Interview: Adam Greenfield and Samuel D. Hunter
Adam Greenfield: One of the first things one realizes about your plays when looking at them as a body of work is that they’re all set in Idaho or around Idaho. And I know you grew up in Idaho yourself -- I believe in Moscow?
Sam Hunter: Yeah.
Can you talk a little bit about the Idaho you grew up in?
Yeah. I mean it bears less and less resemblance to the plays that I’m writing as I continue to write them. I mean they’re obviously set in Idaho, but there’s nothing that’s really quintessentially Idahoan about most of the plays. Like, there are some references that, sure, are Idahoan, but I think the plays actually are trying to be sort of non-regional, in a way. They could be anywhere in America.
But the Idaho that I grew up in… I mean, I obviously pull from the place I grew up. And, I guess, more than just “the place I grew up” it does still feel like home. Like when I go back, I kind of settle into it in a certain way -- In a similar way that I feel at home in New York. But in both places, in both Idaho and New York, I think I feel a sense of isolation. I feel like both New York and Moscow have become homes to me, but simultaneously I don’t feel completely at home in either place. And I think the plays are kind of about that. I don’t think a lot of the characters I write feel at home in any way. I don’t think they feel at home in their bodies. I don’t think they feel at home spiritually. There’s a sense of disconnect and isolation that I think a lot of the characters feel . . . and I guess maybe that’s rooted in my own. Not that I’m generally a depressed person, but I’ve never lived in a place where it’s like, “Aha! This fits me like a glove!” Like, “Everything about this place is exactly what it needs to be!” I always feel a little bit on the outside in some way. Maybe that’s self-imposed. Probably is.
Yet, when I think about the place where I grew up, it’s very normal, very nice. It’s a town of 20,000 people, a university town. My parents went to that university. My brother went to that university. My grandparents went to that university. Mame Hunter went to that university in 1908, or 1912 or something. But there is something just in the margins (and maybe every small town feels this way) that, like -- by the time I graduated high school I knew three kids who had killed themselves. The first one in seventh grade. And I’m not trying to say, you know, “Oh, there’s a kind of desperation and a loneliness that’s not in New York,” because people kill themselves in New York too, but there’s just something a little more… fringey or something. Something that feels a little different.
And my dad has stories of his hometown. He grew up ten miles away in this town called Troy that, when he was growing up, was mostly Swedish-speaking, and had a population of like 350 people, and he has incredible stories from that town. And he works in an emergency room, he’s a physician in an emergency room in Lewiston, which is this town in a valley where there’s a big paper mill. And paper mills smell terrible, so the stench just sits in this valley -- and it’s got a terrible drug problem and a terrible homelessness problem. And I remember him telling me this story of a guy who came in, this homeless guy in this small town in Idaho, a quadriplegic whose spine was exposed because the bottom half of his body was rotting and there were maggots living in his body. And he has many, many stories like that.
I think I just, I grew up hearing a lot of these stories and being completely fascinated by them. And they seem so at odds in a way with our normal concept of what it’s like to live in a small town. Like, I think in New York people sort of accept the fact that there’s a lot of grunge and a lot of weirdness around. But I think in small town America there’s this pride that doesn’t allow people to accept the weirdness. . . It’s like, “No, no no! We’re fine! This is a great town!” And so I even find myself . . . like even talking now, I find myself self-censoring and apologizing for my hometown in a way. Again, it’s a great town and great place to grow up—but it’s also a really complex place. Like any place in the country, I guess.
Well, I think that from our vantage point living on the coasts, we have this idea of the middle of the country being, you know, doilies on the coffee table and early-to-bed-early-to-rise people, and people who wear cat sweaters
…And there are a lot of those people, they definitely exist.
But those aren’t the people that are in your plays. I mean, in some cases you find those people in your plays. But they’re never actually…
Yeah, they’re revealed not to be those people. As all those people are always revealed to be not those people. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve really met somebody who like… I mean I’m sure there are some truly genuinely happy people who have simple lives and really love their simple lives. But I’m less interested in that, I guess.
It sounds like Idaho had so much mystery for you as a kid . Your dad’s description of Lewiston, which is where parts of Norway (2009) are set…
…Yeah, that’s right. And Jack’s Precious Moment (2009).
