Artist Interview: Lucas Hnath

Tim Sanford: You have said you first heard the idea of a “thin place” from a conversation with Les Waters. And when he explained what it means, you thought, "I want to keep that title."  Can you talk a little bit more about what was kindled for you when you heard that phrase?

Lucas Hnath: The way Les explained it, it's the places where the line between this world and another world is very thin. If you look up “thin place,” there is a Celtic meaning of the term, which is a little less eerie and has more to do with places where you're on the verge of seeing or touching God or coming to some kind of revelation or knowledge where you're just on the cusp. I'm interested in both meanings because I’m always going back to this problem of how difficult it is to know something and how difficult it is to know whether or not what you think you know is based in any kind of reality. And I think that alternate meaning of thin place, when I looked it up, probably really helped launch me. 

TS: The Christians is similar to The Thin Place in that it’s also about faith and doubt. And I think in both plays neither doubt nor faith wins out in the end.

LH: I think that's accurate. It's the constant questioning that I'm interested in, the constant testing and not getting lazy in your thinking, because it becomes very easy to just repeat what you're saying. When I was a middle-schooler, my mother went to seminary, so I got exposed to all of these theologians who had a healthy relationship to questions and doubt and in-between spaces. I am very interested in getting comfortable with saying, “I don't know.” I've talked about my interest in the red light bulb, because what happens when you light a space with a red light bulb is that it sort of tricks the eye into thinking the space is more lit than it actually is and that there is actually a great deal of visual ambiguity that your brain is trying to process. And the brain doesn’t like ambiguity. It tries to complete the shape. It tries to fill it in with information that's not true. And I think about that a lot–I worry about people pretending they know more than they do. And I think there's a great danger to it. 

TS: Well, but in The Thin Place, there's the opposite. Hilda pretends she doesn't believe things. She rattles off these things that she probably believes. But then she says, “I don't know. I don’t know anything.”

LH: I think it's a kind of tactic.

TS: Yeah, she probably does believe certain things. 

LH: I think that's definitely the case. I think it's kind of a sneaky move that she keeps doing, perhaps unconsciously. That verbal tick of hers came out of the storytelling challenge I gave myself, because I wanted to make something where I'm kind of bending your belief about what's going on. I'm trying to plant in more and more incredible information and the best way to do that isn't to come right out and assert it. It's to cast a certain doubt on it and let it work on the audience. If she came out too bold with it, you would just dismiss it right out of the gate. You see this a lot in horror writing: “Did I hear a scream or is it just the sound of the wind —? oh I don’t know, it’s probably just the wind.” You’ve said the eerie thought, then dismissed it, but you can’t entirely erase it from the listener’s mind, so it just sits there and grows on its own. There are certain public figures who use this tactic as well.

TS: My thinking about ambivalence in the theater is very much colored by time I spent in acting classes with Michael Shurtleff, the former casting director, who wrote a book called The Audition. An actor is tasked with identifying both what your action is in a situation, the thing that you want, but also what the opposite of that action is, because that is true too.  In class he would caution against playing the opposites against each other such that they cancel each other out and dwindle into neutral. And that seems to be the challenge here, to explore the possibility of psychic phenomena and then also the idea that it’s a trick without it turning into pure skepticism. You have to let the moments of belief play out. Is that something that you were conscious of playing with as you wrote the play?

LH: I’m interested in movements of the mind—in how thoughts move through our heads. Consider that moment where Linda explains how she does what she does. She calls it a trick. She explains the principles of cold reading. And then we hear from Hilda makes of it; she says, “So I won’t say that I was disappointed.” Of course she's disappointed, she’s saying the opposite of what she’s feeling. “And I won’t say that I felt cheated.” She wanted to believe that Linda had a line to the spirit world, and she clearly still wants to believe. And just then Linda coincidentally has a kind of respiratory seizure. And it doesn't take Hilda too long to use that as evidence to show that, “Oh, well, she's telling me it's just a trick but it's very possible that something else is going on and she doesn't even realize it and that, in fact, Linda just suffered this respiratory seizure because some demonic force is mad at her for saying what she just said.” And of course Hilda says it all very euphemistically. But it's that funny thing—when there is something that we have a vested interest in believing, our brains are—it's confirmation bias—we often end up looking for evidence to support the thing that is more comfortable for us to believe. And I do it all the time. I do it constantly. I fight it, I fight it, I fight it. And yet I still find myself doing it.

TS: What’s the danger of it? Why do you have to fight it? 

