EDGE Interview: William R. Duell on Survivor's Guilt, Catharsis, and His New Play 'Honor'
Frank J. Avella READ TIME: 9 MIN.
What happens when a young gay man heroically saves two children during a mass shooting, but cannot save them all?
This is one of the many questions out playwright William R. Duell asks in his taut new play, "honor," opening in NYC on October 1.
Trotter (Kyle Minshew) is the man in question who ends up suffering survivor's guilt as he spirals down a hellish rabbit hole. En route he alienates his loved ones, including his husband Luke (Robert Maisonett). He even contemplates suicide. For his salvation, a plan is hatched by his mother and husband involving a former Marine, Matt (Brian Reilly), who is, himself, struggling with a horrific secret from his tour in Afghanistan. Both men initially lock horns but slowly begin to bond and share traumatic experiences. But can anyone pull Trotter from the abyss?
"Honor" examines themes of loyalty, faithfulness, forgiveness and healing. The play questions the meaning of the word "honor," and wonders how one can honor others, one's country, and oneself.
This psychological drama is making its world premiere at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd St. (at 10th Ave), NYC, October 1-29, 2023. The play, currently in rehearsals, is directed by Gerald vanHeerden & presented by vMHF Theatricals.
Duell's first produced play, "The Journey," was presented in March 2009 at American Theatre of Actors in Manhattan and was a finalist for the Arts and Letters Prize in Drama. His unproduced plays include "Shadow Play," (a finalist/semi-finalist in seven play competitions). Currently he's working a commissioned play for Gather Wood, Gather Words, a multi-media project about climate change by Susan Ossman at NYU Abu Dhabi. Duell is a member of the Dramatists Guild and a board member of Wordsmyth Theater Co., which promotes new works by playwrights from around the world.
EDGE recently had a chance to chat with Duell to discuss "Honor."
EDGE: What prompted you to write "Honor?"
William R. Duell: I'm fortunate in that I rarely have nightmares, but several years ago I had a terrible one where I was trying to save three children during a Midtown mass shooting. I woke up hugging a pillow with my left arm, a pillow with my right arm and my blanket sliding off my back – this was a child who had been shot as I carried him piggyback. I woke up crying and angry, hating myself that I didn't protect this child, hating the world that such a thing could happen. All day I was beside myself and couldn't control my temper. People who know me know I'm a laid-back guy who doesn't have a short fuse, but boy did I that day. By evening I was exhausted from all the anger that wouldn't stop spewing out of me. That night, I slept well, no nightmares, but I woke up just as angry at myself and the world. I decided I either had to get therapy immediately or, as therapy, write about the nightmare and what I was feeling.
EDGE: Tell me about the journey to a New York opening.
William R. Duell: Gerald (director Gerald vanHeerden) was enthusiastic and in December 2019 staged two readings of it in NYC just prior to the pandemic. He filled the room with theatre professionals, and the comments I got from them, Gerald and the actors helped me to improve it. In March 2021, Gerald put together a videotaped, edited Zoom reading as a benefit for Wordsmyth Theater Company in Houston. The comments from those who saw that helped me sharpen it. Ted Swindley, the founder of Stages Theatre in Houston, through a creative collaboration with Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. did a 2-day workshop of it. There's nothing better than a workshop, especially one run by Ted, to enlighten you on making a play stronger. I've been fortunate that Gerald and Ted have cared enough about the play to mount presentations and that so many theatre colleagues have cared enough to offer insightful comments. They've all helped to make "honor" what it is today.
EDGE: Can you discuss the theme of survivor's guilt explored in the play?
William R. Duell: One deplorable prediction I can confidently make is that more and more Americans will be experiencing survivor's guilt. As of September 11th, there have been 496 mass shootings this year in the United States. As defined by the Gun Violence Archive, a mass shooting involves a minimum of four victims, either injured or killed, not including the shooter. The number of children killed or injured as of this date in the U.S is over 700, and the number of teenagers is over 3,800. Think of the number of surviving bystanders of these shootings, whether they're family members, friends, relatives or strangers, who are suffering and emotionally damaged as a result. At the rate we're going, we're heading toward a pandemic of an entirely different sort.
