Sam Hunter Brings Two New Plays—and a Meal—to Rattlestickby Billy McEntee
Sam Hunter’s plays are tightly constructed, hauntingly beautiful, and hold a striking alchemy of contradictions: his works are small, despite the vast lands on which they’re set, and they’re also poignant, despite—or perhaps because of—their lack of sentimentality. After Off-Broadway hits like The Whale and The Harvest, Hunter now dives into new terrain with Lewiston/Clarkston—companion pieces that are “maximalist,” as he calls the two-part epic. Currently at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through December 2nd, these plays—like many of Hunter’s creations—explore the profound isolation of those who inhabit the West, and the fleeting, glimmering moments when souls connect.
What separates these paired plays from Hunter’s other work is the capital T Theatrical event that is Lewiston/Clarkston: audiences will see two plays and enjoy an Idahoan meal that bridges the pieces and offers the intimate, 51-person audience—like the characters in Hunter’s works—a chance to come together (if only for a brief spell).
Though presented in the same evening, each play is a distinct organism. Lewiston and Clarkston, both directed by Davis McCallum, employ unique characters, casts, and designs, but the ideas bonding the plays are inextricably tied. Both works spotlight the fictional descendants of the titular explorers and the legacies—rusting but inescapable—those men left behind. Each descendent comes to the town named after their forefather hoping that, in making the trek, their nugatory lives will have a speck of their ascendants’ grandeur. If unexamined, the lives of these footnote descendants might indeed seem insignificant. Luckily, Hunter is a playwriting scientist who magnifies and dissects even the most sidelined of cells.
Billy McEntee (Rail): Can you talk about your introduction to theater while growing up in Moscow, Idaho?
Sam Hunter: There really wasn’t a new plays scene in Idaho where I grew up. I did community theater, but I came at playwriting through an interest in poetry. It wasn’t ‘til later in my high school career that I realized I really liked writing plays because I liked the messiness of language and the precision of ideas—that you can have all these different dramatic ideas at play but the language can be so quotidian. That continues to interest me. In Clarkston, 80% of what the boys discuss is stocking queso dip at their Costco jobs with these larger ideas looming in the background. That interests me. I also quickly realized I do my best work with collaborators, and that the collaborative process surrounded by really smart people appeals to me.
Rail: That’s a good thing, as theater is inherently collaborative. But the playwright’s role can sometimes be a little more insular.
Hunter: In the beginning it is—it’s insular and very personal for a limited amount of time. And then you have to give the work to other people and trust that the play will grow in the hands of talented artists.
Rail: I adore that your plays show us your part of the world—a beautiful and complex region that we don’t often see on stage. Can you discuss, besides your geographic ties, what continually inspires you to write about the West?
Hunter: It feels like a canvas I can return to; I know the palette really well. I don’t see a lot of these parts of the country on our stages or on our screens, so it’s an effective way to write about America. The other thing that appeals to me about it, and this is more personal, is it feels like I’m not just writing a play and hoping it’s good and sending it out into the ether—they all feel like chapters in the same book. They all correlate to one another. That’s what Lewiston and Clarkston are doing very deliberately. I premiered them separately so they could be given their due diligence, but ultimately the idea is that they exist together and calibrate one another.
Rail: Did you write them knowing they’d be presented in tandem?
Hunter: I definitely started the project thinking I wanted to write these two plays together. It started in a funny way: five years ago I was driving around Lewiston with my husband, and he jokingly said, “You should write a play called Lewiston/Clarkston,” and I thought it was a fantastic idea, and a way to dive into American history to create this epic evening but the canvases themselves are very small. They’re each three characters, quiet stories. Lewis and Clark were these guys leading these expeditions, and they were both captains which is so strange—it’s such an impossible thing to have these two equal leaders. There was something in thinking about what the American West is now and what the legacy is. When I was a kid I was taught so much about these guys, and they were put on a pedestal. And then as you get to be an adult you know the real history, and it’s so much more complicated with the ideas of ownership and these two white guys traipsing across the country claiming land. It was that discomfort and messiness around the West that I inherited, when I was born there in 1981, that led me to construct both of these plays.
Rail: Now that both plays are being presented and they’ve had previous lives, are you doing any tweaking since the plays are directly in conversation with one another?
