The Light Years Artist Interview
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of The Light Years.
Tim Sanford: The Literary Department puts together dossiers of background articles on all the playwrights we produce, and reading through yours I noticed that you guys have talked about the birth of your partnership many times, but I want to go back a little further. Did you aspire — I’m talking to you separately — did you aspire to write as a youngster?
Hannah Bos: I did a lot of writing as a kid. I remember winning a poetry contest at my library about the people of Pompeii.
You mean you’re poetic?
HB: A little.
I thought I read in your dossier that Paul was the poetic one and you are the funny one.
HB: That is so baloney.
Paul Thureen: She’s very poetic.
HB: I was very late to reading, actually, and I didn’t learn how to read until fifth grade, so I had a very weird relationship towards words and I think that poetry was like a nice “in.”
You mean you didn’t learn to read or you didn’t want to read?
HB: I didn’t learn how to read until fifth grade.
How did that happen?
HB: Uh: “Ooops?”
Did they not realize you were a smart girl?
HB: You know, you sort of fake it till you make it and I remember just struggling and being like, “I really can’t read these words.” (Laughing.)
My father had a joke: little Johnny didn’t speak at all until he was five, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “These pancakes are cold.” And his parents are like, “Johnny, you can speak, you can speak, why didn’t you speak till now?” And he was like, “Well up till now, everything was okay.”
HB: That’s amazing! Yeah I think with me what happened was I was really good at math and then we were presented with these story problems and they were like, “She is suddenly doing poorly in math!” And I was like, “I think that’s because I can’t read.” I had a great drama teacher, Ms. Serleth, and she really encouraged me. She suggested I start going to the Piven Theater Workshop, which Sarah Ruhl also went to. So I had this great relationship with storytelling and imagery and collaboration from studying there. So technically I did have a relationship with words, but I really wasn’t reading.
So you were drawn to theater in a compensatory way, and for you the storytelling is an oral tradition instead of a written tradition, right?
HB: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
But when you realized that you couldn’t read, that changed your relationship to words in a way.
Did you feel like you had to make up…?
HB: I had to make up, big time. My mom found a tutor, an amazing older British woman named Barbara Platt. She taught me how to read. She just passed away actually. She was my friend for a very long time. She was so happy and proud because I was such a terrible reader and I became someone who writes for a living.
I’m going to hold you there and go to you, Paul. Did you want to write when you were younger?
PT: I grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota where the idea that you could work in theater or be an actor wasn’t a possibility. My dad farmed and my mom taught Norwegian at the university, but she also wrote children’s books and ran a children’s writers conference. So I grew up around children’s authors and grew up with my mom having my sister and me do writing exercises. So we’d do “hot pen”, which was just automatic writing, a lot. So I grew up knowing that you could be a writer.
So, even though she came from the land of Ibsen and would have you do these writing exercises, theater as an art form seemed foreign to you?
PT: It just wasn’t like a real thing. I mean there would be like touring productions of Cats that would come to my hometown. Or there would be children’s theater productions. But the idea that there were people who were playwrights, or actors, or directors for a job didn’t even register as a possibility. I’d never thought of that. But the idea that you could be an author was always on my radar.
So when did you discover theater?
PT: I think the important thing that happened… I went to a rural school; there were eight kids in my second grade class. And there weren’t really great arts programs there. And then in seventh grade, Minnesota got open enrollment, so you could pick which school you wanted to go to. And at that time my mom went to the school librarian and said, “The books in your library are old,” and gave them a plan to update the library, and the library was like, “No.” And my mom was like, “You guys aren’t going to this school anymore.” So we went to a bigger school and went from eight kids in my class to 160 kids in my class. And all my old teachers told my mom that I was going to get eaten alive, that I wouldn’t survive that school because I was a weird, shy kid. I remember when I was seven years old I had my mom take me to the university, and I would look on microfiche machines, researching colleges. Because I was like, “Oh college, that’s where I’m going to find people who are like me.” You know? Because I felt like I didn’t belong.
