Philip Dawkins is a prolific, critically acclaimed playwright with plays like CHARM, THE HOMOSEXUALS, and DR. SEUSS’S THE SNEETCHES – THE MUSICAL, as well as many other works.
Diversionary Theatre brings one of his most personal plays THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH, to stage through April 15th. Philip had a moment to chat about how he started in the business, Disneyland, and how much he values everyone who auditions for one of his shows.
HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH is a one person play that details a deeply personal time in his family history. The play delves into the impact that a pivotal death in the family, and Disneyland, had on his family, and questions the value of an ideal like one encouraging the constant pursuit of happiness.
“We are sold that we have the right to pursue happiness at all time. My question at this time is does that do us any good?”
Before Philip was a playwright, he got into the business as an actor. Philip performed in television and theatre, flying out to Los Angeles for auditions from his home in Phoenix, AZ and he loved it. The thing he didn’t love was the limited work he had to use for his monologues for auditions, and that’s when he started writing.
“I started writing because this was pre internet, and it wasn’t so easy to find material for young actors and there was maybe one book at the library with monologues in it and we were all doing the same monologue. So I started writing my own monologues for auditions. I would get a lot of parts with these monologues. I don’t think it was because they were good, I think people were just amazed at this chutzpah that this kid wrote his own monologue about murdering his parents or whatever,” he says with a laugh.
It was an early mentor, David Wo, who really encouraged him to write and believed in his talent. This support, and having his first show produced at the age of 16, is really what encouraged Dawkins to pursue the playwriting path.
“David always thought that I was a writer and said ‘I think that you have this in you. I’d like to give you this opportunity and had me write one of the children’s’ shows for their summer program.’ I thought it was way harder than acting for me so when I went off to school in Chicago to study theatre I had it in my brain that maybe I would do both, acting and writing. As I studied writing I was like ‘no this is way more challenging for me, I’ll just study this.’”
He continued finding his path off the stage until THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH broke his hiatus when he took the stage to perform. Because the play deals with a family event that impacted his family and the role Disneyland played then and through now, this is a very personal play.
“The play deals quite a bit with my relationship with Disneyland and with my family’s relationship with Disneyland. My immediate family is small, so big family functions we forwent traveling to our extended family and just went to Disneyland,” Dawkins says. “It’s equated with my family, and has a lot to do with our own origin stories inter-tangled with the Disney stories. It’s impossible to talk about our family without talking about the myth that Disney created for us.”
Dealing with the pursuit of happiness, what that means, and trying to find your balance when you’re lonely and surrounded by people, this is a show that finds a lot of parallels in life both inside and outside of the park.
“I think, there is an assumption whenever, when you do a solo show and people know it’s about Disneyland that people assume it’s about trashing Disneyland or it’s about taking down Disney. There are criticisms of the Mouse in this show, and in my opinion a very loving and honest depiction of Disneyland. But it’s certainly not trying to demystify it or take it down. It’s trying to humanize the creation of the park, the humans behind the park, what was going on in the world, why did we need this?”
It also feels like a parallel to a solo show experience as well.
“There is a truth to being lonely surrounded by tons of people because that is definitely a Disneyland experience. It’s also very much a solo show experience. Here you are being completely alone surrounded by all of these people. Some of my loneliest moments have been surrounded by hundreds of people.”
As many ties as this show has to his own life, and experiences that the audience can relate to as well, this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is too precious about how the shows are presented. In fact he loves that theatre can be more of an experiment.
“One of the things that I think theatre does well is open up space for new interpretations. You aren’t doing the same production over and over again. Every time I see it I don’t want to be shown the same thing, I want you to show me your take on it. If it’s not 100% successful, all right so what? At least we learned what worked what worked and what didn’t. To me that is the exciting thing about theatre; it’s surprisingly me every time and I wrote it.”
Dawkins even finds the audition process to be enlightening
“I learn so much about my plays in auditions, and I know it probably doesn’t help the actors feel better to hear this, but I think everybody who auditioned for the show worked on the play.
If there is one thing about it that never works, and 30 people just tried it for me, then it’s not 30 different people’s fault. I know I’ve got to go home and fix that; if no one nailed it then then the problems with me.”
Having won the James Jefferson Award for Best Solo Performance for his performance of THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH, he is very excited to see Jacque Wilke take on this role having seen and loved her performance in BALLAST last year at Diversionary.
THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH opens on March 24th and plays through April 15th at Diversionary Theatre. For tickets and show times go to www.diversionary.org