Who: Christopher Domig is a New York City-based actor, currently starring in a stage run of one-man show Dirt at the 4th Street Theatre in Manhattan. Domig plays “Sad”, an Iraqi immigrant flower peddler living in New York City, who tells the audience about his day-to-day life in America. This differs from the play’s original European setting as conceived by its Austrian writer Robert Schneider in the early 1990s, when it was performed in German. Born and raised in Salzburg, Austria, Domig first read Dirt in high school, and first performed it in 2003 as a student at Wheaton College. He later brought the show to the New York International Fringe Festival in 2007 for its English-translation U.S. premiere, and received the festival’s Outstanding Actor Award. Domig then took his production of Dirt on a tour of over 100 performances in Europe and Canada, and has since forged an acting career in films as well. In advance of opening night for his latest incarnation of Dirt, directed by Mary Catherine Burke and running from September 18th to October 12th 2014, Camera In The Sun spoke with Domig about the play’s evolution.
How did you pick up Dirt, and eventually take it to the ’07 Fringe?
Dirt was published in 1993 by an Austrian writer named Robert Schneider. He is primarily a novelist, not a playwright, which is interesting. His biggest success came prior to Dirt with a novel called Brother of Sleep, about a musician who has perfect pitch. He falls in love in an Austrian village, and feels like he can’t be in love and be asleep. So he becomes an insomniac, and dies from lack of sleep. Most of his years, Robert Schneider has been writing novels. I met with him twice in person, and he told me that he lived with an Iraqi roommate when he was being a writer in Vienna. Dirt was based on the stories that his Iraqi roommate told him. And Dirt has been a pretty big success for Schneider — certainly in the German-speaking world. In the ’90s, for a while it was the most-performed solo show within Europe. German was the primary language in which my education took place, and we read Dirt out loud my senior year of high school in Salzburg. We read this play out loud in German, and I was kind of effected by it. But I was also probably only half-listening. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to be an actor at that point. But I have the memory of reading the play. Then I decided to come to the States, and attended Wheaton College, and was studying philosophy, psychology and theater. I put together my own major, and as a thesis project you had to either write a paper, or present a work that the board of professors you were studying with had to approve of. And the work that I did was Dirt in its very, very rough form. That was 11 years ago in ’03. I asked a fellow colleague of mine who had interest in directing to direct, and I started to memorize the text. I found out the play had been translated by a German professor, Paul Dvorak at Virginia Commonwealth University, who I have since met. A very small publishing company out on the West Coast, Ariadne Press asked him to translate it. But the play lay dormant, translated. Given the fact that it was so often performed, and won the awards it did in the ’90s, it is surprising that it never got picked up here. The reason I thought no one picked it up was Schneider is not even known as a playwright in Austria, so he’s definitely not known as a playwright here. Plus, the translation that Paul Dvorak did was a literal translation. So the character, who is now speaking in English, is still in love with the German language. He is still in love with the German culture, and the German writers. So there’s this disconnect. Even if you were to come across it, you would sort of be confused. Another thing that is very difficult about the play is that there are very few stage directions, very few cues as to how to interpret what is being said. So there is a very beautiful cyclical nature. There is a repetitive nature where you start to guess that there is some change that is happening as a character, if you envision it as a play. But dramaturgically, it’s very difficult to decipher what it is that is actually happening.
Fast-forward to 2006 — I finish grad school in acting. I come to New York City, and start auditioning, and quickly realize it’s a brutal city. Competition is fierce. And I think to myself, “You really need to be creating your own work.” Both psychologically for myself, to not be dependent on others, but also for an opportunity to introduce work that isn’t known. So I write about 65 letters to artistic directors at off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters, introducing them to the play, telling them that it’s relevant, and I think it should be done here. I heard back from like one person via email saying, “Thanks for your submission, but we can’t do it.” I realize this is obviously not going anywhere. So I submitted for the 2007 International Fringe Festival, and they took a chance on it, and it got accepted. I drummed up some dollars from family and friends, and I got in touch with a press agent named David Gibbs. I knew that getting good press would be helpful to sustain the future in it. So I payed a press agent, which is not common for the Fringe Festival. Most people have enough trouble getting money together just to do the play. But I thought it would be worth it to go the extra mile, and he did an incredible job. I’ve never gotten as much press, and certainly not as much positive press, as in one production I did for the ’07 Fringe Festival — which is ironic, because I feel like the play has gotten increasingly better in time. I don’t know what people saw. I was running scared, perhaps. I had never done a solo show before, and it was freaking me out. I was petrified every night. There must have been real fear that I somehow brought into the production that let people see it as a positive experience.
I was playing in front of about 60 people. They would see as many shows as they wanted. Shows would start as early as 11AM, and they would go up until midnight. So I had 6 or 7 performances, and they were all different times. There was no way for me to know how many shows people saw. For the Fringe, you can buy single tickets, you can by a week pass, or you can buy an unlimited pass.