When you were seven?
PT: Yeah when I was seven I was researching colleges.
That’s really sad.
PT: Yeah it was a sad thing.
You had to wait more than your lifespan to get to college.
PT: I know! But kids are horrible. I remember being four and being in preschool for one day and hating it because a kid hit me on the head with a truck. And I was like, “Why are you doing this?” I never got along with kids at that age; I would always want to talk to the grown-ups. Because kids would hit you and say stupid stuff. And when I went to this other school for middle school and high school, I found kids who were interested in other things like theater and music and didn’t hit me on the head with a truck. So I started doing theater.
Did they have a good program?
PT: They had a really good theater program. Strangely, two of my best friends from high school, one is in Cats on Broadway, and one was Javert in Les Miz on Broadway. There’s like a pipeline from this strange, rural Minnesota community to Broadway.
I want to know the first role you acted in.
PT: Well I couldn’t sing, so in the musicals, I’d be the small character-y part, and I’d always play the old person. In college it was the same thing, (gestures to Hannah) we’d always play the old people.
HB: Or like a ghost.
PT: I was in As You Like It my senior year in high school. That was the first time I was in something and people were like, “Oh, you’re good at that!” I never thought of myself as good at it. That was the first time. So I went to college being like, “Maybe I could do some theater.”
You went to Vassar, right?
PT: Yes. We both did.
HB: I forgot to mention one thing: I grew up in my mom’s antique store, and props people from the Goodman and Steppenwolf and set dressers from John Hughes films would come to her store, and my mom would offer them free delivery. She would be like, “My daughter loves theater! We will drive this table to you and drop it off if she can maybe take a peek at the set.” So one of my fondest memories as a little kid was walking backstage, I think it was at the Goodman, and seeing The Princess and the Pea set. She would do that all the time. And I think that totally influenced my relationship with props. Even now she sends us a box of stuff for almost all our shows.
(To Hannah) What was the first part you acted in? (To Paul) As You Like It is yours officially?
HB: First grade I starred in Beats Me Claude.
PT: Beats you!
HB: Yes and it had real pie at the end. And my character got the big line, “Beats me, Claude!” And then I got to eat pie. Everyone wanted that part, so there was a big fuss when I got the pie part.
What about high school?
HB: I was in The Young People’s company at Piven. We did ensemble work and story theater and improv. I don’t remember the first piece I was in but I remember doing this great take on Franny and Zooey that embraced the narration. The staging was just so interesting for high school. But then we did a lot of fairy tales and fables and ghost stories, and I think all those things have sort of influenced my taste.
HB: Didn’t hit him with a truck. We met each other freshman year? Or sophomore year?
PT: Freshman year.
HB: We met at an audition. We were both sort of weirdos in the theater department, and... Oh! Ironically, my first role in college, Cordelia, was directed by Aya Cash’s husband, who was a senior. He cast me in my first role with Justin Long in King Lear.
Justin Long must’ve played Edmund.
HB: Yeah. That was my first role and then I directed something my freshman year too, because I was like “I can’t get any roles, I’m going to have to make my own work.”
PT: Nobody was casting us.
HB: Nobody was casting us because we were such weirdos.
When I went to college, there were a lot of student initiated plays that the department, amazingly, would encourage. Some people wrote plays. Some directed. But I don’t remember people making up plays for themselves to act in. Which is something, probably, by the time you were in college, that was starting to happen.
HB: Not a lot of people did it.
PT: Well, every senior drama major has to have a senior project. And it can be directing something, it can be acting in something, but a lot of people would make pieces. So a group of people made a play, Words Words Words, where they made a new play out of other Shakespeare plays—
HB: It was amazing. We were like, “You can do that?”
PT: So from that moment, we were both like, “Oh senior year, we’re going to make something.”
Wait, as freshmen you decided together...?
PT: Not together, no.
