Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, in his early 30s, has impressive playwriting credits, including degrees from New York University, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and the Juilliard School, with premieres in numerous regional theaters. His breakout play, A Bright New Boise, which won an Obie Award in 2011, set the stage for the show that has put him on the map, The Whale. The central character of that play, which had an acclaimed run off-Broadway in 2012, is a 600-pound man.
Circle Theatre opens the area premiere of Boise this weekend, marking the first North Texas production of a play by Hunter. The production, directed by Steven Pounders, features Chip Wood, Montgomery Sutton, Morgan McClure, Michael McMillan and Jenny King.
The play concerns a man with fundamentalist Christian beliefs who gets a job at a Hobby Lobby in Boise to meet his son, who was given up for adoption by the mother. When the Northern Idado native, who lives in New York with his husband, dramaturge John M. Baker, called me for an interview, he was at the airport between opening productions of The Whale at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
His other plays include A Permanent Image, Norway and The Era of Whales, which he wrote when he worked in the West Bank with Ashtar Theatre of Ramallah and Ayyam al-Masrah of Hebron; and he has active commissions from the Manhattan Theatre Club, Seattle Rep, South Coast Rep, Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons. He talked to TheaterJones about A Bright New Boise, The Whale and finding his way into playwriting.
TheaterJones: Tell me about the idea for A Bright New Boise. Did it start with the concept of Will’s religious beliefs?
Samuel D. Hunter: I frequently write about religion, almost all of my plays have some sort of religious aspect to them. When I was younger I knew a lot of fundamentalist Christians, and I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school for a time, so it’s always been something I’ve been interested in.
Fundamentalism occupies such a large part of the American consciousness, but very little of our art. So I like to explore what it’s like to live with these beliefs in a constantly modernizing world.
It and several of your plays are set in your home state of Idaho.
They’re pretty much all set in Idaho.
Did you grow up in a religious family?
My family was Episcopalian; my mom is religious, but in a very standard protestant way. I went to the school because it offered a better education.
How did the fundamentalist seed inform how you created the character of Will and this play?
I wrote a play called Jack’s Precious Moments, it was a dark comedy, and it wasn’t entirely successful. Each main character was struggling with his fundamental beliefs, but it was overshadowed by the play’s tone. The real emotional journey that I was trying to get across was lost in the craziness of the play itself. So what I wanted to do with this play was calm down and write something that was more of a character study.
You have degrees from prestigious institutions. Where did the love for playwriting start?
I decided I wanted to write plays in high school. It was sort of a roundabout way. A lot of writers I think come at playwriting through acting or being involved in the theater. A lot of playwrights start as actors. I did some acting, so I was familiar with the theater, but for me, acting and writing were entirely separate things.
I came at playwriting through a love of literature more than anything. I started reading a lot of the Beats in high school, and went backwards to James Joyce and Blake and it spiraled and I became more interested in literature. When I found playwriting it felt like a natural fit to me, because I feel like I’m not a prose writer. But what I try to accomplish I like to do through dialogue and a multiplicity of perspectives, and not through first or third person.
A Bright New Boise was your breakout play, but The Whale is the one everyone’s talking about. You’ve said in interviews that you were an awkward child because you were tall at a young age. Does the character of Charlie, the 600-pound man in The Whale, in any way reflect that experience?
It is sort of like a roundabout emotional autobiography in a certain way. Everybody feels isolation, and I think I brought it through the play. I wanted to ground it in something universal; everybody’s had that experience of feeling isolated.
Did you hear reactions from anyone who had been through the experience of being morbidly obese, or had known someone like that?
I think some people come to the play thinking it’s about obesity, but it has very little to do with the day-to-day minutiae of being 600 pounds. There is some truth about a man reconnecting with his daughter. That he’s obese is the reality of the character, and it doesn’t serve to betray that. For me the character of the play gained all that weight for idiosyncratic reasons, I think it would be hard to apply his narrative to the larger group of people who are super morbidly obese.
You’ve had productions of it at the Denver Center and at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway, and now at South Coast Repertory and Victory Gardens Theater. What have you learned about creating the physicality for the actor playing Charlie?
The guy in the South Coast Rep production was coached by a guy who weighed 600 pounds who’s now down to 350. The first production was at Denver Center, and that’s where I did a lot of figuring out what it would like to have a unit set play with a character who is pretty much immobile. In the play, he gets up once or twice, and he gets into a wheelchair; it takes 35-40 seconds for him to get up, we didn’t want to shy away from that.
That’s what the theaters that stage the second, third and fourth productions are for. The theater where Boise is playing in Fort Worth, Circle Theatre, is like that for several playwrights, staging the work after it has had a premiere elsewhere.
That’s important. A lot of plays die after the first production, and that’s a shame, because I don’t think a play evolves into what it was until the third or fourth production. Here in LA, I was still doing rewrites for The Whale.
I am happy that I’m in an area like Fort Worth, which from what I can gather, is a pretty religious area. It’s one thing to do a play like that in a theater in the East Village, but another thing to do it in Fort Worth.
◊ You can also ready my story about Hunter on DFW.com, and look for a review of Circle's production next week.