Gently Unknowable Things

Gently Unknowable Things

A Chat With Will Eno

On the left, Signature Theatre playwright Will Eno, a man dressed in a black suit and a checkered button down shirt with short, curly dark brown hair looking up to his left and sitting on a stool and on the right the same man as a closeup with a stern expression and a fuzzy hat

In 2012, before the Pershing Square Signature Center had even officially opened as a building, Founding Artistic Director Jim Houghton asked Will Eno to be one of the inaugural writers in Signature’s new Residency Five program – an unprecedented initiative that guaranteed playwrights three productions over the course of five years. Fast forward to the present, almost exactly half a decade later, and Will has become the first of the Residency Five playwrights to complete the program, with the world premieres of his plays Title and Deed in 2012, The Open House in 2014, and now Wakey, Wakey. To borrow a line from the central figure in Will’s new play, Wakey, Wakey  “was supposed to be something else.” Before heading into rehearsals, Will sat down with Literary Manager Jenna Clark Embrey to talk about friendship and fatherhood, and how one play turned into a whole new thing.

Your last play at Signature was The Open House in the spring of 2014. What have you been up to since then?
Well, our daughter Albertine was born in August of 2014. She’s the biggest thing, the best. The Realistic Joneses opened on Broadway, right after The Open House, and I worked on some other productions out of town. Title and Deed in Chicago, with my friend Michael Patrick Thornton, and I worked with Oliver Butler on a production of Thom Pain at the Geffen in L.A. that starred Rainn Wilson. Oliver and I co-directed a film based on that production. Mainly I’ve been having a lot of fun with Albertine and trying to learn how to be a dad, and being a dad, I hope. And working on some other plays...
You’re the first Residency Five playwright who is going to “graduate” from the program – what does that feel like?
The whole thing, the whole time has been amazing, and... I’m going to direct this third and last play, which, I’ve only directed some short plays and it was a long time ago. But the Signature Residency – and also Jim Houghton was a guy who really did this – the whole place makes you feel like you can do just a little more than you think you can, or that you should at least try. I remember when Jim called about Residency Five, the idea of writing three plays in five years seemed just, not even laughably impossible, just, no way, and suddenly somehow, here we go, starting up on the third one. Which is a, it’s a great feeling. And it doesn’t feel like I’ve just cranked out some plays, it feels like three very special, different things that came into being because of the sort of, the ground and the water at Signature. This place, the way things happen here. The way your mind feels here. It’s the difference between someone asking you, “Who was the 16th president of the United States of America? You have three seconds,” and someone saying, “What does the word ‘presidential’ mean to you? I’m gonna get a sandwich and I’ll be back in two hours. If you think of anything, scribble it down.” So it’s something like that, just, the openness, the confidence people seem to feel in you and in the whole process. The openness of the architecture and the openness of the administrative areas, and the way people talk about work and approach it. It’s entirely serious and super professional but also very sunny and clear, light. The way audiences come in, and sort of linger, the nature of the audiences themselves, all of it.
Has your writing process changed over the course of five years or do you feel like that part has felt consistent?
Having Albertine is a huge change that, I don’t know, it’s such a massive and complete change that other little changes, things in my approach to writing or any of that, seem almost impossible to notice. Or, more to the point, they are a subset of this other big great change. One aspect of which is I feel this strong drive to get some good work finished so I can go crawl around on the floor and play with her. Another thing, I’m sure I feel more things. You know what, there is a change that I think is very much related to Signature – I’m much more open to the possible ways something might get written, to the different processes you might employ to write a play.

"I wanted something that sort of has that sense of 'time to get up' in it, and also of a 'wake' - as in an Irish wake, but also has a silly, nursery rhyme thing to it."
Can you talk a little about the path that led to this play, Wakey, Wakey?
Yeah, um... Let’s see. About a year and a half ago, I asked Jim Houghton, I had one play left in my three play residency, and Jim had been diagnosed, um... and I was just thinking about all the plays Jim had directed and produced and helped create and inspire over all the years at Signature, 25 years. And I asked him if there was a play he hadn’t ever seen on a Signature stage that he wanted to see, or some idea he was interested in for a play that we could make together, and he very humbly said something like, “Oh, uh, let me think about it, I don’t know.” And then in the most wonderful, Jim kind of way, these text messages started showing up with an idea, and then more of an idea, and then these long, incredibly detailed and expressive texts. So, we started working on that play and he was going to direct it and that was really exciting to me. He was such a humble person so none of this – he had to be pushed a little bit but then he really...he loved making things and he had so much energy. We started out, you know, not knowing what would happen, and he was doing so well for so long, and just like that, he went into hospice and um... Joyce said to come visit quick, which was something I’ll never forget and am so grateful to her for, to be able to spend that – to just talk with Jim and tell him how much, let him know how much I loved him. We talked about different things that might happen with the play.

