Being Walt Disney: Lucas Hnath and the Theater of Celebrity

“This guy is tougher than Shakespeare,” jokes Larry Pine during a rehearsal of Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney. As the title character, Pine has just finished spitting out torrents of fractured dialogue, while trying to remember which lines he’s supposed to speak on microphone. He is planted behind a long conference table, beside Frank Wood, who plays his loyal, much-maligned brother Roy. Everything in the play will more or less happen at this table. The premise is that this is a “reading,” though as the afternoon progresses, the piece will unfold into a remarkable theatrical event with its own sublime and mysterious logic.

It’s only the second week of rehearsal, but Pine’s emotional investment is already riveting. It’s also fun to watch him grapple with the technical obstacles Hnath has thrown in his path. Hnath admits, devilishly, that he likes to “make things difficult for actors.” His main weapon is language—highly structured and rife with repetition. His characters get sucked into verbal maelstroms; they finish each other’s sentences, wrangle fragmented thoughts, and then circle back over them:

WALT

              Interior, work office.
Follow me Roy

ROY

the dog, the

WALT

family

ROY

dog

WALT

Teddy

ROY

not doing well

WALT

Insert shot, Roy’s dog, Teddy

ROY

Little back legs

WALT

Close on back legs

ROY

not working anymore, vet put it in a little wheel cart, little

WALT

yeah

ROY

pulls itself along with front legs

WALT

can’t let

ROY

having a real hard time, crying all night, stroke its ears, stroke its legs til it sleeps

WALT

technology … can fix almost anything, anything, almost anything, most, many things

These experiments with language are in the tradition of writers who are dear to Hnath—Caryl Churchill, Gertrude Stein, and Maria Irene Fornes. He also once spent a road trip listening to Mike Daisey monologues, which “seeped in,” inspiring some of the repetition, the whirling back over key ideas to build a kind of incantatory poetry. These influences—with the added fodder of growing up in a charismatic church where congregants spoke in tongues—creates a unique Hnathian vocabulary that demands exceptional dexterity from his actors.
Fortunately, this play is in expert hands. In addition to Roy, Pine’s colleagues include Amanda Quaid as his estranged daughter and Brian Sgambati as her ex-football player husband. Somehow—as with the casts of Hnath’s Death Tax at Humana and Isaac’s Eye at Ensemble Studio Theatre—these actors are able to deliver the text with terrifying alacrity, yet without losing feeling or sense. As director Sarah Benson guides them through the dense text—feeding them lines without needing to look down at her script—a gripping story emerges: the tale of a man obsessed with creating a deathless paradise, raging against the actual messy, teeming life that surrounds him.

Hnath’s fascination with Disney (the man and the corporation) started young. He grew up in Orlando—seven minutes from Disney World—and could see the fireworks every night from his bedroom window. He has a vivid memory of standing in the backyard with his mother at age 10, while she described Walt Disney’s plan to be cryogenically preserved.

WALT

              cut to
There’s this Guy in Irvine
              cut to
He freezes the bodies
He freezes, well, just the head and
No, it’s not gross, it’s beautiful,
it’s beautiful, it’s
              cut to
Not that I’m dying anytime soon
              cut to
Not that I’m dying anytime
              cut to
Not that
              cut to
No, just
              cut to
the future

Most of Hnath’s protagonists are making a bid for immortality. In Isaac’s Eye, Newton seeks to secure his role in the pantheon of science; in Hillary and Clinton, Hillary violently suppresses her grief over her husband’s philandering in order to stake her claim on history. In his short play The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, the main character is compelled to make a choice between a “normal life” with a family—a “little happiness,” an occasional beer—and a brief but extraordinary existence that would “all be a blur.” Hnath writes about visionaries, people “who are trying to do something that is as close to impossible as possible.”
Hnath is adept at uncovering the moment when a courageous reach for immortality degenerates into a claw-like grasping, when a character refuses to accept his or her own transience. These are people who will just not let go: Newton would stick a needle in his eye rather than go unremembered, and Maxine (in Death Tax) demands to go on living bedridden forever—using up all the resources of her descendants in order to go on living. In Disney, Walt insists on creating a fictional version of life, no matter what it costs him—his daughter, his brother, the intense vulnerability of knowing love.

Other inspirations for Disney include Stephen Fjellman’s Vinyl Leaves (a book on Disney and capitalism) and King Lear—another story about a man trying to exert final, futile control in his last years. Hnath notes that he often chooses to write about famous or historical figures, in part because it is through those lives that he can try to make sense of his own. He cites Jeffrey Jones’s tabloid play Dirty Little Secrets as a catalyst, noting that Jones was writing about celebrities the way Shakespeare peoples his plays with kings and queens. Jones himself says that plays about famous people create an immediate theatrical tension “between real lives and virtual lives” and that “tabloid gossip traffics in the myths by which we not only know and judge these people, but reconcile their lives to ours.”

Hnath is also frank about the fact that populating his plays with recognizable personalities is a way to attract audiences. A sometimes magician—“I’m not good with the sleight of hand,” he says, “but I can do the mental magic”—Hnath is an unabashed showman. “I test my ideas out on people,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘This happens, and then this happens,’ and, depending on their reaction, I’ll know if I’ve got something that is alive or not.”

Back at the New 42nd Studios in Midtown Manhattan, the rehearsal is definitely alive. An enraged Disney has just flung the pages of his script at Roy’s head, much further than he intended. Now Pine has to retrieve the pages in order to enact a heartbreaking scene with his daughter. Watching Pine dig grumpily through the pile of papers on the floor cracks up the whole room -- it’s partly funny because it mirrors Walt’s ineptitude at dealing with his family. By giving his plays such unyielding structure, Hnath provides the opportunity for such happy mistakes. And furthermore, he loves these intense moments of “vulnerability and humanness.” Today’s discovery may or may not be kept in the play, but Hnath says he looks forward to future slip-ups—especially ones that happen in front of the audience.

Like Walt Disney, Lucas Hnath is determined to exert tyrant-like control over his created world, but, unlike his creation of “Walt,” he longs for real, authentic life to rush in and mess everything up.

WALT

And Walt
in the end
Walt sees
Everything
in his head, where everything is
in this head, sees everything that’s in his head

because
what death is,
what death is, is real slow, it’s a slow fade, a slow
and eternal fade, 2 seconds in real time,
but an eternity in mind time,
and that is what heaven is,
what heaven is, is whatever is
in Walt’s head



Soho Rep in association with John Adrian Selzer presents A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney by Lucas Hnath, directed by Sarah Benson, through May 26 at Soho Rep(46 Walker Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info: www.sohorep.org.

Contributor

Heidi Schreck

Heidi Schreck is an actor and playwright living in Brooklyn. She is currently playing Luciana in The Comedy of Errors in Shakespeare in the Park. Her newest play Grand Concourse will be part of the Cape Cod Theater Festival this July.

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