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A Closer Look: Samuel D. Hunter

Playwrights’ Corner
Headshots of Samuel D. Hunter and Mary Hamilton

On Friday, June 16th, Samuel. D. Hunter will close out this season's public programming at The Lark with a Studio Retreat reading of his new play in progress. Greater Clements tells the story of Maggie's small mining museum in its final days of being open to the public, sitting in rural Idaho near an abandoned mine with a history of fatal accidents. To give you a closer look at the play, we asked playwright Mary Hamilton to interview Samuel about some of the insights and inspirations behind his work. Mary first encountered the play when she and Samuel were both participants in The Lark's Winter Writers' Retreat. Check out their conversation below!

MARY HAMILTON: Sam. This play is beautiful and epic and dark and hilarious, but also - long as hell. HOW DID YOU WRITE IT IN A LITTLE OVER A WEEK? What I mean is: had you been thinking about the ideas for a while beforehand? Did you go into it knowing it would be this huge? Do you outline? What’s your process from the genesis of an idea to draft 2.2? (That’s one question, right?)

SAMUEL D. HUNTER: I didn’t plan to finish it in a week (and in all honesty it took longer than that to actually finish it and put it all together), and I truly didn’t think it was going to be this long. Really. When I started writing it, my thought was that it was probably an 80-90 minute play. But when we were all working in that retreat together, at some point I got to a place where I was like, “oh this feels like the end of an act? Maybe it’s a two act play.” And then to my horror, a few days later—“this really feels like the end of act two?!” I’m still terrified of it for that reason, I’ve never written anything this long before. But the further I got into it, and the more three act plays I read on the subway to and from that writing retreat, the more invested I got in the idea. There’s just something about that amount of time you get to spend with the characters… Also, the end of the play feels like one of the biggest gestures I’ve ever written, so maybe I felt like it needed the time and space to earn it.

I don’t really tend to outline, I’m just not good at it.  A couple years ago I tried outlining an entire play before writing it, and after getting ten pages into the draft I realized it was all wrong and threw it all out and started over.  For some reason I think outlining isn’t very helpful for me, given that I don’t really think about plays solely in terms of their event structure.  That’s a part of it, sure, but plays are organized by so many other things other than plot, and a lot of those organizing principles emerge naturally from the writing process itself.  It’s probably why I’m a big re-writer, the initial draft is just the first mile of a marathon.

All this being said, I did know quite a bit about it before I started writing it, and I definitely knew what the last 20 or so minutes of the play were going to be.  I had the basic idea for it a couple years ago, so even though the actual writing of it was quick it had been bouncing around in my head for a while.

MH: When we did the Winter Writer’s Retreat, I remember you said the play was loosely inspired by your family's experiences. Do you want to talk more about that?

SH: Yeah, it all started when I was looking at my mom’s old high school yearbook a while back, and noticed that a large percentage of her class were Japanese-American kids. I know this doesn’t sound very notable in and of itself, but keep in mind that my mom grew up in a small town in southwestern Idaho called Weiser which today has a population of just over 5,000 and back then was even smaller.  But then it dawned on me that there was probably an internment camp nearby—and turns out, there was.

My mom was heading to her high school reunion, so I tasked her with asking around about it.  Turns out, even to this day, people are super cagey about it. And when my mom was growing up, she dated a classmate who was Japanese-American—which was complicated because my grandfather was a WWII veteran who had fought in the Pacific. So the play really grew out of all that stuff.

MH: This play feels relevant in so many terrifying ways. The un-incorporation of a middle-American town (is that a thing that happens?), the closing of antiquated industries, the systematic forgetting/erasure of history in our country…how do you think it speaks to our particular moment in history? In what ways did the election and recent political climate impact your writing?

SH: Yeah, un-incorporation is a thing! There’s actually a whole episode of “Radiolab” about a town that votes to un-incorporate.

I hate to admit it, but the current election had a huge impact on the play.  We were in that workshop together in December, so it was still very fresh. I guess I hate to admit that because I personally have such an allergic reaction to plays that share my worldview and seek only to validate my beliefs and pat me on the back for being a liberal. It’s almost irrational—whenever I feel a play doing that, I immediately turn off. So the last thing I wanted to do was write a play that was one big Trump metaphor.

The way I try to think about it is that our current political landscape isn’t in the play itself—it’s sort of the river running underneath the play. And hopefully it’s tackling these ideas in ways that aren’t simplistic or direct or didactic.

MH: Duck faces? Go.

SH: Ha, okay. So yes, I wrote a character whose problem is that for a time in his life, whenever he looked at other people, he only saw distorted versions of their faces that, in his mind, resembled duck faces. Yes, this is a thing I have written.

I wish I could give you a concrete reason for this bit of playwriting—and I do think there’s something in there about xenophobia, lack of empathy, the absence of human connection, etc—but the real answer? I was lying in bed one night, and I was thinking about the larger themes of the play, and I had the thought—oh, this guy only sees duck faces. That’s his thing.

Should I have admitted this in an interview? No, probably not.