LH: Well, because I want to, as best as I can, let what evidence there is speak for itself. But the other problem is, I'm only ever going to be privy to a limited spectrum of evidence. Now I'm talking in abstraction, but on any given topic, there are just so many things that I'm not even going to be privy to. Like when there is a question about whether somebody is lying. What happened in an instant that I wasn't present for? Well I will never know because I wasn't there! I will never know. But we’re not comfortable with not knowing, and our minds do have a mind of their own and they’ll tell a story about that which we didn’t see. And sometimes we go and make very real decisions based on those stories we’ve told ourselves and that seems a bit dangerous, doesn’t it? Decisions based on that which isn’t real?And so I'm interested in getting better at saying, “I don't know. I wasn't there.”

TS: I immediately leapt to the larger social and political ramifications of what you said.  So many people grab onto indirect sources to validate their unassailable worldviews.  We live in a time of rampant credulousness on the one hand and unrestrained rushes to judgment on the other.  So I think that's an important project—to train ourselves to be willing to say, “I don't know.”

LH: I mean, it's not as good a story. It just kind of trails off. And I am, in a larger sense, suspicious of our need to turn everything into an exciting story.

TS: Does it make you less apt to expostulate your own opinions?

LH: Yeah, although I can't help it, I catch myself doing it all the time. And people expect it of you. Like, I just remember doing press for Hillary and Clinton. One of the questions that would come up every time I had to do press for that play was, “Who do you like in the current field of potential candidates?” And I hadn't sat down and done the appropriate reading to even begin to have an opinion about it. But I am acutely aware that the standard operating mode is just to sort of spout off and say who you like even before you’ve taken the time to really study.

TS: You said in relation to that play that you questioned yourself about using well-known figures to tell such a personal story. What did that mean? 

LH: There were a number of plays about famous people that I had written. The first one was the Anna Nicole Smith one, which was a short play. Then I wrote Hillary and Clinton. Then I wrote Isaac's Eye and then I wrote Disney. And I do think it was around the time that I had finished a draft of Hillary and Clinton, because the whole method of writing that play was to not make it a biographical piece. But I wanted to treat them as these mythic characters. And I wanted to use them as objects to riff on. But, of course, they're real people in recent history. And we're still in the process of trying to unpack who those people are and their legacies and what they mean to us now. So, even though the play has a framing device that tells the audience to read the play as a metaphor, it’s nonetheless very hard for people to read that play as anything but a story about events for which none of us were present.

TS: A Doll's House, Part 2 doesn’t deal with historical characters. They’re fictional. But they also have a kind of mythic size, and the play plays with our expectations about them.

LH: And because it’s about fictional characters, it’s a lot easier to read that play for its ideas about the world. No one’s coming to that play to find out what really happened to Nora and Torvald. There’s no “really.” It all lives in the land of metaphor.

TS: You have talked about wanting to write a horror story for the theater. What do you find compelling about horror stories?

LH: I think what horror allows is an expression of some kind of terror without needing to do too much to explain it or solve it. My plays certainly don't end in definitive answers about the questions they raise. They're designed to propose an idea and then hit that idea with a number of counter-arguments. So there's no easy answer, no easy out. And in some ways, this is an extension of that.

TS: In a way, horror stories are like Roller Coaster rides, aren’t they?

LH:That’s the thing: horror is immersive. It’s an experience. So, if what I’m interested in is a debate that has no ‘out’—then a horror play gives me an opportunity to put the audience in the middle of the debate, to send them out to sea with nothing to cling to, no clear indication of who has the right answer. You lose perspective inside of horror. And that’s a difference between this play and some of my other plays. The perspective is a little more pronounced in some of the other plays, and this one, by comparison is more like a hall of mirrors or a carnival ‘dark ride’ where you’re making sharp turns in the dark, and you can’t quite tell what’s coming up ahead. A loss of perspective is a big part of what this play is about, and so it only makes sense that the play embody that experience.

TS: You’ve said the thing that's most horrifying to you is the idea that your thoughts are not your own.