Hunter: Yes, definitely. I haven’t done any huge wholesale rewrites. But now that the plays are up against one another I want them to speak to each other in certain ways. I never wanted the relationship between the plays to be like…you know, “I went to high school with Chris,” and in the next play, you meet Chris! There’s not a narrative fanciness, and I didn’t want to do any structural gymnastics in terms of what the plays meant as companion pieces. But they have discussions about the same ideas.
Rail: A meal bridges the shows! Can you discuss that impulse?
Hunter: It was a very early idea in the conversations. We didn’t want this to feel like you come in for a three hour evening of theater and we all sit in the dark with a proscenium and theatrical lighting and . . . we wanted it to feel fundamentally different. We wanted to be really honest about the fact that these plays are set in a Costco in Clarkston, Washington and a fireworks stand off a highway across the river in Lewiston, Idaho, and this is not a landscape that we’re going to be able to realistically evoke in the Rattlestick Theater. And maybe we should be a little more honest about sitting in a theater in the West Village telling a story about working-class Idahoans. So I think the idea of the meal came in so we could set the experience apart a bit—that this isn’t a come in, thumbs up/thumbs down kind of evening. Come, watch this first play where these ideas are seeded, and then we’ll all sit down together and break bread, and it’s not going to be a big group, and we’ll sit at a big table and have picnic food. And after people have had 40/45 minutes to eat, we’ll all sit together again to see the development of the ideas that we just sat with for an hour and a half. It’s an experiment.
Rail: A lot of New Yorkers discuss how, despite living in a city with millions of people, New York can be a lonely place. Your characters, who live in the West, grapple with loneliness and isolation as well. I’m wondering if, since you’ve lived in both regions, you can discuss the different kinds of isolation in each?
Hunter: There’s community and isolation in both New York City and small-town Idaho, and I think they take on different forms. The incredible thing about isolation in New York is you’re isolated but pushed up against thousands of people every day. What I was so dazzled by when I came to the city is you’re interacting with—not speaking with, but visually and spatially—tens of thousands of people every day, and for some I think that can be incredibly overwhelming, so they just sink inward. And I think in Idaho—and this is not everybody but I think these are the characters I write about and maybe they speak to the isolation I felt out there—everything is so wide open. It’s the complete opposite. You look at the horizon and think it could go on forever. There are no human beings in my field of vision. But if I were to write a play set in New York City, I don’t know if the spiritual—this is going to sound pretentions, forgive me—if the spiritual world of the play would be all that different; it would just present itself in different forms. I’m continually surprised by the similarities between the two communities. People in Idaho and New York City have so much more in common that what separates them.
Rail: You teach! Has that been rewarding?
Hunter: Yeah it’s great! I find it really grounding. It gets me out of my own head in a good way. I think early on in your career you’re in a lot of writers’ groups, but as you get older—I’m a dad now, I’m married—our lives become more separate, and I don’t interact with writers as much as I used to. One thing I love about teaching is, though I’m ostensibly leading the room, it just kind of feels like a group of writers coming together, which is really inspirational for me.
Rail: Do you have anything else you’re working on at the moment?
Hunter: In line with this maximalist thing I’m doing now I’m writing a three-act play, a proper one with two intermissions. I can’t be more specific about it, but it’s also a really big project with a dual-level set, a really big story. I’ve done a couple different readings, so I’m really excited about it. And then in reaction against this maximalism is this two-character play I’m also working on that’s incredibly small.
Rail: Anything else you’d like to add?
Hunter: I want to add that one of the big stars of this production is Rattlestick—they’re doing this courageous thing of gutting their theater and sawing into wood that’s been there for years. I walked into the space and couldn’t believe it. It’s a theater with an incredible amount of history, and now it’s been ripped open—it’s like a reset button has been hit on the theater itself.
Lewiston/Clarkston, written by Sam Hunter, directed by David McCallum, runs through December 2nd at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. For tickets and further info: https://www.rattlestick.org/20182019-season/2018/10/10/lewiston-and-clarkston.
Billy McEntee is a freelance arts journalist. He’s written for Vanity Fair, American Theatre Magazine, and TDF Stages, amongst others, and works at Playwrights Horizons.