Lucas Hnath Artist Interview
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen The Christians, this interview contains information on main plots points of the production.
Tim Sanford: What were your early influences that pushed you into becoming an artist and a playwright?
Lucas Hnath: I think it came in part from growing up in Orlando so close to Disney World, which is an incredibly theatrical place. In a lot of ways my interest in theater and in art started there. I really wanted to make Disney rides when I was a kid.
I was really into magic; I did magic tricks when I was a kid. So that was another angle into theater. And then there would be school trips to community theater productions of A Christmas Carol, where I especially liked the special effects, the dry ice, all that stuff. So my interest in theater initially started from the angle of stage effects.
When did interest become practice?
When I was in middle school I got interested in acting because I knew that my mother was really into acting when she was in high school and college. So I auditioned for the local community theater’s production of A Christmas Carol and was cast as Young Scrooge. It was directed by David Lee, who ended up going to Yale School of Drama and directed Mac Wellman plays for a while in New York. He would describe these sort of strange plays—I didn’t recognize the name Mac Wellman at the time—but much, much later I made the connection what he was talking about. So that was another place early on where some of my influences got planted.
Were you propelled to keep acting?
I was in a couple of plays in high school. I was in Little Shop of Horrors and Wizard of Oz.
Did you sing?
I did. I was in Orlando Shakespeare Festival’s production of As You Like It as a page boy who comes in and sings a song at one point.
Okay, so college rolls around, you’ve done some theater… Had you done writing?
I had dabbled in it. I think actually the first play that got me interested in writing plays was Elmer Rice’s Adding Machine. I stumbled across a copy and liked it a lot and tried to write sort of imitations of that. And then I started reading the Sam Shepard anthologies that I got at the local bookstore. We would also get American Theater Magazine at the bookstore and I would enjoy looking at the production photos.
Do you remember which Sam Shepard you read?
My first exposure to Sam Shepard, and the reason I got that anthology, was that the Orlando Fringe Festival had done a production of Action. That’s the one where someone pulls a fish out of a pail of water and starts carving the fish onstage, and I thought that that was really strange and interesting. So I found an anthology that includes Action, La Turista and Suicide in B Flat.
I saw a double bill in LA of Action and Cowboy Mouth. Which he did originally with Patti Smith. Ends with the Lobster Man.
I think I see a common thread because I see in your work an interest in other worlds.
And clearly Adding Machine has the scene in Elysium, and Shepard creates a whole mythos in his work.
Again it sort of ties back to Disney, right? These theatrical environments.
Did you think of yourself as an artist in college? Did you spread yourself out to other subjects?
The funny thing is my first year I was getting ready for a pre-med track. I had not gone to NYU for Tisch. I’d gone there because I wanted to be in New York, but I was interested in science. My better scores were always in science. I thought writing was a bit tedious. I didn’t think I was very good with words. But then when I was in New York I discovered Caryl Churchill here, I discovered Richard Foreman, and I tipped over and transferred into Dramatic Writing. I took a ton of classes in—I think it’s called Gender Studies now but at the time it was called Women’s Studies. It was comprised of a lot of classes from different departments, so you could get courses in linguistics, you get courses in psychology. So I took a Psychology of Marriage class, I took a Gender and Literature class… And I loved reading Lacan, I thought that was fun, and Hélène Cixous and all of those very heady theorists. I liked Freud a lot, I liked Jung. That was the stuff I was spending a lot of time reading.
Do you think these theorists influenced your writing in some way?
Lacan’s probably easiest to connect to my work. I think a thing that I got out of reading Lacan was this idea about how what’s “real” keeps slipping away from you, so you have to spray things with language in order to see them better, to see something incredibly difficult to see by approaching it from lots of tricky angles. I was going to see Richard Foreman at that
time too, who arguably theatricalizes a Lacanian riddle: “I’m going to take something that’s really hard to name, and in fact by naming it becomes not the thing that it was before you named it and I’m going to try to visualize that onstage while realizing that any attempt to represent this onstage is going to fail.”
