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Twenty Questions with Dahn Hiuni

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Dahn Hiuni's play Murmurs & Incantations will be performed at FringeNYC

We caught up with Dahn Hiuni (’96 M.F.A. Visual Arts, ’05 Ph.D. Art Education) in advance of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), which begins on August 12. His play, Murmurs & Incantations, will be one of only about a dozen full-length plays featured at the festival. The work is a multi-media production that “tells the story of a gay, New York performance artist with creative block who fatefully travels to Poland in an attempt to revive his art career, only to be further confounded by the disapproving ghost of his grandfather, a rabbi killed in the Holocaust.”

Hiuni discusses art, identity, and Penn State. Read his interview:

  1. How did you get into playwriting? It was a circuitous journey, something I arrived at late. I went to a performing arts high school and did musical theatre in my 20s. In my time at Penn State, I took a performance art class that helped me tap into that. I already have three degrees, so as a playwright, I am self-taught.

  2. You also have a performance, visual art, and education background. How do all of these experiences work together? These are all parts of me. I am an artist who is interested in different things. There’s a story there that I need to communicate, and I try to do the best that I can professionally for my livelihood because people don’t know how to pigeonhole me, and I can fall through the cracks.

  3. How and why did you choose Penn State? To be honest, I never really thought a place like Penn State would be a great match for me. I’m a very urban, cosmopolitan guy who doesn’t like football, and I’m a gay man. I was coming from an urban center where I was doing my activism, and it was not that easy to be gay at Penn State at that time. There was a limited amount of activity on campus, but I was able to join in and contribute as part of the Coalition of LGBTA Graduate Students. Who would have thought it would turn out to be such a great experience and the best school? I can’t imagine it any other way. The first time I applied to grad school, I only applied to Yale, RISD, and Cooper Union, but I am so glad it turned out the way it did. Plus, I have two graduate degrees, and I don’t owe a dime!

  4. Favorite Berkey Creamery ice cream flavor? Coconut chip ice cream at the old creamery location in Borland.

  5. Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to write/perform? There was, but those “eureka” moments are always temporary. They never last very long because as an artist who is true to himself, it’s an ongoing evolution and an organic thing that is constantly changing. So, I’ve had some poignant moments. I remember doing a public performance piece on the Palmer Museum of Art plaza for World AIDS Day in 1994. There were hundreds of people there, and it created an interesting conversation I felt at least on that side of campus. I have so many interests and things that I do that there wasn’t just one defining moment because they last fifteen minutes until the next challenge.

  6. What is your best memory of your time at Penn State? The whole thing was a dream. The greatest thing for me was having my M.F.A degree handed to me by Bill Clinton, who was president at the time. It was amazing. To be this modest artist coming in as a young guy and just working so hard to make it all happen and then to have the president—he was so tall and commanding—give me the most authentic smile. It was not a politician smile. I think he realized how thrilled I was. I think I’m going to start to cry now.

  7. Who were your most influential professors and mentors at Penn State? I had a really nice connection with the faculty. Some people who come to mind are Michaela Amato, who became a great friend, and my performance art professor, Charles Garoian. I think in many ways that relationship starts with the application. I am also very grateful to James Stephenson, who was the director of the School of Visual Arts. I always want to mention him because he was so good to me and instrumental in every aspect of my graduate work.

  8. Do you ever get a chance to come back to Penn State for a visit? I do. I have been back, and I was very honored a couple of years ago when they had the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the College of Arts and Architecture. I was invited to participate in the SoVA alumni exhibition and sit on an alumni panel. It was such an honor and so nice to see all of my professors and the young students. It was wonderful. I even stayed at the Nittany Lion Inn, which I could only dream about when I was younger. It was fun.

  9. What other jobs have you had besides being an artist? I have taught adjunct for several colleges and online courses in drawing, art history, graphic design, and art education.  I’ve had part-time jobs as a tour guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA. As a tour guide, the activity is performative. It’s not unlike a playwright and an actor—you have to have a beginning, middle, and end, and present information to a one-time audience that you will never see again.

