Dallas — The Dallas Theater Center’s 2015-2016 season places an emphasis on the varied voices of America, focusing on location, economic status, and culture. Its sixth floor Studio Theatre is in a constant state of flux right now. Following a season-opener world premiere of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical on the mainstage, a modest production of The Mountaintop wowed everyone in town. That two-person play, featuring two local actors, received rave reviews. Now DTC will produce a second world premiere of this season (there’s one more to come with Deferred Action in May), Clarkston by American playwright and 2014 MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter.
Another Hunter title, The Whale, was produced by Jason Leyva’s L.I.P. Service a few months ago. His work was introduced to DFW audiences by Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre, which did his play A Bright New Boise in 2013.
Clarkston, which is directed by Davis McCallum and stars New York actors Taylor Trench, Sam Lilja and Heidi Armbruster, is part of an undefined pair. Hunter’s play Lewiston will premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 2016. Perhaps it won’t even be a pair, Hunter says, but they are thematically related. Each deals with the “modern day legacy of Lewis and Clark.” He's not ruling out the idea of the shows playing in rep at some point, but doesn't want to diminish the individual stories.
Hunter is a native of Moscow, Idaho, a college town in the state’s panhandle, home of the University of Idaho. Hunter is frequently asked if his plays are about Idaho, and he says, “not specifically, they could be any small town in America.” Hunter has what he calls a “starkness” about Idaho. It is not cynicism about the Midwest, but it is, perhaps, a recognition of what it means to be from a suburban area without an actual “urb,” as he calls it. “Moscow isn’t a part of a major city, the nearest one is Spokane, Washington, hours away.”
There is a tension about this part of the country that intrigues Hunter. It is the juxtaposition of a “Kmart parking lot at the foot of the mountains,” he describes. He frequently writes about citizens of small towns; people who are lonely, isolated, or trapped. There is a search for something bigger.
Hunter did not start writing for the theater. He cut his teeth on James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg, writing poetry, inspired particularly by Ginsberg’s epic poem “Kaddish.”
“He had this passion, this overwhelming desire to express,” he says. “There is a part that always stayed with me, ‘O mother / what have I left out / O mother / what have I forgotten / O mother / farewell.’ It’s a 40-page poem about his schizophrenic mother and that’s how it ends.”
The play that changed the poet to a playwright was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “Kushner’s writing is poetry, it’s like I was hearing poetry out loud for the very first time. That’s what changed things for me.” This began his theater education. Hunter explored classic American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. “Their writing is so expressive, there is such passion in the words,” he says.
Hunter’s early interest in the lavish, dramatic writing of these poet playwrights inspired an interest in language and he describes his early works as “absurdist walls of text” that employed grand sentences and poetry. It is massive departure from what Clarkston will be, an exploration of sorts in the “grandiosity of terse communication.” Hunter’s previous plays have dealt with isolation and loneliness, the need for communication and human connection. With Clarkston Hunter is interested in “the largest possible catharsis in the smallest possible container—it is up to the actor to create that moment. It’s curating a shared experience.”
Other Hunter plays like The Whale also deal with size, quite literally, of the characters as well as the space they share. It is an interesting difference for the Clarkston world, which takes place in a Costco and a parking lot. TheaterJones talked to Hunter about the process of creating Clarkston, how he brought it to Dallas, and how his recent MacArthur award has changed the way he writes now.
TheaterJones: Many of your other plays deal with size and space and how that can create an isolated experience. Does Clarkston feel different because it takes place inside a massive space?
Samuel D. Hunter Clarkston feels different because many of those other plays have had settings like small apartments, cabins, trailers; they are claustrophobic spaces, the characters are desperately trying to connect inside those small spaces.
How does this different space lend itself to the idea of a Lewis and Clark legacy?
I think it’s more about feeling stuck in a large space; a need to move forward. Ideas of conquest, forward movement—these were the ideas I was looking at. The main character, Jake, is driven by this impulse to recreate or discover this legacy of Lewis and Clark.
Had you workshopped this play before bringing it to Dallas?
Oh tons. Lots and lots. I wrote it two years ago and given an amazing opportunity to take it Estonia (a place I had always dreamed of visiting) to the Baltic Playwrights Conference. I think the setting of being in this beautiful place and writing about a Costco was very meaningful because the context was so different.
Is it hard to watch your work come together on stage?
It varies from being a dream scenario to making me want to crawl in a hole and die. Luckily being here has not been like that. It’s good for me to watch the actors create things on stage that I had never even considered. I learn a lot about the play from the actors. The biggest moments in this place are non-textual so the play relies on them. They do an incredible job with it.
How did you connect with the Dallas Theater Center?
I had heard a lot about the interesting work happening in Dallas. My agent told me Kevin [DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty] was a fan of my work so we sent the play to him. I was interested in premiering this play outside of New York and I think Dallas is a perfect setting.
How has the MacArthur Grant changed the way you write?
I think the biggest thing the MacArthur has done for me is that it's given me a broader outlook. I think to a certain degree before it happened I kept thinking, "well, let's see how much longer I can do this, maybe six months? A year if I'm lucky?" But now I have this security of knowing I get to be a playwright for at least five years.
I think the other thing that it's done is just placed in me the overwhelming desire to improve. I still have a lot to learn as a writer, and I feel like a grant like this is an enormous amount of faith being placed in the future of my work. And I really want to live up to that. I guess to put it simply, I just don't want to write bad plays.