I’m thinking about what you’re saying, and how you use language in your plays and it seems to me that language seems to function a little differently in each play. There are certain common threads, like moments of unspoken dialogue represented by “dot dot dots.” But sometimes your language is more expressive. In Isaac’s Eye, for example, you essentially have a period piece where characters express themselves in colloquial English, and there seems to be no subtext. Everything’s above board: “supertext.” When someone’s lying, it’s found out almost immediately.
And then if you look at Death Tax,you don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s like this chess game. And the characters use language to snare, pummel each other. But it’s not hidden; it’s almost scarily out in the open.
I think in the Walt Disney play [A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney] language is failing more.
Walt is trying to preserve a future, a vision, a legacy for himself and yet when the daughter is pressed to name her child after him, she says, “I don’t want to call him Walt because actually I hate your guts!”
But in Red Speedo a lot is hidden.
Yeah, there’s a good bit more subtext in that play. But I don’t know… The way I think about it is something I experience in the writing process where I’m always looking for the dumbest way to say something, in all of the plays.
Maybe that’s why a lot of the emotions your characters access seem so elemental, like the venality of the characters in Death Tax is so exposed, it’s almost Freudian in a way, like the characters are broken down into their most primitive components. But I think I jumped ahead in talking about all your plays. Let’s go back. In Sarah Lunnie’s article about
you in our bulletin she talks about some of your earliest
work and what’s clear is that you’ve always had an interest in the theatrical form. We can see that clearly in The Christians
and in the Walt Disney play. So you’ve talked about Disney
as a practitioner of stage magic, but it seems you’re more prone to expose that more in your plays now. More.
Yes. A lot of my earlier plays had just straight up magic tricks in them. And Disney has a few. But yeah, I think the strings are more visible in the plays now.
It’s quite a leap to go from Disney to The Christians, scenically. Disney is so stripped away, it takes a while to figure out “Where are we? Who’s watching this?” Whereas it’s kind of the opposite in The Christians, because we walk into the theater and it’s like we’re going to be in a real church service.
And I think I got there because the church is a kind of theatrical space already. So...
It simultaneously gives me a really neat, a really virtuosic set, and at the same time it gives me room to strip things bare. But a lot of this also comes from me being a huge David Greenspan fan. He’s a big influence on me. I read an earlier draft of She Stoops to Comedy before it went into production when I was at NYU and it just shocked me how stripped down that play is. It’s just the language.
I loved him so much for so long. I remember taking André Bishop down to see I think it was probably 2 Samuel 11 and convincing him to commission David. And that play turned out to be Dead Mother or Shirley Not All in Vain which he eventually did at the Public. Then I was so excited years later to read She Stoops to Comedy and thought “Oh my god, I could actually do this play at Playwrights Horizons!”
It’s one my all-time favorite plays. I still go back and reread that play. So much of Isaac’s Eye came out of that play.
It was me trying to imitate the sort of on-the-fly creation of the world around you that David achieves. You have this character, this actor who comes in and sort of conjures the play a little bit…
Oh yeah, the actor slash dead guy.
Yeah. I always wanted to see David play that role. I wrote it imagining him. What’s funny is that in my New Dramatists welcome reading we did an excerpt from Isaac’s Eye but David ended up actually playing Robert Hooke.
So Isaac’s Eye was a Sloan play. When they asked you, did you know right away, “Oh I have a science play that I could do?”
I had a relationship with the Sloan Foundation from my college days. I had written a couple screenplays that they gave grants to, and so I always thought, “Well I should write a play for the EST/Sloan Commission.”
Had you been interested in Newton previously?
Yes. I had heard an interview with a science writer on the
Leonard Lopate show where he had talked about the
experiment where Newton put a needle in his tear duct and, I mean, I had written a number of plays about eye injuries or weird business with the eyes, so I felt like—
Yeah, I wrote a play in college called Three Attempts at Corrective Eye Surgery. For a long time bad stuff always happened to people’s eyes in my plays.
Is there a reason for that?