And the difference between the surface of these people and the darkness underneath them, was that something thing you were always aware of, or is that a thing that you’re retroactively aware of now?
No, I think I felt it actively. I mean I think the way I grew up – and I feel like I’ve talked about this endlessly in interviews – but, like, going to a Christian fundamentalist high school, and being gay, and learning about the weird scandals at that school that had been swept under the rug, and just like. . . By the time I was 15 or 16 I don’t think I really had either a spiritual or a social foundation, you know what I mean? Because I felt like I was in this school and I was kind of living a lie. Because I had come out to myself years earlier and had a few friends who didn’t go to that school who knew. And I didn’t really know what I thought about God. I was getting taught something that I knew I didn’t believe, and I had to sort of feign agreement over everything. I mean, like, on tests when it asked questions like, you know, “the Fall of Rome was due to homosexuality,” I had to appease that.
That was really a question on a test?
I don’t remember if that was on a test, but I remember taking it down as notes, or it was an essay topic or something. And I remember really betraying myself in English classes, because the amazing thing about that school was that they really believed we shouldn’t shield ourselves from secular literature or evolution because we need to know about that stuff so we can battle it spiritually and learn how to defeat it. So we would learn about evolution for the purpose of revealing it as a farce, as a total lie.
But the more important thing for me was in this English class, I remember reading The Waste Land. And the teacher would read parts of it out loud in class and everybody would laugh at it because it was so terrible and godless -- but I was like, woah, this poem is amazing. It had the opposite effect on me I guess. For me it was . . .like, the first time reading The Waste Land, when I was 16, was monumental. And there was this one poem that I got really obsessed with: “Dolor” [by Theodore Roethke], and the first line is, “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils.” And again, we read it in class to be, like, “Now, isn’t this ridiculous?” But I just remember really connecting with it in such a profound way but not being able to talk about it with anybody.
And so I started writing poetry in class as assignments. But I had to write poetry that was acceptable for them, so it was like in sonnet form and other structures like that, and they were really bad, and I didn’t like writing them. But later I listened to this Philip Glass album where all the lyrics where Allen Ginsberg poems. And so I went to the university library and sat in the stacks and read a whole bunch of Allen Ginsberg and became obsessed and then started writing all of this free-verse poetry. But I couldn’t really show it to anybody until I left that school. Later on, I finally transferred to a public school and there was this English teacher who was like one of the patron saints of my high school years, this guy named Crag Hill. (He had taken out the “i” in his name “Craig” so he could be “Crag Hill”), and he was this former Bay Area poet, and he had been this heroin addict for many years there, but poetry saved his life. And I gave him this twelve-page poem I wrote. And he was really the first person to like grab me and say, “Keep doing this.”
God, isn’t it amazing how we always have that person. It’s amazing that somehow they find us, or we find them.
Yeah this, like, former heroin addict Bay Area poet who knew Allen Ginsberg was teaching at a high school in Moscow, Idaho. It was almost like I had like sort of trepidatiously turned the faucet on just a little bit and there was this, like, trickle going, and he was the guy to like grab it and turn it full blast. And so I spent the rest of my high school years writing and writing and writing and I wrote all of this poetry, you know, these crazy like thirty-word-line punctuation-less twenty page poems that really had no direction but were just like these like huge flows of energy that I didn’t really know what to do with. And then I realized that I really liked reading them out loud, so that led to playwriting, and then I saw the first part of Angels in America at University of Idaho and that was kind of it.
Were you writing character in poems, or was it...
They were pretty much all first person, like from me. Some of them were narrative but they were very loosely narrative. It was basically me seeing what, like, The Waste Land was doing and what Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg was doing and Howl and like all these things that were really affecting me. And James Joyce, definitely. I guess I was sort of emulating different forms. But no, it was idea driven, it wasn’t really character driven, and so actually for me to start writing plays it actually took a long time to negotiate those two things.
Do you remember what your very first stab at writing plays was like?
Yes. It was a play that was called Sixth Armageddon, it was nearly three hours long and I got Moscow Community Theater to give me a $300 dollar budget to present it in the summer of 1999, when I was in high school, and I got some very gracious local actors to be in it, and it was terrible, it was terrible. It was the story of a poet living in New York (I had never been to New York in my life) and there was also an unrelated B-story line about a heroin addict and her hallucinations. And there was some other character, too, who played different roles, he was a priest at one point… but I don’t remember what the point of the play was.
