The adolescent surrealist
Playwright Jack Allen debuts “Cowboy”
The night after I talked with playwright Jack Allen about “Cowboy,” I dreamed about it. It was a weird, multilevel world of flickering Super 8 slides and the lonely sighs of tumbleweeds. Of course, I hadn’t seen the play yet. I hadn’t even seen publicity photos. Whether or not that’s what it looks like, the gloriously absurd world Allen described to me lodged in my subconscious—a suitably surreal testament to the power of his enthusiasm.
Allen, 18, is a poet, comic, actor, and writer. He’s the definition of a “lanky teen,” with dark eyes and long dark hair and the air of someone who has found his life’s… well, life. Educated at home until college, he’s now an engineering student at Tulsa Community College, a member of local improv group the Pop-Up Players, and one of Oklahoma Literary Arts Alliance’s poetry ambassadors. He’s also performed many times with Clark Youth Theatre. (It strikes me that there aren’t many young men like him. But, without those local organizations, there might be exactly none. What was that again about how arts funding is a frivolity?)
A couple of Allen’s one-act plays have been produced around town before, but this is his first full-length show. “Cowboy,” a dark comedy, features nine actors in a surreal desert landscape, where they follow a lonely kid and his ten-gallon hat, which turns out to be a notorious criminal mastermind.
Allen is fully aware that it’s an unlikely concept. “I started work on this weird play about an orphaned cowboy in late 2013. Then I got distracted by other stuff, like I do, and put it away. In early 2015 I took a look back at it and thought, ‘this is actually a decent start. Maybe I should finish this.’”
Allen took his unfinished script to John Cruncleton, co-owner of the Nightingale Theater (Cruncleton would eventually be cast as the character of Hat). “I showed him part of the unfinished script and he liked a lot of what he saw. This was exciting for me, because I was under the assumption that my play was un-produceable, but if there’s any venue in Tulsa that doesn’t give a fuck about that, it’s the Nightingale. So here we are.”
Writing is a sometimes sweet, sometimes messy balance between private work and public exposure. Allen’s process in creating “Cowboy” has been all that and more. “I’m really more of a solitary writer,” he explained. “Once I get done with a scene, I might show it to one or two peeps in my inner circle to get a little feedback and so they can question me on my sanity, but sometimes not even that.”
“Cowboy’s” nine characters, Allen said, developed a mind of their own once they made it to paper.
“The Cowboy is wide-eyed and innocent and optimistic, with a narrow worldview,” he continued. “But this is a coming-of-age story, so the audience gets to watch him be driven ever closer to madness as he continues to learn what a twisted world we live in—a world full of murder, sex, and mega-corporations—and grow from the experience. His Hat, who has come to life, is a stylish and persuasive villain whose smooth trickery gives him a sneaky advantage over these humans with limbs.”
The surrealists, such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and their counterparts in literature–Franz Kafka and Edward Albee and others—believed there was freedom in absurdity, that bypassing rationality allowed them to tap into a deeper reality, comfort and conventional assumptions be damned. It’s a fine lineage for a young playwright to step into, especially one as gifted in dark humor and poetic sleight-of-hand as Allen. But he’s not your stereotypical jaded teen, as he made clear when I asked if his creative style falls more into the “gleeful-absurdist” camp or the “existentialist-absurdist” one.
“This play is coming from an honest, human place,” Allen said. “It’s the story of a kid who is handed a ridiculously tragic situation, and in the face of adversity still tries to find fulfillment. As far as the flavor of absurdism you’re dining on, ‘Cowboy’ is more on the gleeful side, but not entirely. It’s full of wordplay, warped logic, strange wisdom, and surreal settings, but I hope that the audience finds it, first and foremost, entertaining and stimulating.”
He’s 18 years old, Tulsa. This creativity engine is part of your new reality. Hold on tight.
Feb. 12-13, 19-20, 2016
For more from Alicia, check out our Winter/Spring Performing Arts Guide.