Dec 1, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 97: Lucas Hnath
Hometown: Orlando, Florida.
Current Town: New York, NY.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Working on a couple of things right now. I’m currently finishing up work on a commission from Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The play is called Isaac’s Eye. It’s about Isaac Newton and the day he decided to figure out what light was made of by sticking a needle into his eye. It’s a comedy.
The Actors Theatre of Louisville is producing my ten-minute play, " The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith." It’s about one of J. Howard Marshall’s many attempts to convince Anna Nicole to marry him.
There are also a couple of other plays and screenplays I’m finishing up or rewriting. Probably the most interesting of those is a play called sake tasting with a seance to follow. The play was first produced a little over a year ago. It’s an attempt to re-imagine an 18th century Chikamatsu love suicide play called, “Love Suicides at the Women’s Temple.” Instead of just adapting the original, we ("we" = Jyana Browne, Andrew Grusetskie, Kristine Kuroiwa, and myself) stage an open rehearsal of the Chikamatsu play, and at a certain point the actors begin channeling the dead Japanese youngsters depicted in the original story. From that point on, you’re watching a seance, complete with some pretty trippy magic tricks. I was really happy with the first “experimental run” of the play, and now I’m reworking it to make it tighter and scarier. Once I’m done and once we can reassemble the original creative team, we’ll probably do it again.
Q: Can you talk about the play you were working on when we were in the 24 SEVEN workshop together?
A: Odile’s Ordeal – it might be my favorite play. I basically set out to write a re-imagining of Cocteau’s play, “Orphee,” as though it were written by Gertrude Stein and cast with the trio of hipsters from Godard’s Band of Outsiders. On top of all of that, the play is written to entirely be lip-synced. And it's a comedy.
When I brought the play to 24Seven, it was just a bunch of moments and scraps of dialogue. During those weeks in the lab, I was able to turn it into a decent working draft. And then after that, director Linsay Firman came in and gave me a lot of feedback that helped take it to the next level. Now the next step is to find a theatre where we can workshop the play, experiment with the play's technical aspects, and tweak those aspects to further enhance the dramatic content of the play.
Q: You went to NYU for grad school, didn't you? How did you like that? Their program is not in playwriting or in screenwriting but in both. Did you feel pulled in one direction or another at the time?
A: I loved NYU. I did both my B.F.A. and M.F.A in the Department of Dramatic Writing.
I do think that the program is what you make of it. There aren’t many opportunities to get your full-length plays produced by the school. Instead, you need to go out into the world and make it happen yourself.
That said, all of us who were at NYU got amazing story training. Teachers like Paul Selig and Martin Epstein would help you figure out why you're writing and your aesthetic. And then a screenwriting teacher like Mark Dickerman would put you through storytelling boot camp. So I never felt pulled in one direction or another. Rather, I felt like the two sides of the department complimented each other.
It’s also kind of amazing when I think back on who my classmates were over the course of those years – folks like Edith Freni, Ethan Youngerman, Jason Grote, Annie Baker, Liz Flahive, Itamar Moses, Anne Washburn, Rinne Groff, Gary Winter, Madeleine George, Jim Knable, etc. And I think if you look at the work of those writers, you'll notice a great balance between solid story-telling and theatrical invention.
Q: When you write screenplays, do you have to get in a different mindset than when you write plays?
A: Only until very recently my screenplays were all action thrillers. Very little dialogue. A lot of violence and gore. And in a weird way, to me, this feels more like writing a play than it would were I writing an indie drama walk-and-talk. When I write a play, I’m first and foremost thinking about the theatrical environment and how characters interact with it, and I find that’s what you have to think about when you write an action sequence.
On the other hand, typically my screenwriting experience has involved a lot of collaboration with and input from a producer, so that makes the writing experience very different. I find myself thinking a lot more about how the screenplay will interact with the movie marketplace.
Also, my dialogue writing skills were harder to transfer to the screen. When I write a play I’m generally letting the language get really awkward. It’s as though I’m pretending that I don’t speak English very well. That doesn’t translate so well to screenplays. That said, I think I’ve finally figured out a way to take what I do with theatrical dialogue and translate it to the screen. We'll see...
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that describes who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Which story to tell... I grew up in Orlando, Florida in a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome house. We had no neighbors. We were surrounded by orange groves and there was a gun range across the street. The setting of my childhood was pretty surreal, and I think it informs a lot of my work.
On top of that, for much of my childhood my family attended an evangelical mega-church. The sanctuary where the kids' church service was held was bigger than most Broadway houses. When I was 8 or 9, I became interested in becoming a preacher and I was also really into magic. I started writing sermons that featured stage illusions – we'd called them “object lessons.” They began letting me perform these sermons, so I became something of a "minor celebrity" at the church and people would come to me to pray for them when they were sick or had problems, etc.
And then one day, someone, I forget who, had claimed that I prayed for her and that her disease (it was something really serious like cancer) went away. So after that, there was a stretch of time where more people were coming to me to be healed. It was a pretty strange experience, because I had no idea what I had done in the first place and now I was being asked to reproduce something I didn’t understand. And I wondered: What if the “power” went away? What if I also had the power to harm? There was something kind of terrifying about it.
Most of my plays have a moment like that: A character is forced to deal with something they’ve done or created over which they have very little control, but it's something they must control or else the consequences will be dire.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: What I like to see and what I aspire to are plays that can generate contradictory emotional responses in the audience. Specifically, I like it when a play has a moment that makes the audience member feel repulsed (ewww), affectionate (awww), and then laugh all at once. I genuinely believe those types of moments are good for the brain. In the world of modern theatre, I think people like Richard Foreman, Jeffrey M. Jones, Marie Irene Fornes, Suzan-Lori Parks, and David Greenspan are great at crafting those types of moments.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Three things:
1. Find a director. Collaborating with a director can give you new tools for your theatrical bag of tricks. And directors can also be useful in getting your work introduced to producers and theatre companies.
2. Direct your own work. Every playwright should try this at least once. There’s a weird prejudice against playwrights directing their own work and I think it’s really dangerous. Playwrights are expected to just write the text and not to think about how the play works on stage? That’s ridiculous. I think that crafting your play's theatricality is as important as writing the text and building the narrative. Directing helps you develop your theatrical sensibility.
3. Study the brain. Seriously. At the end of the day, the receptacle for a play is the collective audience brain; therefore, it’s really important to understand how the brain works. I try to read as much as I can on neurology. On my stack of books-to-read I always have stuff on everything from video game design, magic theory, theme park design – anything that will help me understand how people engage with visual and aural stimuli. When all is said and done, a playwright is just using a series of old carny tricks to manipulate audience brains.
Q: Any Plugs?
A: Sure. “The Courtship of Anne Nicole Smith” will happen at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, starting January 13. www.actorstheatre.org
And I’d also like to plug the 24Seven Lab and the awesomeness of its founders, Sarah Hayon, Edith Freni, Sharon Freedman. Playwrights should definitely check out their website and join their mailing list. And people with big checkbooks should support them. www.24sevenlab.com