The Interview Project: Samuel D. Hunter
Interview by Will Arbery
May 2, 2020
What fills your days?
Given that my husband and I have a two-year-old, our days are mostly childcare. And it's actually a great relief to spend all day with someone who isn't old enough to understand what's going on.
I normally cook a lot, and nowadays I’m spending even more time in the kitchen. I’ve always loved cooking because it’s so completely necessary and the gratification is so immediate, two things that can’t really say about writing plays.
What is your relationship to work during crisis?
There’s been a lot of talk about this, and to be honest I don’t know if I fall on either end of the “playwrights shouldn’t be working” and “it is our collective moral imperative to create monologues for Facebook Live” spectrum. I think even on a good day my relationship to work is hard to pin down and difficult to describe — sometimes it’s writing dialogue, sometimes it’s writing notes to myself, sometimes it’s going to the park and thinking. I don’t really believe in inspiration, and thankfully I still just really, really love writing plays, even when it’s hard. So to a certain degree the “work” feels largely unchanged.
I’ve had to work before in times of personal crisis, and I actually found that to be much harder, sitting down at a laptop when everyone else in the coffee shop is unaware of what’s happening to you, showing up at a rehearsal room when it feels like the world is cracking underneath your feet and everyone else is just there to make a play, your play. The collective nature of this trauma makes it so different. So does the knowledge that my suffering pales in comparison to the suffering of so, so many other people, both sick and healthy.
What or who is inspiring you right now? What or who is beautiful?
I really adored the recent profile of Weird Al Yankovic in the New York Times. To read about someone like that who has been unapologetically making this crazy art for the last several decades, so consistently and rigorously, is just beautiful and inspiring. I’ve also found it’s much more helpful to me as a playwright to read about artists who aren’t engaged in making theater.
I’m also trying to engage with art that I loved in high school and college, the stuff that made me want to commit to a life in the arts. I tend to think that nostalgia is deadly, but I’m just trying to remind myself of those really early impulses and responses that led me toward writing plays, almost like a sense-memory kind of thing.
What are you dreaming of making, once we can gather in rooms again?
Even before this pandemic, I think I had been feeling that I wanted to lean into a kind of theater that feels stripped down and small and essential. I have a new play that I wrote last year that’s two characters and virtually no set. Maybe that’s just because the last two pieces of theater I made were the longest things I’ve ever written, but I think it’s more than that. And the current situation has really turned up the volume on that impulse.
What would you say to your younger self — the one without many connections in theater, the one without a Playwrights Horizons commission — if your younger self were confronting or considering a future as an artist during this time of tremendous uncertainty?
A couple weeks ago, I was checking out at a grocery store near our apartment, wearing a mask and standing behind a large sheet of plexiglass, and suddenly a song came on in the store, and I immediately recognized it because it was one of those pop songs from the late 90s that would play several times a day at the Walmart I worked at when I was 17. And it was this crazy moment of imagining what it would be like to explain to that awkward gay kid in Idaho what he would be doing two decades later, buying groceries in the middle of a pandemic in New York City while his husband and child were waiting outside, and even more impossibly, that sometimes people paid him money to write plays. And immediately I was filled with unspeakable gratitude.
So thinking about what I would say to him — should I tell him to stop writing dumb poetry and focus on getting into medical school so he can do actual quantifiable good? As much as I should, I probably wouldn’t. I’d probably tell him that we’re all living in continuous unfathomable uncertainty, pandemic or no pandemic. Nothing will happen the way that you think it will, so as much as you can, try not to spend too much time contemplating different ways you could perish professionally, artistically, or literally. And given that you are selfishly not going to med school, keep writing the dumb poems and eventually dumb plays. But try as hard as you can to do it with love and humility and gratitude, and don’t forget that the only reason you can write those plays is that some other 17-year-old who is every bit as talented as you are is going to eventually put down their pen and pick up an MCAT practice exam.
Samuel D. Hunter is the recipient of a Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust Commission.