Theater In Dialogue
LUCAS HNATH with Jim Knable
I have known Lucas Hnath for about 20 years. We were at NYU Tisch at the same time in the Dramatic Writing Program. We cemented our friendship and sense of being playwright running buddies on Sunset Boulevard, hanging out at the hotel and various cocktail parties for a surreal Sloan Screenwriting Prize festival. (I think it was he who, characteristically, ran into Little Richard in the elevator.) We went to each other’s plays, sometimes participating in them in random ways (I got to read the brother character—completely and intentionally miscast—in a private reading of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney). We’ve shared many drinks (his preference for a while being scotch and soda), friends (his former roommate is my close friend and lighting designer, Miriam Crowe), and a fair number of rejection notices. (Juilliard: you blew it.) And then, something happened. Lucas’s playwriting career launched like a rocket out of Cape Canaveral. Meteorically. I can’t count the number of productions that plays of his are currently having across the country. And now, at least while one of his plays is about to open on Broadway and another is being prepped to premiere in LA and Chicago, our dialogue requires scheduling by a publicist. But schedule it we did, and, to my delight, I got to see a preview of Hillary and Clinton as part of the deal. I will say, in going through the relatively short list of people I can text with a day’s notice to join me as a plus-one to see a play, I thought of Lucas… then remembered it was his play.
The following represents most of our dialogue, over the phone, while I roamed the sun and shadow-dappled square next to my day job in Midtown, about two blocks from Hillary and Clinton; and he sat at home, in the midst of an email correspondence with The New Yorker, fact-checking their upcoming profile piece on him.
Jim Knable (Rail): So why did you start writing plays? I think you were a teenage playwright, too, right?
April 18 – July 21. 2019
New York City
Lucas Hnath: I dabbled in it in high school, yeah. I think it has something to do with growing up near Disney World and being entranced by theme park design. I always wanted to make my own rides.
Rail: Did somebody suggest writing plays?
Hnath: I don’t think so. As a school kid the school takes you to the annual production of A Christmas Carol at the local theater. It’s a show that has special effects in it—dry ice, fog.. There’s a quality to it that reminded me of theme park rides. So I think it was just me making the connection.
Rail: I will say, after seeing Hillary and Clinton last night, there was an audience member who said immediately, “Wow, that really moved.”
Hnath: That’s good, I’m curious what they meant by that.
Rail: Oh, I think they meant the time flew by, that they were engaged. But I also think—if you were inspired by theme park rides—that you are taking the audience on a ride as opposed to just talking to them about human nature or entertaining them with people falling over.
Hnath: I am acutely aware that when I think of plays I do think: “Well, you strap in and the thing doesn’t stop until it’s done.” That’s why I’m pretty resistant to intermissions. I hate that feeling of leaving the play world. I mean, I am appreciative of plays with intermissions! I don’t have a problem with seeing them. But for myself I think it is related to that experience of “You lock them in the room and the thing doesn’t stop until it stops.” It reminds me of when I first came to New York and would go see Richard Foreman shows that, again, felt a little like a funhouse of some kind. When you’d go into the backroom at St. Mark’s Church, this little cramped space, the thing just felt automated.
Rail: With Richard Foreman as the ride operator.
Hnath: Yeah, he’d sit in the audience and he had his little panel that had dials and nobs on it. I’m still not clear exactly what those things did, but now that I’ve gotten to know some actors that were in the shows they told me: “If Richard wasn’t happy, the volume would go up.” It became a way to sort of signal the actors. There was a great tension between the sort of automated and real time spontaneous that was [and is] interesting to me.
Rail: I remember many conversations we’ve had, one of which was about Richard Foreman, talking about the fact that he—however he was able to—was able to afford to do the kind of theater he wanted to do, in his own dedicated space, and have his own audience show up for it. At the time, for the both of us, as relatively struggling playwrights figuring things out and how people actually do that, it was like: “Well, it helps to have some money and a spunky downtown following.”
