On politics and principles: an interview with Frank Winters

For Decent Company February: BODY, Frank Winters will be presenting a monologue about a man on the brink. Frank sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about the ideas behind the piece and how he sees them reflected in society now.

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JB: Here we are in gorgeous Central Park on an unseasonably warm February afternoon.

FW: I was talking to my friend about this yesterday, because it was so beautiful yesterday, and I was like, “You know how our parents lived through that mortgage boom, and it was all like, this is awesome, with probably the sneaking suspicion that they were gonna have to pay for this later? I feel like that’s what today is. (laughs) This is great. Maybe something will go wrong in the future. Maybe we’ll have to pay for this later.”

JB: But at the end of the day, what could possibly go wrong?

FW: What would possibly happen? There’s no bubble that could burst. (laughs) That’s the tinge behind today.

JB: I know. There’s this slight imperceptible menace. And yet you have to enjoy it for what it is.

FW: Yeah, and luckily we’re humans, so we’re not that evolved. So we can forget. If we were a more intelligent species, it might be hard to live this way, but maybe if we were a more intelligent species we wouldn’t. Anyway, interview.

JB: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit. Because for you, this is going back to the acting well for the first time in a bit, right?

FW: Yes. Well, sort of. I mean, yeah, I do kind of believe that writing and acting and directing are all part of the same muscle group, in a way. But you’re definitely also working them out in different ways. And I’ve been writing and directing a lot the last few years, but this will be one of the first times that I’m— it’s the first time that I’ve written something where the point was for me to perform it. And that’s been its own sort of really fun thing.

JB: And so far, so good?

FW: I dunno, yeah. (laughs) It’s interesting because I think the tricky thing is to make sure that you always have a collaboration, that it’s never just like, “I’m doing my vision because it’s mine.” 

And I’ve been working with my friend who’s a brilliant director. Her name is Devin Dunne Cannon, and she’s just so fucking great at what she does, and so we’ve been able to have these great conversations. And so the collaboration happens even though I’m sort of wearing both hats.

JB: Sure. And to that point, too, about how if you’re not careful, it can very easily become more indulgent and self-absorbed than, like— you gotta be careful about that.

FW: Is there anything that can be more self-indulgent than a one-person show? (Josh laughs) Like, it can be a nightmare, but when it’s— we said this the other day, but when it’s good, you feel like there’s nothing better. When it works, it’s crazy. But when it’s bad, it’s— (laughs) When it’s bad, it’s like, if there’s not even the other person in the show who’s good, it’s just… “This guy thinks this part is good? It’s gonna get so much worse when he has to do an ending,” you know? (laughs)

JB: Just wait.

FW: That’s gonna be terrible.

JB: So the piece that you’re doing, then, you’ve chosen to do one that’s a little bit more of a naturalistic, kinda like fourth wall “I’m doing a monologue in space” kinda thing.

FW: The fourth wall is super intact. (laughs)

JB: Yeah, very much so. (laughs)

FW: A very strong and sturdy fourth wall, yes.

JB: So talk to me a little bit about the approach you’re taking, how you came up with that, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it.

FW: I’m a big fan of standup, and a big fan of storytelling that does break the fourth wall. So that sort of open communication between the audience can be really exciting. But I think this story just, like, wanted to be this. Every story has its own want, and you don’t necessarily get to decide what that is, because you wanna try something. So it’s sort of what this wanted to be, and we’ll see where it goes.

JB: Can you tell me some ideas behind the piece and what went into it, and what you’re looking to explore?

FW: In terms of the ideas of the thing, one of the questions is the sometimes shitty things that you find yourself doing for reasons that, you have to keep in mind to yourself, are worthy and good reasons. And you sort of hear yourself say things and you’re like, “Oh my god. Is that who I am in this story?” Like, “No, no. I’m not that guy.”

JB: Yeah, sort of rationalizing—

FW: How much can you rationalize? Yeah, it’s that sort of question that I think comes up and can come up during a lot of different moments. When relationships are having tough moments, or with your kids, or with your partners, or whatever, it can always be an interesting moment when you find yourself sort of advocating for something and you find yourself going so far. Like, how far are you willing to go to get what you want? How dark is this timeline gonna get, you know?

JB: That’s a question that I’ve found myself asking, and it’s something that I think everybody asks themselves. How much— I don’t know if evil is the right word, but things that maybe feel squicky, at the very least? How many of these things am I willing to do, or at the very least be party to, not prevent from happening, while still maintaining my moral compass?

FW: Well, and it also comes down to, like, how important is that moral compass if the ends actually are what justify the means? It’s a tricky thing. Like, what’s more important? Is it getting what you want or how you get it? And when other people are involved, when the good of other people are involved, at a certain point does it matter what you do to get there? Because of course it does, but does it? It’s all that interesting kind of stuff.

