David Willinger. Interviewed by Jen Bush
David Willinger is a seasoned actor, writer, director, and college professor of theater. In other words, theater is his superpower. He is the writer and director of a very exciting new piece of work called Existence. It’s a hybrid production combining the elements of live theater and audio-visual components. The arts are a way of life for Mr. Willinger. “For as long as I can remember, I have always been compelled to put on shows. You might say I “live” in art. Theatre for me has always been an intensely visual experience, on a par with painting, the art-form I love the most, but which I abandoned practice of a long time ago’. In his eyes, Mr. Willinger would like to see American theater mirror life less and take bolder excursions toward the figurative, the abstract and the whimsical. “I would wish for the theatre in America to be less literal than it tends to be – more to the second degree of presenting subjective states and conditions that go beyond words; less striving to objectively “photograph” daily life. I had an actor’s training in the Method, but have more of a tropism to the abstract theatre of my heroes – Joe Chaikin, Tadeusz Kantor, Meredith Monk, Vsevelod Meyerhold”. Inserting audio-visual pieces into live theater has been an exciting endeavor for Mr. Willinger. “Lately, and even moreso with this show, I’ve enjoyed including filmed segments and having them interact with the live action. Forced explorations of Zoom as a performing medium during Covid sharpened my sense of how to use film within live theatre. I think that the potentials in this area are far from exhausted. I want to bring a Fellini flavor into the live theatre.”
Existence is not about one aspect of life such as a celebration or a crisis, it’s about ALL aspects of life.
“The play is called EXISTENCE, and I wanted to rush headlong into encompassing as many parts of life as could be crammed into an evening of the theatre, from the most mundane to the most sublime. But really, I wanted to find a way to theatricalize a group of people trying to “break on through to the ‘other side,’ “to discover even in their immediate surroundings, actual openings onto a world beyond the one we know through the senses and reason. How can you put that on stage? The classical Greek, Medieval and Elizabethan playwrights just went for it, using the dramatic vocabulary of their times. I felt strongly that we can too and so created an armature to enable it, in this case the essay contest – who can best express the nature of existence? Instead of writing their essays these ne’er-do-well philosophy students go out and seek out apertures to the beyond, right in the dead-ends, parks and vacant lots of New York City.” The inspiration behind the play took place during leisurely strolls around the city and stopping to smell the roses. “I guess it came to me throughout the Covid period where I’d stroll and find spots I’d never discovered or noticed in Central Park, High Bridge Park, the Greenwood Cemetery, even though I’ve lived so close to them most of my life right here!”
Mr. Willinger’s creative process begins with tapping into the brilliant works of art and literature that exist in the world that are in alignment with his story ideas. “I started by immersing myself in a literature which suggests and enters into the infinite, chiefly the short stories and novels of the Argentinian masters, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. I did the same in the visual arts, confronting the amazing recent Surrealism show at the Metropolitan Museum.” A singular idea opened the floodgates for the plot to be fleshed out. “Once I’d come up with the idea of the essay contest, the content just flowed. Defining the characters and their relationships came later.” Finding quirky and interesting locations around New York City proved to be beneficial for the video aspect of the play. “I got a lot of inspiration by finding these numinous openings around the city and filming them as backgrounds for the show. A given spot would suggest a plot development. Weird and interesting structures – outdoor community free stores, tiny gardens, shrines – have popped up during the Covid period, and it doesn’t take much to imagine them just a bit weirder than they are. But in a way, this play is a summing up of all my child-like yearnings to actualize places in the universe that are inaccessible – the way I used to imagine angels dancing in the dust particles floating in the air in my smog-filled New York City bedroom.”
Undertaking a piece that contains serious or topically charged subject matter often comes with an added sense of responsibility. It’s a delicate job to maintain the integrity and message of the piece while retaining entertainment value for the audience. “There is always this balance to be struck between over-burdening the audience with seriousness when they might just want a fun evening out on the town and the need to “say something” important. Finally, I have to say to myself: As an artist I’ve got something to express, and the form determines itself. People will react how they will, coming from their own yearnings and experiences. I can only hope that they will have a tolerance for something different and find a way to extract something meaningful from it. And after that – I really do try to make it entertaining, fun, and welcoming. I’m not against escapism, but I personally tend to escape into a warped version of the Real. And the Real these days tends not to be all that light.”
The pandemic has altered every aspect of life and theater was no exception. Now that live performances have returned, Mr. Willinger would like to see them turn a daring corner and have artists create works that are outside of the box. He is happy to spearhead this endeavor where the results are sure to be innovative and exhilarating. “We had all said to ourselves and out loud: The theatre after the pandemic must be different. I think people meant – it should be more sincere, be concerned with more crucial aspects of life, take into account the epiphanies people had about values that really mattered when they were holed up in their Covid cubby-holes. I thought the new theatre that emerged should be freer and less a slave to popular tastes and trends, ready to take some real artistic risks again. Well, by and large has it turned out that way? So I said to myself, no matter what anyone else is doing, I’ll head in that direction. And so I have.”
Once the run of this play is completed, this talented professional will grace the world with more artistic gems. “What’s next is another musical, another movie but on what topics I have no idea yet. I have to get through EXISTENCE first.”