Interview with Playwright Dakota Parobek

By Nate Ferguson, dramaturg

NF: What's your way in? What started you working on this play years ago, and what's your window into it world now that it's getting staged?

DP: The whole play started in 2014 with the image of Laika on the moon, that stuck with me. Initially the play was about that; how she got there and such. I was also really aware, while starting Smile Medicine, that I was writing like other people. I would read a lot of, for example, Sam Shepard and then write like Sam Shepard...

Oh, I can almost smell that even now in Smile Medicine.

Yeah, and that'll probably stick with me, I still love Sam. But all my plays up to that point were in a voice I couldn't identify as my own, it was me trying to be another writer. So I would just go to a lot of bookstores and grab random books and learn from them. One of them--Explaining Death to Children--really struck me because what a title, but then also there's transcriptions in there of someone explaining death to children. So that got me interested in found text in a play, and what that does, including music which I hadn't done before. Smile became a collage of things that interested me at the time. Laika opened the door and I shoved a bunch of stuff inside, including the grief I was dealing with at the time for having lost a friend.

And when revisiting it in 2019--since I had rewritten it once before already--I was going back to my journals and notes from that time, and taking a microscope to questions that I had never answered at the time. For example, Oleg and Laika never actually had a scene together until the previous rewrite. Revisiting the past like that just made it feel almost like a new play. And I don't think revision on a play ever really ends for me either.

There's an interesting meta-question in there too, for a play about death, when does the script 'die' and become fixed? When the author does?

Absolutely. Because the process of history keeps recontextualizing even a play that stops getting edited.

People don't really like putting Julius Caesar on in togas anymore, for example.

Like that, yes, the obvious and visible, but the poetry of the language too. Tastes change around that, even someone like Tennesee Williams was groundbreaking and experimental when now they're just classics living in that similar realm to Shakespeare.

I'd like to go back to this idea of the play coming together from all the little fragments of things that interested you, as it's hard to see Smile as having a singular focus in the same way. But does it? Do all the separate roots of inspiration build up to a singular trunk, or is it more of a network of ideas?

They are all swirling around some sort of center. Specifically, grief and loss, and using the tool of the Peanuts to investigate what it means to grieve, what about mental illness complicates that process... I've been approached by other people on the production team lately and I've been told that the play is really coming together along those lines, and I'm glad it's getting more and more clear to people other than me.

It's funny because I'd also have been willing to accept it as an entirely diffuse play, something that exists in several separate-but-overlapping areas.

And it does have kind of a foot in either camp. I like letting in a lot of different questions, and letting different ideas sit while the emotional momentum holds everything together. At the time I was listening to experimental composers like John Zorn, who puts a work together out of a bunch of different phrases, and they do cohere as a piece, but they also really aren't 'meant' to go together. It's not just proximity that holds them together. And I like that kind of gray area of composition, and you've seen it in my other plays, how I couldn't help but bring whimsical dreams into an otherwise very grim and serious play.

And you can also see a distinct central focus in terms of image and aesthetic. All the subject matter you've based the details of the play on--Peanuts, the Soviet space program, Roy Orbison--all coexisted in a very particular period in history. Is the play at least, in part, about that cultural snapshot? Or is the period there to evoke a certain mood?

I think you could view it as a snapshot of that time, but from the viewpoint of present moment. I didn't want to make it realistically set in the 50s because of certain scenes that are distinctly contemporary. But I am really interested in the phenomenon of looking back at a specific time. Maybe it's nostalgia--I can't say I have nostalgia for the 50s--but looking back on it elicits something that I'm still finding emotional relevance in.

And you really don't have any real ideas or social interactions happening as if it were the 50s, it's just the image of the 50s overlaid on the story you've already written. There's something unique there that has to be felt rather than intellectualized.

That's fair, though it almost feels insufficient for me to just say that it's something you just have to feel out.

But art has a right to work that way! I think it's fine to say 'this work of art lives in your gut and not in your head.'

And that's part of my process, I'm trying to 'collapse' history in a postmodern sense, I'm not just pasting the actual Oleg Gazenko in there, it's the idea of who might regretfully send a dog into space. It's a fascinating process, being able to grab from two times at once and have them live in the same place, taking up different spaces. Like how I don't need to take language from the past even as I invite in visuals and facts from the past.

There is, though, an element of the history play--or maybe a documentary play--in here, but it's not actually in the 50s, it's in your personal experience with the process of grieving and your life at a particular time. How much of the scenes grounded in reality are observational, as opposed to imagined?

