Another Possible World: Jen Silverman on Imagining Dystopias and Utopias
"What better future can we believe in, so that it can be made?"
When I was a teenager, my martial arts teacher always told us that the gaze was everything. “Your fist goes where your eyes are looking,” he would say, meaning: don’t look away at the last second. And it was true—if we blinked or glanced away, the strike went off-course.
I think about this often in my adult life. It applies to so much else. Our bodies turn toward where we place our gaze. Even if we tell ourselves we’re thinking about something else, we drift closer. We can’t help it.
I wrote a Dystopian Play once, in grad school. A visiting playwright was in town, and one of their duties was to sit down with all of us one by one and discuss our work. By the time the playwright got to me, they were reasonably exhausted—by us as well as by the burdens of adult life in the theater. “Look,” they said (in my recollection). “I mean, just…Why?? Are you writing a dystopian play? What is the point? Aren’t there enough?” At the time, I was startled by their bluntness. But now, I have a real appreciation—both for their candor but also for the level of cultural exhaustion that makes an artist say, in their real voice and not their interior-monologue-voice: What is the point? Aren’t there enough?
It’s not that I’m against dystopian fictions. There is something to be said for processing our collective fears and traumas in narrative form. Numerous plays and films that I love have come out of these narratives.Maybe the opposite of dystopia is the process by which we imagine what we most need to thrive.
But this is my question, for myself as well as you: in funneling our despair and frustration into dystopian world-building, are we also reinforcing our own worst ideas about ourselves and our potential for destruction? Do we create a sense of inevitability to the idea that things can only ever end in catastrophe? As we think about what is ahead, is there not power in placing our eyes on what we want to move toward? I don’t mean an optimistic take on the world we’re in; I mean: imagining a world that’s better than the one we’re in.
What happens if we imagine for ourselves abilities and capacities we don’t currently have? What if we imagine structures and communities our societies don’t yet hold? What if we place our narrative gaze there? Do we start to move toward it?
Theater makes alternate approaches to reality tangible and manifest. If theater is a place of concentrated communal witnessing, is that not an especially powerful space into which to place a vision?
We dream ourselves into physical spaces and then invite people to join us there. The experience of witnessing the world presented to us by a play is not wholly intellectual; it’s an embodied reality that lives in our breath, our heartbeat, the blood and meat of our bodies reacting. What feels real is, to our bodies, real. And thus we might physically experience life inside a world that, beforehand, we couldn’t bring ourselves to imagine existing.
Maybe the opposite of dystopia is the process by which we imagine what we most need to thrive, and then invite other people to join us there.
When Taylor Mac did A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2016, there was a moment in which I looked around the packed theater and I saw so many kinds of queer bodies. Bodies that had brought themselves into being. I could see the labor on them: a labor of self-dreaming and self-knowing made manifest in scalp and ink, sequin or denim, clothing as armor or bare skin as clothing, gender blurred or brought into striking focus. A language of self-declaration that so many of us first learned to speak at a whisper, or in code. In that vibrating room, every body was out loud. Taylor Mac was singing songs from the past, and we were gathered in the present, but in that moment of gazing around me, I saw the future. A kind of future. One possible future.
Something I love: the defiant, expansive, restless imagination that I see in queer artists, in queers who are not artists, in people who have survived and built a means of thriving inside a culture that was not made for their safety or happiness.
There is a thing that happens to you—slowly, grindingly, over time—when you live in a country where your existence is subject to public debate. More than that: where your identity is something so dangerous that it must be regulated or disbelieved—or regulated by disbelief. We could talk of the most obvious violences, but let me describe a different and subtler one: an exhaustion that always lives under the bones. The tendency to question yourself before someone else even gets around to questioning you: Am I really what I think I am? Am I sure? What are the consequences? Is it worth it? You might argue yourself into nonexistence before someone else can even get there.
But here is something else that happens. You learn—in equally bone-deep ways—that you cannot trust society’s reflection back to you of what you are and what is possible for you. You can’t trust it, nor do you require it. It just doesn’t apply. It’s a story in a language that does not describe you. And when you realize that, a kind of constraint goes away, and suddenly you are in a space in which your imagination is larger than the cultural imagination that surrounds you.