EDGE: Your main character, Trotter, is tormented by the recent trauma he experienced and begins to alienate everyone in his life. Tell me a bit about creating him.
William R. Duell: Trotter's Midtown massacre experience in Act I Scene 1 is the nightmare I had. I wrote that scene first and the other scenes poured out of my angry, hate-filled heart pretty much in the order they are in the play, though I did switch some scenes around to heighten tension. Midway through the first draft, I realized the play was about more than just Trotter's survivor's guilt. It was important to me that it also be an opportunity for catharsis for Trotter and Matt, and for the audience, too. The play is a sort of valentine, albeit a disturbing one, to New Yorkers who come together to try to save one of their own. What happens in "honor" could happen in any city or town. And I think under similar, horrific circumstances, any one of us might become as hate-filled and self-loathing as Trotter.
EDGE: There is a hint of a homoerotic relationship between Trotter and Matt, the former Marine who is enlisted to help him. Was that intentional and did you ever have any thoughts of taking it any further?
William R. Duell: It's interesting that you say this, and you're not the first person to do so, but I never saw their behavior toward one another as homoerotic. I think that when men display aggression toward one another, or even just actively demonstrate their dislike of one another, it can sometimes appear homoerotic and, possibly, in some instances it is. But I didn't see that in their behavior, so never thought of it as a theme to develop.
EDGE: It's refreshing to have gay characters in a play where the plot didn't focus on their sexual orientation.
William R. Duell: Trotter and Luke are two men who happen to be gay, who love one another, but whose relationship is falling apart because Trotter is out of control. Their sexual orientation is a given and a non-issue, and it's not a driving force in the story. It's Trotter's outrageous behavior that often drives the story.
EDGE: What do you hope audiences go away discussing after seeing the play?
William R. Duell: This play is about New Yorkers coming together to help someone who is out of control. It's structured along the ancient Aristotelian idea of providing the major characters and the audience a cathartic experience, which is something I think we could all use at this moment in time. I hope they go away moved by what Trotter and Matt have gone through and what the other characters did to save them both. And, hopefully, they'll also feel a little better about where we all are in this moment in time as a result of their own personal experience with the play.
EDGE: When did you know you wanted to write for the stage?
William R. Duell: I've been writing short stories since I was a kid, but didn't know I wanted to write plays until I was getting my MA in Film Production at San Francisco State University. One of my screenwriting instructors invited a successful LA screenwriter to critique our screenplays. He was enthusiastic about my handling of dialogue and characters, but pointed out that there was hardly any visual side to the screenplay, which led him to suggest I might consider turning the draft into a play. I did and enjoyed doing it. And haven't looked back.
EDGE: As an out playwright, do you feel more diverse queer stories are being told right now on the American stage?
William R. Duell: Yes and no. It's true that more are being told on stage right now, but the pandemic seriously slowed down all theatre, causing a reduction in the number of queer and straight plays alike that we might have seen. I see more queer stories being told through film and television right now than in theatre. Still, I'm an optimist who is confident we'll be seeing even more queer stories in the next few years.
EDGE: There has been an ongoing debate in the LGBTQ+ press regarding casting – should queer actors play queer characters, or should it be open to all actors? Where do you land in this debate?
William R. Duell: I land in the land of practicality. LGBTQ actors have already and for many, many years demonstrated they can fully and compellingly portray straight characters. Straight actors are just as accomplished and can successfully play LGBTQ roles. Acting pools differ from town to town, region to region. I wouldn't expect a small theatre company to go out of its way and spend money it doesn't have to bring in non-local LGBTQ actors, but I would expect it – and any other theatre in this country – to at least put out a call for local LGBTQ actors to audition for an LGBTQ part.
"Honor" runs from October 1 – 29, 2023 at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre
at the A.R.T./New York Theatres. 502 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019. The performance schedule and tickets can be found at this link.
Frank J. Avella is a proud EDGE and Awards Daily contributor. He serves as the GALECA Industry Liaison and is a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. His award-winning short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com). Frank's screenplays have won numerous awards in 17 countries. Recently produced plays include LURED & VATICAL FALLS, both O'Neill semifinalists. He is currently working on a highly personal project, FROCI, about the queer Italian/Italian-American experience. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute