Backstory: Thinking About Idaho in Estonia


In August, with rehearsals for Pocatello still a few months away, I spent a week with Sam Hunter on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, where he was workshopping a new play at the Baltic Playwrights Conference. At the end of the week, on a bus back to the mainland ferry, Sam caught me up on what he’s been up to since The Whale played at PH in 2012, and how distance has informed his idea of home.

Sarah Lunnie: It’s been almost two years since we produced The Whale at Playwrights Horizons.

Samuel D. Hunter: When I wrote the first draft of The Whale, my plays weren’t really getting produced. So I wrote it not knowing if it would ever even see the light of day. It still kind of blows my mind that it found a home in New York. And not only that, but that it could get this beautifully realized production, with this absolutely unbelievable central performance that Shuler Hensley was giving.

SL: Davis McCallum, who directed The Whale at PH and who will direct Pocatello, is a frequent collaborator of yours.

SH: Davis and I have something of an artistic marriage now, I think. It’s one of those relationships that has become so profound that when we push and pull, or debate certain things, it still always feels like we’re on the same page. Other than my husband, who is my dramaturg, I think that Davis is the most important artistic collaboration of my life so far. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know that I would have the artistic voice that I have now. He has taught me a lot about the kinds of plays that I write. 

SL: In the past two years, you’ve opened several new plays at theaters around the country. Can you tell me about what you’ve been up to?

SH: I followed The Whale around a little bit after the production at PH. I worked on the productions at South Coast Rep and at Victory Gardens in Chicago, and I did rewrites for both. After that I stopped actively working on it, even though it’s still getting produced in various places here and there. 

The next play after The Whale was The Few. It’s set in 1999 in this trailer off of I-90 in Northern Idaho, and the play starts when the founder of this newspaper for truckers—who originally founded it because he wanted to bring cohesiveness to the trucker community and help them with their loneliness and spiritual emptiness—returns after a four-year absence. Davis and I did a first production out in San Diego last fall at the Old Globe, and a second production in New York at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the spring. That production had Tasha Lawrence in it, who was also in The Whale at PH. (And who’s sitting right over there on this bus with us in Estonia!)

In January, I premiered a play called A Great Wilderness at Seattle Rep. It’s ostensibly about a man who’s devoted his entire life to gay reparative therapy, and it sort of shares something with The Whale, in that when the lights come up, you’re put at a distance from the main character, then hopefully you learn to identify with him and understand him. It’s not a play about judgment, or a political play; it’s really just about this guy who’s devoted his life to this abhorrent thing, and how he arrived where he finally arrived in his life. That play had a second production this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

And then in March I premiered a play called Rest at South Coast Rep. That play is set in a retirement home in Northern Idaho that’s just about to shut down—there’s only a few residents and a few staff members who remain—and this giant blizzard blows into town and kind of traps everybody there. At the same time, their most elderly patient, this 91-year-old man who’s in the grips of severe dementia, goes wandering outside. Right after I get back from Estonia, I’m going to Chicago for a second production of Rest, with an updated version, at Victory Gardens. And then after that we go into rehearsals for Pocatello.

SL: This week in Estonia you workshopped a new play called Clarkston. Like Pocatello, and like much of your work, the play is deeply informed by your relationship to a particular region of the United States. I’d be curious to hear about your experience developing the play in another country.

SH: It was this really interesting shift of perspective. Here’s a play that’s set in a small town in Eastern Washington at a Costco, and you take it utterly out of its own context, and you work on it on an island in the Baltic Sea, with actors who have English as a second language, and who have likely never heard of Idaho or of that part of the world. It sort of allowed us to see it more clearly, I think, and reminded me about a lot of the reasons that I wrote the play. It’s sort of like what I felt like when I first moved to New York and started writing plays about Idaho. Suddenly I had this—not freedom, but this ability to see the place where I came from in a new way, because I was in this drastic new context. Moving to New York taught me something about how I felt about the place where I’m from, or how it formed me. My brain’s in New York, but my heart’s in Idaho. And I hadn’t known that, before.