Hnath: And he was very up front about that, too. I remember seeing him do a Q&A, and somebody told him, “You’re a real hero!” And he said, “No I’m not, I have a trust fund. The real hero is Lee Breuer. He doesn’t have any money.”
Rail: Speaking of spunky downtown followings, you came from this world of off-off Broadway theater—whatever you want to call it—even using the same space as Richard Foreman at least once. Of course, I saw as many of your plays as possible; I thought they were really cool. And now Hillary and Clinton is your second show on Broadway. What happened?!
Hnath: I’m not entirely sure! [Laughs] I feel extremely lucky to have stumbled into this position of having the work produced and widely produced. I, unlike Richard Foreman, did not have a trust fund. I spent ten years living in a room that was literally the size of a walk-in closet with a bathroom and a kitchen. I figured out how to eat for about five dollars a day, and during that time I just wrote. I worked a job where I could just stay in that office—an unemployment action center job where I worked with law students representing unemployment insurance cases. I would just stay in that office after work hours and write plays, so I accumulated a body of work.
Rail: What years are we talking here?
Hnath: I started that job in 2001 and left it in about 2010. During that time Hillary and Clinton was one of the plays I had written. I realized after roughly ten years of writing a lot but nothing really happening that I didn’t send out my work that much. I was under the impression I sent it out to all these places, but I actually sent it to roughly three things a year. Then I decided I would submit to thirty things by the end of the year. The turning point for me was when Actors Theater of Louisville Assistant Literary Manager—or whatever her title was at the time—Sarah Lunnie, who is now my constant collaborator and dramaturg, pulled a ten-minute play from the slush pile. They programmed it and started reading my plays, and [then they did my play] Death Tax at the Humana festival. It was just this funny thing where I had written [several plays] that nobody was reading, so that when I got a platform nationally I had five plays to show people. I think that helped; it meant there was a lot of work happening all at once.
Rail: Well, people were very familiar with your work already. I remember going to meetings at theaters and they’d ask, “Who are you hanging out with?” and I’d say, “Lucas,” and they’d say, “Oh yes, we love Lucas!”
Hnath: Where was that?
Rail: Definitely South Coast Rep. Which would become important because they commissioned Doll’s House, Part 2.
Hnath: Yeaaah, that would have been after Death Tax, because those big industry weekends at Humana become this… you know, the whole theater world descends on that town so it’s a good way to get seen quickly.
Rail: I’m trying to remember when I saw Hillary and Clinton at the NYU Tisch seventh floor Dramatic Writing Program Theater.
Hnath: Oh yeah, you saw that! I did a reading of it in 2009, maybe. Linsay Firman directed.
Rail: 2009 was the year that Obama was actually sworn into office, so it was very fresh.
Hnath: I wrote that play pretty quickly. I think I started writing it before the primary was even decided. Also a very different version of the play, too, in many respects.
Rail: I guess so. Because ten years later now, I was struggling to remember what had changed from version to version when I saw it on Broadway.
Hnath: You know, the structure is basically the same, and the sort of big conceit of it is the same. When I did the rewrite—Scott Rudin optioned it—I had felt I was quite far from the play and it didn’t sound like me anymore, and I said, “If you’re going to option it, I’m going to do a completely new draft of it.” And he said, “Okay.” So, in the summer I decided to take a crack at it. I opened up a new document and wrote the play from memory. The arguments are generally different, but the big thing I stripped out was … there was a lot of whimsy in the original.
Rail: A lot of whimsy?
Hnath: Yeah, like Hillary, when she is telling the story of how Bill told her and Chelsea about the affair… She describes herself playing Streetfighter II with Chelsea. I put in stuff like that just to throw the audience off. Just to keep reminding them: everything is slightly different here. It now seems less necessary, and whatever space that whimsy was taking up is better used by making arguments stronger, or more complicated, or getting into some deeper insight about these—not people—because I note that there is a difference between the real-life people and the characters in the play. They are these kind of mythic figures that I’m riffing on.