LH: Yeah. One of my biggest fears as a child was being unwittingly demon possessed and that ends up being a metaphor for, “Your thoughts are not your own, your voice is not your own. That way you speak, another thing is speaking through you and you're not fully in control of it.” And it goes back to this concern that I have about, why do people think what they think? Are they echoing what other people are saying? Are they falling in to a kind of tribalism, which to me seems to relate to this—you're not speaking with your own voice, you're speaking with other voices, and it creeps me out. It's something that I find frightening and it's something that I can't claim not to do myself. And so I just wanted to look at that in this play. And I think it's a problem for which I don't actually think there's an answer. I think we can't help it. It’s a completely unsolvable problem. And to me, that's the scariest kind of story. And again with this form, I feel permission not to have to come up with some proposal for how we collectively address the problem. I think another useful thing that horror can do is just be a warning sign. You know, flash us all with a “Watch out, watch out.” Because I think that is the most useful thing we can do, is to proceed with great, great caution. And to constantly question ourselves.

TS: What was that book about demonic possession that you said you stumbled on in a Christian bookstore? How old were you?

LH: It must have been age 10 that I had it. It was this book about demonology, about the different varieties of demons and the effect that each one had and how to be able to tell if someone you knew or yourself were possessed by one and what to do about it. And I remember the book said that if you sneezed in church, then that meant you had this one particular demon inside you. So whenever I was in church and felt like I was going to sneeze, I would get scared that I was demon-possessed, and if I was demon-possessed then what did that mean? Did that mean I wasn’t in control of myself? It gave me a great deal of anxiety.

TS: So early on in your play, Hilda mentions that her mother stumbled in on her grandmother and her doing psychic tricks and kicked her out of the house.  Hilda’s manner is so mild that we at first find this interjection kind of funny. But it's actually horrifying. The game Hilda plays with her grandmother seems benign and sweet but her mother brings in the idea that psychic connections are demonic.  And while Linda views her activity as beneficent, it's actually the mother’s view of spirits, which is scary and haunting and malevolent, that kind of takes over the final stages of the play and in the long narrative about going to the house and being on the phone and off the phone. Is that a reason to eschew ideas of spiritualism? Because if you open the door to one, you're opening the door to everything? I don't mean to imply that you believe in it, but I'm just thinking about where the play takes it.  It feels pretty much like Hilda's version, because she's the narrator and she's telling the story, it feels like her story wins at the end.

LH: There's a world in which everything supernatural in this play has an alternate explanation. I basically leave holes and I let either Hilda, and/or the audience, fill in the gaps. Because there's not really evidence in the dark sequence that anything supernatural is taking place. And Jerry even starts to offer an alternate explanation, which is to say that we don't have enough information right now to necessarily say that something supernatural is happening. Quickly believing that something supernatural over questioning the circumstances is a kind of choice. Undeniably, it's so much more fun to go to the supernatural explanation, and it’s really fun to go into total darkness with each other and to imagine that a spirit's lurking somewhere in room, and that's so much more interesting than the idea that Linda and Hilda are just sitting in an empty house together. And then when Linda starts having another one of her respiratory seizures, it's so much more interesting to think that something strange might have happened to her rather than to think that Linda got tired of Hilda and decided not to talk to her anymore. I got really into listening to these podcasts about the paranormal, and there was one about so-called “shadow people” who can at times “materialize.” And the podcast host and the expert were talking about these shadowy figures and what are some interesting trends in shadow people appearances, and they were saying, “Well, I've noticed that shadow people seem to show up a lot to people who are suffering from severe depression. So clearly that means that the shadow people are feeding off of negative energy.” To which I respond: Or maybe somebody is severely depressed and is having a dissociative experience, right? There may be a serious mental health situation here. And the narrative about this supernatural manifestation might be a metaphor for what the person is experiencing. But here metaphor and reality seem to get confused and as a result the problem gets misidentified which could in turn make it harder to find a treatment. And I feel it in myself. I find the supernatural explanations so much more scary and interesting. And there is a part of my brain that's very attracted to that: “Yes, you can explain what’s happening this very ordinary way, but what if I’m wrong… what if…” But I think there is an argument to be made that Hilda's story about her mother is a reconfiguration of events that happened. That is her way of talking about the guilt she feels about abandoning her mother. That's it. And when she talked to the mother on the phone, maybe a friend was over. Maybe the mother was suffering from some kind of dementia and wandered off into the forest behind the house and got lost forever. So maybe sometimes the real situation is so painful and so unapproachable that we have to create a story for it. And I think there's an argument to be made that that's what's happening. But when those lights come up at the end of the play—

TS: Well, and since you're making the argument, that makes me think that's what you think is happening,

LH: I’m just saying that Hilda might be telling herself the story that best helps her get through the day.

