An interview with
SAMUEL D. HUNTER
THE FEW BY SAMUEL D. HUNTER
Four years ago Bryan abandoned his labor of love, a newspaper for truckers. Now he’s returned—with no word of where he’s been—and things have changed. His former lover is filled with rage, his new coworker is filled with incessant adoration, and his paper is filled with personal ads. As he considers giving up for good, Bryan searches for what he couldn’t find on the road: a way to keep faith in humanity. FEBRUARY 6, 2012 • 7 PM • AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER • FREE RESERVE SEATS: email@example.com • (612) 332-7481 x10 • www.pwcenter.org The Playwrights’ Center is wheelchair-accessible.
THE 2011-12 RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES
presents free readings of new work by today’s most exciting playwrights. For more information visit www.pwcenter.org. Also sponsored by
PROJECT JOURNEY •
DRAFTED & DEVELOPED IN THE CIVILIANS’ RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT GROUP, FALL 2010-SPRING 2011
FROM PRODUCING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
JEREMY B. COHEN FEMALE VOICE 2 (over answering machine) I'm looking for—. Honesty. I mean, I know that sometimes people lie, I know that. But I'm looking for someone who is generally honest. When I do stupid things I need someone to say "Cindy, don't be stupid." But when I do things well, when I'm good at something, I need someone to say, "Cindy, you did that well. You're good at that thing." And I just don't think that's asking too much. I think that I deserve that much. I may not deserve much, but— (Pause. MATTHEW continues to listen.) I'm sorry, just. I'm sorry, I'm wasting your time, I'm sorry. I apologize. You can delete this, I'm— (She hangs up. The answering machine beeps. Silence. MATTHEW is motionless, staring forward.) From The Few by Samuel D. Hunter
Samuel D. Hunter is an extraordinary talent, one I have had the pleasure of following keenly since I first met him (and directed a workshop of an early play of his) at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2005, when he was still a grad student at the prestigious Iowa Playwrights Workshop. I am thrilled to welcome Sam into the Playwrights’ Center family as a new Core Writer this season. Hunter enters the Ruth Easton Lab with a sharp new play aimed at political discourse and the haunted heart, landing us at a three-way intersection where epic tragedy meets divine comedy meets three of the most yearning, jilted spirits I’ve recently read. Expect no talking points delivered in narrative form: Hunter has a gift for reflecting our thorniest modern dilemmas with searing precision even while spinning an emotionally piercing story.
That gift is partly why Hunter is riding into Minneapolis on a wave of recent accolades and successes, including an extended run of A Bright New Boise at Woolly Mammoth (following its award-winning premiere in NYC last season) and the world premiere of The Whale at Denver Center Theatre this month—a play that is, as artistic director Kent Thompson told the Denver Post, “generating more excitement within the industry than any play we’ve ever done here.” Sam’s theatrical creations are breathtaking. And completely hilarious. And heartbreaking. I invite you to dive with us into the world of this great new play that is buoyed by the flickering souls and voices of those traveling this lost highway. Join us for the next chapter of the Ruth Easton New Play Series: Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few.
An interview with
SAMUEL D. HUNTER WHAT, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, IS THE FEW ABOUT? That’s a really good question. It’s still developing. This is going to sound sort of large and supercilious, but I think at its core it’s about the state of discourse in America. I started the play a little while ago as the Tea Party movement was going on (and now Occupy Wall Street), and in a way the play is a reaction to that. But it’s so hard to write about those things—the moment you have it in your hands it sort of turns to water. And it’s impossible to talk directly about it without being glib or labeling it in a way that is unfair—for either side, liberal or conservative. So I thought, well, I’m going to try to write about this discourse by taking the politics out of it and getting at something more essential, more about communication without concrete political ideas assigned to it. The play is about this newspaper for truckers that started out as a sort of dialogue; it sought to form community through open discussion about ideas—not only political ideas, but any ideas that impacted what they saw as the community. But when the paper’s founder returns to it after four years, the paper is mostly devoted to personal ads. The trucker community is so interesting because there’s no sense of place at all. Yet there is a really solid community among truckers, even though they’re always moving and they’re all across the country. If you read these online personal ads for truckers, they’re kind of amazing because they’re desperately seeking connection even though they’re always leaving— they’re never in one place, they’re always on the move. And they often seek other truckers because there’s an understanding and a community there. In the play, the personal ads represent something that’s so basic and human—just people seeking contact in the most simple and essential way. So hopefully these personal ads serve as scaffolding for the rest of the play.