And when you say you started experimenting formally, what were you getting excited about?
In high school I was fed a lot of very formally structured poems and, I mean, I liked them, but I never really got passionate about them. And it wasn’t really until I started reading stuff that for me was exploding form that I got really excited, and um, so I think I was looking for the same experience with theater. The theater I knew and had done at Moscow Community Theater and in high school was like, Neil Simon or Ten Little Indians or Arsenic and Old Lace, and a little bit of Shakespeare, you know, to make it arty. So I guess I was really hungry to see something different. And then I saw Richard Foreman, which was probably about as different as you could go, and that just really appealed to me at the time. Still does, actually.
I still really love theater that confounds me -- but in a way that’s deliberate, where it’s just presenting something and allowing you to make connections — And I mean I tried a lot of different things in college, and I wrote a lot of realism too, like I wrote a historical drama about Robert Schumann called Requiem in Endenich -- that crowd pleasing title. [Laughter] In my freshman year I set a play in Idaho for the first time. It was this weird play called American Breakfast about a series of these breakfast scenes that sort of like exposed the underbelly of a family. But then when I got into Foreman I started experimenting around and not finishing a lot of plays, you know what I mean? Like, I wrote a play that I called This Is A Play, as probably a lot of college-aged playwrights do. [Laughter] I was just emulating things that I liked, you know, like I wrote this play called Grand View Boise, which was very much like a David Lynch movie and it had this character who was a logger and he had a bag full of severed tongues that was never really explained. And then there were my plays that were like Richard Foreman, like one I wrote called Abraham (A Shot in the Head) that was in the Blueprint Series at the Ontological-Hysteric in 2004, that was this strange, absurdist remix of the biblical story of Abraham.
And then I started writing this play called Norman Rockwell Killed My Father, and it was this weird family drama-slash-comedy about this like, this kid whose father had just died, and he has this obsession with Norman Rockwell and we realize halfway through the play that the father’s body is in this chest that’s onstage, and the kid’s like desperately trying to paint a version of “Freedom From Want” [Rockwell’s famous painting], where his father is the father character and his mother is the mother, but in real life she’s this meth’d out weird woman and — Anyway, that play got into the O’Neill Festival, where I went in 2005, right after I graduated college. And it was at O’Neill that I think I learned how to re-write a play, which is something I didn’t know before. Because I had this great dramaturg named Max Wilk, and he was just very honest with me and told me my second act wasn’t worth two cents. And nobody had ever really confronted me with that kind of criticism and that kind of set me on a certain track right there.
Seems like there’s a kind of instinct or compulsion, maybe, to expose another side to what we see, to the veneer. To expose the underbelly.
I think in the beginning that maybe there was. But I think it’s evolved away from “expose the underbelly,” evolved into wanting to shed some light upon a corner we don’t normally see. And without judgment, hopefully. I don’t think my early plays actually had a lot of judgment in them but I think they did feel much more like, “Oh, look at this!” you know, like ,”Bet you didn’t expect that!” But I think it’s evolved hopefully into something where I’m not there pulling the strings.
Describe what you mean by pulling the strings.
I think that in the early plays it was sort of like “Heeeere’s the veneeeeer! They’re sitting down and having breakfast but NOW look what happened!! She had an affair and an abortion!” You know, like, “Look at that, bet you didn’t see that coming!” Like I was hiding something and then all of a sudden I just pulled the curtain away and everybody’s supposed to be shocked, like, “You thought these people were normal but nooww, now you knooww!” And I don’t think my plays right now really work like that. If anything, they’re kind of the opposite. They’re up front about the flaws in these characters. And then the process is learning that the flaws are what makes them human.
So it sounds like the difference is that you, as you’ve continued writing -- as opposed to sort of taking a position of knowing it all, knowing exactly what you want to say, or knowing the experience you want to create as you sit down to write -- like, now you’re kind of sitting with the family at the breakfast table as opposed to sitting in the corner of the room with your arms folded. If that makes sense.