HB: We knew each other freshman year. Sophomore year we dated which ended badly. Junior year we were enemies-slash-friends. And then senior year we were like “Well, pfff, we have to do our senior project together!”
And so you were aiming towards making…. What’s it called?
PT:A Thought About Raya.
HB: Yeah we went to Russia in our sophomore year—
PT: Junior year.
HB: Junior year? And we became obsessed with avant-garde Russian literature. We took all these Russian literature courses and discovered Daniil Kharms, who blew our mind and we decided to do our senior project based on these incidences, these tiny—
Who’s Daniil Kharms?
HB: He’s uh... Paul?
PT: He was a Russian avant-garde poet. K-H-A-R-M-S. Who was killed during Stalin’s purges. He was most well-known for these short short stories called “Incidences.” His most famous one is “The Red Haired Man,” which I’m paraphrasing but basically goes, “Once upon a time there was a red haired man. Actually he didn’t have red hair, people just called him that. Actually he didn’t have any hair at all. And he didn’t have a face or any internal organs. Actually he didn’t exist, so why are we talking about him?” And that would be like the end of it, right? And we were like—
HB: We were like—
Can’t do better than that!
PT: That’s it! That’s it!
HB: We were like, “We’re reading everything that person ever wrote, and we’re going to study his life.”
PT: He would have these collisions where he would be telling this beautiful story, and then he’d say, “And then a small child fell off a park bench and broke both his jaw bones.” And that was the end. And he had all these nonsensical, amazing, really dirty and violent stories.
HB: So for a full semester it was just Paul and me with just the character of this writer and his writing and we knew that we wanted to perform it in the squash court, and we were going to play all the characters.
PT: It’s this big white room in this old building at Vassar with a glass wall and bleachers.
HB: It was a wild play. It was the beginning of us figuring out our weird style and structure.
Then when you moved to New York, you found a way to do it again, right? That’s when Oliver came aboard?
PT: Yeah. I worked in theater in Minneapolis for a little bit with this incredible theater company, Theatre de la Jeune Lune which is no longer around, making pieces with them. And Hannah went to grad school at ART for acting.
HB: I really liked this one teacher, Roman Kozak, and I didn’t think I’d go to grad school but I really liked this Russian teacher. So I went to ART and got my master’s there and learned a lot, but I really missed writing. It was great to concentrate on just acting, to have a toolbox of skills and a barometer of how to work with crazy European directors, but I really missed making my own work. So as soon as I got back — Paul had moved back to New York around the same time — we were like, “Woah. New York’s really hard. You can’t just audition for a play and get a job.”
(To Paul) Were you just acting too, for Theatre de la Jeune Lune?
So did you have any pangs of writing too?
PT: I did work with them on a new show that they were creating. I wasn’t writing, but it was a little quote-unquote “devisey.” It was based on Marco Polo. And they’d say “Take 20 minutes and go look at all those props and come back and show Marco Polo crossing the desert.” So I did spend a year making, which felt good. Also, before I went to Minneapolis, I went back to Russia for a semester right after college and studied at the Moscow Art Theatre, and we had a translator at the end who was like, “You Americans are so dumb. You just sit around waiting to get discovered, and you have so many resources. Here in Russia we just do stuff. Don’t sit around waiting to get discovered, just do stuff.” And that’s what we did when we moved to New York; we knew people from Vassar, but we didn’t really have any other connections. And we ended up living together as roommates with another Vassar student, so for the first seven years of The Debate Society we were also roommates. We even got jobs waiting tables in the same restaurant.
HB: We’d wake up in the morning and write, or knock on each other’s doors in the middle of the night being like, “I think I figured out the scene! He feeds her her lovers heart on the mattress or a blah-blah-blah!” We also lived with all our props. Which was very fun and crazy, and you can only do that in your early 20s.
