Artist Interview with Samuel D. Hunter
Warning: Contains spoilers.
Tim Sanford: Since we produced The Whale, you have had several plays done throughout the country. A Great Wilderness was at Seattle Rep and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rest was at South Coast Repertory and Victory Gardens. But only The Few has been seen in New York, at Rattlestick. When Adam [Greenfield, Director of New Play Development] did his interview with you about The Whale, only The Few seemed prominently on his radar. But he must also have read an early draft of Pocatello, because he mentioned a play being set in an Olive Garden. The play had a pretty interesting trajectory. Would you talk about it?
Samuel D. Hunter: It came to life in a very roundabout, unlikely way. I was working with this theater company run by Rupert Goold, Headlong, on a show called Decade. They enlisted a whole bunch of British writers and American writers to write short plays about 9/11. And I was charged with this mission: “Write a twenty-minute play about 9/11.” It made me feel a little nervous and anxious. So I decided to do it in a really roundabout way, or a way that was sort of accessing my own feelings about not wanting to write directly about the thing. There were seventeen actors in the company, and I had this idea to write a seventeen-character scene on the floor of an Olive Garden Restaurant, with all of these overlapping conversations. They weren’t really overlapping—I scripted the lines that came out of the din of the larger conversation. So it was more cross-fadey than what’s going on in Pocatello now.
Did it have a kind of Tower-of-Babel effect?
Kind of, yeah. The idea was that it would be [quietly] “Peas and carrots peas and carrots peas and carrots” and then [loudly] “Here’s my line!” and then [quietly] “Peas and carrots peas and carrots peas and carrots.” So I wrote that scene and the way it accessed 9/11 was there was a television in the background playing a 9/11 remembrance ceremony that we don’t hear until the end of the scene when everybody left and there was a waiter cleaning a table and we heard the names for the first time in the silence. And it wasn’t an altogether successful scene, but it made me really interested in writing a really big scene with a lot of people in it which is kind of the opposite of the plays I’ve been doing lately, which are all pretty much small, quiet things—the last play I opened in New York had three characters and a lot of silence.
And it was at Rattlestick, where the bathroom’s on the stage.
That’s right. [Laughter] And so, it just got me really interested in writing something really big, and writing a play that felt more like landscape as opposed to portraiture. So I had an opportunity to go up to Williamstown [Theatre Festival] and work with this really talented director named Portia Krieger on a new play, from scratch. And since the stakes were so low, I thought that this would be a good place to try this big, unwieldy idea. And so, we had five men and five women, all younger actors from their non-Equity company, and I wrote this two-act play, then called When You’re Here. And the start of it was all ten characters onstage, all talking at once. It was the same sort of cross-fadey thing, where you’d hear mumbled dialogue, and then scripted lines that came over the din. And so Williamstown was where I figured out the larger umbrella of the play, of the plot. I always knew that the central figure would be the manager of the restaurant, and the restaurant would be closing, and the final moment would be this really simple act of communication. If the first scene is ten characters all talking at the same time, unable to connect, then the last scene is the diametric opposite of that: two characters finally able, in a very simple, horizontal way, to talk to one another. And so Portia and I put the draft together at Williamstown, and it was very big and unwieldy and I hadn’t entirely figured it out. And then the play largely sat in a drawer for a little while, because it just needed a lot of work and it was also a big play. With a ton of food in it. It needed scope and size, but I didn’t know, honestly, if I was going to be able to find it. Or, really, if it fundamentally worked as a play. Because I knew how to write a smaller play, but I didn’t know if this bigger attempt was going to work.
It sounds to me, from your first description of it as a 9/11 play, that what you were dramatizing was how separate we all are, how everyone is focused in on themselves while something larger looms in the world. We see their isolation, their lack of connection to a broader vision. And in some indirect way, there’s still a little bit of that in this play.
I think that’s very true. If that 9/11 play was all these people who, as you say, are unable to connect to the larger universe around them and are caught in these meaningless dialogues with one another, then in Pocatello there are nine people who are stuck in that same way and one guy who is desperately trying to connect to the world around him, and is struggling to do that throughout the entire play.
There wasn’t a main character in the seventeen-character play?
Would you say that idea of one character looking for a home, in the context of other characters who are homeless, rootless—was that the starting point for Pocatello?
Yes. Because the play I wrote for Headlong was fifteen or twenty minutes long. When I had the idea of carrying this into a play, I knew that to sustain that, there would have to be someone at the center who was pushing against that idea of disconnection and loneliness. And that became the central tension of the entire play.
In the interview for The Whale, Adam asked you about being an Idaho writer. I liked your answer then, that it could be anywhere—Idaho is the specific place, but your plays could easily be transported to another place. I think this is especially true for Pocatello because of the issues in the play: economic downturns, communities losing their sense of cohesion, that’s all through America, right?
One thing that remains common in all your plays is how homosexual characters are treated and dealt with. In The Whale, the dead lover was humiliated in public, at a church service, and basically starved himself to death—this is a much milder version. Eddie’s mother starts to withdraw from him when he comes out. A lady at one of our talkbacks pointedly asked, “Did you ever consider saying the word ‘gay’ at some point in the play?” I think it was observant of her to notice that the whole conversation between Eddie and Max is done without actually saying the word. It’s all just assumption. His mother doesn’t say it either in their conversation at the end.
It always kind of shifts me a bit when people categorize my plays as gay plays, as though the sole purpose of the play is to illustrate the gay experience in America. I have a couple different reactions to that: One, “Sure….” In the fact that I am a gay American and I often write about gay Americans, there’s the gay American experience I guess. In the same way that I don’t sit down and say, “What’s the new thing I could write about Idaho?” I don’t sit down and say, “Okay, what’s the new corner of the gay experience that I can shed light on?” I think that the reason a lot of my characters are gay is sort of incidental. I don’t think that the reason I became a writer is because I had something to say about the gay experience in America. And I also don’t walk around in my life, thinking, “Okay, time to eat my gay lunch, and let’s go for a gay walk in the park…” [Laughter]
In your interview with Adam, you had some really striking stories of being in this fundamentalist high school where they would pass out The Waste Land and, was it Ginsberg?
Ginsberg was my secret obsession in high school.
You were given these as examples of—
—of writing that was meretricious and corrupt, in some way. [Laughter] And it turned you on. One doesn’t have to be gay to have that kind of reaction to the fundamentalist worldview.
Yeah. I think that my experience of being in a community of fundamentalists ended up being very affected by the fact that I was gay, in that it just sort of flipped this critical switch in my brain. Suddenly there was something deeply embedded in my personality which was incongruent with something they were teaching me as rock-solid truth. And that ended up opening up a lot of doors.
You said in the other interview you had a poetry teacher who was an ex-heroin addict?
Yes, that was when I transferred to the public high school. I had a poetry teacher named Crag Hill who was amazing. I’m still in touch with him to this day. Because I had written all this poetry, but I hadn’t really shown it to anybody.
You describe twenty-page, punctuationless poetry flooding out of you?
Yeah. Hundreds of pages of bad and angsty teenage poetry. And Crag was really the first person to grab ahold of me and say, “Keep going.”
I noticed when I looked at that Doolee website, the first play of yours that they had listed said it was done at the Ontological-Hysteric. And you have said you loved art that’s kind of formally puzzling.
I did. And I still do!
But your most of your work is pretty grounded, not all that puzzling.
Yeah, I mean, that play on the Doolee site, Abraham (A Shot in the Head), was not story-driven at all. There were only three characters: Farmer, Wife, and Boy, and it was an absurdist remix of the biblical story of Abraham. I mean, it was nearly unrecognizable to what I am writing now except that it was set in Idaho. Really at the time I was doing my best Richard Foreman impression. I was 20 or 21 and really just trying to find my voice. When I was at NYU, that was the kind of theater that really excited me because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. And it seemed to be the theatrical equivalent of the poetry I had loved so much, Allen Ginsberg and e.e. cummings, and in high school reading Ulysses. All those things that I had grown to love in high school, this seemed like the theatrical equivalent of it.
Do they read Ulysses in high schools in Idaho?
Well, not in the curriculum, no.
So it was just you.
