Playwright Samuel D. Hunter Finds His Voice, Makes No Apologies
By Michael Narkunski
“I can’t believe a gay person can write this, or that a gay artistic director can allow this in his theater,” playwright Samuel D. Hunter recalls of the reaction to one of his more controversial plays, A Great Wilderness. The play, as he describes it, was "frank" — something that is true to all his productions, including The Few, playing now at Rattlestick Theatre (through June 21).
Similar to his previous play, The Whale, Hunter breaks ground by doing something unheard of in New York — keeping quiet about his characters’ orientations.
Last year, while at a promotional panel at Playwrights Horizons for The Whale, Hunter made zero mention of his 600-pound protagonist’s sexuality, indeed a pivotal component of the story. Instead, he took the time to focus more on the play’s despairing themes over its specific trappings, an instinct that clearly shows where his priorities lie.
In his new play, about three people who are connected to producing a niche newspaper for lonely truckers, a similar sense of equality-for-the-miserable springs forth. While this group’s heart is Matthew, a 19-year-old awkward, asthmatic gay teenager (played by openly gay actor Gideon Glick), his sexuality is not used as a selling point. He is just another disenfranchised soul along with the main character, Brian (Michael Laurence), a gruff writer who leaves his girlfriend (Tasha Lawrence) after a friend’s death, only to randomly show up four years later in her trailer/office — all during the paranoid landscape of a looming Y2K apocalypse.
In-between performances, Hunter shared his thoughts with Out on how his gay experience impacts his characters, writing for a gay audience, and finding his own voice as a writer.
On finding his voice as a playwright:
It took me a really long time to find my voice as a writer. It took dozens of plays and many years in order to find what I have to offer and I think what I sort of realized, at least now, that it is something that is actually very simple and emotionally naked in a way, and if I start from a place of sensitivity and empathy and openness, then hopefully the play is saying something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
On finding a way to show empathy for unlikeable characters:
The Whale is about this guy who is so openhearted and emotionally available, but in The Few, it’s kind of the opposite because there’s this guy who’s in a spiritual and existential coma, who sort of barely makes his way out in a very small way by the end of the play. So, the challenge of The Few was sort of calibrating how shutdown he is at any one time, because even though the play is a slow process of cracking him open, we still want to get to know him and care about him, and that was a very tricky dance.
Charlie in The Whale is something you have to get past, his exterior. But hopefully when you see the pulsing heart underneath you connect to him as a character. But with Brian [in The Few], who’s just kind of a dick to the people around him, it’s not until we crack him open that we really see what’s going on with him.
Michael Laurence (left) & Gideon Glick in 'The Few' | Photo by Joan Marcus
Why he connects to Matthew, the young, gay character in The Few:
He’s the character I identify with the most. I was in Idaho and around his age in 1999. He says at the end of the play that he feels he didn’t exist, and I remember feeling that way, being a gay kid in Idaho, not knowing if there’s a place for me in the universe. And I found the place where I found connection and meaning kind of unlikely.
I remember reading The Wasteland as a kid, which was incredibly meaningful to me. And it was sort of a beacon in a certain way. And I think for Mathew and the newspaper for truckers, it’s like reading Ginsberg and Eliot for me as a teenager, the same sort of beacon of light.
On his sense of responsibility — or lack thereof — to write gay characters:
It’s less of a sense of responsibility, more of a personal edict or guiding light I have as a writer, to tell stories about people who you don’t normally see populating our stages and our screens. I’m not interested in writing sexy, successful people, as someone who feels like a square peg in a round hole. Like, this play I’m workshopping now is about this guy who runs an Olive Garden in Pocatello, Idaho. That’s not going to translate into a blockbuster. That’s not a new vehicle for Ryan Gosling or whatever.
I think I write from a very personal place, so gay characters pop up. But I don’t sit down with an agenda. For a really long time, for the first five to six years writing plays in college and grad school, I had never written a gay character. I just had no interest in writing a play whose sole purpose was to articulate something about the gay experience.
How Idaho always finds a place in his plays:
There’s a part of me that feels so deeply connected to Idaho and that landscape. I never sit down and say let’s do a play about Idaho.
Also, and this is going to really sound pompous… there’s this notion that what I’m doing is not about any one play, and all the plays dovetail into each other in a certain way, both in terms of form and content. There’s a larger conversation I’m engaging in, a larger project I’m embarking on, and I don’t really know what the end goal of it is. That being said, I learned a long time ago not to label myself as a writer. And so, 10 years from now I might be writing, I don’t know, plays set in Park Avenue! Rich and affluent, heterosexuals getting divorced! [Laughs] [But] I can't imagine that.
To check out real humans from the mind of Samuel D. Hunter, attend The Few, which just extended its run to June 25 at Rattlestick Theatre, and Pocatello coming to the main stage of Playwrights Horizons' next season, November 2014.