Fresh white paper and a steaming mug of coffee very early in the morning, before the kids are up with their demands. At that hallowed moment, before I screw everything up, before I have a draft with all its flaws and compromises; before there’s an audience not laughing enough or not being quiet enough, or not getting it; before the agent asks, ‘How many characters in this one?’ – you know, the perfect moment, the perfect play that exists as only a nascent idea wafting around the back channels of your imagination. The French actually have the perfect word for it: frisson.
– Rob Caisley
“Frisson.” It’s a moment of excitement UI theater arts professor and professional playwright Rob Caisley looks forward to, since he usually does not fully understand what he is going to write about.
“I like to turn things upside down, but it usually takes me a while to understand what it is I’m writing. In other words, I write in order to understand what I think and feel about a subject, rather than beginning with a point of view,” he said.
After a string of several successful plays, he may still be trying to understand how he feels about a certain topic, but one theme has begun to emerge — opposite worldviews.
“I am getting more interested in writing plays that focus on a particular kind of emotional experience. The last three plays I’ve written — ‘Happy,’ ‘Lucky Me’ and ‘The Open Hand’ — form, in some respects, a kind of trilogy, in that they examine a particular way of looking at the world,” Caisley said.
“‘Happy’ asks questions about the way we construct our lives in the pursuit of happiness. ‘Lucky Me’ asks, ‘Is there such as thing as Good Fortune and Bad Fortune controlling our lives, and how does it seem to operate so disproportionately in some people’s lives and not in others?’ What’s common among these plays is that I find myself far more interested in the thematic opposite of what I initially begin researching,” he said.
“The Open Hand,” which was commissioned by and will premiere at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, in March 2016, examines the nature of generosity and selfishness, and how they are two sides of the same coin.
Caisley developed “The Open Hand” through workshops at the Clarence Brown Theatre and at the 2015 Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall, Idaho, where he was the featured playwright.
He adds that pursuing his craft as part of his university creative activity has enhanced his teaching and the learning experience of his students in ways he never imagined.
“Before I started teaching, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to dedicate to writing if I had classes and students and committees to take up my attention, but I have found the exact opposite to be true. I have been more productive since I came to the University of Idaho,” Caisley said.
“I get so excited workshopping my students’ scripts, and this excitement converts into energy I can then dedicate to my own work. I like to be struggling with the same second-act problems that my students are struggling with,” he said. “I think it’s helpful for them to see that I wrestle with the same story problems, structure problems and character problems that they’re also wrestling with. So, for me, my teaching and my writing go hand-in-glove.”
In addition to playwriting, Caisley has served as artistic director for the Idaho Repertory Theatre, worked as a creative consultant The History Channel, Triage Entertainment and North by Northwest Productions, and been a guest speaker at numerous universities throughout the country.
In 2015 he was awarded the UI Excellence in Research and Creativity Award and also received as a 2015-16 Fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts.