A conversation between playwrights Lucas Hnath (The Christians) and Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men)
Playwrights Lucas Hnath and Young Jean Lee have busy schedules, full of writing, rewriting, workshopping, teaching, traveling, rewriting some more. So Audience Engagement Creative Producer Greta Honold caught them on email and over several weeks the three developed an impressive email thread!Excerpts of this conversation are included in The Christians and Straight White Men show programs. Here is the exchange in its entirety:
GH: Was there something specific that inspired your writing of the play?
LH: I never have one specific starting place for a play. There are always many. I remember back in 2000 watching a reading of Edward II and thinking that something about that play reminded me of behind-the-scenes battles in big churches.
YJL: Had you had personal experiences with this in the past? What experience have you had with religion in the past?
LH: I grew up in a so-called "mega-church" in Orlando, Florida. Additionally, my mother went to seminary when I was 12 or 13, so I actually often attended classes with her. She's currently ordained and works as a Hospice chaplain. So I've been immersed in several different facets of that world.
I can't even remember specifically what it was about Edward II or that particular performance that got my brain thinking on that track. But ever since then I'd been thinking of writing a play about a doctrinal controversy within the church.
Then twelve years later, Actors Theatre of Louisville commissioned me to write a play for the 2014 Humana Festival. I knew what theatre we'd be in, the Pamela Brown, a great big wide stage. It's a challenging space because you really have to fill it, and most of my plays are very intimate and intense. So I thought I'd like to do a play that uses microphones so I can fill the space and also maintain the intimacy. That got me to thinking about my 12-year old idea to write a play about a very big church that's getting torn apart by a doctrinal controversy. And this seemed like an especially interesting idea for the Humana Festival because I'd come to learn that the festival has two very different audiences: the local Louisville audience and the theatre industry that comes in from out of town. And I had learned from my time at the theatre, getting to know subscribers, that a relatively high percentage of local attendees identified as Christian, while a comparatively high number of out-of-town attendees identified as 'not'. I got interested in writing a play about religion that could speak simultaneously to both audiences.
YJL: Did you notice a difference in their reactions? If so, what was it?
LH: More remarkable, I think, was how similar the reactions were. More or less, it seemed both ends of the audience in Louisville were on the same page. However, there was a difference in how the audiences responded in NYC versus Louisville. In NYC the audience was very eager to hear the play as a satire. Most nights there were big laughs from the very start of the play. Andrew Garman, who played Pastor Paul, had to do a lot subtle moves--little adjustments in his tone of voice, his volume, his rhythm, where and how long he pauses--to gently move the audience away from that response. Most nights it took roughly the first 15 minutes of the play to show the audience what kind of play they're watching.
Young Jean, how many different cities have you been in with Straight White Men? I'm curious if you've noticed interesting variances in audience response and if the play needed to recalibrate with respect to the reception.
YJL: I think nine different cities. People laugh a lot more in the U.S. than in Europe, and get more angry about the ending. They really don’t like it that there’s not a happy resolution, and that no secrets are revealed that explain everything. European audiences are much less attached to conventional theater structures and tend to like the ending more. It’s a pretty American play, so they don’t always get all the jokes. The only adjustment I’ve had to make is making sure the actors enunciate a little better in Europe so that people can follow what they're saying better.
GH: Young Jean, what about you? Was there something specific that inspired your writing of Straight White Men?
YJL: When starting a play, I ask myself, “What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?” Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places. I feel a lot of resistance towards the idea of identity-politics art, which is why I make so much of it. For Straight White Men, I asked myself, “What’s the last identity I would ever want to make an identity-politics show about?”
LH: I've heard you say this before about writing the last show in the world you would ever want to make. I love that as a frame for finding the play that you most need to write. This always made want to ask you though: what's the first show in the world you would ever want to make? If you were to just stay in the center of your comfort zone, what would that play be?
YJL: The center of my comfort zone would be trying to imitate someone else’s play that I love. Unfortunately that never works, so it’s not an option for me.
Straight White Men isn’t “about” privilege or attempting to reveal anything new about it or solve it. I was more curious about the question, “If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight white man, what would I do?” That’s where the existential crisis came up for me, because it would be one thing if I woke up as a straight white man who never thought about his identity and enjoyed his privilege unthinkingly—that might feel kind of good. But if I were to wake up with my own brain in a straight white male body, it would be completely problematic. So it was less that I was trying to create sympathy for straight white male identity, than I was trying to inhabit that identity as a woman of color. SWM is designed to make audiences notice their own responses and think about their relationships to their own privilege.
LH: And so what have been the responses from audience members? Any interesting trends in how they think about their relationship to their privilege after watching the play? Maybe that question is way too broad, because I imagine there's a great deal of variation within any given audience population.
YJL: It’s not a play with a clear message, so what I’ve seen the most is people feeling bothered or upset afterwards, and not always knowing why. Anger is a common response. People always stay for the talk-backs because they want to figure out what just happened to them and why they’re feeling this way. One person said, “Why did the playwright do this to us?” It always strikes me that an audience can spend 3/4 of a play laughing their heads off and having a great time, and then be so bothered at the end. People have told me the play has prompted lots of conversation and introspection.
GH: Did the creation of these pieces come about in a manner typical to you and your writing process, or was the development of them unique in any way?
YJL: With all my shows, I cast the show first, and then write it in collaboration with the performers, my artistic team, and workshop audiences. Normally when I have conversations about identity with female, queer, or minority cast members, we end up with an avalanche of intense political material to dig into. But the conversations with straight white male actors didn’t generate the same kind of material, because they had spent so much less time thinking about straight white male identity. So starting very early on, we opened up the conversation to other collaborators of diverse identities and backgrounds. The character of Matt came out of a workshop that I was doing at a university. The students, who were very diverse, were extremely hard on straight white men. So I asked them to make a list of all the things they wished straight white men would do, which included things like keeping quiet and staying out of the way. Then I took that list and created Matt. Interestingly, they all hated him, because they felt he was a loser for not behaving the way a “normal” straight white male should. And that’s what made me realize that, in spite of all these social-justice values, in our peer group, being a loser is worse than being a jerk. It kind of revealed our continuing investment in the patriarchy.
LH: Oh that's a great story. So in the course of working on the play, you discover this really intriguing idea. Does that idea find its way back into the play? And if so, how did you incorporate it into the play in such a way that might allow the audience to encounter the same discovery you encountered.
YJL: Yes, it’s in the play, and it’s there for the audience to find, but not everyone sees it.
LH: I too often begin writing with a workshop. I write some pages of scene fragments, scraps of language, and as soon as possible I get into a room with actors and begin experimenting. I had my initial workshop at New Dramatists. I asked for five actors and three microphones. I showed the actors many videos of preachers preaching. I asked the actors to take notes and write anything the preachers said or did that matched their expectation and anything that subverted expectations, and then I asked the actors to write down anything that the preachers said or did that made them feel suspicious of or not trust the preacher. In this work is collecting received notions about preachers and Christianity while also identifying anything that was a turn-off or made people stop listening. My goal was to, by the end of week, take all of this information and use it to write a sermon that a non-Christian could listen to and start to think, "well, maybe the preacher's got a point." To be clear, I wasn't trying to convert anyone. I was just trying to get a decent number of audience members to get past certain assumptions about Christianity and hear what the character is really trying to communicate. The play and its aesthetic came out of this work. It affected everything from the narrative to its design.
YJL: When I have conducted workshops in the past I’ve always had my own company to be able to make this happen. Is New Dramatists the only venue where you can do this kind of exploring, or do theaters set workshops like this up for you?
LH: No, New Dramatists isn't the only place where I can develop in the room, but it's easiest there. I've done it there before, and so they understand how I like to work and they are so accommodating. Elsewhere, I have to explain what I'm doing and so it's just a little bit more bother. But only a little. I'm lucky in that the theatres I've worked with have been very supportive of my way of working.
Wait, so I do want to steer back to how you develop work, which again, is similar to how I build plays. You’ve sort of created a 21st century Joint Stock approach to building plays that goes so far as to use Facebook to do a kind of crowdsourced research. That work of crowd-sourcing some of your research via Facebook--I've always wondered, on a really practical level, how do you take in all of that information? And have you discovered surprising pros and cons to working that way?
YJL: There are no cons to it for me. I’ve gotten so used to picking out all the useful ideas and ignoring the rest that it’s like being really experienced in panning for gold or something. Maybe my background in academic research has helped. I can go through 70 pages of notes relatively quickly and pick out what I need.