JB: Well, what do you think?

FW: I don’t— if I knew, then I’d be done.

JB: Then you wouldn’t be asking these questions, because you’d have an answer.

FW: Yeah, I dunno. There’d be a very different ending to my thing, you know? I don’t know, because if we say it doesn’t, then that’s setting a really terrible thing.

JB: If we say that what doesn’t?

FW: Well, like, if we say that our principles are more important than other people’s lives, then fuck us. But our principles do matter, you know? So it’s one of those great things about being a person. That, like, you’re not gonna get an answer, so we have to try and ask the question with hopefully as much dignity and thoughtfulness as possible, and always be aware of our own insufficiencies.

Ultimately, it all sort of goes back to this question of empathy, right? How far can my understanding of who I am extend? How far am I willing to open that up? And it also goes into the character in my play that’s on the other end of the phone. When you come upon a situation where you want something and somebody else isn’t willing to give it to you, how much empathy do you allow yourself to have, and when do we turn it off?

Donald Trump has that problem with empathy, or he claims to, anyway. Right? That’s sort of the way he behaves, is that he’s right and other people are wrong, and “fuck you if you’re pretending to not understand what I mean. The press is the enemy of the people because of all these reasons.”

But I think the trick, one of those things that people sorta say the challenge that liberals face, or progressives face, is that to be liberal is to accept all these different viewpoints. And it’s harder to take a hard line. I don’t wanna change that about us. But are we gonna keep losing because of that?

I don’t know if you’ve been to these progressive rallies, but it’s hard to get a chant going. It’s hard to get a chant going because we don’t believe just one thing is true, you know? So we have people try to start chants, but they’re like three sentences long. “Lock her up” is easier. It’s despicable, but it’s easier.

JB: I was at the Women’s March a few weeks back, and what was so interesting to me about it was sort of exactly what you said. Although there was the focus on, obviously, women’s rights and protecting women’s rights, it still felt so diffuse.

Part of it had to do with the wide array of people who were brought out for it, but there is that question of what can we really rally around that works as a true clarion call? Is it our principles? Is that enough?

FW: Well, and that’s the thing, is it’s hard to have a million strong scream, like, “Let’s be open to all the ideas.” (Josh laughs) “Let’s keep exploring.” “I don’t know, what do you think?” (laughs) Like, that’s a hard thing to— but we have to, right?

There’s that whole thing about how, like, everybody seems to be watching The West Wing now, you know? ‘Cause we need that thing. And the whole point of that, so many episodes of that show kinda came down to, like, it’s not the one thing. It’s the million different things.

JB: Everything we’ve talked about kind of does have to do with our metaphorical body.

FW: The body politic? (laughs)

JB: Yes, the body politic. The metaphorical body politic and how we now— it feels very broken in a lot of ways. It feels diseased.

FW: There’s so many of us.

JB: But it doesn’t seem like it always was this diseased. Or maybe it was, but it only just came to light, you know?

FW: I think it’s the latter. I do. John Green is this lovely internet person and an author, and he said this really lovely thing when Trump started to say “Make America Great Again.” He was like, “When was America great? Was it in the ’50s when only white men and women could vote? Was it in the ’20s when only white men could vote?” Was it the ’80s, when the AIDS epidemic was being ignored?

JB: Right, and Ronald Reagan was smashing all of the unions everywhere and busting the air controllers and shit.

FW: Right. I think that if we’re lucky enough that there are history books in 100 years, I think that the thing will be that internet forums allowed for marginalized voices to be heard in a way that had never happened before, and it was really uncomfortable for white Americans. And white Americans responded in different shades of insufficiencies.

I refuse to believe that we’re more polarized than we ever— I mean, who knows, because I’m in my own bubble and dealing with my own 17 layers of privilege. I think that the trick is that now we have to look at what it actually is. And we’re not painting a thing over it, saying— well, some of us are. But this thing of “Oh we used to be, everything was so great.”

Because let’s not forget that when Leave It To Beaver was happening, people were living in poverty too, you know? Outside that frame, I think it was just as sick as it’s ever been, and just as complicated as it’s ever been. And that’s why it’s not a cop-out to say that life is fuckin’ complicated, and we need to embrace the complexity of other people as much as possible.

Maybe we’re never gonna have a great sign to hold up, but I think that so long as we keep working toward, if the progressive movement keeps moving toward embracing all the differences in the body of who we are, then I will be proud to be a part of that movement.

And what’s funny is that my piece is not political at all. (laughs)

To purchase tickets to Decent Company February: BODY, click here.

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