Because it feels theatrical. It is a surefire way to get a cringe out of the audience.
Did you ever see Un Chien Andalou in a theater theater? When they slice the eyeball? Screams. Everyone.
Yes, that was of course a favorite of mine. But yeah, I’d heard that story about Newton and thought, “Well that sounds like a play I would write.” And I knew that one of the tricks to make a Sloan play work would be to dramatize an experiment.
I mean, an experiment is something you can do live onstage. And I’ve often thought that plays are constructed out of live experiments and negotiations and trials. Like, those to me feel like very dramatic situations. So, I think it may be part of the reason my plays either have a little bit of a feeling of a court trial, or something happening in an operating theater. And The Christians very much is built as a public debate.
There’s so much that feels so personal in Isaac’s Eye.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
I mean, in some ways it’s about the struggling artist trying to get the taste makers to notice him.
And it’s about what you sacrifice for your art and how you see the world differently. And there’s also a little Amadeus in it.
There’s a little Salieri in the Hooke character.
Yeah, no, it is. And I became very comfortable writing very personal plays, so long as the words were being put in the mouths of famous people or historical figures. Which was actually an idea that occurred to me while I was reading Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Reading her play, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, and hearing how in some way that play is really a series of very personal sentiments put into the mouths of these iconic movie stars. And that had made an impression on me.
There’s also a common thread from Isaac’s Eye andthe Disney Playin the way you play against our expectations of these famous people. We don’t usually think of Isaac Newton as
a young man, but more as a stately older man in a French wig sitting under an apple tree.
And Walt Disney is a much darker, more complicated guy than his image.
Yeah, there are a couple of things going on in the line going from Isaac’s Eye to Disney. In part I felt some guilt about how much I used Isaac’s Eye as an excuse to write about myself.
And I would get questions—it was true of Isaac and it’s also true of Hillary and Clinton where questions came up about “Why use this person that sits so far outside of you as an excuse
to tell your own story?” And the Sloan Foundation was perhaps a little concerned because there is a lot that the play makes
up and they’re like, “Well why do you need to make that stuff up?” And I think I ultimately made a good case for it, but that did have me sort of questioning myself as to whether or not that was an okay thing to do.
Well I’m glad you prevailed, because you’ve given it a contemporary point of view that really makes it come alive. What I thought was especially successful was the way the vernacular mode of Newton’s speech reflects Hooke’s critique that Newton runs all of his steps together, but it allows us to sense the flow of Newton’s mind, the genius of his ability
to track cause and effect and the furthest ramifications of
his discoveries: “Oh, well, if this then this, then this, then this” and just... He came to ten inspirations just from one light bulb eureka moment going off.
Well it’s funny that you mention that too, because that’s one of the criticisms of Newton in his accounts of his own work. He fictionalizes a little bit. Like, he actually turns his work into more of a narrative than it really was, which of course is
what the play is doing too. That in order to make some things a little more perceivable, you have to lie a little bit. And that was
a criticism also of Disney, that his nature documentaries gave us footage that no one had ever captured...
Is that true about the lemmings?
Yeah, it’s true.
He staged them jumping off a cliff? How did he do that?
Turntables! There were little turntables at the edge of the cliff that were spinning and just sort of...
Threw the lemmings off?
Threw them off, yeah.
You can actually go onto YouTube and watch it and once you know that you can see it, it’s terrible. And it’s really funny.
And is it true that lemmings don’t do that?
Yeah, it’s true they don’t do it.
It’s a total lie, and it’s also again allegedly true that it was something that had been portrayed in comics and popular images he had seen and made the assumption.
After a performance of The Christians, in the lobby you introduced me to your friend, the playwright Thomas Bradshaw, who said, “Oh I always think there’s a similarity between
Lucas and my work in that the actors can’t judge the characters.”
It’s easy to see that in most of Thomas’s work, and in some of your work, especially Death Tax, where the venality of the characters is so pronounced. But the Humana production softened the effect. Quincy is so warm and Paul Niebanck was so plaintive. And Ken [the director] is such a sweet guy. Applying the directive to The Christians is not so obvious. We like the characters in The Christians. You so skillfully humanize them and keep us from judging them.
