I’m obsessed with the question of whether what we do matters,” confesses local playwright Paul Mullin. “I haven’t come down on it one way or the other. But I think you’ve got to ask the question before you can answer it.”
He’s found an unusually ambitious way to ask that question in his latest play, The 10,000 Things, premiering at Washington Ensemble Theatre this month. The piece thrums with an interconnecting series of situations that eventually reach a dizzying, complex serenity about the future. A young woman confronts an old man about a sacred clock; a playwright pitches a play about a clock that keeps time once a year for 10,000 years; and soon everybody’s discussing art and entropy and the concept that “time is vastly, fundamentally, frighteningly different from what you believe it is.”
That’s not all: The playwright character proposes to a producer that the play be 10,000 words long and “tick” ever so slightly with each performance—with each staging in front of an audience, one word of dialogue would change, altering the text over the years into a new work entirely. And Mullin’s own play will indeed “tick” and is, in fact, 10,000 words long. Well, almost. “It’s in the ballpark now,” he laughs. “By the time you see it, it will be 10,000 words long. I feel pretty strongly that I shouldn’t be involved in the conversation about how to make it tick. That’s kind of the fun of it.”
Mullin has a history of dramatizing society’s tense connection to head-scratching science. His oeuvre includes the physicist-slips-up-with-plutonium drama Louis Slotin Sonata, which was first read at Seattle’s ACT Theatre and later claimed a 1999 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. Mullin got the idea for his latest play a few years ago at a staged reading, when he was approached by Stewart Brand, founder of the ’60s-era eco-bible The Whole Earth Catalog. Brand had since become cochairman of the Long Now Foundation—a group concerned with what Brand calls the planet’s “pathologically short attention span”—which had originated the idea of a 10,000-year clock and has actually built a prototype. As the author of The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Brand thought Mullin might find something of use in his book.
“His message was, Go forth and see what you can do,” Mullin says. “There was nothing proprietary about it.” Brand’s generous brand of philosophy touched a chord in the playwright; Mullin began to construct The 10,000 Things. “I wanted to have worlds that were deeply separated by time but intimately connected by ideas,” he explains. “Because I think that’s what these guys with the Long Now are going for.”
Brand himself will discuss long-term thinking as part of a fundraiser for WET at ACT Theatre on May 31. Mullin may also join the panel—and, yeah, he’s ready to be stereotyped as a certain kind of artist. “I do think that there’s a lot of really cool material in science and technology that a lot of playwrights run screaming from,” he says. “So, if I’m going to be pigeonholed, hey, I’ll be the guy who writes that stuff.” And, quite conceivably, he’ll write something that matters.