TS: In The Christians, the standoff between Elizabeth and Pastor Paul—they have completely opposite theological belief systems, but they clearly love each other. And the tension between loving each other and not feeling like they can cohabit the same theological universe is the tension of the play. And what's interesting in this play is how it devolves into malevolence. We see the relationship form between Hilda and Linda and we’re invited to read the nature of the attraction and the attachment between them.  But it doesn’t feel like “love” per se, at least to me. So when Sylvia and Jerry show up, Hilda has every right to feel thrown.  Sylvia is clearly an ex-lover, or maybe current? Then there’s this suggestion from Jerry that they're making fun of her behind her back. Or maybe Jerry is bad mouthing Linda to make himself more attractive to Hilda? So she has every motivation in the world to want to strike back in some way. But it doesn't seem like love develops in this play at all.  It's a very dark world view. I think Death Tax has some equally really gnarly family stuff.

LH: Death Tax is pretty brutal and Red Speedo is pretty brutal. It's hard to argue that the brothers in Red Speedo love each other. It’s desperation and need and using one another. The Thin Place is definitely me in my darker mode. It’s not necessarily mandated by the horror, but the genre definitely gave me permission to fully go there. I don't think anybody tries to be cruel to one another, but there’s a level of selfishness influences their behavior.

TS: You revealed once that there was an influence of Aunt Dan and Lemon. And you were excited when Wally Shawn came to an early preview here. What's your relationship to that play?

LH: This play is an homage in some ways to the work of Wally Shawn. And when I was thinking I was interested in the genre of horror, I was trying to think of who's written horror plays, who's written plays that I find frightening and I think it's something that Wally has actually really effectively done. I actually had not read Aunt Dan and Lemon until I was rehearsing Death Tax at the Royal Court. And they had a stack of copies of Aunt Dan and Lemon sitting on a shelf in our rehearsal room, so I just took one. And I think the first time I read it, I wasn't quite sure how to read it. I had read Wally's work before, but I didn't really understand his work until I saw it performed. And actually, the first one that I ever saw performed was The Music Teacher, which was an opera he wrote with his brother. And prior to that, I had read Designated Mourner and had the experience of not particularly getting the play. And then when I saw The Music Teacher,I was just really taken by how fluid time and space was in his work. Marc Robinson has written very thoughtfully about this aspect of Wally’s work. And also as it relates David Greenspan’s work, and he’s put those two writers in a kind of conversation. And so I kind of understood Wally by way of David Greenspan, and then having seen the work performed and then went back and reread the work and found it very exciting and very satisfying to sort of finally understand how those plays live on stage. And Aunt Dan and Lemon was no different. It took me a couple of reads to really lock into it. However, I've actually never seen it performed.

TS: I saw it in England with Linda Hunt and Kathryn Pogson and in Lemon’s last monologue about our tolerance for killing and our lack of compassion people just started walking out, in the last five minutes of the play there must have been thirty walkouts. People just couldn't take it anymore. And I think in your play you keep the associations very carefully hidden when they talk about politics and who the candidate is that Jerry's behind. It's hard for me to guess what way they swing at all. 

LH: Yeah, and that's intentional. I want to keep it slippery because it's a little bit of a Rorschach test. I’m taunting the audience to ask themselves: who do you think it is? And then I try to build the play in a way that it keeps slipping out of your ability to pinpoint what their political affiliation is. Because the thing I'm interested in is that experience of, again, the floor constantly falling out from under you and getting to a point where you don't know who to identify with. You don't know who to agree with because depending on how you cherry pick your evidence, you can say anything you want. And that to me, again, gets back to this thing that scares me so much, which is, “Wait, am I just believing what I believe because of my friends?” And yet at the same time, I'm so convinced that I'm on the side of what’s right. But that seems really dangerous too, because the people that I think are wrong are so convinced that they're on the side of right. 

TS: Part of the event of The Christians is that you walk in and it looks like you're walking into a sanctuary for a church service. And I think one of the reasons why Mimi changed the seats to look less like theatrical seats, is can we walk in feeling like we're going to a reading or a séance, you know? And there’s a metatheatricality to that because you're immediately faced up against: but it's not a church service, obviously. Versus, as you mentioned, in the Anna Nicole Smith play. And you talked about how the play says, “Hi, I'm an actor. I'm going to be...”