It becomes more obvious when you sit through auditions. I don’t know if it would have occurred to me either before our initial round, but we would see people come in with very clear received notions of what a preacher is and play that. I would say the majority of people who came in were doing stereotypes and talking down to the characters. I don’t think they thought they were, but they were. And the other similarity Thomas and I have is that characters will often say quite explicitly what they’re thinking. What they’re feeling. And technically you kind of have to not color that much. You actually have to pull back a bit.
That’s something that I worried about, frankly, for New York. It’s a more secular audience and I wondered how much people would be expecting the play to satirize or judge. It’s funny, when I saw it in Louisville, I saw it when there was a college weekend...
Yeah. I was getting real-time texts from that performance from Les.
And there were quite a few derisive laughs, much more than it had ever had, according to the cast afterwards. But Andrew seemed to enjoy it.
One of the things I love about your plays is the way you continually shift our expectations. Is that something you’re conscious of in writing?
Yes. Yes. Trying to take on the perverse perspective. It’s something that I studied. Caryl Churchill does it a lot; Wally Shawn does it a lot. In applying it to The Christians, there are
a couple ways I approached it. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about this, but the first 30 pages or so of the play were built
in a workshop I did at New Dramatists. The request that I made is that I wanted 5 actors and 3 microphones. I had some material written, but not too much. I actually spent the first day of the workshop showing the actors videos of various preachers, some better known like Benny Hinn and Kathryn Kuhlman and some that are a little more obscure, and I had the actors take notes and I asked them to write down everything that they saw that was exactly what they would have expected to see from a preacher, and then everything that upended expectations. And we made lists on the board, and I was interested in both. I would sort of plot out: “Okay, so I want to have a certain amount of the expected. And then I will strategically put in moments where something that you wouldn’t quite expect happens.”
And did you always know you wanted mics for the whole play?
I knew I needed mics because the play was going to be set in a very big church, and I can’t separate the sound of mic’d voices from the setting of “a very big church.” And I knew that I wanted the play to begin with a sermon, so again, the mics would be necessary from the very start of the play. But then once watched a play on mic for 20 or more minutes, it seemed like a letdown to continue the play off mic. The sound, the tone of it, is all so electric and heightened and a little unreal. I wanted to stay in that mode. And so the play, after the initial “church sequence,” continues to use the format of a church service to portray moments and scenes that do not take place during the church service. And of course this also meant that the play wanted to use microphones for its duration.
But the mics also give us another layer of dramatic action. I’d jokingly say that the play is nothing more than a set of four or five theological arguments. Of course it’s quite a bit more than that, but it is, at its core, built on a couple of debates. And these arguments are quite dense. It’s a play in which, often, the most dramatic action is for someone to decide to say something. “Saying” or “deciding to say” can often be overlooked as significant. The prop of the microphone actually gives us a means to make visible the action of speaking or decision or refusing to say something. We can all see the moment where a character leans into a microphone to speak. And we can all see the hesitation to do so. And we can tell the difference between leaning in to a microphone to speak versus yanking the microphone from its stand to speak. There’s a difference in intention and intensity.
Even the decision to use corded mics rather than cordless or lapel mics is intentional. The cords create an additional obstacle to speaking and negotiating the many voices in the room. And as the play continues the cords become more of a mess, more tangled, very much mirroring the way the arguments and intentions of the characters become messy and tangled.
How long has the possibility of a play about religion or church been inside of you?
A long time. From about 2000 or so.
What was drawing you to it?
Having spent a good part of my childhood in a very large church, there’s something of a nostalgia trip for me. But I think even more importantly, I’ve seen very little drama about churches that I think actually understands what’s at stake in the beliefs.
What do you think the common trap is?
