I came to DC’s Studio Theatre to talk to Duncan Macmillan about his latest play, Lungs, which will be making the first part of its rolling world premier at Studio on October 2nd (it opens on the 19th in the U.K. ). The play itself focuses on a young couple agonizing about – here I’m stealing from the playbill — sex, parenthood, and responsibilities large and small.
The talk immediately gravitated to the topic of the end of the world. The bespectacled, youthful Mr. Macmillan, in his laid back, good-humored, British way, indicated that these days, it’s hard to get those issues off the stage.
“I was in London, and just before I got there, London was on fire, and was basically police-less because they were concentrated in various zones; and then flew through a hurricane to get here where an earthquake had just rattled the city. It feels…maybe end-times is a bit strong.”
Maybe not. According to the latest calculations of Reverend Harold Camping, the world is going to end on October 21st. Camping’s been wrong before. But the idea of end-times is no longer the exclusive property of self-appointed prophets or Tim LeHaye. In Lungs, at least, it has seeped into the casual conversation of a young, educated, and non-religious couple as they struggle with the decision to reproduce.
“The even bigger question of whether or not to become a parent makes one aware of how enormous that question [of the end-times] is. And perhaps our generation is the first one to have to face the question…what with overpopulation and the climate, what’s the world going to be like in fifty, sixty, seventy years.”
And why would we want our children to hang around long enough to find out? This particular reporter noted that he had a two year old. Macmillan says he’s childless, currently. But he and his fiancee have a cat.
Then he had a question: “Do you recommend..?”
“No, a two year old.”
I think carefully, because I’m supposed to be the one asking the question. That pretty much qualifies as a gotcha question. I mention that first, I’d recommend a one year old. And maybe a three year old to balance that off.
“Yeah, the terrible two’s, I hear about that.”
No, he was taking that completely out of context. What were we talking about?
Right. The play. First, this is a comedy. Macmillan emphasizes that Lungs is closer to a sitcom than to a tragedy.
“What I’m really interested in is people and very intimate moments of decision in peoples’ lives. It’s just when I look back at them, and work back, the plays seem to contain larger themes and larger issues and bigger questions, and not questions I know the answers to, but questions I feel like deserve to be asked.”
Larger themes, or inconvenient truths.
“Inconvenient truths, perhaps…As I say, it’s something I’ve been thinking about the last few years. I decided to become a writer when I was getting my undergraduate degree, so I applied for two masters programs and turned 21, and that was in 2001. I thought I wouldn’t be a particularly political writer. Then, in the wake of the events of 2001…everything was political.”
He wanted to write fairly funny plays, and didn’t want to be connected to a widely political context.
“But that’s become unavoidable for the last ten years. I think my generation of writers…including the British playwright Michael Bartlett, a good friend of mine, I think there’s a number of us who were politicized. All of our work, in the wake of 9/11 had to be in some way responsive to how we live nowadays. What are we?”
For Macmillan, who had just turned thirty, the question echoes.
“The play came in some ways out of the anxieties I had about turning thirty and moving on to the next part of my life. Trying to take more personal responsibility…getting engaged, getting a cat. These characters somehow embody the anxieties that I was trying to articulate…about how to be a good person, how to live a good life, how to be a good influence on the planet and to other people, in a time when good and bad doesn’t seem as clear cut as maybe it used to.”
I asked him, as a sort of Pinter-esque question, whether there was something, or a word or phrase that might have started him out on this topic. He mentions that he was in the middle of a large project – still in progress — and was getting “bogged down” with the practicalities. So he chose a stripped-down format.
“And I wanted to write something quickly that actors would really enjoy doing. We’ve got two really good actors here, Brooke Bloom and Ryan King. And there’s nothing getting in the way. There are no scene changes, no lighting changes, no props, no set changes, no costumes. A lot of what we accept as theatrical convention we want, bit by bit, pulled away. So it’s a ninety minute, unbroken piece of time, where two people are having a conversation. We see how that conversation evolves and adapts over what ultimately is fifty years of a relationship.”
And as a playwright, Macmillan says he’s focusing on the speech patterns – the way people juggle, say, turning thirty, shopping at IKEA, and the end times.
“We have certain conversations that we dip in and out of. Any time we happen to introduce certain images, we just leap back into it.”
Forces in our life, then, reveal themselves in conversations.
“There are moments when their intention will change halfway through a sentence. They’ll start on some tack, scare themselves, and then say the exact opposite. They overthink things. They’re very thoughtful people.”
And they are characters who are frequently paralyzed by their own thought process.
“They think that if you talk it through, if you think enough, if you read enough, if you contemplate every possible outcome, that inoculates you against having anything bad happen.”
And that’s not the truth. Either in world history, or in the decision to add to the population explosion.
“That’s what my friends, who’ve been parents, have said. If you think about it too much, you never do it.
His focus, then, is on the way people speak, as they juggle their ways through established narratives, memes, spins, and distractions. The fact that the play opens in the labyrinth of IKEA begins to make sense. People start one thought, and before they’re halfway through, they’ve bought a glow lamp.
“That’s how my characters talk. They will be constantly listening to themselves and self-editing.” Sometimes, language is a tactic, sometimes they talk in shorthand. That leaves out the lyrical monologues. “We don’t get those moments where someone gives a lecture about the theme of the play. It’s more about how they behave almost physically with the language they’re using.”
And why does this have to happen on stage?
“What we really want to see on stage is something happening, people making decisions. There being something clearly at stake for them. There’s a time pressure in which to make a decision. We need to see people behaving in unpredictable but truthful ways.”
As he and director Aaron Posner discussed the play over email – before Macmillan actually arrived in the U.S. – the conception of the play changed. “We decided that it had to be a combination, something between a standup comedy, a dance piece, and a wrestling match.”
So two actors on a floor made of reclaimed wood go at one another. The bare stage, for Macmillan, is that place. “It’s a microscope over people. It’s a way of saying, this is what we are, this is what we have to do.”
Not an easy thing to do these days. “Exactly. The atomization and fragmentation now, of how we sort out our information and how our identities are commodified. So to clear all that out and to have two actors on stage, with their physical presence, and that’s all you get. It’s asking for a particular quality of attention that I think is quite rare now.”
There are certainly things worth thinking about. “I think this is the first generation where, really, everyone – anyone – who’s making one of the most important decisions you can make – having a child – is inextricably linked with the biggest narrative you can think of: that of the species and the future of the planet. The awareness of uprising and riots and earthquakes and hurricanes.”
“The theatre is one of the last places we have left. It puts an oxygen bubble over the stage. It’s a place for real, coherent, continuous thought. Where we can encounter something unmediated by advertising or any particular agenda other than the playwrights’.”
Since Lungs inaugurates Studio’s Studio Lab series of world premiers, that message is something that both Macmillan and Studio Theatre’s new artistic director David Muse seem eager to send out.
John Barry is a Baltimore based theatre critic and writer.