LH: Yeah, the play begins with a direct address prologue where the actor says, “I want you to imagine that I'm Anna Nicole Smith. I want you to imagine that I'm standing in a parking lot. I want you to imagine that all of you are cars.” It sort of re-maps what you're looking at to the fiction. And with The Thin Place, it’s a trend across the play. Everybody sits in a gray space in this play—both literal and figurative: you don't know what their political allegiance is, you don’t fully know their allegiances to each other, you don’t even fully understand people’s occupations—everybody just falls in this sort of gray area. And there are many aspects in which the play is putting everybody in the in-between space. And the space itself wants to be a little hard to pinpoint. You walk in and you're basically walking into a theater. And the thing that I need the play to be able to do is transform a couple of times and to do so in a really sneaky way that just slips. It just slips into a new place. There are times shifts in the play, and I want them to be as delicate and slippery as possible. The Christians actually is also slippery, but it's a bigger gesture to redefine the church. I have to explain that change to the audience with the actor playing Pastor Paul actually naming the new locations. And with The Thin Place, it just felt more right for it to be sneakier than that, because, again, I want you to feel unmoored in some way, that the ground isn't steady that you're standing on. It's a kind of wobbly ride. Because ultimately one of the projects of the play is to scare the audience. So the more I make you feel like that ground isn’t exactly solid, the more vulnerable I make you for the moment when we just click out the lights.

TS:  I jump every time. Where do you locate the afterlife of the play, where these kind of larger epistemological questions enter in?

LH: The things people have said to me that make me happy to hear are along the lines of feeling this kind of queasy, topsy turvy feeling from moments like that debate that Jerry and Sylvia have about charity, where you have a moment where you think, “Wait, hold on, do I do that? Do I just go ahead and cite studies without knowing who even wrote the study?” And I mean, that's an example of a moment that ripples throughout the whole play. It's a play that keeps on saying, “Hey, we’re all susceptible and our brains are a little glitchy and you we can fall for this.  And the play is going to do it to you right now.  Did you see your brain do it?” The play constantly explains what it's doing, then does it to the audience, then explains it again, then does it to the audience. And one of the things that I thought about a lot was—I love this—Penn and Teller actually used to do a séance. They would do it for rich people's bachelor parties. They did it for Steven Spielberg's bachelor party. And they are major skeptics. And so they would, of course, begin their séance by saying, “We don't believe in any of this stuff. Psychics aren't real. And, we're going to do a whole bunch of tricks and we’re going to lie to you constantly in order to do the tricks. So I'm just going to let you know everything that we say after this sentence is a complete and total lie. However, before we get to the lies, there's a couple of other things we need to tell you.” And then they keep talking. And that gesture is something that in some ways I think I'm doing with this play, which is, talking about something then actually doing (to the audience) what we just talked about. And it's fun to go there. I find the last third of the play really fun, from Hilda's story about her mother on. I'm sending the ship out to sea. And I'm fully indulging, to a certain degree, in that delight that you get from hearing a scary story and believing that the unreal is real. And I think that's fun. Let's just leave it in the theater and not take it out into the world with us.

TS: But of course we do.  We’ve talked about The Christians and The Thin Place having in common that they’re both about faith and belief systems.  And you’ve talked about your proximity to theologians growing up with your mother, and how integral questioning and doubt is to faith, or at least your understanding of it. It feels like in the way we’ve been talking about The Thin Place that it’s either or. People either believe in the paranormal or they’re skeptics.  Do you think that’s true?

LH: I think the play has bigger fish to fry than “Are psychics real or fake?” just as The Christians is not about answering the question of “Is Hell real or fake?” If I wanted to talk about that, I could have just published a pamphlet on cold reading and left it at that. This is a play about movements of mind, about how easy it is to see something as real that isn’t real, and about what it means that we all—myself included—seem to enjoy unreal things more than real things. Fantasy is fun! And this is how we end the play—with a little bit of fun fantasy: we make it seem like Hilda has telepathically sent a thought into audience member’s head. It’s a trick. It’s a good trick. The audience member isn’t a plant. Nothing has been pre-arranged. It seems completely impossible. But it is impossible. And if I were to explain how we did it, you’d be completely bored by the explanation. But to your question about this binary of skepticism versus belief, I think there’s a world in which all of that can thoughtfully co-exist: We can question what we’re hearing and seeing. We can ask ourselves why we believe what we believe. We can ask ourselves which believes are support by evidence and which ones are being led by some kind of emotional need. We can be honest with ourselves about what we don’t know. We can go the theatre and see metaphorical, fantastical dream life made flesh and immerse ourselves in it and enjoy doing so. And we can have beliefs which are not supported by concrete evidence, but we can also try to be mindful that that’s what we’re doing. We can try to be of many contradictory minds at once and keep all of the threads separate. But I suspect this is very difficult, and I suspect we will always, at some point, fail at it.