It was just me. [Laughter] Anyway, it took a long time to realize that as much as I loved that type of theater, my mind doesn’t think in terms of form, it thinks in terms of content. And when I was trying to cut and paste form onto the ideas I was writing, it just didn’t work. I felt like, if those early plays were like form forward, with all these theatrical gestures and stylistic gymnastics, underneath it was a real human story straining to reach the surface. It took me several years to flip that dynamic. So now I feel like my plays are very story-forward, and character-forward, content-driven. But underneath that, I think there are these ideas and hidden structures, things that are straining to come out.
What are the hidden structures in Pocatello?
Well, I feel like the orchestration of the first scene to me is about form. It’s not about content. I think we get character relationships, and we understand the broad swaths of these characters. But really, I’m trying to sort of musically orchestrate these ten people in this hyper-American space. And it’s really not until everybody exits the scene, about ten minutes in, that the content of the play really starts to come in and assert itself. A lot of those scenes I think of as landscapes are essentially realistic, but I’m interested in the ways they push the boundaries of realism.
Yeah, actually I’m reminded now that in my bulletin piece for Pocatello, in thinking of the play’s musicality, I compared it to The Flick, because they’re both workplace dramas and in both cases the place of employment is threatened. But also, when you talk to Annie [Baker] about The Flick, she talks about how there’s a music of it to her. And in your play there’s the counterpoint of the opening scene, the scherzo scenes with the workers, and the plaintive obbligato of his scene with his mother…to quote myself. [Laughter]
No, I really love that. Because I was a musician before I was a writer, and I still really carry that forward in everything I write.
The contrasting structures you talked about, between the beginning and the end, are very musical.
We talked about the role of religion in your background a moment ago. Of all your plays, what’s striking to me about this play is that there’s hardly a shadow of religion, which is pretty unusual for you.
That’s right. I have a few plays that are areligious, don’t have an element of religion. I think that religion is a really useful tool to examine the things that interest me most in all of my plays: how to negotiate the spirit with the body, the soul with the mind, the divine with the banal. Walking through your life with an eye on the larger significance of what you’re doing, knowing that you’re placed within something larger. Like every single one of the plays has a person who is really struggling to understand their place in the culture, and the community, but also of spiritually in the world at large. And the religion in Pocatello is found in this guy, Eddie, trying to find a sense of place. If A Bright New Boise is about a guy who wants to be delivered from the banality of his life to the rapture to come, and this disgusting life to be replaced by something new and pure and meaningful, Pocatello is a play about a guy who kind of wants the same thing. Who really wants to replace the unlimited ephemera of Olive Gardens and Home Depots and Burger Kings with something that’s more permanent, and grounded, and more in touch with what it means to be human. I have a few plays that don’t deal with religion at all, but even in those there is a religion. There is an element of the divine.
Yes, what is Eddie really looking for? He keeps saying he feels connected to this place, but in some ways a place doesn’t seem to be the thing he’s really looking for.
Yeah. And the restaurant as well. When he’s asked about it, he says, “Well, this is what we have to work with.” It’s not like he worships this franchise restaurant.
Right. Or you might ask, “Is he trying to reconcile with his mother” Is that the main thing?” And I think that’s important to him, but somehow not entirely. You know, Isabelle asks at one point, “Are you seeing anyone?” And he’s not. I mean, he saw someone for a bit in Boise, but it’s like he’s not ready for his life until he finds this thing. And the journey he’s on is almost like a spiritual quest.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, The Whale is ostensibly about a guy trying to reconnect with his daughter, but it’s hopefully about more than that too. In the same way, this play is about a guy trying to save his restaurant, and more than that, find community and find fellowship—but it’s also about filling a particular spiritual void, just like Charlie in The Whale.
Adam pointed out in The Whale interview that there are a lot of suicides in your plays.
There are a lot. There’s one in The Few.
Jim, the offstage character, drives off the road deliberately and throws all the characters into spiritual crisis. In Rest, there’s an assisted suicide.
Yeah, it occurs in my plays almost as often as religion.
Adam characterized it as a kind of “conscientious objection” to life. Is that true of the father’s suicide in Pocatello? He loses his way, Eddie’s father. And then all the characters lose their anchor.
And their ability to connect.
