Creating a Western: The Writing and Direction of Sandalwood
Today we speak with Tympanic Artistic Director and Sandalwood author, Dan Caffrey, and Tympanic Artistic Associate and Sandalwood Director, Aaron Henrickson:
Tympanic Theatre: What made Sandalwood a good fit for Tympanic? Why produce this show?
Dan Caffrey: [W]hen it comes to Tympanic producing my work, I try to remain as objective as I can about it. I mean, of course I'm biased toward it, but it's usually just a manner of handing it to our Literary Manager, Chris [Acevedo], and letting him make the final decision on whether we should mount it or not. Although he and I work together when deciding on work by other writers, it wouldn't be fair of me to constantly push my own script. That being said, I wouldn't submit it in the first place if I didn't think it was a good fit for the company. I've written scripts that I knew weren't ready for a production, or even remotely right for Tympanic, so I keep them hidden away in an old trunk that can only be opened by a skeleton key. Or an actual skeleton. WITH A KEY!
TT: What sparked the concept for this play, and what kinds of challenges did you face as the play got up on its feet?
The play actually came out of the Playwrights Initiative at Endstation Theatre Company in Sweet Briar, VA, which is run by some good, talented buddies of mine I went to college with. And the specific exercise that spawned the play is based on a thing they do at Yale called the Bake Off. But at Endstation, we call it Posthaste. The way it works is that all the playwrights in the room (three on this particular year, I think) throw five ingredients into a hat that they'd like to see in a play. They can be anything, really. Then everyone draws a few ingredients from the hat, and we all have to write a script with those things in them. These elements don't have to make it to the final draft by any means. It's more of a way to get the creative juices (mine are in my pancreas) flowing. A smarter and more articulate person could probably tie it back to The Five Obstructions or something.
I wish I could remember what the ingredients were that inspired Sandalwood, but my mind is blank. I'd be surprised if they're all still in there. But the one that did stick was just the word "Puppet." Someone wrote that as an ingredient, and it stuck with me. I had this idea of a wooden marionette escaping his creator and doing terrible things. And that made me think of Pinocchio, so I went with this whole Western version of Pinocchio thing. I was rereading all of Cormac McCarthy's books at the time, so that's where the Western angle came from. I'm not comparing myself at all to him since he's an unequivocal genius, but there are definitely some direct tips of the hat to Blood Meridian in Sandalwood. I actually don't know if I used "unequivocal" correctly just now. Oh well.
But yeah, all these weird sort of elements—Pinocchio, Blood Meridian, etc.—came together, and that's how the play got started. In the beginning, I was trying to do more of a direct adaptation of Pinocchio with corresponding characters and everything. That got a little too crazy though, and, after a few workshops, I decided it was best to write my own story. Pinocchio's certainly still a big part of it, but you couldn't open the two texts and match them up to each other.
As for challenges, there weren't a ton on my end once we started rehearsals, because the script was almost where I wanted it to be for production. That's not to say it's perfect. It's not. But I worked on it off and on for about three years before we cast the thing, so I knew it was in a place where we could get right to work once we had a cast. It's also a pretty simple narrative in terms of chronology and action, and our wonderful group of actors spoke the language right away. Aaron and the designers kick ass too, so I felt my work was pretty much done (for the time being) once they got their grubby, talented little hands on it. I'll probably make more revisions after we close though. I think it's good for playwrights to do that after any first production.
TT: Are you a Western fan? Any favorites?
Our Assistant Director, Chris Waldron (who also created the badass trailer!), asked me that when we first started rehearsing, as he watches a lot of Westerns. At first I told him no, but once I started naming all the Westerns I love, I realized I was a Western fan! I think the reason I initially said I wasn't is because I hate some of the old tropes that get associated with Western cinema. Everyone looks to clean and colorful. And I really don't like John Wayne as an actor, even in True Grit. I'm no historian on the genre, but the first dirty looking Western I remember seeing is Once Upon A Time In The West. That's one of my favorite films of all time. So much of it is about atmosphere as opposed to machismo, corny one-liners or a false sense of honor.
I think that's another thing that really bugs me about some of the older Westerns—the idea that it's all about honor and no one is flawed. Once again, I'm no expert, but it seems to me that most people in the old West didn't have a ton of genuine honor. If you read about Wyatt Earp, you come across all sorts of stories about him getting loaded and robbing stagecoaches. That's the Western I'm interested in. Everyone in Sandalwood has something dark inside them. Hell, everyone on this planet has something dark inside them. So I guess at the end of the day, my shorter, more readable answer to your question is: I love Westerns where the heroes are just as flawed and morally questionable as the villains. The ones that come to mind are Once Upon A Time In The West, Unforgiven, and even The Quick And The Dead. Oh! And Dead Man. I think Dead Man's stylistically the closest to Sandalwood out of those. They're both selectively violent, slow by design, a little bizarre, and have possible elements of the fantastical.
Finally, I like a lot of films that take elements from Westerns, but maybe aren't Westerns in the traditional sense: No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Road Warrior, you get the picture.
TT: Why should people come see Sandalwood?
It's cheap and we're all really proud of it. Seriously, I'm so happy with how the whole thing came together, and I'd love for as many folks to see it as possible. I guess that's not really a reason people should see it as much as it's a plug. But please, come see it! We want you to.
TT: How did you get involved with the production and/or Decide to mount this production?
Aaron Henrickson: Dan & I have worked together many times before and he sent me a draft of the play, and I immediately knew I wanted to direct it. We put together a staged reading & then we were very fortunate to bring back much of the same cast in this co-production with Tympanic & the side project.
TT: What about this play excites you?
I'm very intrigued by the tone of the play, and that it raises more questions than answers about the law of unintended consequences & man's capacity for selfish destruction.
TT: How about you? Are you a Western fan? Any favorites?
Of course! I like The Wild Bunch, The Searchers, & There Will Be Blood.
TT: And why should people come see Sandalwood?
It's very unique - the Western genre is rarely explored onstage & the performances & world we have created are extremely compelling. On the surface, the story is very simple, but it evokes complex emotions & raises disturbing questions.