I met Sean Donovan in early 2014. We were both HARP Artists at HERE Arts Center, a three-year residency. Sean was building The Reception with Sebastián Calderón Bentin and I was there with Reid Farrington and CasablancaBox. The Reception is this hypnotic dance theater piece about an eerily unraveling party where guests nightmarishly repeat stories and gestures, stopping short when they hear the room creak, like ship rigging ready to snap. I fell in love with The Reception, felt lucky to watch it develop over three years. I was actually lucky enough to work with Sean as an actor in one of my own plays, BrandoCapote, which he performed in workshop with Reid and myself in 2018 and 2019. Sean’s newest piece, Cabin, which he wrote, directed, and performs in, is running at The Bushwick Starr May 22 – June 8, 2019. I talked to Sean about his life as a contemporary theater maker in NYC and about Cabin.
May 22 – June 8, 2019
Sara Farrington (Rail): I have always been curious and excited by your work because you are a consummate contemporary theater maker, almost indefinable, as I view you as a quintuple threat: you dance, act, sing, write your own work, and direct. Does the multi-discipline thing come easily or is it a struggle?
Sean Donovan: Thank you. That’s a really nice thing to say. I would say it’s a mixed bag. At times it definitely makes things easier as I’ve been brought on to or been able to fit myself into a wide variety of projects, and I’ve gotten to work with such an amazing, diverse group of artists. But the downside has been that I tend to jump around and haven’t made the kind of deep inroads into one discipline that come with total focus. My own work tends to be multi-disciplinary, too, and that presents its own challenges. Particularly that I have a hard time defining it or categorizing it when it’s necessary for marketing or for criticism. With Cabin I’m back in that question: is this theater or is it dance? I don’t really care, but some people want those definitions.
Rail: Do you have one love above all others?
Donovan: Not really, actually. I would say I feel the most alive, get the biggest thrill, out of performing as a dancer. But dance also gives me a lot of anxiety because I came to it later in life and often feel my limitations. Making my own work is the most rewarding, but also by far the hardest and most stressful.
Rail: Who or what specifically first triggered your desire to be a performer? Was it a show you saw as a kid? A parent, teacher, etc…?
Donovan: It was pretty classic in the sense that I caught the bug. I started doing shows around age 11 or 12 and somehow knew pretty quickly that I wanted to keep doing it. I loved the relationship between audience and performer. That relationship is still what keeps me doing it over and over again, and it’s definitely why I enjoy live theater more than working in film or television.
Rail: Your frequent collaborator Sebastián Calderón told this incredible story about when you guys were first starting out in NYC. You were standing in a snowstorm in an alleyway outside Galapagos [Art Space], wearing really skimpy costumes, about to perform, shivering and turning blue, and one of you said, in all sincerity: “We are so lucky we get to do this.” That story really stuck with me—I know that feeling so well, it sums up that drive to make new work in NYC perfectly. Can you tell me when you knew, as an adult, that making theater in NYC was the life for you?
Donovan: Yes, Sebastián and I used to perform pretty often in the CATCH Series when it used to happen in the back room of Galapagos, back when it was in Williamsburg. That alley was the dressing room! I think we may have said something like, “Living the dream.” Which of course was ironic, but also true in a way. I think I realized that it was for me pretty early on. I went to college here so it was a soft landing and I had a chance to be exposed to all sorts of strange, beautiful theater throughout my four years at NYU. Works by Richard Foreman, Radiohole, the list goes on. By the time I was out of school and started throwing myself into it, it felt right pretty quickly. I could tell right away that it was going to be hard, that I was going to struggle to make a living and stand out in such a crowded, talented field. But I also felt so at home with the community, with the lifestyle, and with all the deliciously bizarre people that do this for a living.
Rail: What compels you to begin the years-long journey of creating a new piece? An image? Personal experience? Music? Politics?
Donovan: For me it is usually a mix of personal experience and some larger question I’m trying to pick at. That question might be political, or social, or moral. But I usually strive to make work that only keeps that question in the back of your mind as an audience member. I rarely want to come down to the footlights and state my case. I sometimes say that whatever my pieces might be “about,” I try to say it without saying it.