But it creates this sense of a hole in the center of their lives. It somehow reflects on all the other characters in the play: trying to get away, trying not to think… Of the employees at Eddie’s restaurant, one says she’s there so she doesn’t have to care, another is a meth addict, and another is struggling to provide a living for his daughter.
If all the plays are in some way asking a spiritual question, “What is it to live in 2014? What is it to be a human being now? What is the value and purpose of living in 2014?” Suicide is the bleakest possible answer to that question. I think its presence in these plays creates that black hole for these characters. And certainly for Eddie in the play, the suicide of his father is that black hole he can fall into—and at a certain point in the play, he almost does. And I think that’s how suicides function in a lot of plays, as the sort of antithesis to the value of human connection.
You know, in some ways there’s almost a secondary protagonist in Pocatello: Becky. She’s on a more Old Testament spiritual journey, in a way.
She’s the Jeremiah of the play. And I would guess that that character came to you early on in your conception. First of all, in Williamstown when you first wrote the play, did you have all the same characters?
Yes, they’ve changed a lot in their construction and who they’ve become, but they’re all basically the same people.
Talk a little bit about Becky.
I guess I wanted to do something that I was doing in The Whale to a certain extent, where there’s this young person—I mean, Ellie in The Whale is a very different person; she’s already decided that everything is pointless, and that life is bullshit, and she’s secure in that knowledge—but with Becky I wanted to write someone who was just petrified to her core that life is valueless, and that living in 2014 is ultimately spiritually pointless. And that in this sort of really unlikely way, her journey and Eddie’s journey run concomitant to one another. At a certain point in the play, their paths intersect. And the point that these two characters intersect is when Becky looks at him and says, “I just haven’t figured out how to be a happy person without being stupid and naïve.” And it’s this point when the two characters, who have been on drastically different tracks and, without knowing it, searching for the same thing, sort of collide with one another. And it’s only then that Eddie can sort of turn the corner of the play, and insist on human connection and fellowship, and the value of living in 2014. Of being a person in 2014.
The real game-changer for Becky is Cole. And Cole’s interesting because it’s almost like he’s escaped from Rest. You wrote these two plays pretty close to each other, and there are intersections between them because Rest is about an assisted living place that’s going out of business. And there’s an apocalypse descending in the form of a snowstorm, and there’s a character that gets lost—that’s the character who has the assisted suicide, right?
And Cole walks away from his assisted living place and comes here. But I think the connection between Becky and Cole really occurs in one line:
“For the intelligent person, the world is full of idiots.”
Right. It’s almost shocking how moving that moment is, how comforted Becky is by it. But the place in society for the very old and the very young is similar, isn’t it?
Yeah, they’re similarly disenfranchised. At one point, Cole says that his rest home is not the most welcoming place, and Becky says, “Do you hate it?” And Cole says, “Never really thought much about it, it’s just where I am at the moment.” Cole, in a weird way, is the wisest person in the play, spiritually. Even though he’s coming in and out throughout the play because of his dementia, he’s learned to kind of put one foot in front of the other and interact with people around him in a genuine way. And I think that’s ultimately the gift he gives Becky, in the end. Without it being saccharine. I hope.
There’s another pair of slightly similar characters I noticed: Mary in The Whale and Tammy in Pocatello.
Two angry women not able to give enough to their daughters. Really disappointed in life. Though for Tammy, I think, the marriage still—well, is it appropriate to say that her marriage still has hope?
I think that’s sort of a question of the play.
Is it their hope, or is it their coffin?
Right. Because the play is ultimately about a man who learns and achieves the value of community, I thought it was important that, if suicide is the antithesis of finding spiritual purpose and meaning, I also wanted to show the antithesis to the value of human connection and fellowship. And I think that’s represented in Troy and Tammy and Becky—there’s kind of this question that’s left suspended at the end of the play: Would this family be better if it disintegrated? Would it be best for all of them if they went their separate ways? Which is hopefully the sort of troubling complication of the central themes of the play of the value of human connection and fellowship.
I love this quote from your Whale interview: “A few years ago I kind of just realized if I’m going to write good plays I have to really put something on the line. It has to be a play that’s really hard for me to write, where I’m really struggling to work something out.” In this play, what is it that’s hard for you?
