Christopher Shinn got his lucky break at age 23. He sent a script on spec to London’s prestigious Royal Court, and three months later, with the successful premiere of Four in 1998, his career as a playwright was launched. Three other plays would premiere in London—two at the Court, one at the Soho Theater—but it was two years before anything by the Hartford-born writer was seen in this country, and not till last July that Four received its New York premiere at the Worth Street Theater. Now the Atlantic tide seems to have turned. Shinn’s latest, What Didn’t Happen, currently being presented by Playwrights Horizons, becomes his first play to receive its world premiere in America.
Four, one of approximately 3000 unsolicited scripts received annually at the Court, happily arrived just when the theater was planning a festival of new writing by under-25-year-olds. But Shinn’s sensitively told tale of a quartet of lonely people trying to make connections on a holiday evening also heralded an unusually precocious new talent. Dominic Cooke, associate director at the Royal Court, describes Shinn as a “very subtle writer with great compassion and generosity of spirit,” and notes that the young playwright’s work fits perfectly with Court founding director George Devine’s vision of work that “probes the problems and possibilities of our time.” Commenting on the play’s spare writing and intuitive theatricality, Jeff Cohen, who directed Four at the Worth and then at Manhattan Theatre Club, says, “It felt like it was coming from a place of inspiration, and not something which had been toiled over for years and years.”
Even prior to the Court, Shinn had established a relationship of sorts with Playwrights Horizons while enrolled in Columbia University’s M.F.A. program. “They were the first to take note of me,” says Shinn. “Their rejection letters from when I was 19 or 20 were beautifully and sensitively written and kept me writing.” Playwrights produced Shinn’s second play, Other People, immediately following its London debut in 2000, but when Shinn offered them his next work, artistic director Tim Sanford turned it down. “I thought that he had bitten off more than he could chew,” recalls Sanford. A few years later, however, Sanford took the unusual step of reading a new draft of the same work, and gave the green light for production. That play is What Didn’t Happen. “What interests me is the evidence of growth,” says Sanford. “Chris is really stretching himself.” The Playwrights Horizons production is directed by Michael Wilson with a cast that features, among others, Chris Noth, Matt McGrath, and Steven Skybell.
Shinn, who lives on the Lower East Side, began working on What Didn’t Happen almost immediately after Four debuted at the Court. “It sounds odd, but I was traumatized by my experience in London,” he says. “I was very frightened that I didn’t know anything and couldn’t dare call myself a writer. I started re-reading the canon of major plays and started thinking about my training and how I had developed as an artist. I wanted to write about what it felt to be an apprentice.” Shinn’s play explores the relationship between a fledging writer and his mentor, an older and acclaimed writer working through demons of his own. Along with his New York teachers Tony Kushner, David Greenspan, and Maria Irene Fornes, Shinn also cites the work of two Court alumni, Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond, as major influences on his own writing.
“There is something incredibly decadent about a culture that approves of 18-year-olds studying novel writing or playwriting when you could argue that the time could be better spent reading,” says Shinn. “One of the functions of M.F.A. programs is to provide the young writer with contacts, opportunities to network and flirt with successful writers and get their secrets. I have certainly benefited from that system, but it is a very odd way to become an artist.” Shinn now makes a living as a full-time writer, but “just barely,” he qualifies, adding that he still owes money to friends that he can’t afford to pay back.
Shinn’s particular strengths—an uncanny theatrical instinct and a strong moral viewpoint—cannot be acquired in a classroom. “I write with the gap between text and performer in mind,” Shinn explains. “Anything a performer can do with a twitch of the eye or lilt in the voice, I don’t have to write as a line of dialogue.” According to Sanford, the “primary motor” of Shinn’s work is politics. “Chris has a real hunger to tackle the world and understand one’s place in it.” Last May, Shinn’s response to 9-11, Where Do We Live, which examines a racially and politically divided New York, premiered at the Royal Court. “I love his conviction that political theater need not proselytize, not surrender subtlety and delicacy to anger and outrage and even advocacy,” says Kushner, who taught Shinn as an undergraduate at NYU.
With the luxury of six actual productions (of four) of his plays under his belt, the 27-year-old writer says his learning has only just begun. “You begin to sense how people watch plays, how they put together information, process emotion, shift perspective from one character to another, and how they remove themselves to see a larger perspective.” The key is realizing who ultimately calls the shots in the theater: “One night you get the audience in tears, the other night they can’t wait to get out of the theater. That’s the way it goes,” says Shinn with a shrug. “I think it’s a very human art form—invariably what people bring to it is more important than what you are attempting to give them. It’s very humbling to see how little power you actually have.”