Mark: Dan, tell us a little about your process – what you call “the journalism of hanging out.”
Dan: I start with a place (the Niger Delta of Nigeria, small-town and rural America) or a theme and place (Borders). I do background reading and research. Then I go there and start talking to people, hanging out with folks for a day or sometimes days at a time. There’s a lot of serendipity involved, being open to people I meet in gas stations, at bus stops, on park benches, or people hanging out on the street corner, or in the corner of a room where I’m talking to someone else.
I’m interested in trying to see the world through the eyes of folks there, of listening deeply. I’m transparent about what I’m doing – working on what’s going to become a play – and I always get permission from the people I meet, asking if I can audio record them and if it’s okay for me to tell their story. I ask questions, but I try to let go of any agenda I might have and let the people I’m hanging out with be in charge.
Mark: What do you do when you get home?
Dan: I review my recordings and notes, and then I start working on my feet, creating the vocality and physicality, inspired and guided by my audio recordings and notes. And I start writing the monologues, based on my experiences and conversations. I work in front of my mirror, and filter the character through my body until I feel like I’m starting to see and interact with a real person.
Mark: Charlie, what happens when you and Dan begin rehearsing?
Charlie: Dan brings everything he’s got – way more material than we’ll use. I start looking for what’s most alive, which characters and stories are most compelling, listening for themes and structure. There’s a lot of trial and error. And then at some point, we start workshopping material in front of audiences. And that’s where we really learn what the play wants to be, and what it means in this cultural and political moment. For Border People, the workshop phase took a year and a half.
Mark: So at that point, Dan, have you stopped being a journalist and become just an actor?
Dan: Yes and no. As much as possible, I go back and visit with the folks I met, sometimes performing bits of what I’m working on for them, learning more, and deepening the character I’m creating. Many of these people have become friends, and I keep in touch with them long after the process is over. That said — it’s not verbatim theater, the words you hear are a mix of what people told me and my own writing in service of the larger emotional truth of my experiences. And at some point I have to become an actor and inhabit the characters so that the audience can have a theatrical experience.
Mark: What is the usual reaction people have when you approach them and say you want to tell their story?
Dan: People are usually excited. Like, “Oh, you want to hear what I have to say? You want to hear my story?” People are excited their story is going to be told because most people don’t feel listened to or understood on a deep level. And a lot of the people I’m talking to and communities I’m hanging out in are underheard. Also, people see how I go about my work. They can tell I’m serious, that I really value their story, the opportunity to connect with them, to learn and be moved, and be invited in. I’m not precious about it, but I feel a huge responsibility to do it well. And they also see that I am down to have a good time. To really participate, to crack jokes, to know when to be quiet but also when to share something about myself, to be loose enough to capture the humor and complexity of the human experience.