Brenden Dahl (‘20) wrote a play, Imaginary, which won the 2017 Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP) Festival contest. Imaginary was produced as part of New Voices, a collaboration between PYP and Temple University. The play follows the troubles of Arthur, a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Dahl is currently writing a play under commission for PYP.
Q: What prompted your interest in playwriting?
A: I really love theater, I love acting, and since I was young I really loved to write… One of the things I found in acting was that I wanted to have more control over what happens on stage. I attended a J term class taught by Anne Gerbner, where David O’Connor from Philly Young Playwrights came in. We were writing plays for Cliveden, a historic mansion in Germantown, and that’s how I found out about Philly Young Playwrights. It snowballed from there.
Q: What was the inspiration for Imaginary?
A: I am really interested in abnormal psychology, again I actually took a J term class on abnormal psychology. That was fascinating. I wanted to write… a creative depiction of loneliness tied to the stage… So I created Arthur, a person who is struggling with extreme loneliness to the point where his mind manufactures three imaginary companions to help cope with the situation. I wanted to use [Arthur] to show not only that you can overcome loneliness by immersing yourself in relationships, but also paint a light on this group of people. I wanted to explore mental illness, but in a dramatized way. I hope that in this dramatized setting people can see something of themselves and find a way to overcome any personal issues and [mental illness.]
Q: What was your role in bringing Imaginary to the stage and what were some of the frustrations you faced?
A: From the very beginning I was told I was going to have to make compromises because we didn’t have much of a budget for the set. We had Temple undergraduate actors who were all excellent, but not professional. My title for the project was a creative consultant. I gave feedback on the development of specific scenes, attended most of the rehearsals and helped with staging. A lot of it, however, was in the hands of the director, who for the most part did an incredible job bringing [Imaginary] to life in such a short time.
Q: What was the difference between bringing Imaginary to life as an actor versus bring it to life as creative consultant?
A: Working with my text directly as an actor was very different from seeing it brought to life by other people. I think I learned a lot more about the show being on the outside looking in and watching the actors. The actors all did different things than when I acted it. When I [acted] it, I did it as it was intended to be in my mind. But each one of these individual, creative, Temple students had their own ideas and characters. I think that in the end, it ended up being really useful for me to see it through other people’s eyes. I made a lot of revisions in the process and it’s a better show now because of it.
Q: How did it feel to have a show you wrote performed? Did it align with your expectations?
A: It was amazing, really cool, and surreal to see not only the actors putting it on and so many people being invested and talking about the show. Actors were emailing me about characters and ideas they had. The response we’ve gotten so far from the audience has been amazing. The first night an elderly gentleman sitting behind me came up to me and said he struggled from PTSD induced hallucination and that … watching Arthur’s journey inspired him. That kind of stuff is incredibly moving and makes me happy and proud. It’s just as much seeing something I wrote on stage as seeing how people respond and have emotional reactions to something I did on Google Docs on my computer. It’s incredible.
Q: What have you learned on a more personal level and where do you think you’re going with playwriting in the future?
A: Well, I’m a sophomore so it’s all up in the air. At this point, I got accepted as one of the fellows for the Philly Young Playwrights. For the year, I’m going to be writing for them as a part of a group of resident playwrights an I’m going to be taking classes and workshops around Philly and New York. It’s going to be amazing. I really love playwriting and hope it can amount to something in the future.
Q: One last question: how do you think dealing with a subject as powerful as mental illness has altered what you want to write?
A: I am fascinated by mental illness, by the modern stigma …and by the way that it’s becoming more of a part of the public consciousness. I think writing about it is more important than ever. The treatment of the mentally ill is horrendous… To the homeless population that struggles with schizophrenia, we don’t supply any help… It’s a growing issue in our country. I think that writing about it and bringing it to the forefront and having people connect to characters struggling with different types of mental illness is incredibly vital.