adding to it, rather than having some idea of what something ought to be and putting that onto the actors.

AC: Henry, on your recent trip to Dublin you and Conor visited Phoenix Park. Did visiting the play’s location reveal anything to you? Conor, why set the play there?

CM: Well, I never really know where a play’s setting comes from. That’s usually subconscious really. James Joyce used that particular area where the city meets the park quite a lot. It’s an in-between kind of place that is very evocative. At the same time I think a lot of the scenes in the play take place at in-between kinds of times of day: you know, at dusk and evening. It’s that kind of feeling where just everything seems a little bit hazy and unreal. So I guess that’s what that area seemed to offer to me.

HW: I guess I had this fantasy that I would go there and sort of see the people of the play living in that neighborhood. And that wasn’t really the case. In the area around the park there are these really beautiful old houses that have clearly fallen into some level of—not quite disrepair. They were once quite glorious houses and now they have been split into flats. Conor was talking about how in many of them whole families live in these small flats. You could see the number of doorbells that were attached to these small houses. That part of the play gained a much more tangible reality for me in terms of seeing how people were using those houses in that neighborhood.

AC: Conor, can you tell me about the title of the play?

CM: I was trying to come up with something that represented something to do with the dusk. There’s a bit in James Joyce’s book In Finnegan’s Wake where he uses this Sanskrit word “sandhya”, which means a holy time of prayers at dusk. But it seemed very pretentious to use a Sanskrit word as the title, if not wholly uncommercial. It was actually my wife Fionnuala Ni Chiosain who suggested the title The Night Alive which she saw in a lyric, I think, in a Leonard Cohen song. She had a book of his lyrics all printed out like poetry and she just showed it to me. And it seemed to fit it.

AC: Is The Night Alive about grace?

CM: It’s a very important feeling in the play. I always regard grace as essentially the unbidden gift of being without pain. You don’t realize how much you live with grace until something goes wrong in your life, and you’re living with pain. Either psychic pain or physical pain or spiritual pain or just grief or loss. And you think “Oh God, if only I could get back what I had when I took it all for granted.” When that feeling ever does descend again it’s such a relief that it seems to come from somewhere else. Only some other power could have possibly given this back.

AC: In experiencing The Night Alive something happens to me I can’t quite articulate: emotion is just drawn out of me. It’s as if instead of focusing character motivation and choices, you’ve created this kind of shape that audience emotion can flow into. How does one direct for that?

CM: A big influence on this play for me had been doing an adaptation of a play by Strindberg, The Dance of Death— which Henry directed. Strindberg said that he didn’t believe there was any such thing as character. That the only way a character is interesting on stage is if whatever they’re doing, two pages later, they have to do be doing or saying the opposite of what they just did. That’s what I wanted to do with The Night Alive. Because the audience are not stupid. It’s actually very difficult to stay ahead of an audience because they are so smart. This was sort of my attempt to stay ahead of them as much as possible. The tone of the play would keep shifting. What was happening in the play would keep shifting. If we could do that then hopefully we’d all go on a ride together. How do you direct that? I don’t know is the answer. You just do your best.

AC: Is that your plan, Henry? Just do your best?

HW: (laughs) Yeah. Things that were useful about working with the cast of actors on Dance of Death I think will also be useful in working with the cast of actors on this show. I really feel like it’s their journey to plot. And that it’s really my intention to follow and to respond to them as they explore it. We’re so used to creating arcs. Creating gentle arcs through shows. And I think that this play wants to take those soft edges and make them much much sharper. As a director I can be encouraging the actors to just be bold and to play something right up against its opposite.

AC: Conor, in other interviews you’ve shared your feeling that we live in a giant mystery. Is that part of The Night Alive? Is living in mystery frightening, or can it be comforting?

CM: There’s a feeling of compassion around the play, where we watch these people sort of wrestling their desires to the ground. In a way perhaps it’s like a little picture of the world. The darkness of the theater and the audience is sort of God really, looking on with a kind of benevolent love towards what’s happening and with forgiveness. The darkness is the unknown. And the unknown is God. It’s the all-powerful thing you can’t know. I find something very comforting in that. But I don’t think belief is ever really based on arguments or reasons. It almost can’t be articulated really: that’s why you have to do a play.