Playwright Shinn talks about his prod’ns

Writer busy with RSC, Royal Court commissions

HOLLYWOOD — A day before his play “On the Mountain” opens at South Coast Rep, busy young playwright Christopher Shinn discussed that work and other projects on his docket.

“Mountain” grew out of Shinn’s reading Henry James’ “The Aspern Papers.” “I thought this would make a good play,” he explained, “and I’ve never really updated a story before,” so it was an interesting challenge. That first version, a contempo melodrama inspired by the book, “worked in its own way, but I felt dissatisfied, so I put it away for a while.” A while later, another draft “radically changed it,” but it still wasn’t right, though it was “less melodramatic.” Finally, after another rewrite, “the play emerged.”

Reading the novella “unsettled” Shinn, he said, “as to the question of whether I was loved or not, whether I was loved upon this earth.” Writing in order to answer that question, he penned a play that at its core is “about a girl who is coming to understand that she’s not loved.”

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Mark Rucker directs at SCR, where Daisy Eagan stars as a teenager raised by her thirtysomething mother whose rock-star lover killed himself when the girl was a baby. The play shares its name with a song, written by Kurt Cobain just months before he committed suicide, that became the center of a legal battle between Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and the remaining members of his band, Nirvana.

“I had never written a family play, and that’s a great rite of passage for an American playwright,” Shinn said.

Shinn heads to New York on Tuesday for the start of rehearsals of the Playwrights Horizons production of “Mountain,” directed by Jo Bonney.

In addition to commissions he’s already working on for Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, he has been commissioned to write plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s Royal Court. (Although he admitted, “I’m notorious for being very late,” he said the Hartford work is going well.)

The RSC wants a play about fundamentalism in America, a subject Shinn finds “very, very daunting. What’s exciting about the RSC is they have a huge company, and I can be really ambitious if I want to be and write a large-cast play.” Cautioning that “it’s going to take a long time” to research, he said, “I want to capture that not from the outsider’s perspective. I really want the play to be about and be within that world.”

For the Royal Court, which produced the world preems of Shinn’s “Other People” and “Where Do We Live,” he’s working on a play that deals with the war in Iraq. “I’ve been struggling with that, and I think I’ve found my in. Right now it’s a two-hander,” he said.

Both plays touch on subjects much in today’s news, but Shinn cautioned that the notion of topicality sometimes can be “artificial, kind of media-driven. The problem in Iraq has been going on for a very long time; the problem of fundamentalism in America is going to be with us for a very long time. Just because the media may wear out their interest in those subjects doesn’t mean they lose their importance to our lives.”