Will Arbery is a playwright from Texas + Wyoming. Plano premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks in June 2018, and it was re-mounted to critical acclaim by Clubbed Thumb in April 2019 at the Connelly Theater. Heroes of the Fourth Turning will have its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in September 2019, directed by Danya Taymor. Evanston Salt Costs Climbing premiered at New Neighborhood/White Heron in August 2018. Wheelchair is published by 3 Hole Press. He’s currently under commission from Playwrights Horizons. He’s a member of The Working Farm at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a resident at Colt Coeur, a member of Youngblood, and an alum of Clubbed Thumb’s Early Career Writers Group. His plays have been developed at Clubbed Thumb, Playwrights Horizons, New York Theater Workshop, The Vineyard, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Cape Cod Theater Project, The New Group, EST/Youngblood, The Bushwick Starr, Alliance/Kendeda, and Tofte Lake Center. Dance work: Pioneer Works, MCA Chicago, Watermill Center. MFA: Northwestern. BA: Kenyon College.
IN PROCESS: Talking with Will Arbery
SCE Commissioned Work: SINGING TO MYSELF follows Ginny, a 30 year-old woman with Down syndrome, as she begins taking music lessons from a prickly outsider artist in a small Texas town. A play about unlikely collaboration and creating through grief.
TP: Without giving too much away, can you briefly outline the story, characters, and central relationship in the play?
WA: SINGING TO MYSELF is a play about Ginny, a 30 year-old woman with Down syndrome who's living with her older sister after the death of their mother. Her sister, Chrissy, is a hard-working woman in a small Texas town, and she doesn't have the time to tend to her sister full-time. Ginny grows depressed, spending most of her days on her iPad, watching Disney Channel shows, and dreaming of being a pop star. Desperate to get Ginny out her funk, Chrissy sets Ginny up with an artist, Lot, who lives outside of town in a shack. Lot is rough around the edges, wounded and raw, but kind. He's an artist-of-all-trades, making distinct music, sculpture, paintings. Despite unproductive initial sessions, he and Ginny form a bond, and more than that, they inspire each other to make beautiful work. What follows is the simple tale of two outsiders making music together.
TP: It sounds like you're looking forward to approaching SINGING TO MYSELF as a bit of a departure from some of your recent work? Is that accurate, and if so, how?
WA: That is accurate. Much of my recent work has been intense, weird, a bit self-loathing, and dark. PLANO is a wild, time-traveling ghost story play, WHEELCHAIR is a dirge, and HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING is a gut-punch about the political divide. My recent work has required excavating my whiteness, as well examining the conservatism and faith I was asked to inherit. It's been a bit grueling! When I learned about ShadowCatcher's mission to make work with "hope, humor, and heart," I realized how eager I was to create something simple and straightforward. I'm sure it will still be informed by the more political work I've done lately, but it won't tackle those themes directly. I want to make something lovely, contained, and optimistic.
TP: This story is inspired in part by your sister, Julia, who has Down syndrome. SCE's always been attracted to stories drawn from deeply personal experience, and while SINGING TO MYSELF isn't strictly speaking autobiographical, do you know yet how will your sister's experience, and your relationship, will inform the play?
WA: Yes, absolutely. I'm so inspired by Julia, and I write about her all the time. I grew up the only boy among seven sisters. I was the second-to-youngest, and Julia was directly above me in age. Having Julia as my sister, friend, and hero became essential to the work that I do. She was crucial in developing the way I see, the way I use language, and the way I love. This play is inspired by the time Julia and I made a short film together on my parents' property in Wyoming. She performed the lead role, and she was excellent. The experience of making the film was hilarious and exhausting and fun. Even though SINGING TO MYSELF is about the act of creating music, rather than a film, I'll be drawing on those memories.
TP: Music is an important element in the play. Can you share some of extraordinary music and artists inspiring you as references for this piece and talk about the role of music in this story?
WA: I would love to share some of the musical inspirations! I've been diving into "outsider music" for this play, and I've been particular inspired by: Gaelynn Lea. Arthur Russell. Vic Chesnutt. Johnnie Frierson. Blaze Foley. I like songs where you can feel the air in the room in which they were recorded. I like music created against all odds, created in the (sometimes freeing) pigeonhole of obscurity. I've never written a play with music before, so this will be an exciting new challenge. A lot of Ginny's dive into music-making will be reflections of my own dive!
TP: Are there unique challenges to developing a story with a fully dimensional disabled character at its center? From an inclusion and representation perspective, do you have specific goals for the piece - or tropes you specifically want to avoid?
WA: Yes, there are certainly challenges. This is a mode I've worked in before. I created my play WHEELCHAIR for the performer Matthew S. Joffe, who has a spinal condition as well as a rare neurological disorder called Moebius syndrome, which limits his ability to use the musculature in his face. The fixed nature of his face has led to many misconceptions in his life, such as the idea that he's intellectually disabled, or asexual. Matthew wanted the play to examine his sexuality, and so it did. He also wanted to be portrayed not as helpless but autonomous, not as innocent but complicated. That process gave me the confidence to build a theatrical play around a performer with Down syndrome. There are sort of three misconceptions about people with Down syndrome. One is that they're cherubic balls of light who exist in that mode 24/7, and who exist to cheer other people up. Another is that their life is more challenging or somehow less-than, something to be hidden away or institutionalized. Still, a third: that they're asexual. I'm looking forward to breaking all of these notions down. I'll accomplish that by approaching this character the same way I approach Julia -- matter-of-fact, with a lot of love, and on her own terms.
TP: Although one of its central characters has Down syndrome, SINGING TO MYSELF isn't conceived as a play about disability. If there's a unifying theme or core idea you want to communicate through this story, what is it?
WA: Right, it's not a play about disability. The goal of the play is not to teach the audience something about living with Down syndrome. Rather, there is a crucial act of representation at the center: yes, the actress playing Ginny must have Down syndrome. But the plot does not revolve around the character of Ginny having Down syndrome. This play is about the act of collaboration, and the healing power of creating art through grief. It's about the feeling of being an outsider. It's about creativity despite limitation, and friendship against all odds.