  10. What advice would you give students who are thinking about a career in the arts? Be hearty! You cannot suppress and deny your wanting to be an artist. You’ve gotta come out! If that’s what you are, you have to be true to it. It’s a hard life, but my sense is that it all comes to fruition about twenty years later. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul. You have to persevere because it’s not going to happen right out of school. It’s not going to happen five or ten or fifteen years later. It’s going to take twenty. At Penn State, I remember that Ty Burrell and Lewis Magruder and I all arrived at about the same time in 1994, and it took us all twenty years until something happened, because you have to get to know your craft, the people, the world you are in, and I actually think that maybe it’s better that way. Early successes sometimes do a disservice. Finally getting a nod of approval from the New York theatre world is extremely satisfying, but it also proves that all that hard work paid off. That’s what it takes. It takes a long time.

  11. Speaking of time, do you distance yourself from an experience or need time to process things before you can write about them? Is there an element of time involved in the creative process? I think there must be because I never have an experience and say that I must go home and write a play about it. In the end, the plays, the very essence of them, are about long-standing universal truths. The plot is just something to hang that on. When I want to say something in a play it is usually of a moral or philosophical nature, and then I have to find the vehicle—the story in which to pour or on which to hang those things because if I just said them, they would be kind of boring. You need to have all the main parts in it, like drama and conflict. I don’t rip from the headlines in that regard. The other thing is: this play [Murmurs & Incantations] took ten years to write! There have been so many drafts. We had a reading in 2008, a reading in 2011, a self-produced performance in 2013 in a gallery, and now finally it is ready. I don’t know who said it, but they were right: You don’t write a play; you rewrite a play. That’s all you do. You just rewrite and rewrite until it is reasonably ready.

  12. How do you know when it is ready? Exactly. How does a painter know when a painting is finished? Some things are very intuitive. I don’t know. It’s in your bones when you know that it’s ready. For a painter, which I also am, you know visually because you are satisfying your own aesthetic sensibilities and because you are not going to try to paint for other people. There is something about a play that is more shared and communal and has to do with language, so the question is a little more complicated. I have heard of great playwrights and musical theatre writers, like Sondheim, who when they hear they are going to have a revival of an old piece, they actually go back to work! It’s probably not ever finished. It’s a very interesting philosophical discussion. If the audience has some degree of satisfaction with it, then you know it has at least reached a certain level of readiness.

  13. Music seems to be an important element of the play and your life. Could you talk about that or your relationship to music? Absolutely. Music plays a big role in my life in general, but also in my art. I was a dancer in my early 20s, whose main work was to interpret and visualize music. I was very much connected with it, and I do play a little bit myself. I knew that it would set the tone and enrich the play to a great extent, which it did. So, I undertook a major project and expense—actually the most expensive thing—to commission a composer to read the play and write original music. Luckily, my brother, who lives in L.A., has a best friend who is an Academy Award-winning composer. He wrote the most amazing, haunting, beautiful music. From the moment the lights go down in that theatre in August, they are going to hear the most beautiful music. It’s a very big part of the play. I told him it’s amazing how sometimes there is a synergy and understanding between artists. I told the composer I want something that is a cross between Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Jewish mystical music of the Middle Ages. It’s just perfect.

  14. Your play “explores anguish and the responsibility of being an artist” and the idea of creative block as well as issues of identity. How much of this—if any—is drawn from your own personal experience? That’s always the big question, even for me when I read other people’s work. In the end, I think that we write ourselves, we write what we know, which is a good maxim and is probably followed by many or by most. There are portions that are autobiographical. From speaking to other playwrights, that’s where it starts, but it goes elsewhere. It always gets elaborated upon and fictionalized. The main story is unfortunately autobiographical, in terms of dealing with my family’s history on my father’s side, who are Eastern European, and the terrible tragedy of a Jewish family caught in Europe in the late ’30s and early ’40s. There is one in particular of the many who perished there in my family—one particular guy that was interesting to me, and he was a rabbi, a teacher, and a scholar, and I felt a parallel kinship with him across the decades, and his demise was particularly tragic. I thought, one day I’m going to have to deal with this in some way, likely in my art. And it’s not something that I wanted to paint—it’s something that needed words. That part is very much about standing witness and dignifying ancestors and redeeming some of the history. And on the other hand, yet another Holocaust play! There is a little bit of overkill, so I wanted to not write another Holocaust play because there are many. It does come from a unique perspective. It has many other themes.

