Dallas — Playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s home base these days is the tiny storefront Gift Theatre on the North Side of Chicago. It seats 29 people, he says.
Space isn’t everything—and Hinderaker and colleagues have presented some big-concept plays in that tiny theater. But what a contrast to what’s happening this week with his football saga Colossal at the Wyly Theatre—where the Dallas Theater Center is giving the play a classic Texas mega-treatment. Set designer John Coyne has configured the giant box of the Wyly to look like a chunk of Darrell Royal Stadium was grabbed by a Texas twister and set down smack on Flora Street.
Filling most of the theater (where the audience usually sits) is a green football field flanked by benches and scoreboard. Audience members file into the stands just like football fans, and sit in stadium-like rows hovering above one side of the field. There’s a drum line and a halftime show (with choreography by the audacious Joshua L. Peugh of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance). And at points during the evening the curtains of the Wyly are drawn back to expose the theater’s glass walls and remind us there’s a bigger world outside.
Hinderaker’s plays travel in interesting territory: Dirty got up-close to the world of pornography and its corrosive effects on a marriage; I Am Going to Change the World took on the American dream of success; Suicide Incorporated played out in a suicide call center. But he says he probably wouldn’t have attempted something like Colossal until he went to UT-Austin—arguably the center of the football universe—for his MFA in playwriting.
Colossal, directed by DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty, is a play moving between the past and present of ex-football player Mike (Zack Weinstein), who obsessively returns to the college game that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It’s a look at his relationship with his father, who was hoping Mike would take up dance instead, with a teammate he loves, and with the game itself. Hinderaker, a lifelong football fan who grew up going to University of Wisconsin college games in Madison, seems always to have had a sense of the essentially theatrical nature of football—and of the game’s glorious and dark sides, which can’t be separated.
The play is presented as a Rolling World Premiere by the National New Play Network and has been seen in Austin, in workshop at the Kennedy Center, in Minneapolis, at Maryland’s Olney Theatre outside DC, and now in Dallas. Later this year, Colossal will have productions in Boston and New Orleans.
A Chicago critic has called Andrew Hinderaker “a hugely exciting, risk-taking, idea-loving young writer.” We talked with Hinderaker during the week of previews for Colossal—and on the morning after his home-state basketball team had lost the NCAA college championship (by a whisker) to Duke.
Theater Jones: Sorry about Wisconsin.
Andrew Hinderaker: Oh, I appreciate that—I’m still grieving. I’m a bit more a fan of the football team, but it was certainly the first time in my memory that they’d played for a national championship in either football or basketball. But it was fun, Duke played a fantastic game, and it is what it is. I was just glad it was a Monday, the day we have off in theater, so I could see the game.
You’ve talked about growing up a football fan, going to the college games in Madison. You seem to have a wide frame on football—you see the drama and energy, but also the harshness of it all. Can you talk a bit about your personal history with the game?
I’ve been mostly a spectator and a fan, yes, though I played plenty of tackle games as a kid. And when I was little, I went to the University of Wisconsin games with my father—and Wisconsin was just terrible. They would beat Northwestern, and that was about it.
Northwestern’s my school—and we were awful back then, it’s true.
I know, poor Northwestern! One of my first football memories is going to a Badgers game against Michigan. We got there in the middle of the first quarter—our team was so bad the fans could just wander in—and Michigan right away ran the ball about 80 yards for a touchdown. I think the final score was about 72 to 3. It was hard times in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Then I rebelled and became a huge Chicago Bears fan, too, when Walter Payton and all those great players were on the team—which made me an outcast in Wisconsin, even with some of my relatives.
When I went to Austin, of course, I found it’s a huge football town like Madison, but Texas takes it even more seriously.
If you’d never come to Texas, do you think you’d have written a play about football?
Fantastic question. I almost certainly wouldn’t have written it, and for two reasons. One is that when I went to Austin, I got involved with theater that intersected with dance. I took classes with dancers, started to collaborate with them—and got to know Will Davis [the original director of Colossal] through that. And, literally, our theater building sat in the shadow of a stadium that holds more than 100,000 people. So really it was all those things coming together—the influence of collaborating with dancers, being in such a football-rich environment, and being in a grad school program that encouraged me in that direction.
One of your UT professors, in fact, dared you to write a big play, something that might seem “unproduceable”?
Yes, that was Kirk Lynn, who now is head of playwriting there. He’s also the director of the Rude Mechanicals [theater company] in Austin, and a fantastic playwright and theater-maker. At the time I came to Austin, I’d had a few plays that had found success in Chicago and New York. I was bouncing back and forth; I’d be in class at UT for a few days, and then race to New York or Chicago for rehearsals.
The faculty was amazingly supportive of that, but they also wanted me to know I had a unique opportunity right there in Austin. Kirk pulled me aside and basically said: “There are some resources you’re getting in Chicago and New York that we can’t provide. You’re getting to work with actors and theaters we can’t match. But there are things we can offer you that you can’t get with those theater companies—and one of those is the ability to really dream big.”
So essentially, what he said was: What’s your play with tubas? We have lots of them. Write your unproduceable play—and we’ll produce it.