GH: Both plays have now received multiple productions. What is it like revisiting your plays in the context of current events? Do meanings change as time passes?
YJL: When the play premiered, I think people had a hard time understanding it. I think the idea of straight white maleness as an identity seemed irrelevant or baffling to most people. Audiences would tend to focus on the family dynamics and tune out any political content. Now, post Trump’s election, suddenly a bunch of people really get the play. I think audiences will listen more closely now than before. The play is an attempt to hone in on a particular problem within cultural politics that has now come glaringly to the fore, with disastrous consequences.
LH: Yes, similar to what Young Jean observed, there's been a shift in frame of reference. Since the election, I'm being asked to speak about the play in context of one political side's inability to see the points of view of the opposing political side. I think that means that people are moving away from seeing the play as being exclusively about religion and more about communication or about the trouble that occurs when you're not able to sufficiently account for why you believe what you believe.
GH: You’ve both created very unique and intentional theatrical frames for these stories. Can you speak a bit about what you're doing with this framing, and its intended effect on the audience?
LH: I always knew that the play would be in the form of a church service. Church is a form of theatre, therefore it made sense to just embrace it. That meant the play needed to start with a sermon. And then we'd watch the immediate response to the sermon, and the play would go on to consider the less-immediate response to the sermon, but by that point it seemed like it would be weird to break the form of a church service. The church service feels so theatrical and present-tense. For example, the microphones train us to listen to the play in a particular way, and so to suddenly stop using microphones seemed like it would result in a sudden drop in energy. And so while the play tells the story of what happens during the weeks that follow the sermon, the play is still performed using all of the conventions of a church service.
But also, even though half the scenes of the play don't take place in a church, all the scenes are essentially debates, and the play's theatrical frame tells us to watch the play as a kind of public forum. This play isn't trying to show us a slice-of-story about a church. I'm attempting to stage a suspenseful, dialectically-taut battle of ideas.
YJL: How did you make it feel theatrical, as opposed to just a debate? I’m really asking about how you figured out how to keep the audience’s attention in this format.
LH: Making the conversation of ideas dramatic helps some with theatricality. Generally speaking, it seems that debate becomes dramatic when one character has something personally at stake in trying to convince another person to believe what they believe. The microphones help a great deal in terms of theatricality though. This is a play where, at times, the most dramatic thing a person does is to decide whether or not speak. By giving everyone hand-held microphones you can actually see the decision happen. There are moments where a person might lean into a microphone, then pause, then lean back, deciding to hold back a comment. The handling of the mic itself makes visible some of the characters' thinking. And then lastly, the choir is an important part of the theatrical equation. The bones of the play are Greek. And so you have scenes of intense argument, broken up by a church choir singing. Alternating between the logo-centric mode of the play and something more euphoric like choral singing significantly helps to theatricalize the event.
YJL: I had never written a straight linear play before and had no interest in doing so, but I saw the traditional three-act structure as the “straight white male” of theatrical forms, or the form that has historically been used to present straight white male narratives as universal. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the limits of that form at the same time as its content-- to bring the two together into one big nightmare. I also built a non-traditional framework around this naturalistic piece. I tried to create a pre-show environment with music that would make someone like me feel comfortable and at home (loud hip-hop with raunchy lyrics by female artists). And I think it worked. Wherever we’ve done the show, some audience members—definitely not all, but a lot of them—have gotten very upset, because they didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. They felt that the music was aggressive toward them, and when they tried to make it stop and no one would comply with their requests, they got extremely angry. It really highlighted the privilege of our audiences. And I added a transgender/queer non-straight-white-male character to be the announcer at the beginning of the show and to direct the transitions (which are lit) to show that a non-straight-white-male was running the show.
LH: What did you identify as being the hallmarks or essential elements of the "traditional three-act structure"? And what are the limits of that form? And do you depart from the form/tradition in places other than the pre-show or scene transitions? And if so, were you consciously doing so?
YJL: For me, the biggest thing was that the characters had to stay within the believable human bounds of consistency. And there had to be some kind of linearity to it story-wise. The limit of the form is that you can’t have the characters suddenly come out and confront the audience directly and say things they want the audience to hear. Everything has to happen through identification with fictional characters. I feel like I departed from tradition at the end, since nobody got shot or killed themselves or revealed a dark secret or solved all their problems.