PT: So we were meeting people and acting in things, and then we thought, “Well let’s do A Thought About Raya, our play from college.” So we rented out this theater from Tommy Kail at this little theater in the old Drama Bookstore, and we did a one night reading with a pickle and vodka toast. And Oliver came to that reading. We knew him through mutual friends and had seen some of his stuff. He approached us afterwards and said, “I’d love to work with you guys, I know you don’t have a director, if you’re looking for a director I’d love for you to consider me.” And we said, “We don’t want to work with a director.”
“Because we’re really great.”
PT: “We’re really great! We can design it, we can act in it, we can direct it,” I mean—
HB: “Listen, we did this in a college squash court with three lightbulbs, so... we nailed it.” No, um... (Laughter.) Yeah, we got to know Oliver and we really liked him and he had suggested, “Why don’t I see you guys work for a month, and then I’ll chime in the second month.” So he saw how Paul and I worked together for a month without saying anything.
PT: Even at that time we had developed a sort of twin talk, our own weird way of working together. And he was very respectful of that.
And how long did that take, from the reading to a presentation?
HB: A couple months. We self-produced it. We rented a little theater, and...
PT: We did a few stoop sales and chili cook-offs to raise money, and did it at The Red Room, which no longer exists, next to New York Theatre Workshop, and had a really good run. We had some press, and some people came.
Did you have a name yet?
So it was just credited as co-written?
PT: Yeah. And the last weekend, our parents were flying up from the Midwest to see the show and the theater got shut down because of a fire code violation that was no fault of their own, it was from some paperwork from the early 1900s.
HB: So we asked everyone we knew to go to their ATMs and take out the max of two hundred dollars and we rented space at the Clemente Soto Velez. And we put the set on dollies and pushed it over there. And we got our money back from the first rental. So we ended up with a tiny line of press from something and money in the bank. And we were like, “We made it!”
PT: At that point we didn’t want to have a theater company; we just wanted to make a play. But if we were going to do another one and we were going to apply to a few little grants and tell people who we were, we were like, “I guess we have to call ourselves something.” So that’s when we became a company.
HB: And then we applied to Chashama and got one of their space grants. We had almost a whole floor of an abandoned office building.
PT: And we transformed that into a work space and were like “Let’s start from zero, what’s our first play that we’re going to make together?” And we ended up working on a Norwegian folk tale, The Snow Hen. It had virtually no text. It was from the 1300s during the Black Plague and was about a little girl whose family left her alone because they had the plague and they wanted to save her. So they left her in a feather bed and then took off. When she was found years later she had started to turn into a bird and had feathers growing out of her back.
HB: People today from that region, if they have little red goosebumps from the cold, they say that they’re related to that bird girl.
PT: So we hung out in this abandoned office—
HB: Did a ton of research on different things that either connected to this fairy tale or had nothing to do with it.
PT: We were making the play for maybe a year and a half, and we were also collecting stuff. This bird girl lived on the edge of the ocean, and every day would go out and collect the remnants of society that had washed up on the shore.
HB: Like many young writers, it was a post-apocalyptic play. It was pretty good though.
PT: We rented a theater in Williamsburg, the Charlie Pineapple Theater.
HB: Which does not exist anymore.
PT: Which does not exist anymore. And we hired friends to be designers and we did the show. And it was an hour and a half play with like 10 words of dialogue. We didn’t know if it was a play.
We skipped over the creation of The Debate Society. Purportedly, according to the dossier, you were floating ideas, this was Hannah’s idea, you hated it, realized you were wrong, came back—
PT: Yeah that’s the way it is with all of our titles.
And how long did that take for you to realize you were wrong?
HB: Not long.
PT: What we did — and we’ve never made any other decisions like this, but what we did is we listed all of the potential names. It was maybe like 60 possible titles?
HB: We were like, “What if we have this company for a long time? And what if we change what we want to be? What’s safe to grow into?”
Bob Moss thought “Playwrights Horizons” was incredibly pretentious. And when we moved to 42 Street, he thought he could change it. But his board said, “You can’t change it now. We’re getting grants with that name.”
HB: Who came up with the name?