Jim was so amazing and clear. I have a photo of him from that day drawing little cartoons on a card he was sending to some friends and their two little girls. This great very private smile as he cracks himself up with a drawing he was making for a four-year-old and a six-year-old. But so I hope Lily Houghton and I are going to finish Jim’s play down the road, um... and Jim liked that idea. And then Jim died on August 2nd. And I started writing this thing a little while after, which is called Wakey, Wakey, the title being... I wanted something that sort of has that sense of ‘time to get up’ in it, and also of a ‘wake’ – as in an Irish wake, but also has a silly, nursery rhyme thing to it. It’s a play that is kind of about... the whole story I just told – people you love and people dying and how do you think about that and what is, uh, what is a person’s – what remains of a person. Things like that. And how do we think about our own death and all that – not to be glum because all these things are things you ask yourself or you ask about other people for the purpose of trying to live a more grand and a meaningful, helpful life.
Did the process of writing this one feel a lot different, or was how you went about it different? Or was it like riding a bike, to an extent?
All the things you said are somehow simultaneously true. It felt very different, it also, of course there’s similarities to other things but.... um I would put it this way. I was thinking about Jim a lot. And if someone ever asks you to write a reference, the easiest ones are the people who you totally love and you think they’re great. And as you know, that takes ten seconds, and you, you speak your heart and it spills out and you sign your name and put it in an envelope. So this had that element of being a, a person who I love and a lot of simple, clear, strong feelings. And, and to be clear, it’s not a play about Jim. I hope it’s a little bit with him, somehow. He’s a guy who, I don’t know how to say this, but, he lived with such clarity and integrity and directness, and so you always knew where he stood, and if I’m thinking about something now, I feel like I have a good idea where Jim would stand on it, so it feels like the conversation continues. I really hope this will feel like a thing that happened, not a play you went to.

Humor has a really strong presence in this play, and Jim had a terrific and really specific sense of humor. In some ways this play feels like both Jim telling a really good story, and like a group of people telling a really funny story about Jim.
Jim was a ... he had a way with being funny that – since it didn’t seem like it was his first priority – it just made things funnier. I don’t know how a person can be an incredible leader and a sort of class clown and prankster, but he was a little bit that. When he would do accents and impressions and stuff. It’s felt easy, sometimes, to find funny things in the writing of this. Almost in that way that everything seems funnier in a library, because you’re not supposed to laugh. The picture of Jim I was talking about before, it was the Friday before the Tuesday that he died, I think. And he was sending his friends and their kids a card along with these custom-printed wristbands that said “linguini” on them. And it was all, it was a tiny inside joke from a dinner they all had together where they laughed about the word Linguini. That’s something he did in the last week of his life. And that’s the guy’s heart, right there. He had such lightness. I’ve never known anyone who lived with more reality, on one hand, and more lightness, on the other. So all these things are qualities I hope – and again it’s not a play about Jim in a biographical way, at all – but I hope the play might have some of his personality.   

"It's going to be different elements that come together and - wowee! - equal more than the individual sum of their parts!"
What is the design of the play going to be like?
I’m not trying to be coy about the thing but I hope that it’s a very simple play that will have a lot of sly elements that add up to a kind of rich experience that, um... yeah, which, what playwright is NOT going to say that exact thing about a play? [laughs] It’s going to be different elements that come together and – wowee! – equal more than the individual sum of their parts! That’s our plan. Wish us luck. Seriously, it’s a really incredible design team, almost entirely composed of people Jim brought together, who have very generously and beautifully said they’d continue on with the project, even though it’s completely changed.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Yeah, and I always want to try to say it in a way that’s completely simple and plain and inarguable. Signature is an amazing place. There’s no place like it. Residency Five is an amazing thing. There’s nothing like it and the plays that are going to keep coming out of it are going to be like nothing else. Everything feels just so, here, just right, and you cannot believe that it actually has been designed that way, because it all feels so natural and easeful. It is the most unbelievable marriage of thoughtfulness and mystery. Or, very specific things, and large, gently unknowable things. I’m – I continue to be amazed at how all these tiny pieces, they’re tiny, very human, very real little pieces and they all somehow come together to make this thing, and sometimes it’s this super smooth clock sort of thing and sometimes it’s this crazy flying jalopy contraption thing. But it is moving in both cases and is going somewhere in both cases and um, I’m proud to be a part of this place.
After The Open House, you and Oliver Butler gifted the Signature staff a ping-pong table. So, last question: should we put it in the rehearsal room during this play?
Oh yeah, definitely. That’s a big room, so it’d be great in there. Just in case there’s any real ringers who need 20 feet of space back from the end of the table, you know?

Learn more about the show

Wakey, Wakey
written and directed by Will Eno
Pictured above: The cast of The Open House, photo by Joan Marcus. Will Eno photos by Gregory Costanzo.

Now At The Center