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): Hi Sam! While Davis is busy in tech for The Harvest, can you tell us about the inspiration for telling this particular story? I know you were recently talking about that road trip down to southeastern Idaho.
Samuel D. Hunter (Playwright): I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school, so I’ve always been really interested in the way that the more extreme versions of faith interact with modern life—which is why I’ve been toying with those themes in my writing for a while now. But I think this is the first time I’m going directly at it, since every character in the play (save one) is deeply religious. There’s a surface-level conflict between a brother and a sister and opposing wants, but the deeper-level conflict of the play is an existential crisis. And what I’m really interested in is putting those big themes and ideas into quotidian, banal containers.
A couple summers ago I drove up and down Idaho, which is a huge amount of driving, and stayed at Best Westerns and little motels. I mostly took rural routes, rather than the interstate, because I wanted to see everything. I’m from northern Idaho, and Idaho Falls is all the way down and east, so it felt like the longest reach of my journey. Maybe there was psychologically something for me about having been driving for days before arriving in this town. It felt kind of epic. And I remember I was driving and talking to my mother on a Bluetooth phone, and at some point I just started counting the Mormon meeting houses— seven or eight in the space of ten minutes or so. And Idaho Falls is only about sixty thousand people or so! Then I drove past this small building that looked like a non-denominational church. I thought that was so interesting— the condition of being “an island of truth in an ocean of Mormon apostasy” (which is a line in the play). It was just interesting to imagine there being sectarian differences in a town like this.
It got me really interested in radicalization. The experiment of the play was: can I tell the story of someone becoming radicalized, but do it in a drastically different context than we normally hear about those stories? Because when people think of radicalization, they immediately think of ISIS and clutch their pearls and say, “How could a person do this? Who are these monsters?” But it’s a very specific set of circumstances—cultural, socioeconomic, personal—that leads to this kind of extremism. But that being said, people could probably watch this entire play and not think it’s about radicalization, you know what I mean?
NS: Because it’s the lead-up? It’s the moment right before radicalization, right?
SH: Yeah, exactly.
NS: Did you have conversations with folks there that then fed into the play?
SH: A little bit! In a small town in northern Idaho called Sandpoint I found this group of older teenagers who looked like they were in the same family, wearing what looked like handmade clothes. They were downtown holding pictures of chopped-up fetuses. People were driving by and screaming at them— it was like a vitriol factory. I just went up to this one girl, and I didn’t even talk to her about abortion, I just talked to her about her day. While we were talking, somebody drove by and screamed some obscenity at her, and she just smiled at me and shrugged. And it was kind of heartbreaking in its own way.
NS: Right, you felt for her. For the young adults we see in The Harvest, it’s almost like a relief from their own lives to go to the Middle East and bring the faith in which they believe so deeply to people they broadly perceive as suffering. Where did you go to in the Middle East and did those experiences inform moments in this play and affect your own worldview?
SH: I was in the Palestinian territories a while ago, in my early 20s. I was not there to evangelize, though— I was there to teach playwriting. But I will say: I was 23 so I was hovering around the age of the characters of this play, and I’m also a kid from Idaho. I was halfway around the planet in the Bush era, and maybe my form of evangelism was Western playwriting structure that I was sort of imposing on them. I did it without much thought about the cultural dialogue that was going on. Here I am, this white American waltzing in there and proclaiming “this is how you tell stories,” which is pretty complicated. And I think I was too young and naïve to realize that.
NS: Were the situations very different from summer to summer, or did you approach each trip differently each time?
SH: They were actually drastically different summers. This first summer was relatively quiet in terms of the violence. We’d be in the theatre rehearsing, and then suddenly a bunch of armored jeeps would roll into town, everybody would shut the door, and you’d hear machine guns or something like that. That’s pretty much as bad as it got. But in the summer of 2006—I think it was 2006—the Hamas-Fatah conflict was kind of in full force. Which was less clear and a little more scary, because it was Palestinian against Palestinian, you know what I mean? Also, I taught in Ramallah and Hebron, which are two drastically different places. Ramallah was much more cosmopolitan, at the time I believe they even had a Christian mayor. Hebron was a lot more conservative. The old city contains the burial place of Abraham— and Abraham is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, so it’s a hugely contentious landmark.
There’s one character in the play who is super apologetic about his nerves going over there, and I was definitely that kid. I was just asking a lot of questions over and over. “Will there be gunfire? How dangerous is it? Are there places I shouldn’t go?”
NS: That’s interesting to know about the different kinds of places you stayed, especially since we hear about most of the group going to a city, while Josh is going hours away up into the mountainside. These kids’ (and most Americans’) understanding about the Middle East is very much about one sweeping idea, but really there’s so much diversity within that.
SH: Exactly, these kids’ perspectives on it are very simplistic.
NS: Right. They just don’t know yet— because they’re young, because they haven’t been there, and because they aren’t exposed to many different perspectives in their small town.
SH: Yes, especially about the Middle East, which we paint with a pretty uniform brush.
NS: Yes, and that feels similar to how a NYC audience might usually paint a bunch of characters from a rural American place like Idaho Falls in a predictable way. But for example, in this play, we get to see Josh and Tom talk about music like most teenagers do. How does music or other art feed into writing your plays?
SH: Music shows up frequently in my plays. It remains a big presence in my life— especially classical music. I was serious about classical piano when I was in high school. And all through childhood, before I got interested in writing, I assumed that I would go into music.
NS: So did I! I was obsessed with the quartet as a teenager.
SH: “Quartet for the End of Time?” I saw a performance of that at the University of Idaho when I was seventeen, and it just blew my mind.
NS: I mean, I would listen to pop music, but I’d also listen to Messiaen.
SH: [Laughs] That’s fantastic!
NS: I love that we really connect with these characters, because yes they pray in tongues, but they also find funny pop CDs from when they were younger.
SH: And I think especially right now, when the country is so culturally bifurcated, it’s hard for people in Manhattan to realize that somebody who speaks in tongues in a church in southeastern Idaho also, like you say, has that Ashlee Simpson CD that they’re so embarrassed about.
NS: Right, you can’t see someone as a monster when you know things like that. Did anything surprise you as you were discovering these characters? I know you’ve explored people like them in so much of you work, but like you were saying, it’s a more direct look at it this time.
SH: Yeah, when I was writing it, for some reason, I did a lot of reshaping while building the first draft. There were a couple characters that I deleted, a couple new ones I brought in, and the central relationships evolved many times. I had very clear ideas of what I wanted the play to be—particularly the last twenty minutes. But it took a long time to find the right path to get there. So it was interesting because I was so deep within the weeds of the dramaturgy while building the play that I didn’t really have the space to “feel” it very deeply while writing. So once we had it up on its feet, and we were doing full runs, I had no idea how emotionally exhausting that would be for me. I guess I didn’t realize how close I am to the play—but once I had to live in it emotionally, it was sort of overwhelming. I had to struggle to maintain perspective.
NS: How did you do that? By having John [Sam’s husband, and a dramaturg] and Davis and us around…?
SH: Yeah, I think by surrounding myself with smart and trusted collaborators and making sure I’m telling the story for the audience, not for myself. I think my job as a dramatist is to take something deeply personal to me and to curate the experience in time for space so an audience can access it. And to not be afraid to do so.