I first met Sam Hunter at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall, Idaho. A native son of the state, he seemed naturally, utterly at home there—and, at the same time, slightly removed from his big-sky surroundings. Tall and broad-shouldered with an open face, Hunter exudes an easygoing charm, coupled with an intensely critical sensibility. He always seems to be studying the lay of the land.
This last quality is particularly true of his work as a playwright. Hunter is making his mark on the national scene with two distinctive plays, A Bright New Boise and The Whale. He’s written earlier pieces and is working on a new play called The Few, but as the 2012–13 season unfolds, Boise (now playing at the Firehouse Theatre Project in Richmond, Va., and slated for upcoming productions in many locations, including Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.) and The Whale (due this month at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, with mountings to come in Chicago and Costa Mesa, Calif., in spring 2013) position him as a playwright to be reckoned with.
So does a new appointment announced in August: Arena Stage of Washington, D.C., has selected Hunter for a yearlong playwriting residency as part of its American Voices New Play Institute. “I intend to spend the year building my body of work,” says the writer, who’ll be toiling in the company of such Arena cohorts as Katori Hall, Lisa Kron and Charles Randolph-Wright.
What distinguishes Hunter’s writing voice is an insistent closeness to his characters, a spare linguistic approach and a quizzically seriocomic tone. He’s part of what I personally refer to as a new movement of American dramatic neo-realism, exemplified by the work of Annie Baker, Stephen Karam, Greg Pierce and, in a differing mode, Lisa D’Amour. Hunter carves his plays out of stark yet familiar formal landscapes populated with characters whose quietly raging interiors explode unexpectedly. He writes in the American grain that gave us Lanford Wilson in the late 1960s and ’70s, charting compassionate yet slightly distanced portraits of people living, usually, in small towns and cities—people who are either broken or about to be, or who suffer from sometimes explicit, sometimes mysterious psychological damage.
I suspect that some of Hunter’s more outlandish, more exuberantly rowdy plays have yet to be written. But his consistently precise and intimate theatrical voice is already beautiful to witness. Here are excerpts from a conversation we had earlier this year.
CARIDAD SVICH: You were born in northern Idaho and you write a great deal about people and towns in Idaho in your plays. How does landscape and memory lead to your plays?
SAM HUNTER: It sounds incredibly narcissistic to say, but I think my plays are, in one way or another, always about myself. I don’t really incorporate stories or people from my own life, but a play is usually reflecting on something I feel or believe or have questions about. When I first started writing plays, I never wrote about Idaho. But as I kept going, as my writing became more personal, it became more and more about where I came from. Once I started writing about Idaho, it sort of took over. More and more it doesn’t even feel like I’m intentionally setting my plays there, it’s just what I do. That being said, I don’t think of my writing as being particularly “regional.” The Idaho I write about is less the physical Idaho 3,000 miles away from my apartment in New York than it is a fictional Idaho that I’ve sort of been building with each play. Years ago, I used to explain that I was writing about a part of the country that is underrepresented in the culture, but as I continue I’m finding that Idaho is actually serving as a blank canvas that I’m constantly returning to. The power of Idaho as a setting is not in the specificity of the place but in its lack of specificity. These plays I write could happen just about anywhere in the country, but placing them in Idaho connects me to them in a very personal way.
Intersections of class and privilege thread through your plays—children of the working class who are constantly rubbing up against children of “better” means, and those who cannot see beyond the situation and circumstances they’re in because of class stigma, social stigma or other reasons. Where do you see your work in relationship to issues around class, status and power?
I suppose it’s a little ridiculous that so many of my characters are lower-middle-class—my father is an emergency physician back in Idaho, so my family always had enough money. We weren’t wealthy per se, but I was always comfortable. Some of what you’re pointing to may be my reaction to what I’m constantly seeing on major Off-Broadway stages—play after play about wealthy people dealing with their wealthy-person problems.
Of course, I don’t think my plays are ostensibly about class or status. The characters tend to be more working-class most likely because they are the people that I think best represent the country. They’re also just the kind of people I grew up around, and they’re the kind of people I’m interested in writing about.
The Whale focuses on, among other things, faith, spirituality, sexuality and illness. The dying body of the main figure is at the play’s center, alternately making peace with, railing against, and willing himself to end a life of regret, sorrow and occasional happiness. Does The Whale fit in your cycle of Idaho plays?
I had a few different jumping off points for The Whale. At the time I started writing the play, I was teaching expository writing at Rutgers University. I found that so much of my time at Rutgers was spent trying to connect with the students, trying to get them to write something true and meaningful. The main character in The Whale is doing the same thing with his daughter.
I think the genesis for the play also came from my relationship with my own body. The main character weighs over 600 pounds, and this play is, in a way, an exploration of my body and its deterioration. I have a severe peanut allergy, and when I was 17 I had a bad reaction that very nearly killed me. I went into anaphylactic shock, and by the time I was at the hospital I wasn’t breathing at all. Ever since then, I’ve had a very different kind of relationship to my own body. In my own experience with death, the deterioration happened very quickly, in about 30 minutes; in the play, the deterioration is stretched out over 17 years, but the basic movement is the same. When I talk about the end of the play, and the main character’s final breaths, I often talk about how it felt to take what I thought were my last few breaths.
Discomfort, disease and good old U.S. familial dysfunction also run through your plays. In terms of form, the approach is more realist than strictly formalist. Do you see yourself as writing within a specific dramatic tradition?
