A nimble playwright keeps Dead Letter Office alive.
Six weeks ago, Philip Dawkins received one of the more unusual commission offers a playwright might ever get: Dog & Pony Theatre Company needed a writer for its summer play, which already had a title (Dead Letter Office), a director, a concept, a cast of four and a crew of designers. And with the show already marketed to open June 9 at the Storefront Theater, the company definitely had a deadline. Could Dawkins turn it around before rehearsals started—in ten days?
Dawkins, 29, took the call in Kansas, where he was teaching a workshop at the William Inge Theatre Festival. The Loyola grad teaches playwriting to Chicago Public Schools students through Chicago Dramatists and served as coordinator of Pegasus Players’ Artists in Residency with Teachers in Schools program until it was eliminated earlier this year; his plays include Perfect, Ugly Baby and Yes to Everything!
Dog & Pony associate artistic director Devon de Mayo knew Dawkins from his work writing for young actors at Northlight Theatre Academy, where she serves as director. “Devon knew I could write on assignment, on a deadline, and we work well together,” Dawkins says. He accepted the challenge: “I liked how insane it sounded,” he says. Yes to everything, indeed.
Less than two weeks later, Dawkins found himself at the first read-through of his newest play. The experience was like a dream, he says, the kind “where you realize you’re at school and you didn’t dress. I hadn’t even spell-checked it, and I was handing it over to actors.”
Dead Letter began life last year when Dog & Pony received a Chicago Community Trust grant to commission its first play. The imaginative young company has mounted ensemble-devised pieces such as The Twins Would Like to Say and As Told By the Vivian Girls as well as the Chicago premieres of God’s Ear and Mr. Marmalade. “Commissioning a play feels like such a grown-up move,” director and company member Dieterich Gray says.
Writer-actor Ben Viccellio, a recent Northwestern M.F.A. and a visiting faculty member at his undergrad alma mater, Ohio’s Kenyon College, conceived of a play set in a dead-letter office: the bleak storehouses of all of the packages and letters that never reach their destinations. The eerie atmospheric setting tantalized Dog & Pony’s ambitious design team; the wealth of stories of missed connections in an era of increasingly paperless communication sparks precisely the kind of dark and dreamy theater the company calls home.
Though Viccellio departed the project amicably due to a number of personal circumstances including the Kenyon job and move to Ohio, he encouraged Dog & Pony to keep his concept. “Under other circumstances, I could imagine being hesitant to ‘surrender’ an idea,” he says via email. “But Dog & Pony is a troupe that believes in creation through collaboration, and, over the course of its development, Dead Letter Office became as much their piece as mine…I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with it.” “Some might look at the situation as a tough obstacle or a negative experience,” Gray says. “But it’s a huge moment of opportunity, the chance to get two terrific writers to have both touched this project.”
Dawkins’s script follows the four employees—an alcoholic former pro boxer; a philandering, misanthropic boss; an upbeat, overcompensating mail carrier; and a mysterious young beauty with a sordid past—who inhabit a room crammed with an almost magical hopelessness. Dawkins says his characters, like the detritus surrounding them, “are stuck because of how they’ve been mishandled.”
There are just two dead-letter offices left in the country today; Dawkins set his play in St. Paul, Minnesota’s, placing his fictitious version underneath the Mississippi River, frozen over in the weeks before Christmas. The crumbling office is filled with failed intentions: firearms, cookies, pornography, drugs, and letters to God, Santa and Obama.
“I’m really honored to have been given the keys to this. I take the responsibility very seriously,” says first-time director Gray, dropping a dead-letter double entendre: “I hope I can deliver.”
Dead Letter Office begins previews Wednesday 9 at the Storefront Theater.