BWW Interview: Samuel D Hunter and Braden Abraham Talk Seattle Rep's A GREAT WILDERNESS
The discussion on conversion or reparative therapies seems to be growing fast, especially with many states enacting bans on conversion therapy practices on gays. And now the Seattle Rep has commissioned a play on the topic from rising star playwright Samuel D Hunter with his "A Great Wilderness". I got to sit down and discuss the show with Hunter as well as director Braden Abraham to get their in depth look at this upcoming work.
Sam, what drew you to this kind of subject matter?
SH - I've written quite a few plays that deal with Christianity in America and one of the first plays that sort of lifted my career a little bit was a play called "A Bright New Boise". I became really interested in writing plays where the main characters are people that are not immediately relatable. Because I feel like the way that religion is normally treated in the theater is that they're sort of secondary characters. There's Christian plays and books and everything where it's espousing about a very specific world view and it's for a very specific audience. And in a lot of so called secular media; the Christian characters are the secondary characters, often they're really shallow, often they're underdeveloped and so I think that with a play like this, the trick of the play is can I write a play about somebody who has a belief structure that most of the people going to Seattle Rep are going to find pretty abhorrent and can I make that person relatable? It's the ... can I create empathy for this person that the audience would reject in their daily life, and hopefully that journey is a greater journey than if you're presented with a character who is immediately relatable and immediately somebody you want to go and have a beer with.
There's a mounting trend about conversion therapy bans going around the country. Washington is talking about it, New Jersey and California already did it. What's your stance on those kinds of things?
SH - I think conversion therapy is deeply, deeply hurtful and I think these bans are very good things. I think that forcing kids to ... and I think the play really illustrates this that forcing kids to go into these sorts of programs is deeply hurtful psychologically and I think that's obvious to anybody who looks at it objectively in any way.
From seeing the workshop of the play, it seems that the play doesn't really preach one way or the other topic of religion or conversion therapy, it really just kind of puts it out there. What do you hope your audience will come away from the piece with?
SH - The last thing that I want to do is write a play that can be distilled down to a singular thesis statement and especially with something like this where, like you say, conversion therapy is really in the news, people have a lot of opinions about it and so the trick with a play like this is to really both be honest about its portrayal and I think it's very honest in its destructive power. I mean in the play this man, his life and family's life has been laid waste by this life's pursuit of reparative therapy, but in the same sense I don't want the play to ever teach the audience something in this direct way. Hopefully what this is doing is just fostering a deeper understanding of how fundamentalist religion interplays in people's lives and the conflict that that creates when somebody tries to be a Biblical literalist in 2013.
Braden, what drew you to Sam's play?
BA - I started reading Sam's plays probably like four years ago with "Bright New Boise" and then I read "The Whale" and then we talked to Sam about doing this commission and I just like the rich internal life of the play. These plays are really about the nuances between people, which is just something as a director I'm always drawn to and I think it's the kind of work we often do at Seattle Rep that's really character driven about real things happening to real people.
What's your approach for a play with such a divisive topic as this?
BA - I just jump right in. I like controversy, I like plays that I think the conversation is good. I think that's what the theater is about, a place where people can come together and watch something together, experience together, experience an emotional thing together and then have the opportunity to sort of talk about it after they leave.