For playwright Lucas Hnath, a theater is not just a house of entertainment. He sees opportunity in a room full of strangers watching other strangers on stage, an opportunity for debate.
Compared with film, Hnath said theater has a greater tolerance for characters to talk uninterrupted for stretches of time, which “creates a responsibility for plays to show long arguments and have that extended train of thought.”
The 2016 Obie Award winner will join Kate Hamill, the Wall Street Journal’s 2017 “Playwright of the Year,” in a panel led by Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn for the 10:45 a.m. lecture Friday, June 29, in the Amphitheater, culminating a weeklong discussion of “The Life of the Written Word.”
Today’s lecture is a homecoming for Kahn, who will return to Chautauqua for the first time in over 30 years. Kahn founded in 1983 what was then known as The Theater School for acting students at Chautauqua. Two years later, Kahn directed The Glass Menagerie for the newly renamed Chautauqua Conservatory Theater Company.
Kahn said he is excited to see how the grounds have changed and to speak with Hnath and Hamill, two of theater’s rising stars.
“Their styles are different, but something they share is in many different ways serious moral questions that are at the heart of what they write. They are trying to investigate and uncover issues that are really relevant.”
–Michael Kahn, Artistic Director, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Hnath said he sees the stage as a public forum, which is one of the reasons his plays often involve hot-button topics.
The Christians critiques megachurches and organized religion, while Hillary and Clinton comments on the compromises politicians have to make on the campaign trail. Red Speedo deals with doping in professional sports, highlighting an obsession with competition.
In 2017, Hnath made his Broadway debut with A Doll’s House, Part 2, which was nominated for eight Tony awards, including Best Play. It continues the story of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, seeing Nora return to her family years later as a feminist novelist seeking divorce. This August, the play will see its Australian premiere.
Hamill said she conveys her arguments through the familiar guise of literary classics. Her stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was nominated for the Drama League Award and won the 2016 Off-Broadway Alliance Award.
When adapting for the stage,Hamill said she views her writing as a brand new play that tells a story through a modern feminist lens.
“I do not like a copy-and-paste collaboration,” Hamill said.
Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice imagined the Bennet sisters’ pursuit of love as a game of basketball. She has also adapted Vanity Fair and is currently working on Little Women, The Scarlet Letter and The Odyssey.
Although Hamill is not the first to write these works for the stage, she said previous adaptations have relegated women to supporting roles even when they are the focus of the story.
“Men have had a millennium-long head start on owning the classics,” Hamill said. “I really want to reclaim those narratives for everyone, for all genders.”
In 2013, the Tony-nominated director of Show Boat was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. During his tenure at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Kahn introduced plays like Don Carlos and Strange Interlude to the American theater repertoire. He plans to retire in 2019.
When it comes to writing characters, Hnath said he tries to imbue them with different ideologies, allowing them to clash on stage via dialogue.
Hnath said he takes inspiration from the way legal briefs structure and stack their arguments. He also encourages actors to not overblow their delivery, allowing the argument to shine through for the audience to judge.
“I want the sound of the thinking to be louder than the sound of the performing,” Hnath said.
Hamill said she sees a dearth in three-dimensional roles for women that go beyond a wife, girlfriend or prostitute. As both a playwright and actress, Hamill often plays the powerful women she writes to fill this void. In her latest project, Mansfield Park, Hamill plays the devious Mary Crawford.
“Quite often when I’m writing a play, I write with certain actors’ voices in mind, whether or not they ultimately get those roles,” Hamill said. “Mine just happens to be one of those voices.”
Hamill and Hnath both said theater differs from other genres of writing because the energy of an audience directly impacts the argumentation.
“There’s something about doing it live in a room that is particularly effective,” Hnath said. “You sort of feel like you have a jury watching and you hear the audience react and be pulled with the argument.”