It’s almost like -- this is going to be a really weird metaphor – but in my earlier plays, it was like I was inviting the audience into a darkened room, sat them in a chair, and told them there was someone in the room with them sitting across the table. And then they start having a conversation with this person, they’re learning things about the person, and the person seems normal -- but then I flip the lights on and that person is covered in blood and has a knife! [Laughter.] You know what I mean? But the way that the plays work right now, I think, is like, the audience comes into the room and the lights are already on and they’re like “Oh Jesus, there’s somebody covered in blood with a knife sitting at the table.” But then the person starts talking to us and we’re like “Okay, maybe I can sit in this chair and talk to them, but I still don’t know.” But then hopefully by the end of the play we’re thinking, “Oh, I totally understand why you’re sitting there covered in blood with a knife,” you know what I mean? “And I’m relating to you as if you weren’t sitting there covered in blood with a knife.” I guess that’s a weird metaphor.
No, but it makes sense. And it also seems really germane to The Whale. I mean, the lights come up and we see a man who weighs 600 pounds and he’s sitting there. And in the second scene he’s jerking off to gay porn from a laptop. And we make these judgments about them initially, but then over the course of the hour and fifty minutes they become so much more dimensional.
The more I think about it, I’m trying now to never keep the audience in a dark room. Where they’re never like, “When is the playwright going to turn on the lights? Okay, he turned on the lights.” Not that there aren’t revelations in my plays. In The Whale, we learn about Alan, and that he’s Liz’s brother, and there are revelations -- but I think the play is very up front. In the beginning, it’s like, “Here’s this 600-pound man, and yes he’s dying, so tonight here’s how you will know when this play is over. This man is going to die. Okay? All right. See you later.” [Laughter.] Rather than a sense, like an earlier play of mine, of being like, “What’s going to happen?...I don’t know.” [Laughter] You know? Like, being coy about it. The play is very up front about where we’re going. It’s not surprising when he dies.
A lot of your characters are going through a spiritual journey. What’s your relationship to the spiritual journey that your characters take in your plays? In The Whale and A Bright New Boise (2010), characters have been essentially abandoned by the church, or they themselves abandoned the church, and they’re left searching. In Five Genocides (2009), we meet a character who’s chronically conscious of the cruelty and injustice of the world. In A Permanent Image (2011), a couple forms a suicide pact after they read about the big bang theory.
A few years ago, I kind of just realized if I’m going to write good plays, I have to really put something on the line. It has to be a play that’s hard for me to write, where I’m really struggling to work something out. Because if I’m not doing that, if I’m not struggling with something, if I’m not engaged in an active way, then I can’t expect an audience member to be.
My brain, for whatever reason, was built for religion. Religion, for some reason, settles in really nicely. Like, the belief that there is this afterlife, and here’s what the afterlife will look like. And there’s pain in the world, yes, but there’s a reason there’s pain in the world. And it’s okay, the earth isn’t billions of years old, it’s only six thousand years old, and sure there’s a lot of crap happening but, you know, the earthly world will perish and you’ll have eternal life with God the father. There’s just something about that that is so comforting to me, and a huge part of me wants to believe it in a really active way.
But then I’ve got the critical part of my brain which knows that that’s facile in a way, and simple. Not that I’m saying all religion is facile and simple. I’m really not saying that. But there is a way to be religious which I think is facile and simple, which is, “Oh I don’t need to ask anymore questions because I’ve got all the answers. And if I have a question that comes up, I can just ask my priest or my rabbi, and it will be answered. And then I can go about my day-to-day life.” And, honestly, I think that’s actually a pretty effective way to live. And functional. It’s probably a smarter way to live than the way I live, which is living in a space that’s between that pull toward organized religion but also a deep need to reconcile my humanity -- not my soul, but my human condition -- with the rest of the world. With the hurricane, with genocide, you know what I mean? And I think that the plays I’ve written all, in a way, flow from that tension. I don’t know if any of the plays I’ve written in the last five years don’t come from that place.
And yet they’re all set in these places that are distinctly not associated with religious thought or searching. There aren’t cathedrals in Sam Hunter plays. These people are stuck in a Wal-mart or an Olive Garden, or a parking lot, or a cramped little office, or an unexceptional living room.