Rail: What was that thing that compelled you to create Cabin? Did it hit you all at once or did the story come more gradually?
Donovan: It’s funny, the initial story of these three queer men and this cabin in the woods came quite quickly. The problem since then has been filling it out. It started as a short little seven minute piece that I made. The challenge has really been growing that short piece into an evening-length work.
Rail: You perform in your own work. How do you strike that balance of being on the inside and outside?
Donovan: It’s challenging for sure. I keep telling myself that I want to take myself out of my own work. But it never seems to happen, as I like performing too much and often feel like I can’t make something unless I’m on my feet. But I try to find opportunities to step out whenever possible. When I worked with Sebastián, we usually split those duties. This process has been more challenging without that second set of eyes.
Rail: Cabin is this theatrical Picasso of song, dance, and storytelling. The movement quickly jumps from frenetic to sensual to pedestrian in this really effective way. How did you build this unique aesthetic?
Donovan: I knew I wanted a work that kept shape shifting and changing forms. So I’ve tried to follow that by putting different things next to each other and seeing how they vibrate, collide, co-exist.
Rail: I know we both come from the school of developing, workshopping, and presenting a piece for many years before it actually premieres. Was this essential to your process building Cabin?
Donovan: It was for sure. Having the ability to show sections of the work along the way has helped so much in developing the language of the piece. I’ve always worked better when I can step away for a month or two and rethink before coming back to the piece, so a long development serves me well in that sense.
Rail: Because I’m curious for myself: How has this process evolved your view of success vs. failure when making a piece? How do you know when something isn’t working? Or when something is? How do you factor in audience response?
Donovan: I’m not sure I know how things are or are not working beyond just a gut feeling. But doing showings of the work has really helped me evaluate what audiences respond to and where they are confused. The question of success vs. failure has weighed heavily on me in this process actually. Lately, though, I’ve tried to rid myself of it as I know that being driven by a desire to make a show “good” is not a good place to create from. I have to be willing to fail and make a mess if I’m going to get to anything honest.
Rail: As a writer, I hide myself so deep into my characters so that no one knows which one is “me,” per se—although I’m always there. Compared to your previous work, Cabin feels like your most intimate piece yet, and your performance of it struck me as very personal, even autobiographical, which I know most playwrights hate admitting to. But I couldn’t help but see “you” there. What’s been your experience performing this personal piece? Is this a challenge, or is it liberating?
Donovan: It’s been pretty terrifying, actually. I knew I wanted to make something that mixed myth and memoir, but it is a challenge to stay close to yourself and still try and let fiction emerge out of that. Characters give you distance for sure. The person I’m playing is a character in a sense. But I’m also performing a version of myself, and that always brings up a lot of questions about the essence of self, I would say.
Rail: When I was in theater school I had a teacher who believed all artists must have their “barometer,” their highest artistic moment and lowest. Any chance I can pry those out of you?
Donovan: Probably my highest artistic moment was performing in Faye Driscoll’s work in Paris in the fall of 2015. It was a week after the devastating attacks in that city, and we were nervous about how the work would be received or if anyone would even show up. The piece was very much about community and drawing the audience and performers into a deeper connection. It turned out that the audience was more engaged and willing to participate with us than almost anywhere else we performed. Afterwards a woman came up to me and told me that she felt they needed that experience, that sense of community, amidst such tragedy. That was a high moment, as I really felt a connection to my work as an artist being quite powerful and having the ability to heal in some small way. My lowest moment was opening for a metal band at Hammerstein Ballroom once. For some unthinkable reason the band decided a dance theater performance would be a good opener. The audience hated us so much that they threw their drinks at us and were screaming. I remember getting pegged with ice. Our costumes had our names on them with these ridiculous nametags, so they were shouting our names—which made the whole thing even more surreal.
Cabin runs May 22 – June 8 at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn). Written & Directed by Sean Donovan; Choreographed by Sean Donovan, Tyler Ashley & Brandon Washington; Original Compositions by Heather Christian. Tickets: https://www.thebushwickstarr.org/cabin