It’s jumping to the assumption that for the person who has particularly fundamentalist beliefs, let’s say, that they are
stupid or that they are acting first and foremost out of hatred. And not really considering the factor that from a fundamentalist point of view, in many cases there are very severe stakes attached to being wrong. That “if I am doing something that is actually against the word of God, then I’m going to be punished.” And I think people forget about that. There are enormous stakes attached: eternal damnation.
There are also stakes involved on earth for Paul. Once he professes his more progressive theology, he starts to lose people, partly because people start to suspect his motives.
But I also think it’s a harder sell. As the guy that the congregant has been dating says, “If there’s no punishment for being bad, what makes us be good?” Or, if there’s no punishment for being bad, why go to church?
I know that when I started I was asking the question, “Why do we need Hell? Do we have a need for it?” And I think I came to some understanding, some clarity part way through in the middle scene of the play, where Paul proposes that even Hitler is in Heaven. And it is interesting. I don’t know what’s going on in audience member’s heads in that moment, but that does sort of seem to be a deal breaker a little bit.
And I am just fascinated as to why do we need to see people punished? I am often very uncomfortable with punishment. I can’t watch anything that has a prison in it. I actually feel sick. There used to be a part where I let Paul ramble on about Norwegian prisons. I mean, it’s completely irrelevant to the play and so it got cut, but I’m fascinated by the Norwegian prison system, which is, if you’re convicted of a crime, then clearly you’re suffering from a problem so let’s help you, and let’s spend some time recovering, working on a farm, and it’s like almost an idyllic prison life, and I find that so attractive.
What’s the recidivist rate in Norway?
Extremely low. It’s amazing. It works!
But in America we don’t care about whether it works or not, we just want to see that people are punished.
And I find this interesting because I actually see it on both conservative and liberal sides; you see it on social media, people getting very excited about seeing people punished for wrongs. I have hard time with it, I do.
Brother Joshua is the main purveyor of the fundamentalist line early on. But it’s one of your great reversals that when he comes back, he does it out of solidarity and concern. And then he says, “You think it’s easy for me to believe in Hell?” And he tells the story of his mother’s deathbed and you realize how hard it is for him. It’s not easy. But he has this vision in his head of his mother’s eyes. And when he asks Paul to show him there is no Hell, I think he means it. But Pastor Paul doesn’t have an answer; he just says, “I can’t show you the absence of something.”
Well, that’s another example of reversing expectations. That line, “I can’t show you the absence of something.” I completely stole that from atheists. That’s something often said in atheism: “Well, we can’t prove the absence of God.”
Theologically, they end in a standstill. They change to small talk. And it is clear they have real affection for each other. It’s almost painful. Especially in the context of the two scenes with the wife. These scenes are so potent. It feels inevitable that the play ends this with her.
Well, for a really, really long time, their first scene was the scene immediately after Joshua leaves the church. For a really long time, that’s where that scene went and it was so difficult to figure out how to get to the end of the play.
What was the end of the play?
There were several versions of the play that kind of went very deep into church politics and conflicts with the head of the denomination, and machinations to oust Joshua. Because he continued to be a problem for the church. He became an antagonist to the church, and so they had to take him down. And I was very aware that it just wasn’t working, it was just spinning its wheels and it wasn’t until I decided, “Okay, that scene is going to wait until the end,” that I understood the scope of the play.
How did that eureka moment come?
I think Sarah Lunnie probably said something. I was sharing drafts with her and Les. And I don’t think she would have said, “Oh that scene needs to go later,” but she would have said that “it seems that that’s the more interesting kind of material,” or that it really needs to stay...
Yeah... but at a certain point you hit your head against the wall and then you say, “Okay, well what would be the easy option?” And then you do the thing that’s easiest, and that’s how those eureka moments happen.
Talk about the Congregant scene a little bit.
Well now that was probably closer to a straight up suggestion from Sarah Lunnie. She would see these different versions of the play, and different scenes, and she’d say, “You know, the one person we’re not hearing anything from is a member of the Church.” And what’s funny is that before The Christians I did a one-act in the Humana Festival, this is between Death Tax and The Christians, this play called nightnight which was about insomniac astronauts.
