October 13, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Heartland inspiration

‘A Bright New Boise’
Through Nov. 6
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW
$20-$67.50
202-393-3939

From left, Joshua Morgan, Emily Townley, Felipe Cabezas, Michael Russotto and Kimberly Gilbert in ‘A Bright New Boise’ by Samuel D. Hunter. (Photo by Stan Barouh; courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre)

For up-and-coming gay playwright Samuel D. Hunter, Idaho is an outsized source of inspiration.

“I’m originally from Idaho, and most of my plays are set there,” he says. “It’s a sort of canvas for me. Typically I like to use places and things I know as a jumping off point to explore things I’m not quite so sure about.”

Hunter’s best known play, “A Bright New Boise” for which he won a 2011 Obie Award (the off-Broadway Tony) for playwriting, is running at Woolly Mammoth and is the first of his plays to be produced in D.C. Set in the break room at a big box craft store called Hobby Lobby, “Boise” is a dark comedy whose central character is obsessed with the rapture.

“I’m very interested in people who want the world to end,” says Hunter, 30. “They’re so hard to figure out. But the play is about a lot more than the rapture. The spine of the story is the reunion of a father and his long lost son. It’s a human story that’s pretty universal.”

In recent weeks, Manhattan-based Hunter has been in D.C. completing rewrites and spending extra time with his partner John Baker, Woolly’s literary manager. Thus far, Hunter reports positively about the quality of the production (staged by gay director John Vreeke and featuring, among others, gay actors Michael Russotto and Joshua Morgan as the father and son, respectively).

Hunter’s characters aren’t particularly glamorous: They hold menial jobs, profess fundamentalist beliefs and are in many ways similar to a lot of Americans. “I like to write about folks who aren’t typically written about. Do we really need another play about rich white people getting divorced? Granted there are some good plays on the subject, but there’s so much more to put on our stages.”

Growing up in smallish Moscow, Idaho, Hunter (who goes by Sam) attended a Christian day school and worked part time at Wal-Mart. After high school, he attended New York University where he majored in dramatic writing and minored in Middle Eastern Studies. Later, he received an master’s degree from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Since then, he’s taught at Fordham University, as well as in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at Ashtar Theater (Ramallah) and Ayyam al-Masrah (Hebron). But mostly he writes plays.

Winning the Obie Award was definitely a turning point in Hunter’s increasingly busy career. “It’s not like I won an Oscar, but yes, it lifted my career. It used to be there were all the fancy people and then there’s me. After winning I began to feel like a member of the club. I finally believed it was possible for me to sustain a career in theater.”

And now as a hot emerging playwright with a progressively more demanding schedule, Hunter has had to give up the regular teaching gig. In addition to “Boise’s” D.C. run, Hunter soon has other plays opening at the Denver Center, and, yes, the Boise Contemporary Theater. Sounding almost entirely convinced, he says, “I have my life figured out for the next year and a half, and I’m pretty certain I can survive on what I earn as a playwright. Considering the economy, I think that’s pretty good.”

And what’s Hunter writing about now?

“A lot of my past plays involve dull jobs and parking lots. Currently I’m working on a play about the Home Shopping Network and the culture of all that. I enjoy exploring boring things. If I still lived in Idaho, I’d probably be writing about New York City.”

 

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