Rail: That’s what I remember from the first version of it. It did feel like a myth, and it felt like a modern take on a tragedy in terms of even its structure, in observing most of the Aristotelian rules.
Hnath: Oh my God, I’m suddenly remembering it was an email you sent me saying it was really Greek. That meant a great deal. I was really happy that came across. Philoctetes was the play that in some ways was the seed for Hillary and Clinton.
Rail: Someone who has been injured and disgraced after the Trojan War.
Hnath: Yes, exactly, and then they need to get [Hercules’s] bow. That influenced that first scene between Bill and Hillary: there is something she is trying to get from him.
Rail: I didn’t end up seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2 on Broadway. I ended up seeing it a month ago in my hometown, Sacramento, at the B Street Theatre. Many productions are happening around the country, but this was a very good production. I really got the play and was really blown away by it.
Hnath: Thank you.
Rail: And then, while I was watching Hillary and Clinton, very shortly after that, I felt like there were all these echoes from A Doll’s House, Part 2 in terms of marriage, male and female roles, and so on.
Hnath: They are very much in dialogue with each other. I finished one of the first drafts of A Dollhouse, Part 2 while I was in the middle of rehearsal for Hillary and Clinton at Victory Gardens. That was the first production of Hillary and Clinton, and it was a production of the original version of the play. And there was all this stuff I wanted to say with Hillary and Clinton that I felt I couldn’t say in that play. A lot of it being thoughts about marriage in particular. So, the stuff I felt I couldn’t say in Hillary and Clinton went into A Doll’s House, Part 2. Although I haven’t had time to unpack it, I have this better than a sneaking suspicion that there were things I felt frustrated that I couldn’t put into A Doll’s House, Part 2 that I put in [the rewrite of] Hillary and Clinton. They are kind of inverses of each other. I mean, at the end Nora walks back out the door, at the end of A Doll’s House, Part 2—
Rail: And Bill comes walking in at the beginning of Hillary and Clinton, yeah?
Hnath: Yeah… but also, arguably… we don’t quite know where Hillary and Bill end up at the end of the play.
Rail: Now, I’m aware of avoiding spoilers for those who care about that, so I won’t say too much, but the first time I saw Hillary and Clinton in 2009 my sense was the tragedy was hers on a personal level, and now seeing the play, I think it’s fair to say there’s a double-barreled tragedy of national loss in terms of what happened in our last election.
Hnath: I think it is a more interesting play for it, too. Not good for the country, but it makes the play… There has always been a question for this play in terms of if it needs to exist. After 2008 it felt like the play kind of had a role. But when we premiered it in the middle of the 2016 campaign, I felt very confused about what the play meant. It felt like it was changing every week, because what happened in the world was changing every week. And I started to feel: “Wait, I don’t know what this play is doing in respect to the world, I don’t understand the conversation it’s having.”
Rail: But after the 2016 election it’s this gut punch that people are still feeling. We become her in this more meaningful way.
Hnath: Well, it’s also this thing that she ran twice. There’s something about the repetition that makes it a Groundhog Day story.
Rail: And it fits in with your theme of things repeating. I’m sure people have noted the nod to Tom Stoppard with the coin flipping?
Hnath: …Wait, what is the nod to Tom Stoppard?
Rail: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Where they’re flipping coins in the beginning.
Hnath: Oh yeah, I wonder if that was a reference to that? It actually came out of a Brian Greene lecture about multiverses. That’s how Brian Greene explains why multiverses could exist. That is interesting! I haven’t looked at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for so long, but maybe!
Rail: I feel that your plays are not just about wrestling with ideas, but characters wrestling with contrary ideas that feel equally valid when they start presenting them to each other, and therefore to the audience.
Hnath: Whenever I make a decision I always consider the things opposite to what I want. I feel the need to understand what everybody is potentially thinking or arguing. I want to attribute this to those years that I worked that law job, where one of the muscles I had to exercise was that whenever I was looking at a case, I couldn’t assess the case if I couldn’t understand all possible arguments. And ten years of everyday doing that definitely leaves a mark.