  15. What are those other themes? What else do you want to emphasize? In the broadest sense, the play is about art, and again there is my life—art and theatre. Specifically, it’s a play about creative block and what contributes to creative block and what needs to happen in order to undo it, if it is possible. And that to me was very interesting, and that’s what I mean by the responsibility and anguish of being an artist. If one is really true to one’s self and trying to draw art from life, there are many obstacles there, often in a lifetime, that can both feed the art and also paralyze the artist. I was very interested in that concept. It’s also about creativity, about art, unleashing creativity and the things that may stand in the way of it. The character goes through this journey and is particularly troubled from being creatively blocked for a decade, and so we see the journey—hopefully to some kind of an end to his paralysis.

  16. You also describe the play as “irreverently funny.” Is there humor in what seems to be a serious play? Absolutely! I’m a funny guy. In my downtime, I don’t watch morbid Swedish movies. I watch sitcoms and Amy Schumer. And so it had to be funny. One of my biggest inspirations is Woody Allen. You’ve gotta go against the grain when you’re dealing with heavy stuff. Otherwise, it becomes very, very heavy and heavy handed. There is a lot of humor. I set up a situation where the ghost of a Holocaust victim visits his grandson, and there is a lot of tension between them, so I exploit that with as much humor as I can.

  17. Could you explain the title of the play? The title remains a little bit elusive to me still, and I came up with it. The title, as titles go, is kind of abstract and poetic and evocative, in the way the music might be or the lighting might be. There is no attempt to pin down the plot of the play. In the most basic sense, that is the name of the performance that the character performs within the play. At the end of the play, there is a performance piece built into the play, and that piece is titled Murmurs & Incantations.

  18. Growing up as the son of the late Amatsia Hiuni, Cannes Festival award-winning film producer and pioneer of the Israeli film industry, do you ever consider working in film? I do. In my wildest dreams, I do, but I also have a father who was a film producer, and to me, making a film is like being God. To have the audacity and the patience to make a film—I don’t think I have that kind of patience. When I want to make something, I want to be able to sit down and make it—putting a brush to a canvas or sitting down and writing something. I don’t know how films happen. It’s a miracle, and it’s beyond me. So many millions of dollars they’ve wasted on bad films. If they only gave me $20 thousand from the budget, I would make them such a good film! Who knows? Maybe Steven Spielberg will be in the audience in August and want to adapt it.

  19. Do you prefer live theatre as an art form over film? I love all art forms, but I have to tell you the truth because this would be nice for theatre students to know. When we were holding auditions, and I got dozens and dozens of resumes, I only and mostly and first looked at the theatre credits. I don’t look at film credits because I guess in the end, when you’re in theatre, there’s a little less regard for film work. Not to be disrespectful, but I look at their theatre credits, at where they studied theatre, what play they were in, and what stage they did it on. They have all these other things listed on their resumes—web series, etc.—and I don’t look at any of that stuff.

  20. Do you think you put more value into getting it right the first time, because of your background in performance art and theatre? Yes. There’s an ethic of rehearsal and preparation and the live quality of it, but also such a respect for the cooperation of the audience as a living participant in the experience—even more in performance art because you aren’t pretending to be anyone, so being in the moment with the audience is so crucial and acute.

For more information about Murmurs & Incantations, visit: http://www.murmursplay.com

For ticket information and to view the complete schedule of festival events, visit FringeNYC’s website: http://fringenyc.org/

To read the article about Murmurs & Incantations, visit: http://bit.ly/DahnHiuni