He did! He said they were going round and round with titles and all the natural titles had been taken, and then one of the board members said, “What will this company do?” And he said, “We’re going to expand the horizons for playwrights.” And she said, “Yes, it’s Playwrights Horizons!” And he went, “Oh fuck it, ok. I gotta get out of this room.”
HB: That’s awesome.
PT: For ours, we were like, “If it’s going to be pretentious, it’s going to be high school pretentious.” So that felt good to us. We scored each name on our list as a one, two, or three. We did a blind ballot. And The Debate Society and like two other names were the only ones that had a perfect score from all of us. And we were like, “Let’s sleep on it and check in tomorrow.” And we were like, “Yeah, The Debate Society, that works.”
Did you articulate reasons with each other for it?
PT: No there was—
HB: Now it makes sense. Now I could write a paper on it. But at the time, it didn’t connect to what we were. But we also wanted something that did not define who we were. Because there were so many companies that really did one thing, and their name really defined them. And we were like, “We want to be able to grow.”
PT: We wanted the work to color the name, not the name to color the work. Something that was blank enough that after years of shows people would hopefully be like, “Oh this feels like a Debate Society show.”
One of the things that struck me from your dossier was a story you told about going to some sort of artist retreat after you’d broken up—
PT: The National Theatre Institute.
And there was some exercise where they turned off the lights and everyone had to point to the soul of your bodies, and when the lights came back on, you both were pointing to your elbows. But even that wasn’t enough to break the ice, according to you. (To Hannah) Like you still tried hating him for three more months.
HB: It was a mutual — I wouldn’t say hatred. I would say: we were not meant to come back together with our friendship until we wrote this play together. It made us figure out what kind of relationship we were supposed to have.
To me that story is very linked to your process. To me there’s something very Hegelian about it, that there’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis in your working methodology. And what always amazes me about you guys is you — it seems like you never get tired of note sessions.
HB: It’s true.
Like you could’ve been working on something for seven years, like The Light Years, and two weeks into previews I’ll go, “Oh, I have an idea!” And most writers at that point would be—“Oh, you have a note? Ok, what’s your note? Actually, could you email me?” But you guys like feed off it.
HB: Oh I love it.
PT: Well also often at this point we’re also in the plays. And I think we’re very good at sort of...
HB: Being in and out?
PT: Being in and out of it. There is sort of a zen thing: you have to be inside of it and outside of it.
HB: It’s been fun to write for other people. Our first couple of plays were just Paul and me. Later we did Cape Disappointment and had Oliver’s mom and Michael Cyril Creighton, and we would try on those characters together to figure out the voice together, stepping inside with our actor brain and our writer brain at the same time.
Does the fact that you sort of have to persuade each other factor into it?
HB: Yeah it’s fun to have an argument, like “I really think “A.” Right guys?” And then you don’t — it’s not democratic. You have these two people that you really trust, and you’re trying to figure it out together. So you have to try things with your whole heart.
PT: This process has been really interesting because — usually, when we’re in the play, once we get into production, once there’s an audience there, we do have to lock into the acting side of things more. Sometimes it feels like the first time we have an audience in front of us is the first time Hannah and I are actually acting. We’ve been working on the text for so long and the structure for so long, that when we have an audience, we’re like, “Oh I have talk to you and listen to you, rather than like thinking about this person’s line.” But this process is very different. I’ll be in the theater on chat with Hannah—
HB: During rehearsal.
PT: …and she’s at home with the baby but she’s still suggesting lines.
HB: That’s a great example where, like, I’m not in this world right now, but I’m so in this world. I’m thinking about it constantly while taking a shower or breast-feeding; I’ll see the play and dream on it for 24 hours and then we have a few hours during the day with the actors to try things.
PT: And it’s been great to try things with Oliver in rehearsal. And not being on stage, we can have the conversation about how it works in real time.
HB: Seeing previews after not seeing them when I was out for baby has been a very healthy perspective for them I think. Because I have a little bit of distance, but I know everything so well. So I can remind them of things they might’ve forgotten.
