Sam Hunter and I share a lot of things in common.
We both graduated from the playwriting program at Juilliard. As recipients of the PONY Fellowship—a program that grants a writer a midtown living space for a year—we have lived in the same exact apartment, albeit in different years. And, in our early days, we both shopped in the “husky” section of J.C. Penny—that is to say, we know what it’s like to live in society as heavy people.
Hunter’s The Whale—a dark comedy/drama about a morbidly obese essay teacher who rekindles a relationship with his estranged daughter—opens at Playwrights Horizons this month. For me, the piece opened up a lot of dormant fears about weight gain and the subsequent isolation that obese people feel. I was eager to pick Hunter’s brain about the impulses that went into creating this ambitious work.
Tommy Smith (Rail): When you were writing The Whale, did you think about the technical hurdles of the character, or did you erase those from your mind?
Sam Hunter: Not a lot. The thought of production—especially when I wrote this back in 2009, when my plays really weren’t getting produced—was so theoretical that it almost didn’t even enter into my mind. In my head, it’s never about how good the costume is, because theater is already artificial. Already everyone is going to be facing one direction and talking a lot, you know what I mean? And the fact that we have to “get over a costume?” Seems like we’re going to get over that as easily as we can the artifice of theater as a whole. And I don’t really think the play is about obesity. I did some research into obesity, but this is not about America’s obsession with fast food, or what it’s like to be morbidly obese. It’s not a docu-drama about that condition, but as I started constructing the play there was something really effective about that idea. So often in playwriting, you have to figure out reasons for people to stay in the room. In a way, this character is anchored into place and can’t physically fit through the door, so the drama is contained, literally, in this tank.
Rail: What was your first image of this guy?
Hunter: Like, visually?
Rail: Like, what was the initial impulse in your mind?
Hunter: In the play he teaches expository writing over the Internet and at the time I was teaching expository writing at Rutgers.
Hunter: And, uh—have you ever done that before?
Rail: Tangentially, yes.
Hunter: I had never taught expository writing before and I’m actually not a good essay writer at all. My prose is pretty shitty. [Laughs.] So some of it was an articulation of how I felt in front of these 19-year-old kids. Here I was, sort of sitting there and forced to be there and anchored there, desperately trying to make some kind of connection, in the same way this character is trying to connect with his daughter. I’m a big guy and that’s obviously connected in some way to my own life, but it’s also a physicalization of how I felt—just this inhuman thing who is totally unrelatable. So visually I just had this idea in the beginning of this man almost attached to this couch, like a part of the furniture, who at first glance is almost inhuman. And that’s why at the beginning of the play I put him in these startling physical situations—masturbating to pornography and things like that—so hopefully the audience will have this journey where they are putting him at arm’s length and they really don’t want to connect with him, but then, throughout the process of the play, he becomes more and more human.
Rail: There’s so much pain in those first few scenes. When he mentions he’s hungry, it’s chilling, because we know what that is for him.
Hunter: Yeah, totally.
Rail: What do you think are the challenges of doing it at Playwrights Horizons?
Hunter: So I’m like this young playwright and this play is so big and bold—and I don’t even say that as a positive thing, there’s a dude dying throughout the entire thing—that it might be ripe for critics to say I’m too big for my britches. And maybe I’m wrong. But that’s my fear.
Rail: What do you mean, “too big for my britches”?
Hunter: Oh, that I should be writing my little, quieter, 80-minute plays, and then maybe later on I can write my hour-and-fifty-minute intermissionless death play.
Rail: I’m not going to ask the dumb question of “what do you want the audience to walk away with?” But.
Hunter: This is a very simple play about a man trying to connect with his daughter, and hopefully that it’s about empathy at the end. I didn’t start with obesity. I started with empathy, teaching someone empathy.
Rail: I was interested to find that the essential relationship of the play is similar to A Bright New Boise, your previous work and winner of a 2011 Obie, in that it’s an estranged son or daughter trying to reconnect with their father. What is your interest in that theme and how do you think it manifests differently than in Boise?
Hunter: I wrote them back-to-back. I actually wrote The Whale first. But they definitely feel like two chords in the same song. There is the essential human story in both the plays, that very essential search for family; the need to put family back together. And both plays have characters that, at first glance, we’re going to put at arm’s length. In Boise, it’s this fundamentalist Christian and here it’s this morbidly obese man that audiences, especially New York theater audiences, aren’t going to warm up to quickly. But they’re sort of mirror images of one another, because in Boise he’s human from the beginning—he has this job, and we all know these jobs where you get paid shit and you don’t like it and he’s just trying to connect with his son and put his life back together, but the journey of that play is him clinging steadily more and more to this dogma until it erupts out of him at the end. So there, it’s like we’re betrayed by this guy at the end of the play. But the journey in The Whale is the opposite. At the very beginning we are putting him at arm’s length, but gradually we see his humanity and want him to be free of this shell he’s in.
Rail: Speaking of which, how are you technically dealing with the “shell”? You’ve cast the role, yes?
Hunter: Shuler Hensley is playing it. And he’s a big guy but obviously [laughs] nowhere near that weight. There’s an amazing costume designer, Jessica Pabst, and they hired an artisan to do the suit. The first images I’ve seen of it are really exciting. And we’re going to go for as real as we possibly can, but I think that at the end of the day our object isn’t to trick people into thinking this is real, or that Shuler Hensley gained 500 pounds for the role. It’s more about suggesting the reality of it so it’s not distracting.
Rail: And it’s up to Shuler to perform the role in a way that’s consistent with this character’s physicality.
Hunter: That’s right. We did a reading with Shuler and you just don’t think of that, because he went through the stages of this illness—and this is not an illness that only the morbidly obese get, a lot of people get congestive heart failure—and just the journey that Shuler went on? You forget that he’s actually supposed to be 600 pounds. The first guy who did the reading was this actor Kevin Geer. Do you know him?
Rail: Yeah, he was in my play at the O’Neill.
Hunter: And he was amazing.
Rail: And he’s rail thin. I just saw him in a reading as the Angel Of Death——
Rail: But he also has this strange forbidding quality as an actor, and you always cast him as the heavy or thorny character.
Hunter: But he just had the heart, because this character’s heart is just right there on a plate the entire time, constantly apologizing for who he is physically.
Rail: I picked up on that. The character says “I’m sorry” so much in the first 10 pages that I thought it was—and excuse me if I made this assumption—I thought it was a draft where you still had to cut out some of the redundant language. But then the other characters start commenting on this and that was the way into the character for me. That’s essentially all he’s saying.
Hunter: Yeah, throughout the play.
Rail: He says a lot of other things but he’s really saying “I’m sorry” with every word.
Hunter: His actions in the play—making all this money for his daughter, trying to teach her empathy—those are all just apologies.
Rail: For sure.
Hunter: A penance.
The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Davis McCallum plays October 12 - November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons. For more information and tickets, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.