SAMUEL D. HUNTER AND DAVIS McCALLUM
Author and Director of THE HARVEST
In conversation with Natasha Sinha, LCT3 Associate Director
Natasha Sinha (LCT3 Associate Director): Welcome to LCT3, Sam and Davis! You’ve been here developing Sam’s commission, THE HARVEST, and we’re so excited that you’re now starting rehearsals and that audiences can come see the production this fall. Can you each start off by telling us how you found your way to theater and/or your roles within it?
Samuel D. Hunter (Playwright): How did you find directing, Davis? I know bits and pieces of that story, but I don’t know if I know the whole thing.
Davis McCallum (Director): When I was a junior in college, I took a year off and took an acting job with a touring Shakespeare company called Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. They were based in Shenandoah, VA, and it was a nine-month, non-equity tour. We did four Shakespeare plays in rep: AS YOU LIKE IT, JULIUS CAESAR, HENRY V, and COMEDY OF ERRORS. And at the end of that nine-month tour I thought, “I… don’t know if I’m an actor.” Because I loved rehearsing the plays, but performing them over and over again— even in rep, and in different spaces— wasn’t something I really knew how to support. What was fun for me was the discovery of finding the story itself. The continual generosity of performance is a special gift that pertains to actors. Then I went to graduate school and started reading plays, and realized I was starting to think of them with questions that are more directorial, like “What space should this be in? What should this feel like? What does this remind me of? What’s the structure of the story? What’s the event of the scene?” as opposed to thinking, “Oh, I think I understand that guy…” which I think is more of an actor instinct about how to respond to a play.
NS: I know you as both a Shakespeare director (and of course you’re also the Artistic Director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival) and also as a director of new work like Sam’s. How do the two kinds of plays relate for you, Davis?
DM: I still think the basic job is the same: to get a group of people to have one idea of the story they’re telling, and find out collectively how to tell that story in a way that’s as expressive as it can possibly be to an audience. There’s something about the way we approach new plays— to try and figure out why this thing has to happen right here. If anything, my work on new plays has informed my work on Shakespeare, because now even with a play that is 400 years old, I feel it’s useful to kind of prod at a scene and think, “Why does this scene have to be in this play? Why did the writer, whether he’s been dead for 400 years or not, include this bit? What’s the essential aspect of that story that needs to get told?”
NS: And Sam, how’d you find your way into being a playwright? Did Shakespeare play any role in it?
DM: Who did you play in TAMING OF THE SHREW?
SH: Well, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. I played Leonato. I had one monologue where I got to shout, which I was really happy about. I was interested in acting— I thought acting was a lot of fun. I wasn’t a good actor, but in a high school in Moscow, Idaho? I got cast a lot just because I could talk loud and I was tall, so then immediately I could play all the older men. But I first had a really strong interest in poetry, and Allen Ginsberg was like my patron saint when I was in high school. I was genuinely interested in theater, but I knew I didn’t really want to be an actor. Then I read OUR TOWN in high school and loved it, and I ended up directing it for the high school production. And actually, the girl playing the Stage Manager dropped out two days before we started performances, so I played the Stage Manager, too. And I just loved all of it. I loved the whole experience of making it and building it. Because I was also interested in writing, it was kind of a natural thing to start writing plays. I wrote this play when I was a junior in high school called—well, I won’t say the name because it’s too embarrassing—and it was three hours long, and I got the local community theater to give me $300 to direct it myself in the dead of summer in this little theater on the University of Idaho campus with all these super gracious local actors. And I think I knew it wasn’t good, but I was just so happy to do it anyway.
NS: And so before this, you were writing only poetry?
SH: I was writing poetry, yeah, and some short stories—but mostly poetry. And then somebody told me about a playwriting program at NYU, so I wrote a two-character, one-act play which was not good, but was leaps and bounds better than the three-hour play I had written. Probably because there was a thirty or forty page limit to the application—it forced me to write something much simpler with discernable plot and character. And I used that as my submission to NYU, where I ended up going for undergrad.
NS: And tell me about how you two met, since you’ve had a pretty fantastic collaboration on several plays by now!