You’ve talked about your process as being part research into a period and part finding architecture. I’ve always felt like the way you guys storytell is by parsing out clues.
HB and PT: Yes.
You’re cognizant of structure in that way; you don’t want to give away things too much. And there’s usually some kind of surprise or something big and dramatic that awaits us. Obviously that’s partly craft and partly how you work together. How has that evolved over the years?
PT: I feel like it was never decided; it was just sort of the way we worked. It felt like sometimes the storytelling is an accumulation of details that reveals a story that maybe, up until three quarters of the way into the play, you don’t know what the story is. And at the end you’re like, “Oh there was a story there.” And I don’t think we set out to do that. I think partially it’s the way our brains work. I do think that starting out with Daniil Kharms, the first thing that we created, based on these collisions, influenced our process, but it was also very instinctual and connected to the way our brains work.
HB: I also think that I started this journey, this unfolding of where we are today, by being an actor who likes to write, and now I feel like I’m much more a writer who sometimes gets to act. I love writing in a way that I didn’t understand in the beginning of this process. And I feel like in the beginning our plays were much more experimental, perhaps because I had sort of training wheels on my writer side. I didn’t understand the importance of structure and the importance of some rules. And now I think much more about structure and story. We’re getting better at not having so much mystery, even though we love the mystery.
You’ve been in all of your plays until this leg of this production. Can you envision yourselves doing something together where you’re not part of it as actors immediately? Or do you think that’s intrinsic.
HB: I don’t think it’s intrinsic now. And I didn’t know that before. I’m even thinking about the thing that we’re writing for you next, and what our relationship towards that will be.
PT: Our first few plays started out with just the two of us. But with Blood Play there were two female characters and as we were writing we didn’t know what character Hannah was going to be playing. She could have played either one of them. So we’re never like, “I’m writing the lines for me.” It’s never like that. But I think in making the plays now, it’s about what story are we interested in? If it’s a play about six 80-year-old characters, it’s not going to be us playing 80-year-olds unless that’s part of the play. But we also love being in our plays and definitely will be in plays in the future.
The first play of yours I saw was Buddy Cop 2. Then there was Blood Play then Jacuzzi. All of these are period plays, but they’re from recent history. The Light Years is a little more distant past. Now you’ve talked about your personal connections to the story, like the World’s Fair memorabilia in your mom’s antique shop (to Hannah) and Oliver’s father running into Steele MacKaye’s great grandson in college — but do you think the distance in the past made it feel more like a period piece? Did that affect the structure of the piece?
PT: We’re never like, “What period is the play going to be?” I think it’s just that the things that we’re interested in end up being in different periods. We’ve always said we don’t see a Debate Society play having a cell phone conversation. In a strange way, if I’m acting in a play, if it’s like a modern play, I’ve always felt having to act like a modern person feels harder to me than just the freedom you get from being, “It’s in the 1890s! And the language is a little strange because it’s the 1890s.” And there’s some freedom in that. And in rehearsals for 1933, the language is a little bit hokey and you can lean into that and you don’t have to worry about it being natural. There’s something about the period as an actor that doesn’t feel distancing to me, it feels more...
HB: It actually brings me closer. We love these invented histories. And I feel like we’re in our plays no matter what because we are inventing these histories jumping off from the odd research we do.
I love that you wanted to write a play about Steele MacKaye and he’s not the central figure.
HB and PT: Yeah.
In our submission guidelines, we say, “We do not accept biographical historical plays.” And the reason for that is because usually the historical figure will come to dominate the play and the playwright’s voice will get lost in chronological details. But this play acknowledges that the sketchy facts we know about Steele MacKaye really don’t reveal him and you preserve that mystery about who he is. I love that the fulfillment of our getting to know Steele MacKaye is basically a collage of scenes in the middle of the play at dinnertime, completely disconnected from each other except as a portrait of idiosyncrasy.
