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Playwright Samuel D. Hunter and director Davis McCallum discuss their latest collaboration at Lincoln Center
Who could have predicted a decade ago that Samuel D. Hunter, an Idaho-bred playwright whose oeuvre is set in his home territory, would take New York City by storm? Probably director Davis McCallum, who first met Hunter in 2010 when they were randomly paired as roommates on a theatre retreat. Since then, McCallum has directed nine of Hunter's 16 plays, including the Obie-winning A Bright New Boise, the Drama Desk-winning The Whale, and Greater Clements, which is currently having its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Their closeness is palpable. As they discuss their latest show together, Hunter and McCallum don't so much finish each other's sentences as volley whole paragraphs. The three-act play centers on a small former mining town that's reached the end of the line. The few inhabitants left have life-changing decisions to make, especially the soon-to-retire Maggie (Judith Ivey), who has a mentally ill adult son (Edmund Donovan) and an unexpected suitor from her past (Ken Narasaki). Hunter and McCallum talked to TDF Stages about their longtime collaboration, their definition of tragedy and why they hope audiences will be up for looking into the heart of darkness.
Sandy MacDonald: Sam, you're so prolific. I'm very curious about your work habits, how you fit it all in—especially now that you have a family.
Samuel D. Hunter: I've slowed down a little bit, which I'm kind of happy about. My husband, John Baker, is a dramaturg, and we work together all the time—we met working on plays together. So there was just something baked into our marriage that was steeped in theatre. There was never this sense of when we come home, we stop talking about theatre. Now that we have a kid, we are delineating that time, which is really healthy and great. But for so many years, it's what we just did all the time. And I said yes to absolutely everything.
MacDonald: Your daughter is two now? So, chaos.
Hunter: Daycare has been helpful. We didn't start until she was around one. When we were doing Lewiston/Clarkston at the Rattlestick last year, it was like, okay, we have to figure this out. I basically took a year off of writing just to learn how to be a dad.
MacDonald: Are you able to work at home? No need for Proustian silence?
Hunter: No. I just really, really like writing plays. Writing a first draft of a play is one of my favorite things to do. I love being in rehearsal—the joy of collaboration and seeing the play get better and better because we've got all these other artists working on it. But there's something about sitting at a laptop and creating a first draft… I'm kind of an anxious person in my life, a nervous person. Writing, I just, in a complete way, lose track of time. It's really the only space in my life where I feel so comfortable, so at home.
Davis McCallum: Why is that?
Hunter: I have no idea! I love it so much. I kind of… disappear. In a really good way.
MacDonald: You started getting press attention and major prizes relatively early in your career. When you were named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, you did a mini-doc acknowledgment—was that required?
Hunter: Oh, yeah. It was really stressful. They did a great job, but I was a mess.
MacDonald: So you're not a performer at heart.
Hunter: No. In high school I had a fun time doing plays, but it wasn't really about me being a good actor; it was a means by which I was able to come out of my shell a little bit. When I was younger, I was very, very withdrawn. And then in seventh grade I did a speech meet: I memorized Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." And I just loved doing it! It was the first time I felt like I had permission to take up more space. You can probably draw a line from that to me becoming a playwright pretty easily, actually.
MacDonald: That's such an old-fashioned pedagogical practice, recitation. In any case, you had someone else's voice, so you felt covered.
Hunter: Yeah, it's that thing about disappearing. I got to do this different thing, where it wasn't just about me and my inadequacies or my anxieties or whatever. I got to disappear into something different.
MacDonald: And you were serving the work. It was not a case of the actorly "me, me, me!"
McCallum: I think the kind of actors who gravitate toward Sam's work in general are somehow the opposite of "me, me, me." There's a kind of aching, authentic honesty and courage. When we held auditions for Lewiston/Clarkston, I remember saying in the final callbacks, "This job is really not for everybody. There's going to be no place to hide up there. You're going to need to be willing to be present and simple and not try to act at it in a way that you would in a more self-consciously theatrical show. You have to just be willing to be there and be seen."
MacDonald: Sam, your plays tend to be about people and places on the downtrend, but in a recent interview you pointed out that your characters "are always trying to save each other."
Hunter: Yeah, I think that's really central to this play: All seven people are desperately trying to help one another. They can be misguided or misinformed or not doing the right thing, but there's nobody in this play who's trying to hurt anybody else. Tragedy is not about a good guy and a bad guy, and the bad guy winning—that would be a morality tale. We talk about this a lot, and Davis is giving me a look, because it's pretentious—you're right to make fun of me! But Hegel's definition of tragedy is two noble forces that can't coexist. This play is about these noble forces that just are trying to help one another. But, like in life sometimes, we miss each other by millimeters, you know? Often in the plays that we make, there's a hard-won connection that happens in the final moments of the play. It can be very small. And I think there is a lift of hope in the mine scene toward the end of the play. But for most of these people, the math just doesn't work.
McCallum: I took a tragedy class in graduate school, and I remember someone saying, "Tragedy is like this long hallway toward a doorway. The doorway is the truth, the self-knowledge that changes everything. And in a certain way you kind of know it all along, but you're on this moving sidewalk toward this threshold of having to confront it." That's the dramatic movement of tragedy: It's inexorable. I like that in this play, page one of the script says in regard to the mine that we're going to go "all the way down." And we do. It's dark. And it goes further down than you might think. We play the tragedy not just like, oh, that's really bleak and sad. It's something much more complicated, which is about enlisting an audience in a journey toward this moment of knowledge, which is terrifying. It's what Aristotle calls pity and terror: You finally see the thing.
MacDonald: With a near-miss along the way—the brief possibility that tragedy might be averted. Here, though, the entire social structure is imploding.
Hunter: When I was writing the play, I was in the process of adopting my daughter, and, you know, she's likely going to live to see the year 2100. I have so many feelings about that! I mean, I am so hopeful for her, yet… I think the play is saying, like Davis said, let's look straight at the thing. Let's not just say we're all going to be fine. Let's really look at what it is to actually go that far into the darkness, which is kind of a challenge to the audience, I guess.
Top image: Judith Ivey and Ken Narasaki in Greater Clements. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.