There’s actually a lot. I share a lot with Eddie in this play, although my life could not be farther from his. He lives in an apartment complex in Pocatello and works at an Olive Garden; that’s pretty far from where I am today. But like me, his family goes back several generations in his hometown. He feels a very keen connection to where he grew up. But it’s a connection he doesn’t really know how to articulate, or make concrete in his life. I feel like, for me, all the plays are sort of my struggle to make concrete the connection to where I came from, both physically and spiritually, and psychologically too. And I think Eddie is a guy who is ultimately—and I realize I’m repeating myself here—looking for the value in the human beings around him. That sort of humanist idea, he’s just looking to the people around him for meaning and purpose. And I feel like that’s something I always struggle with too. I think the reason I’m in the theater is because I believe there’s a value in a community making art. It’s very different from writing a novel. It’s kind of fundamentally different, actually, even though they’re both acts of writing. It’s a communal act, playmaking, it’s a collaborative act. And the struggle that Eddie is experiencing in the play—this is the first time I’m articulating this but—the struggle that Eddie is experiencing in the play, to make a community in this restaurant, is the same thing I feel sometimes with a play—you just struggle to make a community! I mean, both with the theater and the cast, but also with the other people who are in the audience. You’re desperately reaching out to these people, saying, “Let’s share this experience, this idea, these hopefully cathartic events together, and there’s a value in doing it together—not at home or on a screen or something.”
Communities are all threatened in your plays. I could probably go through each play thematically and kind of check them off. But how would you describe the threats in your life? How is community in America threatened, Sam?
The really easy answer to that question, the standard answer is that people are with their phones and devices and texting instead of talking. And I agree to an extent. But I actually think that there’s something more than that, something larger about the experiment of America two-hundred-and-some-odd years later that has to do with community and the failures of community. I mean, there’s a way to look at all human endeavor through the lens of human community. All religion, all politics—there’s a way to look at it the struggle for community, for peaceful community, for striving and flourishing community. I’ve gone away from your question.
Well, go to your plays for a second. The one almost-critical remark at the PPD the other night was, “I know people in small towns and they really like each other!”
I’ve gotten that comment before!
And your response was, “Well, that’s kind of the point.”
When you’re raised in a small town, of course there’s the feeling that you all know each other, that you’re invested in each other, but it also makes it worse when you’re on the outside. I think I said this before, but by the time I moved to New York for college, I knew three kids who killed themselves. And the first was in seventh grade.
So to a degree all of your plays strip the veneer off these failures of the community.
Maybe about the constructs of community. Stripping the veneer off of the constructs, the false constructs, of community. And leaving there, at the end, the fundamental source of community. The horizontal, human-to-human connection. I think in that way The Whale and Pocatello end almost identically: these two characters finally connect. Everything has been stripped away, the sociology, and politics, and issues, everything’s been stripped away. And what’s left is these two people, laid naked in front of one another, reaching out over the void.
One thing I admire about your plays is their fearless ability to look at excruciating pain with empathy. Charlie, in The Whale, is able to bring so much empathy and affection for his daughter who is obviously not as hard as nails as she thinks, and spring loose that pain. In Pocatello, if you look at Nick and Eddie, Nick just can’t go to that pain. And Eddie just keeps wanting to negotiate. He brings out this preposterous casserole! Sidebar: Does that dish actually exist?
Yeah, my grandmother used to make it!
Yes! Alright! [Laughter] I was hoping that was the case.
It’s fucking delicious. It’s Cheez Whiz and rice. It’s amazing.
Anyway, you know, Nick can’t deal with it. He discovered his father, with his head blown off. And I love that we cast Brian [Hutchison] as Nick, because you look at Brian and just think, “What happened to this guy?” But then he also looks like a normal guy. We believe that Kelly could be his wife.
Right. And he’s a character that actually changed a lot in the development in the play. I think that the first time I wrote him I wrote him too harshly. ‘Cause I was really interested in him being the opposite of Eddie, saying, “The way you deal with pain is just not to access it, so therefore get out of Pocatello! That’s all you need to do.” It was a very cold version of the character. Even his final exit was just, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
But why would Eddie want to connect with that?
