The old advice to “write what you know” doesn’t narrow it down much for someone as sharp as award-winning playwright and MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Samuel D. Hunter. In this exclusive conversation with DTC’s Director of New Play Development Lee Trull, Hunter explains how an off-handed comment by his husband sparked a world premiere play about discovery, legacy, history, and Costco cheese puffs.?
You have written a companion piece for Clarkston titled Lewiston. What was the impulse for writing plays about two towns named after the explorers Lewis and Clark?
It sounds ridiculous, but my husband and I were in Idaho visiting my family, and we were driving through Lewiston and Clarkston, and he jokingly said, “You should write a play called Lewiston and a play called Clarkston.” And immediately I thought it was a great idea. I could write two plays about these two towns that explore the modern day legacy of these two guys. It felt like rich territory to me because it’s so complicated–Lewis and Clark were pioneers who did something sort of amazing, but at the same time they were imperialistic white guys traipsing around the West claiming land that wasn’t theirs. It’s something about the distance between the idealized version of Lewis and Clark and the reality of who they actually were and what they actually did. And thinking about the opening of the American West in a modern day perspective is really lush territory, too. In a certain sense, the most profound legacy of Lewis and Clark are things like interstate highways and Costcos.
The majority of your plays take place in the middle of the country with characters that make a low income and are dealing with isolation and pain. Are you concerned about economic disparity and geographic isolation in contemporary America? Or does something else compel you to write these plays?
In one sense, I’m just writing about where I came from. But in another sense, yeah, I think I’m much more interested in writing about people who are disenfranchised, by virtue of where they live, who they are, what their income is, or a cocktail of these things. Part of that has to do with who I see in most of our new plays nowadays: people of affluence who live somewhere on the eastern seaboard coping with their affluent problems. For whatever reason, Costco just seems like more fruitful territory to me as opposed to the same New York apartment we’ve seen thousands of times before. And it’s interesting, too, you saying that a place like Lewiston is the “middle” of the country, whereas it’s only about 300 miles from the ocean. I think for most Americans, the middle of the country is anything east of LA and west of New Jersey.
I also noticed that a great deal of your plays are set in chain stores and restaurants (Hobby Lobby, Olive Garden, Costco, etc). Does this exploration come from the experience of working for that sort of company?
Partly. I worked at a Walmart in high school, and it was right at the time that I started realizing I wanted to be a writer. I’m fascinated by the tension between the divine and the daily, and the search for some higher meaning in a place that appears to be entirely void of any meaning at all. God and a breakroom, American history and a tub of Costco cheese puffs, etc.
Why is Dallas an ideal location to premiere Clarkston?
Though Clarkston is, in a sense, one half of a larger project, I really wanted to premiere both the plays separately. They don’t share any characters or any storylines, so they really are two independent plays. And I think DTC is a perfect place to birth this play because it’s such a wonderfully intimate theater but it has all the support of this larger theater company behind it. And even though Dallas is pretty far from Idaho, I think they share a lot in common. Big wide open space, expansiveness, the tension between natural beauty and corporate conformity, etc.
This play deals with the physical—sexuality, disease, addiction—but it seems to suggest that a kind of healing is possible through spiritual or emotional connection with other humans. I just love the way disparate characters seem to find each other in all of your plays. I think that’s where you find so much of the humor and hope in your work. The wrong relationship can damage you but the right one can heal you. Is it off base to say that the search for human connection is a recurring theme in your work?
Yeah, that’s probably the ground floor of all the plays. I think it reflects my worldview. Theistic humanism, something like that. And I think that theater is the perfect platform for these ideas, because theater is, essentially, human beings connecting with one another in a shared space. Both on stage, and between actors and audience members. It’s like the least isolating art form there is.