I think that’s the tension. The times I most think about God are when I’m on the subway. Not when I’m on a mountaintop. If anything, when I’m on a mountaintop I’m marveling at creation. I think about worldly things, I think about objects, I think about dirt, I think about landscape, I think about planets. But I don’t necessarily move toward the divine when I’m in majesterial places. When I’m in a really amazing church, I do think about God, but mostly I’m marveling at the religion, not the God. I’m marveling at the organization of it, the human part of it, the physical rather than the metaphysical. So I find when I worked at Wal-mart and was in the break room, and when I’m on the subway, and when I’m walking down Tenth Avenue, or when I’m home in Idaho and in a Walmart, which seems like such an inconsequential place in what the nation might consider an inconsequential town-- then I look to the divine much more. You know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s more in situations where you’re miserable that you start thinking about God. It makes you feel more helpless to be in those places, and it makes you look for life to be bigger. Um, you mentioned that there were people you knew when you were growing up who committed suicide. That suicide was, or became, part of the landscape. And it’s noteworthy that suicide is present in a lot of your plays.
Yeah. The Whale has a long form of suicide in it. And A Permanent Image, Jack’s Precious Moment, Five Genocides…
But in your plays, suicide doesn’t feel like suicide. It doesn’t seem like the right word to use. There’s something about eating yourself to death, or starving yourself to death, that feels different from suicide. In Jack’s Precious Moment, a character tries suicide by standing up on a carnival ride. It somehow feels un-violent or un-selfish.
I think suicide— god, this has turned into such a weird, maudlin conversation [Laughter] — I think suicide factors into my work a lot because... If the work is flowing from the struggle to understand your place as a human in America in 2012, then suicide is almost like the ultimate thesis statement on that idea. I don’t think about suicide in terms of, “Oh I’m very depressed, or I’m bipolar, or something very bad just happened so I can’t take it anymore.” I don’t think the suicides in these plays come from the place of “I can’t take it anymore.” I think the suicides in the plays I’m writing -- or, what are suicidal acts -- come from a place of clarity and reason. In a certain way, it’s a conclusion to the question these plays struggle with. If you’re really concerned about what your place is in 2012, and you can’t reconcile the divine with the quotidian, then to release yourself from the quotidian is a very viable option. And it’s one which can be arrived at with a great amount of clarity and reason, rather than impulse and a bottle of pills and whiskey. And I think the way that I look at suicide, when it’s a successful suicide, most of the time it’s very thought out. And it’s gone about cheerfully. It’s the conclusion they’ve come to, they’ve struggled with the questions, and here is the conclusion. For me, I know that’s not the conclusion I want to the questions I ask myself or the questions I’m thinking about on the subway. So by presenting those decisions onstage, it brings a clarity.
That’s a great way to describe it. It’s like suicide in your plays is a conscientious objection to life, as opposed to something that comes out of despair. So, in The Whale, it’s clear from the very beginning that we’re in the last week of this person’s life. But in some of your other plays it seems like there’s a chance that a character might push through and make sense out of things. In A Permanent Image, a husband and wife have a suicide pact. I found when I was reading the play that it seems like she might not go through with it. But then she did. And it made me wonder…
And that’s why nobody produces it! [Laughter] Seriously, I’m not joking! Because really, if we went on the ride of that play, and then at the end she’s like, “You know what, I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t.” Then that’s a different play. All of a sudden it’s a play about how life is worth living. And I’m not interested in that thesis statement, because I think that’s easy. And I thought it was more interesting to say, “No, the conclusion is that she’s going to do it. And it’s going to be really nice, and she’s going to put on some Christmas carols, and the kids are going to watch.”
Whereas in The Few, it’s the opposite. A character’s sitting there drunk, and he’s contemplating drinking a gallon of antifreeze, and I actually thought, “he’s going to drink it,” but in the end he doesn’t. He found something.
Because it’s very different. In A Permanent Image she comes to this conclusion and is like, “Awesome. This is great. Now my obstacle is getting my kids to understand why I’m doing this, and getting them to accept why.” And she gets what she wants at the end. She’s able to cross over. But in The Few, he wants to live. He has faith in other people, in life, but he’s lost it. The obstacle for him there is having no reason, no validation for that faith anymore. So maybe, “that faith is actually misplaced and I should drink this bottle of antifreeze.” But then he gets a reason to maintain that faith and cling onto that faith. So I think in a way, both endings are hopeful. But that’s the hard thing with A Permanent Image -- and that’s why I think people aren’t really touching it right now -- because I’m asking people to have faith that this ending, in which a woman kills herself onstage, is hopeful. In The Few, the hopeful ending is him choosing to move forward, which is something that is much more acceptable.
