Phoenix is a writer’s city. Literature isn’t an export we’re known for, but quality wordsmiths abound in the Valley of the Sun. Poets, playwrights, novelists, storytellers – anyone keen to hear or read interesting, original literary works in Arizona won’t be hard-pressed to find them. Perhaps it’s the weather: Scalding heat is a great motivator for staying home and grinding away at that manuscript in your drawer.
When it comes to singling out unique voices, writers whose work couldn’t have been conceived by anyone else, one local author immediately comes to mind: Chris Danowski.
A faculty member at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Danowski has been teaching theater, media, and performance art to ASU students for years. A prolific playwright and performance artist, he’s presented his work in Brooklyn, Dublin, Berlin, and Krakow as well as in Phoenix. He was the artistic director for Theater In My Basement (TIMB) for over a decade; TIMB was the kind of ensemble that would hold plays in living rooms, who would encourage audience members to chase after them as they ran from one venue to another. Since the dissolution of TIMB, Danowski became a founding member of Howl Theatre Project (who would also do their avant-garde plays as “house shows” in ensemble members’ homes).
What makes Danowski’s work as a playwright, poet, and prose writer stand out is his deft mix of high and low culture. Danowski is the kind of erudite thinker who can weave Dada, surrealism, Godard, and Vodoun into conversations and lines of dialogue onstage. He’s also the kind of writer who casually throws in Sailor Moon references, dresses his cast up as characters from How I Met Your Mother, and randomly breaks out in singalongs of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” Even at his most esoteric and dense, there’s enough levity and sheer goofiness in his work to make you not care if you aren’t “getting it.”
Esoteric and dense aren’t necessarily words that can be used to describe his new book, DOGSEAR. Coming out this month, it’s the first publication from local imprint Hoot 'n' Waddle. DOGSEAR is a short and sweet collection of writings that defy genre. They shift from the poetic, dreamy reminisces of a dog to short play scenes of legendary Greek bard Orpheus bro-ing out with his bros. Prose gives way to poetry and vice-versa until the difference between the two forms become irrelevant. The book is a meditation on a myriad of subjects: the passing of time; generational divides; past relationships; the ghosts we carry with us. It’s also, at times, very funny and moving.
Complementing Danowski’s words are illustrations by his daughter, Elli Danowski-Underiner. Wavy-lined black and white drawings, they have a playful energy that enhances Danowski’s work. That playful spirit is what makes Danowski succeed where so many other avant-garde writers fail: Experimentation and mind-fucking go down so much smoother when you give people permission to have fun with it.
I had a chance to talk with Danowski about his new book. Over the course of our conversation, the playwright (who will be moving to England later this month) talked about preposterous stage directions, wounded dogs, spirit possession, and what it's like to raise his own illustrator.
One thing that really struck me about DOGSEAR is the blend of formats: playwriting, prose, poetry. What was your process like for putting this book together? Are these different styles of writing compiled and pulled from other things you've done in the past. I remember seeing you do poetry features at Caffeine Corridor and I've been to some of your Monsters shows; some of these pieces remind me of things you read or performed at those events.
The process for DOGSEAR and the readings at Caffeine Corridor and other events (in Phoenix and Berlin and Krakow) and the plays – there’s definitely a relationship there. First, for me, what is always first is live performance; I mean, that’s the thing I do that to me feels most elemental and most vital. When all the pieces are coming together. When I’m working on making live performances, I like to write other things, because it’s sort of an outlet for what I guess you could call surplus — if that’s not too Lacanian, haha.
I was putting together this book when TIMB and Howl were putting on Monsters of the Sea. It was a very intense time, personally and artistically, with love and death and everything in between, where I was lucky to be working with people who were very receptive and encouraging me to develop a method for blending ritual and performance in a way that I’d been working toward for years. There was a lot going on, so I needed to kind of blow off steam with short bursts of writing, and that kind of writing always depended on the energy that was around.
I hear things — not in, like, hearing voices that think they’re talking to me and I’m not sure if they’re human or mermaid, but I hear voices inside my head, I always have, and over the years I have learned to listen. And when I am going through something emotional, or some experience that feels metaphorical as well as actual, the voices inside my head can be extremely poetic, or sometimes very funny. They’ll start whispering something that makes me feel touched or gets me giggling, so I stop and write this down — like dictation. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who makes art this way, and what I’m describing might be a metaphor for how I create things, even though I honestly believe my metaphor.
With the readings at Caffeine Corridor and elsewhere, it’s a chance for me to collect my writings from the past few months and read them out loud. I’m always looking for patterns that might help me to see what just happened, who I’ve been, who I’m becoming, what kinds of myths and stories are happening in the lives of the people I love the most. I’m not sure why, but I’m honored to get asked to do these readings, because it’s a great opportunity for me to turn whatever navel-gazing impulses I might have into something that’s perhaps more meaningful to someone hearing it for the first time.
What was it like seeing how Elli interpreted your work with her art? Did you have any input on that end of things? Her style really complements the writing: There’s something wavy and discombobulated about it, like a piece of Rotoscope art. It really suits the vibe of the book.
