NEW YORK CITY: The first scene in Samuel D. Hunter’s new play Pocatello features 10 characters, all onstage, all talking at the same time. From that tableau, with audience members straining to pick up snippets of conversation, one gets the sense that this play is going to be larger in scope than previous Hunter plays (The Whale, The Few).
The entirety of Pocatello, currently in its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons (through Jan. 5), is set inside what looks suspiciously like an Olive Garden, where manager Eddie (played by “Grey’s Anatomy” alum T.R. Knight) is trying to save the failing chain restaurant.
“It’s not officially the Olive Garden,” disclaims Hunter. Still, certain familiar lingo, such as “soup, salad and breadstick” lunches and “Tour of Italy,” pepper the play, as well as real pasta dishes eaten onstage by the cast.
Yet the play is not just about pasta. It’s also about family and the longing for a human connection in a town that is both specific and also serves as a stand-in for modern America. AT caught up with Hunter over coffee to ask him about his relationship to Idaho and the Olive Garden, and what life is like as a MacArthur “genius.”
Why did you write a 10-person play?
It’s a really good question. I wrote it not thinking it would ever see the light of day. I wrote it in 2011 because there was a company of 10 young actors at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the non-Equity company. They brought me in and there was a director named Portia Krieger who I was working with, a wonderful director, and the festival asked us to make a play for 10 people.
No one asks for that anymore.
I know, nobody asks that! I thought I was doing it just for this one company of 10 young actors to do once over the summer. There were 20-year-olds playing 80-year-olds and stuff like that. And then I largely forgot about it. I always had a lot of faith in it, but I thought, Who the hell would ever do a 10-person play? Especially a 10-person play where they’re eating all the time! I was a little intimidated by it, because the first scene, for it to work, it has to be so committed, in terms of performance and directing. The last play that [director Davis McCallum] and I opened in New York was three characters; it was very quiet and the architecture was very small.
The Few [at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater].
The Few, yeah. The moments were just so minuscule and quiet. This play [Pocatello] is almost the diametric opposite. It’s the biggest set I’ve ever had, biggest cast I’ve ever had.
Would you have written Pocatello if no one had told you to do it?
That’s a really good question. Probably not. The reason I wrote a 10-character play was because Williamstown said, “Here’s 10 actors.”
At the time, I didn’t know if I was interested in writing a 10-person play. I was writing smaller plays, like four to five people, and so when I had this opportunity, I said, “Well, this will be good, you know, I’ll flex some different muscles,” and I took to it more than I thought I would. I liked it much better than I even knew I would.
The Few and Pocatello both share common themes—people going through trauma, the search for human connection. What added dimensions do you think come from tripling the cast size?
The Few is about these three people trying to desperately negotiate their lives, and then we have this answering machine onstage that plays something like 15 different voice-mails. The backdrop of these people are the unseen community behind the three main characters trying to work through their own traumas. So it’s almost like I took those 15 people out of the answering machine and I put them onstage. If The Few is this sort of portraiture of these three people and then in the background, we know that there’s a community of truckers and all these people, with Pocatello, you bring the landscape, you bring the entire community and put them in the play.
I notice that some of the same character types seem to appear in your plays, such as the bitter teenager and the hopeful young man. Is there something about those kinds of people that appeal to you?
Oh yeah! I think that the reason I write plays is because I’m interested in looking at things from as many different angles as possible. So in Scene Three of Pocatello, you’ve got Eddie who’s the manager of this restaurant, and you’ve got Becky, who’s this deeply unhappy teenager, and they’re coming at life from two drastically different points of worldview. And what Eddie’s coming with in the scene is: People are worth it, community is worth it, human connection is worth it. And Becky is saying in that scene, “I’m terrified that it’s not and I think that human connection might not be worth it.” And it’s in that conversation that includes two different dynamics—I think everybody experiences those moments in their life where they doubt the validity of what they’re doing. They doubt the validity of how they’re living as a citizen in 2014 in America.
So do you think people are inherently full of shit?
[chuckles] If there’s one thing that all the plays are saying it’s that human connection is worth it, and that there’s value in it. Even though I was so influenced early on by the writers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s who sort of had these bleak worldviews, the William Burroughses of the world, all of that really appealed to me—I think, as I continued writing, I realized though that I actually have a really unshakable faith in the value of community and human connection, and I think that’s where the plays are coming from.
Why did you choose Pocatello as a location?
This is an entirely fictionalized Pocatello, and I actually haven’t been to Pocatello in a really long time; the last time I was there I was in high school. My Pocatello is sort of an amalgam of a few different towns. They constantly reference a paper mill in this play, and there’s no paper mill that I know of in Pocatello, but there is a paper mill in Lewiston, Idaho near where I grew up. The last time I was in Pocatello, I just remembered everything feeling kind of new, like it was being transformed under its feet into something that was kind of ephemeral and new and not very pretty; it felt corporate to me.
That was 15 years ago. I think I chose that town just because of a certain emotional reaction that I had to it way back when, and I think I also chose it because I think that 99 percent of people who go to this play don’t know anything about Pocatello, so they don’t really bring anything to the play. So it allows Pocatello to be kind of Anywhere, USA.
Kind of like Our Town.
Exactly. I thought for a while that maybe, before I titled the play Pocatello, that maybe it could be an unnamed American city. But that just felt a little too clever, like I was pointing to it too much by not naming it.
You won the MacArthur Grant this year. Has life become drastically different now that you’re a genius?
Um, you know, it’s not completely different. It doesn’t officially start until 2015. I think that the biggest thing was before it happened, I could always see financially, maybe six or seven months into the future—I could continue doing this playwriting for six or seven more months, after that it was a grey area. But then all of a sudden, I’ve got five years just kind of handed to me. And I had a couple of reactions; one, I was like, “Oh my God, I need to make all of my plays better!” I had the sense to sort of pull every play from being produced and say, “I need to make these plays better before I let people see them!”
The second thing was sort of, “Oh, I can maybe sit back a little bit.” I just have more freedom now to do things and not have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be plays that get produced across the country, or will get a big advance from the publisher. I just kind of follow the instincts of the play. Which I think was what I was doing before, but it allows me the freedom to do it now without having to worry. So that’s been the biggest thing. I think it’s allowed me to sort of dream big, in a certain way—just really sit back and think of projects that I otherwise wouldn’t have done because I was a little scared of them.
Are you going to bring out the turntables and set things in multiple locations now?
I think less in terms of size and more in terms of pushing myself. Less about, Let me write a play that’s going to cost $300,000 to produce, and more about, Let me write a play where I don’t know if it’s going to work entirely; let me just see what happens. And we dive in and really try it. And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, because I have a safety net now.
So do you go to Olive Garden?
I actually really like the Olive Garden. I still do. I like it like I like Disneyland. I like it in its theatricality. When I was a kid, I really liked it a lot. It was where we would often go. There wasn’t an Olive Garden in my hometown [Moscow], but we would visit my grandparents down in Boise and there was an Olive Garden there, and we would go eat there with the family. So I have a very strong connection with Olive Garden and bringing together family, which is sort of the base level of Pocatello.
What do you usually order?
I really like the Zuppa Toscana—meatball soup.