Your earlier plays are quite bold in their ideas and characterizations—but he was talking about adding another layer, creating a play that could be as big as you wanted in scale and visual impact.
All my plays are grounded in emotional realism, with realistic psychology and relationships—but the worlds of the plays also seem to sit on top of reality, a bit hyper-real. The thing that’s so exciting about football is that it has a hyper-realism of its own. It doesn’t need to be heightened, because it’s there already. That’s one of the great joys of Colossal. You can paint in really bold colors, because that’s the world, and those are the people.
John Coyne’s set for Colossal at the Wyly makes me think of the old Greek amphitheaters, with the audience high above and the drama playing out below them on the field. The Greeks even used what we’d call a sports term, the “agon” or contest, to describe theater. Are there parallels?
The hope with this play—it’s a grand hope, but a sincere one—is that it feels contemporary and ancient at the same time, that it’s in conversation with what’s happening in 2015 but also with something quite old. At the end of the play, there is a gesture that is very much a reference to that world. Hopefully, we’ll nail it! [Laughs.]
One of your critics wrote a while back that he felt you had a knack for making your plays “intimate and epic at the same time.” Are you conscious of trying to do that—and in the midst of this huge setting and action, how do you keep the human scale?
I’m very conscious of the intimacy. I write character-driven plays, and then they intersect with larger questions and worlds. For me, this was always about a guy who simply is trying to move forward [from the past] into the present of his life. It’s driven by his relationship with his teammate, his father, and his past. If you trust in that as the governing principle, then all the grander, larger scale elements naturally come out of that.
There’s a ton of movement and dramatic energy in the play, but that’s because of who these people are. That’s how they speak; it’s absolutely a form of dialogue.
You found, then, that you also could create intimacy and humanity in the movement and physicality, without words?
Hopefully that will come through when folks see the piece. There are some very violent and grand physical gestures, but also some very quiet ones. A lot of the energy comes from the juxtaposition of those two. My home theater in Chicago is a 29-seat theater called the Gift Theatre. It’s the smallest Equity theater in Chicago, and maybe in the country. There’s a huge part of me that adores that intimacy—yet at the same time, my first experience of theater was at [the football games] at Camp Randall Stadium, so there’s that thumbprint on the play, too.
How has it been important that you’ve always cast Mike, the leading role, with an actor who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair in real life?
It affects each production significantly and differently. Each one of those actors has a different disability and a different physical vocabulary. It’s a character who has an incomplete spinal injury, and the role was built around the body of Michael Patrick Thornton, who originated the role. At the risk of a spoiler alert, there’s a physical action at the end of the play that Mike Thornton could accomplish, though it was an extraordinarily arduous task, and risky.
With Zack Weinstein [in Dallas], though, what Mike did isn’t a physical gesture his body allows. So, we’ve negotiated something exciting and quite a bit different for this production—but it’s still about Mike’s relationship with another character and the idea of creating a real present-tense moment. Interestingly enough, with the actors [playing older Mike] near DC, in Minneapolis and now in Dallas, there was a point when each one of them was very honest and said “You know, I could fake this but I can’t actually do what you’re asking me to do.” And that made us create stronger moments. The solutions were always better.
I can’t imagine doing this play with someone who doesn’t [have a disability]. It would be such a false note, I think.
This is the fourth time, I think, that you’ve seen productions of Colossal around the country—but it’s the first time you haven’t worked with Will Davis directing. How has that been, to put the play into someone else’s hands?
It’s been great. Obviously, I love working with Will, and he brings a lot to it. He won a major award for directing the show at the Olney [Theatre in Maryland]. But the opportunity to work with Kevin has been fantastic. He brings his own skill set and his own take on the play. That’s exciting because invariably when you’ve been working with a collaborator for more than two years, you develop a common language, but also shared blind spots.
So what Kevin could do brilliantly was say “Why this, why this, why this?” And there were times when I could say to him, “This is why” and he’d say “Oh, great.” But other times, he was really shining a light on a piece that was missing. We’ll be in rehearsal today in a couple of hours, and we’re going to play with some lines I wrote this morning that came directly out of Kevin saying “You know, I think there’s a piece of Mike’s character that’s really important, but not yet igniting.”
So I went and took a stab at writing something that rose from his keen eye on the character and the story.
I love this theater space, and how Kevin uses it to its full capacity. To me there’s something insanely beautiful about an artistic director who says you know, we could put 600 people in this space, but we’re going to seat 300 because it serves the play. That’s rare, I think.
When you first saw how the Wyly would be set up for the play, what was your reaction?
I loved it. Initially I was a bit unsure, because it’s a play you don’t want to be 100 per cent literal. It needs to move and go where Mike goes psychologically—a bit like the level of abstraction of a play like [Death of a] Salesman. But it’s brilliant, and just the right amount of abstraction. You don’t feel it’s a shrunk-down actual field, but that somehow you’re on top of the field. Opening up the theatre’s glass windows at the pre-game and half-time shows is really wonderful, as is the [stadium-style] seating configuration. It has that “epic and intimate” feel we talked about.
It’s a really smart design.