On Tuesday, Jeremy W. regaled us with “Proximity,” a dark comedy in which a mysterious experiment leaves a modern-day mad scientist cohabiting with the consciousness of historical mad scientist Nikola Tesla. This week he and Tim D. chatted about science, the nature of comedy, and the vicissitudes of college bureaucracies.
#selfies are an ongoing interview series where Lather, Rinse, Repeat playwrights interview one another. They have free reign over the questions. The interviewee must then post an actual selfie, for the sake of being meta.
TIM D. Why Tesla? Also, who is your favorite scientist and why?
JEREMY W. The week before I went to Bosnia, I thought I’d do a little Wikipedia research on the place since I knew next to nothing about it. After several hours, I knew less than I knew when I started. In the backseat of a car leaving Sarajevo, I felt like writing 50 plays about the place. Just as soon as I figured out what the hell was going on.
I think I might write a few plays that have something to do with Yugoslavia. I was looking for some kind of way in. So I tried Tesla out. I researched him up and down; as people who knew me knew what I was researching, they kept sending me articles and links about Tesla and how he’s more and more in the dreaded Zeitgeist. I’m a lot more ambivalent about him than most people seem to be. And I’m a lot more interested in that parts of him that have nothing to do with Edison. You’ve got to be a bit of an asshole to think you see something nobody else seems to see. I’m that asshole. So was Tesla, now that you mention it.
My favorite scientist right now is Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin. I envy the scientists of yore and their ability to advance a number of different fields in one lifetime. Galton was a little bit of everything, seemingly in search of analytical justification for common sense. He coined the phrase “nature versus nurture”, established the uniqueness of fingerprints, devised the first weather map, and sorted out regression to the mean. Galty and I would have been homies.
TIM D. Though set twenty years in the past, “Proximity” touches on issues of great relevance to today’s world — including the military-industrial complex, drone strikes and the ethics of war. What leads you to write about contemporary issues?
JEREMY W. When I started the play, drone warfare wasn’t so topical. I came at it more from piecing together these odd coincidences from Tesla’s inventions, his writings, and what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s. That the father of wirelessly controlled vehicles and wireless power transmission was, himself, a Croat. Serb, and New Yorker just seemed to fit. I kept wanting to kiss Tesla’s feet and punch him in the face. He’s infuriating.
Drones are tough. World War I kicked off in Sarajevo, and Tesla living through World War I, he experienced second-hand what trench warfare was. If you put yourself in his shoes, you can see why he dreamt of an unpeopled war. Now that the era of the drone is upon us we know they are no panacea. I don’t think we’ve determined if war is less or more terrifying the more impersonal it becomes.
TIM D. In a blog on your website, you call yourself “a deep, morbid, brooding soul” and conclude that this is why your work is often comic. Can you explain this a bit more? What kind of humor most excites you?
JEREMY W. I wrote that? I couldn’t have been serious. Really? I wrote that? The whole idea of me having a blog about playwriting is never going to work for me. I should probably take it down.
I’m naturally gregarious in social settings. I think I’m deep when I’m alone. I’m not. My trying to be profound while I simply want to go be an idiot in public is probably what’s funny. It’s undignified at the very least.
There are two very different pathways through the brain to smile. The forced smile, the awkward one in so many photographs, runs through your more evolved, conscious brain. It’s actually quite a nuanced muscular feat, the genuine smile. That instinctual smile of yours runs through the old, reptilian brain. A smile is very similar to that menacing face meant to ward off would-be dangers. The baring of teeth, the narrowing of the eyes. One of my favorite neuroscientists has a theory that the smile is a way to turn “I’m going to eat you if you step any closer” face to “Oh, hey, hahaha, it’s cool” face. Laughter is inherently a stress reliever. We laugh to tell each other, and ourselves, it’s okay; but first there’s danger.
TIM D. You designed your own major in college. What was it? Why?
JEREMY W. Long story. Technically, it’s called “Humans and the Arts”. When asked, I have instinctively given a very different answer every time. I took the idea of my major very personally for some reason; it would be a topic unto itself to give you all the whys and wherefores. Essentially, somehow I was aware I was a very young man, even for my age, was a fist-by-fist eater of everything I could stuff down my brain, and I thought it would be an insult to call what I did in college anything that was already a single or combination of majors. I couldn’t specialize. I wouldn’t lie about it.
I might hold the record for denied applications to the self-designed major program at the university. I played academic chicken with them; eventually, they just let me graduate. Come graduation, the Dean who seemed to feel my approach cheapened her program, did something shitty at the podium in front of my family. I thought that was pretty low. I’m left with a lot of conflicting feelings about that major o’ mine.
TIM D. What do you think your next play is going to be? Where did the inspiration come from?
JEREMY W. I recently finished a first draft of a play I recently titled “Pre-Fabricated Homes”. It was originally going to be a very short play that couldn’t end in less than 90 minutes. After Elevation and Proximity, I needed to do very little research for whatever it is I was going to write. I really just tried to follow myself, see where I was going. Once it hit me, I thought it was terrifying in a “Hey, I’m right here!” kind of way.