Oh that’s right, that was really good.
(Pause.) Thank you Tim. (Laughs.)
I’m very proud of that play actually. That’s a favorite of mine.
I liked that it was produced in a school.
Yeah, and there used to be a scene in it where… the astronauts do this thing where they’ll have a middle schooler call the astronauts while they are orbiting in space, and say hello and ask the astronauts some questions. It’s like some sort of publicity opportunity, and so I used to have this girl named Jenny call up to the astronauts and just ask a ton of questions, and it was a really fun scene. It did not serve the play at all and I cut it, and everybody was all upset that I cut that scene, they were all sad, and it was around the same time that I was actually writing The Christians and Sarah said there needed to be a congregant scene, and I basically took that character, same name, and threw her over into The Christians with the same gag of asking a series of seemingly innocuous questions until at a certain point you realize, “Oh no, these questions are really difficult to answer.” And she keeps firing away.
Where do you think Paul is at the end of the scene?
Jenny leaves feeling that Paul may have had this motive that she believes invalidates the sort of change that he is trying to orchestrate with this church. I don’t think it invalidates the idea he’s proposing. But at a certain point he’s aware that it appears he has a motive and he’s trying to do spin control.
Exactly. There’s this moment where he just realizes, “The harder I try to justify what I’ve done, the more I know that this sounds bad.”
You see politicians do it all the time.
Well you don’t see them do what Paul does which is just to say, “I can see how you...”
“Dot, dot, dot...” He sort of says, “I’m dead.”
Yeah, which is him being honest. He doesn’t want to be deceitful for anything. He does want to be very honest. And there’s a moment in there where she asks him why he didn’t deliver the message earlier, and he checks in with himself, he checks and he says... And it’s really true; God hadn’t yet told him to deliver that message. Now I’m questioning, you know, is what he’s hearing God? Or is he hearing his fear louder than God?
And does he hear how that sounds?
Yeah, I know!
Because, he says something similar later with Elizabeth. It all seems to build to that soliloquy after the Joshua scene. “How do I know God is speaking to me? I feel it? Where did that feeling come from?” It’s like a prayer, but like a prayer that eats itself.
I think it is a prayer.
Where does he land at the end of it?
I think he lands in a space of doubt.
Then at the very end of the play, he’s in a place of doubt.
It’s gone. Things are gone. His wife comes back on, her bags are packed. You could play that a lot of different ways. What do you think is the right tone to strike?
I can say definitely what it’s not. When Paul hits his final line, “Don’t worry about trying to figure it out now, it will make more sense later,” I think that is a plea, more than it is an assertion. I think by the end he’s got to know that he himself might have rushed his congregation, that he might not have been listening. It’s this... for me the other thing that I think about a lot with this play is the difficulty of teaching. You know, guiding students... you have to guide at the same time they have to find their way. It’s the problem that therapists have too. They can’t tell you how to fix your problems; they have to create a space in which you find your way there. And how do you do that with a congregation though, right? I don’t know if that’s even possible.
Well what’s important is he still loves his wife.
And she still loves him.
You very vividly and effectively have demonstrated what happens when you put an ideology first. It leads to war. You know, the first time I heard the end, “Don’t try to figure it all out now, it will make more sense later,” I heard “For now we see ourselves through a glass darkly, but then face to face.”
The parallel to I Corinthians 13 just kind of leapt out to me. And I hope that that’s okay.
Oh yeah, yeah.
As you said, the end is a plea, not a pontification. But what’s clear to me is you can’t chase your faith down with your brain. And when his prayer circles in on itself, it’s like an Escher painting or a snake eating its tail. And then it struck me, where is love? No one says, “God is love.” Here are two people who love each other. Can’t we let that be what matters? I always want to see a lift at the end of a play, I will admit. And maybe it’s my interpretation.
No, I think that’s right. I think they’re striving for it and at the moment it feels very impossible to them.
I would love to land in a place where it is both impossible to reconcile and impossible not to reconcile.
Well, I like that too. I think that’s what we’re finding our way towards.