Paul Mullin looks impatient—or maybe just keen. A sturdy man wearing short brown hair and a button-up shirt, he moves and speaks quickly, scurrying through the tiny Washington Ensemble Theatre and the coffee shop next door, his new script in hand, conferring with actors wherever he finds them. "Seattle doesn't have much of a sense of how new plays get done," he says a few minutes later, during a quick break before the dress rehearsal of his new play, The Ten Thousand Things. "WET is having an experience with me. One company member told me, 'We're not used to having a playwright be so involved.'"
Involved is an apt adjective for Mullin, who lives in Seattle. The father of two sons and author of about a dozen plays (he's not sure), Mullin has a busy, bristling mind and strong words on whatever subject you care to discuss. He's appalled that young Seattle companies perform Mamet and Shakespeare: "I could give a shit about anything that isn't new work—if theater doesn't do new work, it's a museum." He's awed by medieval copyists: "The monks were kept illiterate so they wouldn't be tempted to interpolate into the text. They just copied the letters, literally on faith." He scoffs at stage guns: "Everybody knows they aren't going to go off. Why not use bows and arrows? Once you've pulled the bow back, it's actually a dangerous weapon."
The Ten Thousand Things begins with a dangerous weapon. A young woman (Elise Hunt) sneaks up behind an old man (Joseph McCarthy) and draws her bow. She has walked from a faraway land to find a mythical clock. She thinks the old man is its keeper. The scene shifts to a playwright (Marya Sea Kaminski) and a producer (Gavin Cummins) at a cocktail party, talking about a group of scientists and engineers who want to build a clock in the desert that will keep time for ten thousand years.
The set is simple—a stage covered in dark, odiferous dirt—but the play turns around three poles: (1) the playwright and producer, flirting and talking about the clock; (2) the far future, where ecological collapse has reduced people to rough lives of tribal warfare; and (3) fractured, pseudo-Joycean monologues by a madwoman named Swastika (also Kaminski) who twitches and talks in circles about time. A typical Swastika line: "Isn't a future never-was better than a could-never-have-been impossible just so see?" (The Swastika monologues aren't Mullin's best work.)
Mullin has never been a navel gazer. He packs his plays with ideas, mostly about technology and philosophy, and the people who care about them. Mullin's almost paternal care for characters—and not just their ideas—keeps his stories from stalling out in a dustbowl of technical information. His Louis Slotin Sonata, for example, dramatized the Manhattan Project via one of its scientists, who absorbss a lethal dose of radiation. The plot fractures along with his mind, and the resulting spectacle traverses nuclear technology, theology, machismo among scientists, and, a big musical number with Josef Mengele. Mullin is a kitchen-sink dramatist whose plays happen in laboratories and hospitals.
The Ten Thousand Things, however, is less narrative than his other work, more arid and abstract. The commanding actors at WET, directed by Braden Abraham, infuse Mullin's cerebral fantasy with human warmth—but with inferior actors, the play could be slow torture.
The Big Idea in this play is the Millennial Clock, a real-world project to build a clock that will last, with minimal human upkeep, for ten thousand years. "It's about transmitting information through time," Mullin says, and tells a story about Oxford College, where carpenters built a dining hall out of oak in the 1300s. They then planted the same species of oak nearby, anticipating the need to replace the beams in a few hundred years. As the playwright says in The Ten Thousand Things, "People need to think more long term."
Mullin has had plays produced in Los Angeles (Circle X), New York (the Conservatory Theatre), and Seattle (the Empty Space), and hopes this play is his sturdiest. But Mullin has built a self-destruct mechanism into the script: It is exactly ten thousand words long and the actors change one word per night: He has written a play designed to be mangled by time. "I want this play to last," he says. Then, just minutes later: "I don't want this play to survive."