The Fringe Festival world is a world unto itself. People spend years just going to different festivals, trying to get traction. Or some people just want to play the festivals, and don’t want to do anything else with it. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the biggest festival, and it’s un-curated. So as long as you can get a venue, and you apply in time, you get listed in the Fringe book. It’s thousands of shows. I’ve done the Edinburgh festival too. But for New York, you have to submit your project, you have to get approved, and you submit an application fee. Once you get approved, you pay another I think $500 for the venue, then you split box office. So it’s not a money-making thing.
What sorts of tweaks have you made to your version of Dirt?
The play is around 70 minutes. I’ve done various editions of the play, and cut different parts out, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around, or it felt repetitive. Then I’ve added them back in for some productions, because I wanted to see if I could sustain the entire play. Now we’re back to rearranging some of the text.
Usually with plays, that’s a big no-no. But in film and television, rewrites — and actors having ideas to rewrite, or rephrase things — is common. In the theater, you would never do that to a Beckett play. Edward Albee would have your balls on a platter if you ever did that. Pinter, and all these guys, are hardcore. Most playwrights labor over every dot and word. Nothing is random. You try to find the life within the script that is given to you. That’s set in stone. So the fact that we’ve been able to tinker with it a bit is actually unusual. But I know the playwright well, and I’ve got his blessing to do this play. He’s happy that his play is happening in English. And he knows that in order to make this work contextually in English — sometimes the translation wasn’t quite right, and the logic that was implied in German didn’t come through. But even with that, 95% is the literal translation. There’s 5% of the play that may have changed in some way in terms of rephrasing.
In this current production, our goal was to really set the play in New York — have it be a physical place where we root this guy. Up until now, because it was the Fringe production that I took on the road, it was sort of amorphous. That was the advantage and disadvantage of the play. I mean, all I had was a chair that I would find wherever I was at, a bucket I would find wherever I was at, and roses I would buy wherever I was at. The only thing I would bring with me is my pants, boots, shirt, an English-Arabic dictionary, and an old empty bottle of gin with the label on it. I would travel with that, and everything else I would get. The play doesn’t really call for anything else. Within the play, those things exist, so I knew I needed to have them. But the character never says what city he’s in. So I made a few contextual changes for this guy, who’s now in love with the English language, in love with this culture. In an English-speaking world it could work, which is why it worked in Edinburgh, and it worked in London, and it worked in Vancouver, and it worked in New York. Every audience took slightly different things away from it. But the initial run in ’07 was a trial run for me. I knew that the play was relevant. I didn’t know how relevant, and I didn’t know how universal. Because the playwright, in his initial setting, was addressing your typical middle-class Austrian or German citizen with middle-class values. He was writing towards these people. And in Austria, we’re a small country with eight neighbors. The xenophobia that exists in Austria is directed primarily at Turks and Yugoslavs, and then Middle-Easterners that come there too. But it’s not as international as, say, New York. Not by a far stretch. So I was like, “This play is still relevant here. I don’t know how.” Then after I did the ’07 run, I realized “Wow, this actually hits something. It pushes some buttons.” People see beyond the slightly strange idiosyncratic Austrian setting, and just see it for what it is, and dive into it as if it was taking place here.
What was it like performing Dirt in Berlin in 2009?
That was so funny that it’s in the English Theatre in Berlin. I had my dates in London set up. And I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to do a show in Berlin or Vienna?” I wrote a bunch of theaters, and the English-speaking theater in Berlin responded and said, “We just happen to have a month of American English-speaking shows running.” I told them I could do the play in German, and it was originally written in German. They expressly wanted the English production. It was so funny that I’m actually on the home turf of where the play was written, and I’m doing it in English. But then again, it made sense. Because this was the English theater in Berlin. It wasn’t the Berliner Ensemble. That’s their audience: the international crowd. So I made a good friend in Berlin, from Istanbul. She came up to me after the play, crying, saying “This is my experience. I’m studying here from Turkey.” We’ve stayed in touch, and my wife Janelle and I visited her in Istanbul a couple of years ago. That all happened out of doing the performance in Berlin, so it was special to do it there. But I wish I could have done it in German. That would have been a lot of work too, to put it back in German. I’ve never actually done it in German. I would love to. Who knows, I might get the chance after this run.
How did the current New York City run of Dirt develop?
