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Exile puts the hard questions to Rajiv Joseph.
Exile: Kayleen and Doug have a linear existence, but you have chosen to tell their stories in a non-linear narrative. What do you gain by that?
Joseph: This play would be far less interesting with a linear structure. The experience I want the audience to have is not necessarily watching a relationship occur, but rather piecing together a history, while also, at times, understanding what is yet to come. There are moments in the play when Doug and Kayleen know more about themselves than the audience, and there are likewise, moments when the audience knows more than them—about what the future holds for them. I believe this creates a unique tension.
I also think that we remember our lives and our relationships in a non-linear way. When I piece together the parts of my life, in order to find meaning and understand myself, I don’t think chronologically… I do not want a biography of myself, I want harmonic echoes. That may sound rather precious, and yet I think that when, as a playwright, I want to cover 30 years of a relationship, “harmonic echoes” are the way to go.
Exile: Both Doug and Kayleen seem to be missing the fundamental human instinct of self protection. What attracted you to these two characters?
Joseph: A question that guided me through the writing of this play was, “Why do people sometimes hurt themselves to gain another’s love?” It seems to me that often people find ways to do this, and the underlying reasons are interesting to me. Dramatically speaking, I found opportunity in these two characters who lived the greater parts of their young lives damaging themselves. There is an impossibility embedded in the relationship between Doug and Kayleen. Her pain goes much deeper than Doug’s. And his desire to achieve a sort of sympathy with her by also becoming injured is faulty and untenable.
Exile: Is it love they have for each other, or need? Is there a difference?
Joseph: Is there a difference between love and need? God, I don’t know. I think it is unanswerable, at least for people like Doug and Kayleen. What is implied in this play is that they spend much of their lives after high school far apart from each other, with little or no contact. And yet a deep connection fills the void. In many ways, they are lost souls without the other. And yet, together, there are always emotional roadblocks that prevent them from coming together. If past productions are any indication, audience members will be divided as to whose fault it is. I’d rather not place blame. It’s not about blame. There are always people who love each other and who cannot show it or share it or fully understand it.
Exile: There seem to be a lot of religious images in this play, the idea of the mortification of the flesh, of sacrificing yourself for someone else. Can you tell us about how religion influences the piece?
Joseph: Your observations are right on. Although I didn’t approach this play with any kind of religious agenda, I was raised a Catholic, and have found that being Catholic has contributed intensely to my playwriting, not for any dogmatic reason, but rather, because Catholic ceremonies were my first and most profound theatrical experiences. And I find that many of the images within Christianity, and other religions contribute to moments in Gruesome.