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Friday, 23 August 2013 13:57

Samuel D. Hunter - The Makings of a Whale of a Career

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Samuel D. Hunter Samuel D. Hunter Photo: Andrew C. McGibbon

The last year or so has been filled with awards and accolades for playwright Samuel D. Hunter.   During the 2012-13 season, Hunter’s The Whale had its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.  It starred Shuler Hensley as a 600-pound man who teaches online writing courses while secretly trying to reconcile with his daughter.  The play garnered Hunter a 2013 Drama Desk Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.  During the upcoming 2013-14 season, he has three plays debuting at three separate regional theatres, South Coast Repertory, Seattle Repertory, and the Old Globe.

Hunter, 31, was raised in Moscow, Idaho, a town with a population of approximately 24,000.  As a teenager he went to a fundamentalist Christian school.  His parents are mainstream Episcopalians so it wasn’t their faith that led to his attending a religious institution.  Rather, it was the quality of the education.  He was afforded the opportunity to take courses that challenged him intellectually.  But it was a moral challenge that forced him from the school.  At the age of 16, Hunter came out as gay.    

Some scenarios like this end with mental and physical abuse as parents try to “straighten” out their kids.  This wasn’t the case for Hunter.  He was handled by the principal of the school and his parents in a loving way without the acrimony that sometimes accompanies these situations.  That said, he was forced out of the school after three months because he wouldn’t hide, or be apologetic about, his sexual orientation.

When Hunter went back to public school and was open about it, he generally didn’t meet with much resistance.  “Since I was so open about it everyone was disarmed.  Calling me a fag was really uncreative.”  It didn’t hurt that he is 6’2” with a solid build.

As a child, Hunter was introverted and socially awkward.  When he discovered acting in junior high, this enabled him to come out of his shell.  Though not a huge reader as a child, one thing caught his attention.  “Nothing lit the fire until I started reading poetry.”  By combining acting and poetry, and reading the poetry out loud, he began to understand the power of language.  “It was text in time and space.”

Hunter makes it clear that when he writes, he doesn’t write from an autobiographical vantage point, particularly when it comes to the coming out story.  “The coming out play is such a thing now.  It would be like a Lifetime movie.”

Hunter has been industrious from an early age.  When he was 16 he had written his first complete play.  He went to the local community theatre and they gave him $300 to mount a production of it.  The play clocked in at over three hours and, by Hunter’s own admission, wasn’t very good.  It was this experience though that shone a light on what he wanted to spend his life doing. 

Hunter’s meteoric rise over the past two years is a change from the meager existence he and husband, dramaturg John Baker, were living in their twenties.  He and Baker lived in a mouse-infested 250 square-foot walk-up that was an illegal sublet.  Hunter was making a subsistence living as an adjunct professor teaching a required expository writing course at Rutgers.  “They hated it, they hated me, they hated being there.” 

About a month into teaching the course, Hunter realized that this wasn’t a course about expository writing, but rather, it was about critical thinking.  This was their first experience being asked to think independently.  “Nobody had ever had confidence in them to say that what they have to say has value.” 

As Hunter began to look at his students in a more empathetic light, he began to write his next play, The Whale.  It started out literal and based on his own experiences teaching.  He wasn’t certain what its message was.  All he knew was that he wanted it to be about empathy. 

He learned from his own students.  They would come to him and defend their writing by saying “well that actually happened to me.”  He took his own advice that while real-life experiences may frequently serve as a jumping-off point for a piece of expository writing, rarely does it make for good theatre.  He realized the same was true with The Whale.  His writing was “too heady and intellectual and on the nose and clever.”  He ditched the original draft and continued to use the idea of the class as the spine of the play, the expository teacher who desperately tries to connect with his students and with his daughter.

Hunter's latest play, A Great Wilderness tackles the subject of reparative, or conversion therapy.  This is the largely discredited practice of trying to turn gays straight.  Again, Hunter’s real-life experiences are not presented in the play literally, but they are there emotionally.  Young Daniel is dropped off in the wilds of Idaho at the home of an older man, Walt.  He doesn’t know why he is there, but he has an idea.  While many kids who struggle with this issue may be shunned by their families and even physically abused, Hunter’s take on conversion therapy is not what you might expect.  It is filled with the same compassion that met him upon his coming out 15 years earlier. 

A Great Wilderness was work-shopped at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center this past summer.  It was commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theater and will be a part of their upcoming 2013-14 season.

Hunter’s comedy, The Few is premiering at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and will have a subsequent New York premiere in the spring of 2014 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.  The comedy, also set in Idaho, is about a long-distance trucker who starts a newspaper for fellow truckers (this is pre-Internet).  He abandons it and leaves his lover in charge.  Upon his returns he finds the paper full of personal ads.  It’s a play about our longing for connection and the barriers we place in our own way. 

Rest is Hunter’s third play premiering at a regional theatre.  It will be presented at South Coast Repertory.  It’s about a nursing home in Idaho that is preparing to shut down.  There is suddenly a huge blizzard and one of the facility’s few remaining patients has gone missing.  Hunter says “It’s about death, the future and what it means to grow old.”

The characters in Hunter’s plays have a common thread.  They live on the margins of life, the young gay man, the obese recluse, a long-distance trucker.  Perhaps that’s the appeal of his work.  He creates characters that command empathy.  In a world that is too busy to stop and listen, Hunter’s commanding sense of story-telling makes you do just that.

Read 1617 times Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 02:24
Andrew C. McGibbon

 

Andrew C. McGibbon has spent the past thirty years working in live theatre as a stage manager, general manager, producer and leader in the convergence of Broadway and online.

Mr. McGibbon worked as a stage manager and general manager for ten years. In 1994 he created a website devoted to live theatre, BroadwayWorld-Wide.com. The site was subsequently bought by, and became Playbill.com. He continued to manage the site for Playbill for four years. In 2000 he became the website manager for TonyAwards.com. With the 2008-09 season he finished his ninth year on the show. He has also worked as a webmaster for the Broadway League and Jazz at Lincoln Center. He is presently the Director of Digital Media for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Mr. McGibbon is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Independent Theatre Bloggers Association, AEA and AFTRA.

In addition to his work in the theatrical industry, Mr. McGibbon is also a partner in Simple Solutions Distributing, a manufacturer of filtration equipment for the waste-water industry.

Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell

 

www.facebook.com/andrewmcgibbon