DM: We first worked together on a play of Sam’s called FIVE GENOCIDES that Clubbed Thumb produced as part of Summer Works at the Ohio.
SH: But we had met…
DM: (Laughter) Oh yes, okay: We met through Page 73’s summer retreat at Yale that they do every year. They bring a bunch of writers and directors, and I was going to be there working on another writer’s play. A couple days before we left for the retreat, I got a call saying, “Look, something’s come up with the housing,” and I was like, “Uh, okay...” and they said, “Would you mind having a roommate?” And I got to the Madison Towers in New Haven with my roller suitcase, checked into my room, and Sam was my roommate! He was sitting at the end of the room, and, you know—we said hi, and he was reading this huge book. I said “What are you reading?” And he showed me the cover of the book, and in my memory it just said “GENOCIDE.” And I was like, huh! He revealed he was working on a play about genocide, and I remember thinking “Wow, I wonder if that’s going to turn out to be a good play...” And at the end of the week, a bunch of actors cold-read maybe thirty pages of FIVE GENOCIDES and it was so surprising, and funny, and tonally unexpected, and smart and theatrical—I was just completely blown away by it. Then the next summer Clubbed Thumb decided to produce it, and I got to direct it.
SH: When we were in the middle of auditions for FIVE GENOCIDES, I got a call from Partial Comfort (a downtown company where I was a new member), and they had lost the play they wanted to do for the season, but they had space booked at the Wild Project (which was then a pretty new theater), and they said “We have a space— do you want to write us a play?” And this would be going into rehearsal in three or four months. And I said yes! And I remember going to Davis in the audition room for FIVE GENOCIDES, and this was before we had even been in the rehearsal room together, and I said, “I’m writing this play for Partial Comfort, do you want to direct it?” And I think you said, “What’s it about?” and I said, “I don’t know,” and then you said, “Okay.” And then that play ended up being A BRIGHT NEW BOISE. FIVE GENOCIDES was so great, but I kind of feel like A BRIGHT NEW BOISE was where we really gelled. For me, it was this amazing experience of watching Davis make the play into something so much greater than what was on the page.
DM: Yeah, I loved the experience of doing that play. I’m also mindful that part of me was like, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea to say yes to directing this play… You know, I haven’t even read the play… it’s going to be in New York… is this a prudent thing to do when you’re trying to build your career as a young director?” And this other part of me said, “What are you talking about?! This is a writer whose voice you believe in. Isn’t this why you got into directing plays in the first place?!”
NS: Aww, I love that story—A BRIGHT NEW BOISE was fantastic, so I’m glad you “imprudently” said yes! Sam, all your plays explore the human connection within loneliness, or separation. There’s a lot of talk (for good reason) about how your characters are drawn with such care and honesty that New York audiences sympathize with them, even if these characters are often the kinds of Midwestern American folks that a stereotypical NYC audience would usually dismiss. I’m curious how the audience energy may shift when you’re seeing your shows in Idaho, or somewhere rural.
SH: I mean, it’s interesting. It gets a little more complicated when my stuff is performed back home, because Idahoans respond like, “Hey, is this about me? What are you saying about me?” And I always have this complicated response of, “Well, this is kind of a fictionalized Idaho…” I’m using Idaho as kind of a metaphor for a larger cross-section of America.
What’s interesting about the challenge of a New York audience is that they’re actually maybe a little more distanced at first— Idaho is maybe a bit “exotic” for them. But I think the reward is greater when they get there.
NS: And Davis, have you worked on one of Sam’s plays outside of New York City?
DM: We went to San Diego; we’ve been to Dallas…
NS: Is the rehearsal process for you any different when you’re outside of the city?
DM: In the room, the process is pretty similar— but there’s a certain focus that comes from working on a new play out of town. I really loved both those experiences of making a play. They were both three-person plays and developing a small-cast play out of town was a really joyful experience—great actors, a beautiful new play, and none of the distraction of our personal and profession lives.
Read Part 2 of LCT3-D with Samuel D. Hunter and Davis McCallum.