Special 5 Questions: Director Kip Fagan, Playwright Sam Hunter

Decidedly not PC

The town of Moscow, Idaho might have a 2010 population of 25,000 if you’re really lucky. And much of that population is tied, this way or that, to the town being the home of the University of Idaho.

The playwright Samuel D. Hunter is from Moscow and, as you’ll see from the following 5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked interview, many of his plays take place in Idaho as well.

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The occasion for the interview is the production of Hunter’s new play, Jack’s Precious Moment, under the aegis of Page 73 at 59E59 Theaters. A synopsis of the play provides an excellent example of Hunter’s approach to theater — his keen and characteristic creativity:

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A video of insurgents beheading Jack Lewis is released over the Internet. Back home in Idaho, Jack’s twin, father and widow are left to pick up the pieces — so to speak. The only solution to this Christian family’s grief and mounting spiritual crisis: The Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, MO.

For this interview, however, it seemed that the strong relationship between Hunter’s director, Kip Fagan, might make for a nice change-up in the usual 5Qs format, so we offered up the idea and they bit.

First, a little background on Fagan:

…recently directed Recess by Sheila Callaghan at The Flea, Reborning by Zayd Dohrn at SPF, That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play by Sheila Callaghan at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, and Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom by Jennifer Haley for the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

And a bio on Hunter:

…is a graduate of NYU, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard. His plays include I Am Montana (produced at London’s Arcola Theatre, Montana Repertory, developed at the Flea, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Missoula Colony, Juilliard New Play Festival, Bay Area Playwrights Festival); Five Genocides (upcoming production at Clubbed Thumb; developed at Page 73, Ars Nova, Lark Theater, translated into Spanish and presented in Mexico City); Atlasing Sodom (developed at the Kennedy Center’s MFA Playwrights Workshop, Primary Stages, Playwrights Horizons, NNPN National Showcase); Idaho/Dead Idaho (developed at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Ars Nova, Juilliard, Lark Theater, Rattlestick, 2009 Princess Grace Award runner-up); Norman Rockwell Killed My Father (developed at the 2005 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference); Abraham (A Shot in the Head) (produced in the Blueprint Series at Ontological-Hysteric); Hells Canyon (developed at Juilliard, LAByrinth Summer Intensive); The Whale (developed at 24Seven Lab, Reading at LAByrinth)….

Jack’s Precious Moment, which stars Eddie Kaye Thomas, Tom Bloom, Lucas Papaelias and Karen Walsh — and which is featured as part of 59E59 Theaters’ annual Americas Off-Broadway festival — runs through June 13.

The address of the theater: 59 E. 59th St (just to be clear). For more information or tickets, click here.

And now — with an introduction by Fagan — here are 5 questions Sam Hunter has never been asked. And lots of bonus questions.

"Jack's Precious Moment" playwright Sam Hunter

I met Sam Hunter on the P73 Yale retreat last summer, and he seemed like a perfectly nice, thoughtful, well-adjusted dude. So imagine my surprise when I first read Jack’s Precious Moment, which I’m currently directing for P73, and Sam revealed himself to be an unabashed apologist for extremist terror.

I’m kidding.

But when I got to the end of the first page (the first page!) of the play, my head was swimming, and I felt a sweet permission to listen to this play, a complicated mix of family, fundamentalism, spiritual crisis and Precious Moments figurines, in a really open, trusting way. Sam deals in really tricky territory, and does so with an honesty, forthrightness and incredible sense of humor that allows one to wrestle with the large ideas without getting pinned down by the weight of it all.

Then on, like, day two of the auditions, Sam and I found ourselves immensely entertained by a game of calling each other “dick” in new and hilarious ways, much to the chagrin of everyone around us. (Said Asher Richelli, co-executive director of P73, “You guys are being very immature.” Sam: “Do you hear that, Kip? Asher says you’re being immature, you dick!”) So now, of course, I love him.

Here are some questions that I asked Sam.

Director Kip Fagan

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It came from a professor of mine when I was in grad school at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop — Dare Clubb. I had written a very dense, humorless play that opened with a 20-page monologue. In one of our first meetings, I asked him what he thought about starting a play with a 20-page monologue, and his question to me was “Why not 50?” At the time I was a little annoyed by the answer, but years later I finally understood what he was trying to push me toward: a deeper relationship between form and content. He was trying to get me to do something that took me years to figure out: plays have to, in a way, decide on their own form — that the characters and ideas have to construct the shape of the play, not me.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Most of my plays have gay characters in them, but a lot of the time the homosexuality is sort of a given in the world of the play — often characters are just gay, and there’s no greater discussion about the politics of their sexuality or their coming-out story or whatever. A few years ago at a regional theater, a guy came up to me and said, “Why do they have to be three men? If one of them was a woman, I’d relate to them all more easily.”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I was working in Mexico City last October on a translation of a play of mine, and we spent a good hour trying to figure out the best way to translate the name of the retail clothing chain “Fashion Bug.” It was actually incredibly difficult, as the literal translation just came out to “Fashion Insect,” which obviously lacks that sickly cute thing that the word “bug” does.

4) You write about very tangled subjects (fundamentalist extremism, genocide, etc.) with a very delicate touch, which comes from your characters being so finely drawn and sympathetic. First, why don’t you cheer up and write about nice things? And second, do you typically begin with subject matter or with a group of characters that lead you toward subject matter?
Why don’t I cheer up? You just directed a show called The Rape Play, you dick.

It’s actually a hard question to answer, because I think the characters sort of embody the ideas, so they sort of come as a packaged deal. I find it actually kind of hard to sit down and say, “Okay, genocide! Let’s write about genocide. How can I write about genocide?”

5) Two touchstone experiences in your life, and in the writing of this play, have been teaching playwriting in Hebron in the West Bank and visiting the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri. How were those experiences similar?
I went to a Christian fundamentalist high school, so I always had interest in those ideas. I was never a fundamentalist myself, but I sort of masqueraded as one to get through high school socially — so I got a pretty unique insight into the whole culture. In college, I minored in Middle Eastern studies, and as I read more about fundamentalist Islam and traveled to the West Bank, the similarities between the two things were painfully obvious. And, honestly, there was a moment when I was on the tour of the Precious Moments Chapel when I was reminded of the Imam who showed me around the Ibrahimi Mosque in the center of Hebron. The passion and reverence and cosmic certitude are pretty much exactly the same.

6) A lot of your plays take plays in your home state of Idaho. When will you write a play set in my home state of Nebraska?
When I find out something interesting about Nebraskans. What a pack of corn-husking losers!

But seriously, I never really sit down with the explicit intention of writing about Idaho. Honestly, I think that living in New York sort of pushes me to write plays about people who live in places like that — just because there’s such a huge disconnect between New Yorkers and the rest of the country. Especially during the Bush Administration, there was this tendency to think that red states were red simply because they were full of idiots. But that’s just not the case — it’s much more complex than that.

7) When will you abandon the theater for the more lucrative world of television writing?
Right now the TV execs aren’t exactly banging down my door. “An Off-Broadway show about the sociopolitical implications of religious extremism in rural America?! Get that guy on Two and a Half Men!”

8. Why are you such a dick?
I’m going to punch you in rehearsal tomorrow, that’s why.

CATEGORIES: Interviews, Theater

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