YOU HAVE A KNACK FOR TACKLING CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS WITHOUT ALIENATING YOUR AUDIENCE. HOW DO YOU APPROACH EMOTIONALLY CHARGED SUBJECT MATTER? I’ve always been interested in plays that approach big, potentially controversial topics, but I get so annoyed with plays that have a singular perspective on them. It’s like, you’re watching this dramatic action unfold, and then there’s a climactic moment or a line that is the “thesis statement” of the play. Like, “Here are these characters, here’s the situation, conflict, conflict, therefore, thesis statement.” And I always get frustrated because I’m like, I didn’t need 90 minutes of action for you to tell me what you thought about this topic. You could have just written an op-ed or an essay or something. So I try to avoid—and it’s hard, actually—characters or situations that deliver my specific opinion or perspective on these topics. I also try to write about things that I have really complex reactions to. Like the subject matter in The Few—I don’t have a really solid perspective on the stuff that I’m dancing around. I don’t have a big thesis statement to deliver about it. Hopefully, dealing with it in that way creates a wider field of understanding and a wider perspective for people to approach the ideas and characters in the play. HOW FAR ALONG IS THE PLAY? THE SUBMISSION COPY ONLY HAD ACT I. I’M ON THE EDGE OF MY SEAT HERE! I know where it’s going in a very simple, emotional, plot-driven way, but I’m still negotiating how it actually gets there. I have a lot of material, but I’m still deciding some of the basic movements that happen in Act II. It’s weird; it’s in this nebulous place where I could probably assemble an Act II very quickly, but I wouldn’t be happy with it. So I’m still combing through a lot of decisions and events for the second half of the play. WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO FOCUS ON IN YOUR RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES WORKSHOP? I’ll definitely have a full draft by the time I get there, but I think there’s going to be a lot of figuring out what the play is, really. I’ve heard the first act read out loud once, in a really casual situation, but I will have never heard the entire play out loud. I assume that once we read the play, a lot of things are going to become clear about how the play is functioning, both dramatically
and in its relationship to its ideas. So I assume that I will get there with a full draft and leave with a play that is almost entirely different. WHAT PREVIOUS DEVELOPMENT HAS THE PLAY HAD? I wrote it when I was in this workshop at The Civilians; it was a six- or sevenmonth-long workshop where we met every few weeks, and I would bring in pages of it every so often, and at the very end of that there was a really casual reading with three actors around a table, and then a discussion afterwards. That’s really all the development it’s had. THE MAIN CHARACTER, BRYAN, IS FASCINATING TO ME—HE’S A JERK, YET SOMEHOW HE’S A VERY SYMPATHETIC CHARACTER. HOW DO YOU MAKE THE AUDIENCE INVEST IN A DISAGREEABLE CHARACTER? Well, there’s the simple way to do it, which is basically the Ebenezer Scrooge thing—you point to their coming redemption as much as you can and then redeem them—but that’s really not right for this play. I think with a character like this, he’s disagreeable because of his internal conflict, and our understanding of his internal conflict is what grows throughout the play, and then hopefully our judgment of him sort of fades into the background. Hopefully, investing in this guy’s journey toward some sort of redemption— not in this big Ebenezer Scrooge way, but some sort of redemption at the end—is going to be interesting to follow. I also think that in a way, I get really annoyed about these ideas. I get really cranky and annoying talking about the Tea Party movement or Occupy Wall Street or politics in general, you know? I turn into that guy, and I think a lot of us do. We get impulsive and reactive and we shut down and we turn our heads. I think that most of us have that experience, so hopefully we can relate to him on that level. RIGHT NOW YOU’RE IN DENVER FOR THE WORLD PREMIERE OF YOUR NEW PLAY THE WHALE. TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT THAT PLAY AND THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING AT DENVER CENTER. This is a play that I wrote a couple years ago now. It’s this story of a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, but the challenge of the play is that the main character is supposed to weigh about 650 pounds, and he’s dying of congestive heart failure. I started the play in New York in this thing called