The relationship between form and content has been a constant struggle for me. In grad school, a moderately well-known experimental theatre artist read one of my plays, sat me down, and told me to leave theatre for television because my writing was nothing special. It set off a minor crisis for me. Suddenly, I worried that I wasn’t a real theatre artist because my plays weren’t “experimental” enough—they were plot-driven and based mostly in realism.
This isn’t to say I haven’t ever tinkered around with other forms. A few days ago, I actually pulled out a script I wrote when I was 21. It was a play called Abraham (A Shot in the Head), and it was performed briefly at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. What was interesting was even though it was strange and dense and definitely not realistic, I could tell years later that I was actually driving at a few interesting ideas that were completely overshadowed by formal and stylistic gymnastics. It almost felt like I was just pretending to be a more experimental writer than I actually was.
I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by plays that redefine forms and push theatrical boundaries, and some of my favorite plays fall into this category. But what I’ve realized is that I have to surrender to my plays and let them be what they want to be. I have to let my writing arrive at its own form, not shoehorn the characters and ideas into something “experimental.” In the end, I have to honor the stories I want to tell, and if it means that realism is the best vehicle for these stories, then I have to allow that. That being said, I don’t think that A Bright New Boise and The Whale are necessarily total realism. The core narratives of the plays are realistic, but both of them have sort of fuzzy edges.
When you write about so-called “small disasters” in personal lives, what is your approach?
I’ve never really been concerned with providing commentary in my plays. It’s not my job to tell people what to think. If I wanted to do that I’d probably write an essay. I always find myself frustrated with theatre that delivers a “message” or comes to a clear, singular point. I always feel like I’ve been cheated out of two hours. I leave thinking, “Why didn’t you just tell me that? Why did I need to wait until a character said it on page 100?”
I feel like my job is to construct characters, put them in a situation, and then get out of their way. A Bright New Boise, for example, is about a man with deeply held Christian beliefs about the Rapture who clings to those beliefs at the expense of family and loved ones. The expected narrative is that the man realizes his religious convictions are hurting his personal relationships, so he gives them up and is able to move forward with his life. The expected narrative reassures the audience that belief in the Rapture is silly, that someday everyone will stop believing in it, that America on the whole can get past it. I have no interest in that narrative; it’s dishonest, and, worse, it’s boring. The point of the play is not to say that these beliefs are hurtful and should be shed—the point of the play is to portray these people as honestly as I can without slapping any easy judgments on them.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up? How did the idea of performance and writing for performance come to be?
When I was a teenager, I thought I was going to pursue something to do with classical music. But I never really had the patience to become a great pianist. I was terrible at sight-reading music because I was desperate to play it my own way, assign my own ideas to it, my own interpretations. It drove my piano teachers nuts.
I didn’t start writing until somewhat late in my teens. I was in the closet and attending a fundamentalist Christian high school in Idaho. Once I read some Allen Ginsberg the floodgates sort of blasted open. I spent the next two years writing hundreds of pages of terrible, angst-y free-verse poetry. As I continued writing, I started to realize that what I really liked about poetry was reading it out loud. There was a performance aspect to it, an ephemeral, time-based experience that I really fell in love with. So moving on to writing for performance was a pretty natural jump.
Could you speak about your work internationally in theatre-making and how it’s impacted upon the work you make here in the U.S.?
The most time I spent working on theatre abroad was in the West Bank, during grad school. I spent a couple of summers teaching playwriting workshops in Ramallah and Hebron. I suppose being there really taught me to be honest in my writing. In a place like the West Bank, writing a play can be a dangerous act. In Hebron, especially, some plays are performed in secret because the ideas and themes in them could get the theatre burned down. Being in a place like that forced me to be more realistic about what I was doing—to, in a way, stop trying to be “artistic” and just write something honest. To get out of my own way.
What do you hope for your characters, in say, A Bright New Boise or The Whale? Are there aspirations you have for them?
I may have ideas of what I hope for my characters after the play is done, or ideas about what will happen to them, but I think it’s more valuable to allow the audience to make their own decisions. Some of my favorite reactions are when audience members are sharply divided about an ending—when some feel it’s hopeful, while others feel it’s completely desolate and hopeless. I think it’s valuable to give an audience a number of different avenues to travel down as they leave the theatre.
How do you sustain a writing practice on a daily basis?
I’m not the kind of writer who sits down every day at a certain time and writes. I wish I were. I sort of write in bursts. Sometimes I write 20 pages a day, sometimes I don’t write for an entire week. I think this has to do with the fact that I really benefit from the workshop process. I write first drafts pretty quickly, but then the real work of the play is in the rewriting, readings, getting notes, allowing other people to reflect on what the play is so I can find its shape.
Do you ever feel you censor yourself when you’re writing?
In the beginning, when you don’t really know what kind of writer you are, the act of writing a play is a pretty terrifying process. If you write a political play, you’re a political writer. If you write a realistic play, you’re a writer of realism. So, early on I was very much in my own way, bullying myself into writing the sorts of plays I thought I should write. But as I continued and gained more confidence in my own voice, those censors slowly evaporated.
I still find that sometimes I censor myself for whatever reason—maybe it’s too personal, too risky, something you think might get a bad review. I do a lot of talking to myself when I’m writing—usually I have a separate document open on my computer which is just my internal monologue about what the play is about, what the characters are doing, or just frustrated self-criticism. I find that helps because when I’m forcing myself to type every thought I have, no matter how insignificant or banal, then suddenly I’m not deciding what to type, I’m just recording thoughts. Again, it’s about getting out of my own way.
Caridad Svich was awarded the 2012 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her new play Guapa receives a National New Play Network rolling premiere at Borderlands Theater, Phoenix Theatre and Miracle Theatre this season.
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