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March 6, 2014

Lucas Hnath, a Humana Festival staple


The Christians marks playwright Lucas Hnath’s third time in the Human Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. His plays Death Tax (2012) and nightnight, part of Sleep Rock Thy Brain (2013) have made Hnath a Humana Festival staple. As the title of this year’s play suggests, The Christians takes on faith and the Church, but not in the way theater audiences will expect. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked with Hnath about his experience at Humana, how non-believers experience the language of sermons, and writing a play that takes Christianity seriously.

Culturadar: Why did you choose to write about Christianity?


Lucas Hnath: It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I’d made a first stab at writing a play about a church sometime back in 2000. One of the reasons I’m interested in this subject is that I’m struck by how theater typically handles the subject of Christianity. I’ve found that more often than not it is handled satirically, and there seems to be too little consideration of why Christians believe what they believe and what’s at stake in those beliefs. It just seemed to be an aspect of the subject that was missing. For me, the dilemma was how to write a play about Christianity that takes on the belief seriously without the audience starting to laugh. This isn’t to say that the play doesn’t have laughs, but it took me a long time to figure out how to achieve the right tone.


CR: What enabled you to figure out how to do it?


LH: One thing that helped was to decide to take on the form of a church service. The play begins with a sermon, and from that point on the subsequent scenes use the grammar of church service to theatricalize what’s happening. For example, during the sermon the pastor and the associate pastor use a hand microphone, and from that point on all the scenes are played out on microphones. So there’s that formal device that actually makes you go inside of that world, to inhabit it. A more important pathway in was that it wasn’t going to be a play about believers versus non-believers but about a disagreement in doctrine—universalism, the belief that Christ is not the only way into heaven. That sort of debate is at the heart of the play. I think cracking open that aspect of it made it possible to signal to the audience that this wasn’t satire.


CR: How much research did you do and what was drawn from your own experiences?


LH: I listened to many, many hours of recordings of sermons. I watched a lot of videos of sermons. I did a bit of research into the theology that is discussed in the play. My mother is an ordained minister so she was the fact checker for me and she was giving me thoughts. Actually, my research was quite easy for this. The play was ultimately written very quickly, and I had so much material. About last March I had a draft of the play that was about 300 pages long, and from that point on it just became a process of stripping away.


CR: You always use language in interesting ways. How do you use language in this play?


LH: This play is a new kind of use of language for me. I had just done a couple of plays in a row about fragmented language, Disney being the most extreme example where there are pages and pages in which no one even completes a sentence. This play not only completes the sentences but slows down the language a little bit. When I first workshopped the play, I got together actors and showed them videos of preachers preaching. I asked the actors—and they were, by and large, atheist or agnostic people, no Christians—to write down anything the preachers did that made them cringe or have a knee-jerk negative reaction, any words that the preachers used that made them reject outright what they were saying. We created this big list of words—I just call them BS triggers—so the challenge became how to construct a sermon that evades all of those words or rhetorical tactics. For some reason, the word “victorious” really turns people off. Deeper than that, any language of war. Then there were tropes in sermons that people found appealing, like the right amount of repetition at the right moment and moments when the sermon moves from scripted into improvised.


CR: Did you only want to use positive words to draw in people skeptical about a play about Christianity?


LH: It’s funny, there are two radically different audiences here at Humana. You have the local Louisville audience in a densely Christian state. It’s a very religious community. I actually wanted to write something that talked to them, that spoke to them, that was for them. This was a commission from Actors Theatre of Louisville, so I was thinking a lot about the audience here. At the same time, the two last weekends of Humana is when the whole industry descends on the town. There are, of course, believers in the theater industry, but I don’t think I would be off base to say that there are very high number of agnostics and just general non-believers in the theater community. How do I write something that actually speaks to both audiences? That was something that was on my mind.


CR: Is this your first time working with director Les Waters?


LH: Yes, we met when I did Death Tax at Humana. He was a big advocate of that play. We first worked together on a workshop of The Christians at the Kennedy Center. I had suspected that we would get along, and we completely fell in love with each other at the Kennedy Center. We’ll be sitting next to each other, and he’ll make a note and I’ll make a note in my script, and we’ll realize we made the same exact note about what to cut, what to change. It does feel like we are in harmony.


CR: What does he bring to the production?


LH: I wrote the play specifically with Les in mind, thinking about what Les is great at. I actually asked [playwright] Caryl Churchill, “I’m thinking of working with Les, what is Les best at?” She had a long list of things. She mentioned that he’s brilliant at design and that he’s really, really good at dealing with difficult emotions. That stuck with me, and I tried to embed that in the play. I think he’s also good with stillness, and I’m interested in stillness. He’s good at creating a tableau and just letting very small delicate but fascinating things organically emerge from that. And he’s very funny. That gave me the freedom to not put jokes in this play and have the confidence that Les would be able to draw out what’s funny about it.


CR: What is the experience at Humana like? How much do you work on the play while you’re there?


LH: They really leave it open for the writer. It is without exception the best new play experience that I’ve had, having been here 3 times. This time I’m fortunate to be here for much of the rehearsal. I did very little writing outside of the rehearsal room. There’s something in how Les conducts rehearsal that it’s quite easy to make changes in the room with him. Honestly, the changes I made in the room are better than the changes I would have made in my little apartment at night.

(Photos by Michael Brosilow)


Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.


Posted at 6:07 PM

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