The 24Seven Lab, which unfortunately no longer exists. It was this great workshop where for six or seven weeks you would just bring in pages every week. So I brought in 20 or 25 pages of this new play every week until I had a whole draft. From there, I did a two-week workshop at PlayPenn in Philadelphia with Hal Brooks, who’s directing it out here. Then Doug Langworthy, who’s the Literary Manager at the Denver Center, saw my play A Bright New Boise in New York, and he liked it and asked me for other plays, so I sent the script to him. It was in the Colorado New Play Summit last year, and then they decided to produce it this year. So that’s kind of the trajectory of it. It’s kind of interesting; I’ve never worked at a theater this big before. I mean, we’re in one of the small theaters, a 250-seater, but it’s funny to be doing this play about this 650-pound guy reconnecting with his daughter, which has an opening image of him masturbating to gay porn, and meanwhile on the other stages they’re doing A Christmas Carol and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s interesting to think about how we fit into the larger tapestry of the theater. I just worked at Woolly Mammoth, and you know, they do edgy work—not that I think my plays are really all that “edgy”, whatever that means—but it’s not shocking for people to swear or for there to be sex or drugs or whatever onstage. That feels much different here. It is also really nice to be back in the West. I’m not that far from Idaho, which is where all my plays take place. So it’s kind of cool to be back for that reason. WHY ARE YOU A PLAYWRIGHT? The money, obviously. So much money. Kidding. No, I think that I want to be a writer, but I also crave community. I love playwriting for the reason that it serves both of the needs I have in myself—my need for solace and privacy and my need for community. Like this play that is now at the Denver Center—the writing process was very solitary, but now I’m at this big theater, working with these amazing actors and changing the script and rewriting and making it better. I don’t know if I could ever write a novel, because that process is so entirely solitary. I also crave the feedback of other artists. I really think that that is how my work gets wherever it finally does, because of the feedback of other people in the room. So there’s that.
There’s also something interesting and fulfilling about writing for performance. It’s so idiosyncratic, you know? The relationship of the audience to the words is so different. I find it kind of interesting that sometimes people come to my plays, and they don’t really realize that I’ve written all the words. They’re not being stupid, it’s just that they might be new to the theater, so sometimes they’ll come up to me and they’ll be like, “did the director add all this stuff”?
“SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT WRITERS ARE SO AFRAID TO SAY SOMETHING POTENTIALLY PROVOCATIVE THAT THEIR PLAYS BECOME AFRAID OF SAYING THINGS, OR BELIEVING IN SOMETHING, AND THEY BECOME PLAYS THAT DON’T EVEN TAKE THEMSELVES SERIOUSLY.”
Like, for the play I just had at Woolly Mammoth, there’s this device with a TV onstage, it’s in the break room of a big box store, and sometimes the satellite feed gets crossed with footage of medical procedures. It happens throughout the play, and the characters continually refer to it. In a talkback once, an audience member asked me if that was in the play or if the actors and director had added that. And I actually really like that, that their relationship to what I’m writing is bigger than just me. Like it’s not all about me sitting down and writing something that’s translated directly to the stage, it’s not about me as a writer feeding something directly to the audience, it’s about this larger experience, this ephemeral thing that exists somewhere between me, the actors, the director, the designers, the audience.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE OR DISLIKE IN A PLAY? I was actually talking with Hal [Brooks] about this last night. Sometimes I feel when there’s nothing on the line in the play for anybody, I get a little bored—when I feel like nobody’s putting themselves into the play in a risky way, you know? Sometimes I see a play and I’m like, I don’t know where the playwright is in this. I mean, I don’t want the playwright to show up in a line or a monologue and tell me what they think and deliver a thesis statement, but I want to feel like there’s some vulnerability, like there’s something the playwright is wrestling with in the play, and something the actors and the director are wrestling with, too. If it’s too easy, then it’s hard for me to get invested in it. Sometimes it seems that writers are so afraid to say something potentially provocative that their plays become afraid of saying things, or believing in something, and they become plays that don’t even take themselves seriously. Almost like something has beaten this writer down to the point where they feel like they’re not allowed to say anything; they can only make fun of things. The plays that I really love, they say a lot of things. They don’t have a thesis statement, but they’re saying a lot of things, and approaching something in a really complex, maybe even messy way. ANYTHING ELSE? I’m so excited to go to Minneapolis. I haven’t been to Minneapolis for years, and I love Minneapolis. In a selfish way, I was so glad to get into this just because I want to spend some time in that city that I really like.
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