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Philip Dawkins Shows How Theatrical Success Is No Path to Riches

The playwright talks marriage equality, writing plays on his bike, and being worse off the better he does.

Philip Dawkins
Philip Dawkins   Photo: Timmy Samuel

At 35, Philip Dawkins is one of the most prolific playwrights working in Chicago today. He has 22 full productions under his belt—40 if you count his shorter works—that have debuted at the likes of Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, and Strawdog Theatre Company. Dawkins’s play Charm, about queer, homeless youth in Lake View, premiered at Steppenwolf to great acclaim in October. About Face Theatre is currently running his newest work, Le Switch, which focuses on love and marriage among three generations of gay men and one straight woman.

I sat down wih Dawkins in his neighborhood of Boystown to ask about the play, his own relationships, and his meteoric rise to success.

You were born in Arizona, but you claim Chicago as your hometown. Why is that?

You aren’t born the person you turn out to be—I feel like I found my heart in Chicago. I came here at 17 to go to Loyola, and it just felt so right. Now I’ve been here 18 years, longer than I’ve ever been anywhere else. And I teach sometimes at Loyola, which feels like coming full circle in a really great way. I am fiercely loyal to and in love with Chicago.

Is it true that you do a lot of your writing while also riding a bicycle?

Yes. Well, I don’t literally write. But I find bicycling very meditative. What I do is, I’ll call myself, and then I’ll leave myself long messages of dialog. Or songs. There’s a love song with accordion accompaniment in Le Switch. I composed that while I was biking, singing it to my voicemail.

Le Switch was a commission from Doug Nevin, a New York producer. It’s also your first play set in New York. Coincidence?

After we did Failure: A Love Story and The Homosexuals here, we took them to New York. And nobody there wanted to do them because, frankly, they were set in the Midwest and neither one was about New Yorkers. When Doug asked me if I was interested in writing a piece about New Yorkers, my initial reaction was “no." But then I decided to take it as a challenge. 

You’ve gotten more commissions than any Chicago playwright I can think of: Raven, Northlight, Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, Steppenwolf, About Face, etc. They all want your work. Do you consider yourself a successful playwright at this point?

I’m a successful playwright because people are doing my work. But I also have no health insurance and I make below minimum wage. Artistically, I’m successful, but I’m suffering financially. I teach a lot, but I’m taking time off from teaching right now because I need the time to write plays. Ironically right now, playwriting success means I’m worse off financially than when I was not as successful as a playwright and had more time to teach.

When you started writing Le Switch, most states didn’t even have civil unions, much less gay marriage. Was it challenging keeping the play current as the laws about marriage changed?

I started working on it around 2012. My first drafts were before marriage equality was nationwide, even before civil unions were legal in some places. I enter the world of politics through the doorway of people’s personal lives, through how people are directly impacted by political changes. As the legal lay of the land changed with marriage equality, it forced me to open the play up, to make it bigger and bigger. The play straddles the time right before a lot of places had marriage equality and right after everyone got it.

Are you married yourself?

No, my partner [actor Brian Bosque] and I live happily together in sin. We’re a two-artist household, so it’s hand-to-mouth and the hand doesn’t always reach the mouth sometimes, but we’re so happy. 

Go Le Switch runs through February 21 at About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. aboutfacetheatre.com

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