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Playwrights Horizons: An Interview With the Playwright

Artistic Director Tim Sanford chats with Lucas Hnath

Tim Sanford: Did you think of yourself as an artist in college? Did you spread yourself out to other subjects?
Lucas Hnath: The funny thing is my first year I was getting ready for a pre-med track. I had not gone to NYU for Tisch. I’d gone there because I wanted to be in New York, but I was interested in science. My better scores were always in science. I thought writing was a bit tedious. I didn’t think I was very good with words. But then when I was in New York I discovered Caryl Churchill here, I discovered Richard Foreman, and I tipped over and transferred into Dramatic Writing. [I also took] a Psychology of Marriage class, I took a Gender and Literature class... And I loved reading Lacan, I thought that was fun, and Hélène Cixous and all of those very heady theorists....

TS: Do you think these theorists influenced your writing in some way?
Lacan’s probably easiest to connect to my work. I think a thing that I got out of reading Lacan was this idea about how what’s “real” keeps slipping away from you, so you have to spray things with language in order to see them better, to see something incredibly difficult to see by approaching it from lots of tricky angles.

TS: One of the things I love about your plays is the way you continually shift our expectations. Is that something you’re conscious of in writing?

Yes. Yes. Trying to take on the perverse perspective. It’s something that I studied. Caryl Churchill does it a lot; [Wallace] Shawn does it a lot. In applying it to The Christians, there are a couple ways I approached it. [T]he first 30 pages or so of the play were built in a workshop I did at New Dramatists. ...I had some material written, but not too much. I actually spent the first day of the workshop showing the actors videos of various preachers,... and I had the actors take notes and I asked them to write down everything that they saw that was exactly what they would have expected to see from a preacher, and then everything that upended expectations. And we made lists on the board, and I was interested in both. I would sort of plot out: “Okay, so I want to have a certain amount of the expected. And then I will strategically put in moments where something that you wouldn’t quite expect happens.”

TS: How long has the possibility of a play about religion or church been inside of you?

A long time. From about 2000 or so.

TS: What was drawing you to it?

Having spent a good part of my childhood in a very large church, there’s something of a nostalgia trip for me. But I think even more importantly, I’ve seen very little drama about churches that I think actually understands what’s at stake in the beliefs.

TS: What do you think the common trap is?

It’s jumping to the assumption that for the person who has particularly fundamentalist beliefs, let’s say, that they are stupid or that they are acting first and foremost out of hatred. And not really considering the factor that from a fundamentalist point of view, in many cases there are very severe stakes attached to being wrong. That “if I am doing something that is actually against the word of God, then I’m going to be punished.” And I think people forget about that. There are enormous stakes attached: eternal damnation.

 

Excerpted from material originally prepared by Playwrights Horizons, for the New York premiere and reprinted here with permission.