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.
For me the play is ... it's a real tragedy. It's a real classic tragedy. It's about a man who has built what he thinks is a safe haven for himself and for these boys and what he's really built is a prison that's built on a lie and the play is about how he faces that and how that faces him and what the price of denial is for him and his family and how this tragedy ripples through his entire life. It's just something that's very universal. It goes all the way back to the Greeks and through classic American literature for sure and this play is definitely of the moment. It's about what's happening right now, but it has those rich classical bones as a tragedy.
How much do you feel that the play has changed since last year's workshop?
SH - The plot, being the arrangement of events, has not really changed very much. I feel like the changes that we've made are how an audience is navigated through this material. It's really just about the psychological journey of these characters.
Like, Walt has two big monologues in the play. One in Act One and one in Act Two and at one point we flipped them. It didn't change the plot at all but it changed the narrative. It changed the psychological narrative and the narrative for the audience. It changed the journey for the audience but it didn't change any kind of mechanics of how the play was built.
BA - Yes, in fact I was thinking about this the other day. I remember while I was watching it and I was like, oh my God! It seems so obvious that this is the way it should be.
Is there something that either of you would like to see any gay teens that come to see the show come way with?
SH - I think that ... put it like this. There's a gay 16 year old in this play and myself being once a gay 16 year old, I thought about myself a lot while I was writing it and what I hope a gay kid coming out of this play would think is that the people in this play live in a bubble and in that bubble this idea, gay reparative therapy, has just laid waste, but it's very clearly a bubble. I mean these people in this play, as much as we talk about them being full characters who we care about, are people who are caged in by these archaic beliefs and I think that for me, when I was a young gay kid what was so painful about being gay and being a Christian was that I felt like my entire world was caving in on me.
Hopefully what a play like this does is show it as being just that; as a bubble and that there is an entire world outside of it.
BA - I think too, living in Seattle, it reminds you that we also live in a kind of bubble in a way compared to some other parts of the country and that there are people out there who don't have access to progressive culture like we have here and some where can they turn if they want something outside of that?
I think the play reminds you that even though our culture is changing so fast now, exponentially the tide is turning against reparative therapy and now gay people can get married and these barriers and these persecutions are sort of crumbling down in our institutions and yet we have to remember that because things are changing so fast, there are still places where this is true; where this is still happening and even if the country is really swinging in that way, there's still a good percentage of people who don't think this way.
And so I think for young people growing up here I think that's a really good thing to see, to be reminded of, that this fight is still going.
SH - Both internally and externally.
BA - Yeah. And the play is about what happens when you internalize these forces and that price.
And one last question that I ask to all my interviewees, what's the thing you geek out about? What's your geekdom?
BA - Until very recently it was "Breaking Bad", but I don't know, I don't have ... I need a new one.
SH - I share that. I went a little nuts over "Breaking Bad". God! I fancy myself a beer geek. There are many people who know a lot more about beer than me but I will geek out over a really rare keg of barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout that I'm tasting before anybody else. I will definitely go a little nuts over that.