What was the initial instinct to write The Whale?
I feel like A Bright New Boise was a big turning point for me as a writer. Because I had a deadline, and I had to write something really really fast. So I sat down, and I got out of my own way, and I wrote a play. Without bringing it to nine different workshops and bringing in five pages here and five pages there, I sat down and I wrote this entire two-act play because I was writing for this imminent production in three months. And all of a sudden, it was almost like I shook the cobwebs out of my writing. I looked at it and I was like, “Oh shit. That’s what I’m doing.” It was the first time I really articulated to myself that I’m writing plays that are about empathy. Here’s some people, and I know you don’t know who they are, and you probably have some preconceptions about them and some judgments about them, but listen to them, here they are. So when I wrote that play, it was very instructive. And I was working on The Whale about the same time. And the confluence of those two plays really started to teach me something about my own writing. Even with Jack’s Precious Moment, I was very conscious of, “Okay, this is a lot of heavy material, so I want a lot of comedy.” And I think of course there is comedy in A Bright New Boise and The Whale, but it’s a different kind of comedy than Five Genocides and Jack’s Precious Moment. It’s more kind of absurdist, it’s more on the surface. So, in Five Genocides, if this was the content…
…(If you’re reading this, he’s holding one hand up down around his chin)…
…And this was the comedy in these two plays…
…(And another hand up around his forehead)…
If in Five Genocides, here’s the comedy [higher hand] and here’s the tonal weirdness of the content [lower hand], then in A Bright New Boise and The Whale they’re sort of meeting in a way [both hands meet in the center], where there can be comedy and there can content, and they’re not two opposing forces that I’m trying to reconcile, they’re more sort of wrapped up in one another. So when I realized that I was writing about empathy, and I began working more and more on The Whale, I realized it was just about me getting out of the way and allowing these people to walk into this play, warts and all, from the very beginning, but then trying to be incredibly honest and non-judgmental about who they are. Telling an honest story about these people and not worrying about it. When I was first writing this play, I was like, “Jesus Christ, am I really writing a play where a guy’s going to die in the last seconds?” And I really had to get past my own-- Because maybe a few years ago I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that, and I would have deadened everything with comedy that was really heightened, so then the death at the end would have been less real, and we would have been seeing it from a distance. Hopefully by the end of this play there is very little distance between the character and the audience member. So the writing of the play came out of that.
What were the biggest changes that happened along the way?
There weren’t huge changes, actually. It was a lot of engineering of reveals, so the rewriting process on this play was scene work. There wasn’t a lot of, “Oh god, let’s delete that storyline and move this over here.” The only storyline that I had to work a lot with was the B-storyline in the play, the Elder Thomas storyline. Because so much of that story is about happens offstage, what he’s doing, what he’s trying to find out. So there was a lot of orchestrating of what Charlie is trying to find out, what exactly happened that day. That sort of thing changed a lot.
So the story didn’t change, but the telling of the story changed.
The telling of the story changed a lot. Like, the Mary scene went through twenty drafts probably. You know, trying to calibrate that scene in such a way, where I’m trying to narrate a fifteen year gap and also a four year marriage in the thirteen or fourteen minutes she’s onstage.
What’s your next play about?
I have a few. I have, well, The Few. [laughter] Which we mentioned before. It’s a playabout, it’s basically a three-hander set in this office space off of a highway in Idaho. It’s about a newspaper for truckers. Basically, a guy, a former trucker, comes back to this now-defunct paper that he started for truckers to create a sense of community and home for them, but has now turned into just personal ads. So he feels incredibly isolated, and is searching for a reason to live throughout the play. There’s no religion in it, which is a little different for me. It sounds really dark, but it’s actually much less dark than The Whale. But it’s still pretty dark.
Yeah, it’s pretty dark.
But it’s bouncy or something! It sails along a little bit more. And The Whale kind of sinks at a certain point, you know? [Laughter.]
This interview was conducted during the New York premiere of The Whale at Playwrights Horizons.