There is a freedom in that, I think. Many of us are destroyed by it, or are destroyed before we get to it. But those who aren’t, seem able to access a singular vision and reach. I see how they fling open doors for the rest of us and say: Come see what it looks like over here.
There is a depth of imagination tied to survival: physical, spiritual and cultural. As humans, our imagination becomes more profound and muscular when it is also our means of salvation.
When I first read Andrea Lawlor’s astonishing Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl, I thought: Somebody is speaking to me. I have waited my whole life for somebody to speak to me in this way.
Paul Takes the Form is set in the mid-90s, but it opens up a window on the future. The titular Paul is a shapeshifter, a polymath who radiates curiosity and desire…and who shifts between genders. Paul is also Polly. Polly/Paul is witty and bold and sometimes arrogant and often vulnerable. Paul is not a different person when Polly, Paul just has access to a whole other side of human experience, in large part because he is seen and treated differently by others.
Paul is not a pretender except for the ways in which all humans who want to be loved are pretenders. Paul is not sad except for the ways in which all humans get sad. Paul is not punished for the audacity to be fluid and multiplicitous; though Paul gets a bit heartbroken in the way that all of us do, he also gets wiser, more joyful. Paul is a story about queerness that is also the story of somebody who has a thrilling and truthful future, in part because he wouldn’t settle for anything less.What theater offers us is the act of boundless dreaming made concrete.
In a book that combines casual fisting with philosophy, what seems to me most subversive of all is that Lawlor uses the pronoun “he” for Paul/Polly throughout. And what this does, instead of driving home the idea that Paul is “really” a boy, is that it takes the pronoun and renders it meaningless. “He” becomes repurposed and stretched and shifted until all of a sudden it means a million things and nothing at all. I was talking with someone about this book the other day, and they said: “The thing about Paul is that he…she…they…fuck it! – are so joyful.”
And I thought: that “fuck it” is my utopian future.
I thought: I want to live in a world where I get to be Paul.
Monica Byrne’s 2021 novel, The Actual Star is set in a future where the population is made up of nomadic climate refugees whose highest religion is one of mutual aid. This is a world that has eradicated power differentials in terms of how different bodies are perceived or acted upon by systems of governance. Though there are many bodies who have inabilities, all have access to supportive technologies that make up for what they lack, creating unfettered and equal access to community. In this way, characters have inability without disability, and this is part of a larger framework in which bodies are not seen as sites of virtue or failure, strength or weakness. They’re just bodies—supplemented as needed, each in a different way.
This vision stayed with me long after I finished the book: a future where there is no loaded meaning afforded to any one kind of body. A future in which all bodies have become sites of transformation, possibility, and play.
What am I looking for?
Stories that dream. Stories that conjure. Is this what I mean?
Stories in which reality flickers and there is a new thought on the other side, a truly new thought.
If you’re driving down a highway and you look to the side, eventually you’ll swerve. You won’t be able to help it. Like my teacher said all those years ago: you can’t move forward if you’re looking somewhere else.
These days, I’m trying to figure out what it means to look straight ahead, at a horizon-line I can’t make out. I’m trying to understand what it takes to get there—what are the vehicles by which one travels? How do we ensure that it’s not all rubble when we get there?
What theater offers us is the act of boundless dreaming made concrete: the door left open, the seats awaiting those who wish to dream with us.
I used to joke with my non-arts friends that they were doctors and teachers and scientists and my calling was “make believe.” That’s still true, but to my own surprise, I’ve come to have an abiding respect for the make believe: the labor in the verb Make, the vital difficulty in the word Believe.
How can we move forward without believing that something better is ahead? What better future can we believe in, so that it can be made?
This essay was commissioned for Almanac, a new literary magazine from Playwrights Horizons, a compendium of commissioned works by artists and staff members that captures the rapidly changing ideas and mindset of this critical moment. This ambitious endeavor—a snapshot of artistic thought in a time of seismic change—features essays, drawings, interviews, manifestos, short plays, and more that chronicle this unique moment of reflection and transformation.