I can point to certain situations in particular. The anarchists especially, that came out of my interactions with the Occupy movement at the time trying to interact with other anarchists, and my problems with that particular scene. Of course I'm hyperbolizing it, I'm making it a Three Stooges type deal, but it's not just me sitting in a room making up people.

It's probably helpful to know my general process; I don't really do any structuring beforehand when I start writing. I gather a bunch of things that I want to use as a basis, and I like to start from what feels like a beginning and work my way through a play without planning. I end up writing a bunch of false paths and rewriting things before it's all done.

And I can't imagine it's easy to remember either, 'oh yeah, this is exactly what people were saying that one time I was really sad at the grocery store and the self-checkout was broken,' and then write that. That's either an extremely distinct memory or a complete blur.

A lot of it is a complete blur. It's about the feeling of being in public, in that state, and what it feels like--that it feels like you're being yelled at by people, even if you really aren't.

It was interesting to see that develop too, because that was the one sequence where I was sitting in the runs, and other people involved were laughing at the scenario, and I was really confused how anyone could laugh at those scenes. I knew that space, and it was so relentlessly real that I just couldn't find that humor. Weirdly enough, that only changed when they added in the music.

Music really does do something weird to you. I definitely hadn't written it with the idea of brutalizing the audience, I didn't want it to be painful.

It's a funny catch-22 almost, though, that the people who are most likely to be brutalized by it are the people with the most personal experience with the subject matter.

There's a couple things that are happening when people laugh at that too. I remember, in the reading, some lines were coming from the very specific emotional vocabulary when you're in that dark night of the soul, and people were laughing. So I thought: That's really weird, I wonder why they laughed. And that excited me, because it meant I wasn't alienating people, so that laugh felt like a release.

Like looking into a mirror and noticing something you never realized about yourself.

It is a mirror in some ways. And I'm curious, because sometimes I'm worried whether the mirror is inverted--whether when someone laughs, they're laughing at or laughing with the moment.

The challenge of any production is how to bring the audience to the exact right place. And in this case, again, I think the live music ends up being the tool to do that.

It's neat because back when this was just a reading, we were still getting laughs in the same areas. But I realized, earlier this week, when thinking on what's actually different from this as a reading and the full production, and I had never considered that when it's a reading, the script is its own character. The script is on stage, it's more than a prop, the flipping is doing something. I wonder if there's something there too.

Speaking of scripts: Are there any textual sources or outside inspirations that you pulled into this, but didn't end up explicitly represented in the play?

I think that has to be the case, but I'm struggling to bring one to mind. It's happened, but I'm not sure I could list any one source. If you were to see my bookshelf, it's crammed with a bunch of detritus. 20% of it is plays, 50% is reference books or poetry or reference books or other things.

Understandable. But there's also something working in the opposite direction, in that every play of yours that I've seen carries a certain set of images in common. You always find a way to bring the moon in, you almost always make a character out of some historical figure from the 20th century, and they're probably a ghost, things like that. Is that a sort of artist's signature, or is it a shorthand you've found helps you access certain ideas in each play?

It's something I'm aware of, and hearing Smile again, even things like the image of a bottomless pit, I notice in this and then see it in my other plays, along with the moon and ghosts and all that... But I wouldn't say it's intentional. On some level I'm afraid of it, because I don't want to repeat myself.

But this play is about Laika and Oleg in a very, very different way than some of your other plays are about Lorca or the Wright brothers or Emma Goldman. They're all very different takes on the idea.

It's true. And part of it comes from my place of not really planning or structuring a play before I write. When I'm writing, I want to live in the writing, and not stop myself with research. Almost like packing my bags and going on a journey, and then only coming to the facts when I need supplies. I wonder what it is to write the same play over and over again--is it the same story arc with different characters, or the same characters in a different story? I can't really say that's the case with my work.

And for me it's all on the level of image, it doesn't make plays the same to use the same images. You can be flippant, 'oh sure another Dakota Parobek play about existing while sad told through the ghosts of some name you know from a history book,' but that's just being reductive on purpose. It's not shameful to have a signature.

There's a quote by a musician I really like--John Linnell of They Might Be
Giants--"there's nothing interesting about public crying." I heard this in high school and it stuck with me. And the idea of repetition is interesting to me anyway. What happens when you say something over and over, but mess with the syntax every time? There's an element of that in all my plays.

So finally: Is there anything that didn't come up here that you'd want an audience to know?

I feel like the angels say it all in the front matter. I'm being very earnest in all of this, even when the dialogue is super clunky. When the angels tell you that they're glad you could make it; I do want to thank people for being here at this moment, now.