Ever since she was very little, she was drawing. I remember lots of times, when she was 8 or so, where we’d ask her if she wanted to take courses in art. She always responded with something like, “No, because I don’t want anyone else to influence my style.” Now she is actually taking art classes and she loves it, but for most of her childhood and young adulthood she was developing this style that was charming and ironic. Lots of her drawings make me laugh. I thought they’d make a great pairing with my words, which are sometimes or even often not so much writing as writing about writing. And her drawings are often comments on drawing: how we see what we see.
I didn’t really guide her or direct her in any way other than raising her. I mean, I imagine being my child would be a little weird — that’s enough input for anyone.
I’ve always been curious about how you approach stage directions in your playwriting. I remember attending one of your TIMB play readings and being astounded by how complex the stage directions were: One of them talked about stars exploding and universes forming. They were so elaborate and poetic, to the point that I couldn’t even conceive how these pieces would actually be staged in a non-reading format. Is that something you do on purpose? Are some of your plays explicitly meant to be narrated/done as readings? Or is it like a Strindberg thing, where you’ve written “impossible plays” and the goal is to see if people can pull it off?
As an undergrad, I remember reading Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions and thinking how ridiculous they were. I get it — that some playwrights like to control all aspects of the production. I’ve always been so much happier when I don’t control all aspects of the production; Some of my favorite moments in making these plays have been when divergent ideas and perspectives come to clash in performance, especially when they can exist in the same moment without destroying each other. It’s like living in those cultural places where people can have different ideas about the world and they don’t try to kill each other over it.
A few years later I came across this Polish avant-garde playwright, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and he writes these impossible long stage directions that seem to be making fun of O’Neill. They’re so funny and offer this very useful metacommentary on the play and make you think about theater and how it works while you’re engaged with it. I just fell in love with that. And then later I read Erik Ehn’s plays, with some impossible stage directions.
For me, it’s not so much about a challenge to the director or actors or whatever, but a dialogue with them. Because first of all, if I can make fun of my own text, and not take it too seriously, then I hope this gives them permission to do the same. But it’s also kind of a "reveal code" moment, where they get to see some of my meta-codes and meta-language when I’m writing, so when they’re performing from inside of it they have a privileged view, they know more than the audience. And they should know more than the audience. I mean, we should have secrets. When we’re performing, we should have secrets, and some secrets get revealed in the performance, and some secrets aren’t revealed and will have to remain mysterious.
I know you have a deep interest and involvement with Afro-Caribbean forms of spirituality. I was curious how that influences/shapes your work. The style of acting I’ve seen you and your performers do reminds me at times of loa possession: The way one minute y’all can be mannered and relaxed and suddenly shift into these ecstatic, exaggerated states of being.
The style of acting that I’ve been developing, with the help of all my collaborators and the guidance of my academic supervisors, is hard to describe in a nutshell. But there are ontologies in African-influenced spiritual systems that come through Cuba and Puerto Rico to the rest of the Americas, specifically Lukumi and Palo, where the dead, the spirits of ancestors, can speak through the living by inhabiting them. And there are highly developed techniques for this kind of mediumship. I’m looking at the metaphors of mediumship and applying them to western theatrical ontologies whereby an actor can be taken over by a character.
In a sense, it’s part of a larger thrust toward decolonizing performance traditions; in this case, decolonizing them from conceptions of consciousness that are essentially Western in their psychological orientation. I’ve found that the notion that the dead speak through us, even those of us who may not have ever been exposed to these kinds of things, is a very powerful one, and for an actor, very useful. The traditions influence the work absolutely, because they influence everything about how I see and understand the world.
So for me, part of my own process of decolonization has been in making the connection between those unusual moments in performance where everything is suddenly very charged, and very present, kind of like what Lorca refers to as duende—which, not coincidentally can translate as ghost. And those moments that Michael Atwood Mason refers to as “ritual flow.” Considering these moments in tandem, and considering them as if a ghost, or spirit of the dead were present—That lead to some very interesting rabbit holes to me, and that’s where I’ve been living for the past few years. I honestly don’t see an end to it; the idea of ghosts is fascinating to me. And honoring the dead is always just such a nice thing to do.
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Getting back to DOGSEAR: What’s the significance of the title?
That, for me, is like a metaphor of this moment. This time, this period of time that is about to close, or maybe already closed, or maybe it will close when I get on the plane, I don’t know. But it’s a very sacred and special time, when I was shedding lots of skin, dealing with lots of ghosts: ancestral ghosts, as well as ghosts of lost loves or me becoming a ghost lost at sea – all those kinds of things. And there’s a desire to wrap it up and hold it close, or at least mark it, like put a dog ear on this time so I can go back to replay it when I’m someone else.
And DOGSEAR is a good title for a book without page numbers. Also, there’s so much dog in it. By the way, the dog is Jake the Dog — a rescue dog that we adopted ... It’s important to mention here that I took Jake to a dog park once, the one on Indian School, and some other anxious little dog felt threatened by Jake and bit her on the ear and actually bit a little piece off! She was bleeding all over the place and just didn’t seem to care; she just wanted to play with the other dog. I’m kind of like that, too: I get hurt and don’t show it and go on for awhile, but then you know, it shows, I have pieces missing and it shows.
DOGSEAR Book Launch. With live music by Mike Pfister and Danowski. 5 p.m. Saturday, September 15, at the Hive, 2222 North 16th Street; facebook.com/events/1792411950795917/. There will be live music by Mike Pfister and Danowski.