PT: There’s now a monologue at the beginning and the monologue near the end, and those are recent additions to the play. It used to be that Steele was somebody that you heard about, he had voiceover, you saw him as a shadowy Columbus figure, but then when he came into that dinner, that was all you saw of him. And we fleshed it out more, and I like those new parts to it, but I think he’s still a kind of elusive figure.
HB: We sort of felt like this is his play that never got done; it just got done in 2017.
Do you remember what your starting point was? Were there certain characters? Was it the time frame?
PT: I’ve actually been looking at this — do you know Janice Paran?
PT: She worked on this with us at Sundance, and her class has been studying the play so she asked for our very earliest text, something from in between, and then our most recent draft. And so I’ve been digging through all the old versions of this, and it’s changed a lot, but from the very first month we were working on this, we had all the characters and we had ‘33 and ‘93. So it just seems to me like they just all happened at the same time.
HB: Mm hmm.
PT: But the way that we went back and forth between the eras changed a lot. I think first it started out that it was totally chronological, and then it went to jumping back and forth, but very clearly the ‘93 scenes were always inspired by something that Hillary, unseen Hillary, would’ve heard in 1933. So him hearing piano playing would take us back to 1893 with Adeline playing piano. So it was very clearly sort of a memory play. And that didn’t work very well.
HB: It felt false. It felt like forcing connections.
I’ve heard you talk about the difference in the two fairs, one was more visionary and one was more about commerce.
Is that why you think there were jingles attached to the 30s immediately?
HB and PT: Yes.
And the idea that you were going to write about a visionary in ’93, you’re trying to find him — and that’s what Hillary actually is doing, as the workman, the executor of Steele’s vision. That seems intrinsic.
PT: That was always there. We didn’t talk about it, but definitely our “in” to the story was through Hillary.
Then Adeline seems the natural foil to him. She’s like the muse, you know, the soul.
And Hong Sling is the worker to the worker.
Has Hong Sling evolved?
PT: Yeah. In the part that we call the interlude, where he says, “40 years will pass in the course of a few minutes” — the majority of that text was there from the start, but it was a stage direction that described how the stage was going to change while Hong lived there. And it became a monologue that he delivered as an actor, later on. It also wasn’t until two years ago that we realized Hong needed to see what’s going on upstairs with Hillary. The end had always been Hillary alone. And then there was a moment a couple years ago at New York Stage and Film, where we decided that Hong should see this, because the two of them, in a strange way, shared a lifetime working together. And I think you don’t realize his importance for the first half of the play.
In the dossier, one of the articles mentioned your interest in ghost stories.
HB: I probably did. I’m the ghost person. I love ghost stories. This is a very ghosty play. We say this a lot, but we love the haunting of architecture. We find that very interesting. I think some of our characters feel like ghosts.
PT:Cape Disappointment was a haunted drive-in movie theater. Where you see sort of the ghosts of the films that have been there, the ghosts of the people that have been there, the remnants of memories.
HB: And the space here is the theater. We talk about that a lot. We are in Playwrights Horizons’ theater. But there is a haunting of Steele’s play that you’re seeing happening. You know?
PT: We talk a lot about how we start with a mood and a world. We start by trying to dramatize the feeling of something. And I just remember a lot of moments from childhood where I was in a room and it felt mysterious and I didn’t know why. Or being around my grandparents the day that they died, the mysterious feeling of that, which... I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I do believe in sort of a mysterious feeling of something bigger that I think we feel in the theater sometimes.
I think you’ve done a lot of your fine tuning of the play around that “knowing,” what Aristotle called anagnoresis. It used to be Hillary up in the attic by himself: a lot of defeat. Now Hong Sling is up there too. And Lou’s leaving, he used to leave a little more abruptly. Now we see the build-up, the torture he’s feeling, like he can’t provide: “My family would be better off without me.” You see it. It’s heartbreaking.
HB: We used to not show it as much, I think, years ago. And now we’re at a place where we want to show it. I think that’s part of the growing we’ve done.