Rail: What I’d attach to that is: there is almost always a dramatic stake in terms of somebody always really trying to get something from somebody. Trying to get that divorce signed in A Doll’s House, Part 2—everybody has a strong philosophical argument forwarding the dramatic action.
Hnath: Yeah, and that’s the hard work, trying to bring those two things together. That’s the thing essential to storytelling: How to meld argument and dramatic stakes is not always obvious. And, it’s funny because last night I did something completely naughty: I started writing something new. I’m in the middle of it—I don’t have time to start something new! I started to make an argument in my head about something very hot, very controversial. Very perverse in the sense of taking on a point of view that is uncommon. I wrote this speech, and I thought, “This could be interesting, this could be a play.” So, I wrote the speech and when I got to the end of it, I thought, “Okay, where’s the turn? What is the thing this argument is being made in order to get?”
Rail: Was it coming from a character?
Hnath: Yeah, it was coming from a character. It might be another horror play; I think it might be in that genre. The play I did at Humana [most recently] was a horror play.
Rail: Do you have any other plays in your back catalogue that you’re like: “Now is the time for this play!” or somebody was like: “Hey, what about this play”?
Hnath: I think my back catalogue has been pretty well exploited. I have this play about a love triangle and it had lip-synching in it. It’s a play I don’t really feel needs to be performed, but I go back and cannibalize things from it. The next play I have coming up is entirely lip-synched, so I’m reusing the device to, hopefully, a more meaningful end.
Rail: What is the next one?
Hnath: It’s a play about my mother. It’s a monologue composed of interviews with her. I took the recordings of the interviews, and I cut them into a monologue that will be lip-synced. Deirdre O’Connell will be playing my mother. We open the show at the Kirk Douglas Theater in LA, then it goes to the Goodman [in Chicago]. It’s also kind of a horror play, kind of a thriller. Nonfiction.
Rail: That takes me back to some other early work you did at Rattlestick that was kind of a horror play. I think you had me play guitar for it for some reason I can’t remember.
Hnath: Oh, my god, Halloween, oh my god, oh my god. I forgot all about that play. That was my first toe dip into horror… It’s funny because I kind of feel like… I refer to it as “the mother play,” but it’s called Dana H—but I feel like I’m finally writing the source of all that stuff, the real-life incidents that produce something like Halloween.
Rail: It must be nice to write a play about your mother that features her actual voice.
Hnath: I know! It’s going to be weird for her to see it. I mean she’s read it, she knows it’s lip-synced. I’m taking special care to make sure that that experience is as easy as it can be, even though I know it will be hard in a lot of ways. It’s about her being kidnapped twenty years ago. It is a crazy story, and she always wanted me to write about it, and, I mean, it’s like: “How do you write this?!” This became the way that makes most sense. When I say “write” I do quote marks because I did not write a single word of the play, it’s like making a documentary almost. I think what the play accomplishes is that she is able to… you know, there is a line in Hillary about “you get told enough times your feelings aren’t real; you stop feeling what you’re feeling.” I feel that line is really about my mother, about this thing that happened to her, and no one believes it happened to her. I truly do not believe you should ever seek therapeutic help from theater. Theater-makers should not rely on it as therapy, but I think it will be in some ways significant for her to see an audience see and understand her in third person. I’m scared, but I will get through it.
Rail: I think I’m mentally exhausted now—living vicariously through your playwriting life at a theme-park-style kind of momentum.
Hnath: And ready for it all to go away in an instant. It’s this funny thing where it’s, like, while I have the chance: what can I do? What is the most valuable thing and what is the most interesting thing to do right now?
Rail: Well this has been totally weird, so next time we talk we should just have a drink.
Hnath: Yes, I would like that very much.
Rail: I’m nothing but happy for you Lucas. You’re deserving.
Hnath: Thank you.
Hillary and Clinton, by Lucas Hnath, directed by Joe Mantello, runs through July 21, 2019 on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street, Manhattan).