During the run in Vancouver in 2010, I did my 100th show of the play. I thought to myself, “This is it. I’m done with this play.” Thankfully, Janelle was able to come with me to Vancouver, and she did an excellent job doing press work. We got The Globe and Mail to do a feature article. Things went well, and it was a great experience. But I had sort of been burning out on it. Because up until then, it was literally a one-person production. Not only was it a one-person play, but I was the one applying to grants, negotiating theater space, and contracts. My brother, thankfully, is an artist and a web designer. So he would update the web page, and design my posters and my postcards. Apart from that, I would do everything else, and I feel like the show got better as I traveled with it. But in theater, you really need a collaborator. And my initial director, David Robinson is a good friend. But he couldn’t always travel with me, so I was sort of on my own. And by the time I did Vancouver, I just thought, “This has been a good run. It’s been 100 performances. I’ve done it so many more times, and in so many more places than I ever could have dreamed of. Let’s call it a day.” Then from ’10-’12, I sat down with a friend of mine, and worked out a possible screenplay for it. That was exciting, and a lot of work, but then my friend moved to L.A. We also realized, “Oh wait, raising money for this endeavor is far more complicated than raising money for a play.” So that got laid back on ice. Around that time, Janelle was actually the one who said to me, “I think you should do the play again in New York.” And my first response was, “You’re crazy. What else could happen in New York that hasn’t already happened?” But she kept saying, “Our network has expanded. I think it would be important.” I finally realized that the reason I was so hesitant of doing it was that I thought she meant I should do all the work again. She never said that, but that’s how I heard it. So I realized that if I wasn’t the one doing everything with the play, I would be excited to do it again. But I would want to work with a director who is here. I would want a set. I would want all the normal things that you expect you’d have for an off-off-Broadway theater production. But you’re talking about much more money than taking it to Fringe. So long story short, I start really wrapping my mind around the prospect of doing it. Last Fall, I was part of a group of teachers, and we were doing a theater kids camp in Crown Heights. We had access to a huge theater space, and I put the play back on just for myself. I asked my friend Brian Oh to come in with a few people, and film it. So over two nights, we filmed the play. Then over the next six weeks, we sat down and we edited the play to as professional a version of a theater production that we could be — and I’m quite pleased with it.
With that, I went and started talking to some bigger-name directors in New York City, who I thought might be interested in doing it. They all engaged with me, but ultimately they all said no. My rationale was, “I get these people to sign on, then I can go to funders and say, ‘Look, so-and-so’s directing this play. We’re doing an off-Broadway production. Don’t you want to submit money?’” At the same time, there’s friends of ours who work in finance in New York City, but love the arts. They said they wanted to support a production that I was doing. Initially, last year, my brother and I had created a performance piece based on The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, which I was super excited about.
So they were going to fund that in New York City. But my brother just had his third child. So going into this summer, he knew it wouldn’t be an option for him to leave home for New York. So he couldn’t do it. Then I went slightly-trepidatiously back to these friends of ours, and said, “I’ve been working to get this other production off the ground. Here’s what it’s about. It’s relevant. These are the conditions under which I feel I would be excited at doing it again. Would you be interested in transferring your good will and your financial support to this production?” They said yes, so that’s what got the ball rolling in early Spring of 2014. There’s a whole system in the way it works. You hire a director, who then has names and suggestions for lighting designers, set designers. I’m working with Mary Kate [Burke], who’s an amazing director, and also runs [The New York Musical Theatre Festival].
She said, “I think we need an actual set. I don’t want you to sit in a chair with a bucket of roses. I think it would help us to have a set to place the character, and to re-envision the play.” I said, “Brilliant. That’s exactly what I want. Let’s do this.” So starting in April-May of this year, she and I were in conversation about the play. Then I started looking around at different venues. We settled on this venue in the East Village, and started rehearsing and working on the play in June. Then we took Summer off, came back, and have had an intense rehearsal period the last four weeks.
How have events in Iraq over the last decade impacted the play’s content?
[Sad] mentions “the war” in the script, and that war is the first Gulf War. Now of course, given that it’s 2014, we know that when he mentions “the war”, people will assume he means the second Gulf War. So we have clarified for ourselves, and done the research as to what it was like during the second war in Iraq. Certainly following events now, things are going haywire. So it’s important for Mary Kate and myself to know the context that people will hear these words spoken. The fact of the matter is, though, that as much as he talks about being from Basra, and compares his home to the U.S., it’s really an immigrant’s experience of living in a place where he is not welcome that drives this play.
In fact, even in our press so far, we have really emphasized that over the fact that he’s an Iraqi. Not because we’re trying to mislead anyone. When you read the play, it’s sort of uncanny, the fact that he’s from Iraq and that he’s talking about the war. Because in the last 10 years so much has happened. It’s important for me as an actor to know that when I’m talking about Iraq and home, and about the war, that I know what I’m talking about. I know I’m talking about the American invasion and the mixed bag. It’s coming out in many nuanced moments here and there, and I’m able to converse with people about that process. But there’s nowhere explicitly in the text now that I could show you and say, “Oh, this moment is going to be totally different, because it’s now 2014.” So artistically, we’ve done our homework. But dramaturgically, both Mary Kate and I are convinced that what’s really going on here is that’s it’s primarily important that he’s an illegal immigrant from a country that he feels like is misunderstood, and under-appreciated, and misrepresented in American culture. That’s the primary thrust. The secondary thrust is that he happens to be from Iraq. Then his name is Saddam, but he goes by Sad. There are things like that that I think will surprise people, precisely because it’s not primarily a play about “I’m an Iraqi. Deal with me. Look at all these things that you think about Iraq.” It’s not primarily about “Oh, you think Iraq is this.” It’s really “You think that other people are this — brown people, Middle-Easterners, people that are ‘savages’.” There’s the line, “There’s a big difference between a boy with pale skin being shot, and one with dark skin.” Now, that’s a profound truth, I think. We really do think differently about that.