Exactly, that was the question. So what I really wanted to get at with Nick is this guy who really fundamentally does care about his brother, and his mother, and is really just trying to do the right thing. And here his wife is doing what she thought would be the best thing for him, to take him out to Idaho and let him work through some stuff. That’s a very noble pursuit, but what Nick and ultimately Kelly and everybody else in the play learns is, “Look, I have found a way to move forward, and the way is to close the door to it, and to move on with the rest of your life.”
It’s a little bit of what Doris does too.
Yeah, Doris does that. And it’s also what Mary does in The Whale. She says, “Close the door to it.” She says, in her last speech in The Whale, something like, “I raised her; you gave the money; it’s the best we could do.” Close that door. But in the end Charlie refuses to close that door in the same way that Eddie refuses to close the door when both Nick and Kelly say, “Just get out of town. It’s okay! Release yourself from this.”
You do have a lot of failing businesses in your plays. The Few, Rest, Pocatello… One could probably do a Marxist reading of the economic backdrop of your plays.
I guess so. It’s a product of observation. What the play’s trying to do is access an economic reality in an emotional way. It’s not about the economy of franchises.
You said something earlier about how the mundane and the holy sit side-by-side. And that’s really the end of the play. Doris is just talking about bake sales, and Eddie just loses it.
This breakdown in kind of mysterious. I’m sure T.R. has found his own way into it, but you don’t really spell out what the trigger is, what makes Eddie cry. There are a lot of hypotheses we could throw out. He’s pent up years of silence with his mother so something releases. Or he realizes how much time has been lost between them. Or even that he’s been running around like a maniac to put all this food out, it’s been a five-hour ordeal to make all this gluten-free pasta and bring his mother out here. How do you think he persuaded her to come over?
I think it was just like, “Mom. You need to come to the Olive Garden. Now.” And she’s like, “What?!” And Eddie says, “Mom, it’s an emergency. I need you to come now.” Click. [Laughter]
Oh, so that’s why she brings her pepper spray!
Exactly. I think he knows that the only way he can get her there is halfway—I mean, it is an emergency! It’s a spiritual emergency; it’s an existential emergency for Eddie. But I think he knows that the only way he can really get her over there is under somewhat false pretenses. And I think, as much as Doris has pushed him away, if your son calls you and says there’s an emergency you’re going to come over right then.
Did she want this to happen? She’s sort of like dragged kicking and screaming to the restaurant, but she does go there.
Exactly. Like so many of us, if we’re resisting the thing and resisting the thing and resisting the thing, when something finally pulls us over the fence, especially if it’s something really deeply embedded in our psychology—I mean, for Doris, she’s been pushing her son away for fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years. That is so deeply embedded in her brain, that she has been hurting her son, that she sort of cursed him with something early on. She’s been living with that knowledge for seventeen years and she has taught herself to keep her son at arm’s distance. And finally when her son grabs her and pulls her to him and forces her to articulate it, and for the first time ever she actually puts into words what it is, what this thing is that’s been keeping them apart. And she tries to hold it in her hand, when it’s finally made physical, and the words just becomes water and drips through her fingers. And she’s like, “My God. This is the thing I’ve been holding onto for seventeen years. It is a little ridiculous. I sort of see how ridiculous it is now after putting it into words.” And I think that’s why she’s able to sit down and have that wallpaper dialogue with him at the very end. Because she’s been pulled over. She didn’t want to go over, but when she has, she’s like, “Wow, that was seventeen years I kind of wasted. For silly reasons.”
She’s inviting him back into her life, in a way. Do you think she’ll be inviting her own grief back into her life too? Is that inevitable?
I think that’s what the final moment is. The wallpaper dialogue is one thing, and in a way the play could end with that: “Oh, they found fellowship! The play is done.” But Eddie finds that huge release, and I think that there’s a moment when she looks at her son, and he’s breaking down, and she has to take that final step to, like you say, access something that’s even deeper down: the grief about dad. The grief over their home. The grief over their lives being wasted for the last seventeen years. And she finally grabs hold of it when she grabs hold of him in the last seconds of the play.