Playwright Sam Hunter shares childhood stories, career advice

Matthew Choi, Reporter

Award-winning playwright Sam Hunter often felt at odds during his childhood, he told a Northwestern audience Friday.

Growing up in a small town in Idaho and attending a fundamentalist Christian school, Hunter said he did not fit in with his surroundings — playing music in unorthodox ways and being gay in a very religious setting.

Those experiences, he told the crowd of about 40, have played a big role in shaping his career and his work.

Hunter, known for his award-winning plays including “The Whale,” “A Bright New Boise” and “Rest,” spoke at the Wallis Theater at an event hosted by the Dramatists Guild Fund’s Traveling Masters Program and Vertigo Productions.

Communication Prof. Laura Schellhardt, who oversees the undergraduate playwriting initiative, moderated the event.

Hunter talked about his limited contact with secular literature in his Christian school. However, he described his discovery of beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s poetry as a watershed moment.

“I had never read anything like it,” Hunter said. “Here was this poetry that was breaking all the rules, but it was concrete. It was making these emotions concrete in words. And it opened up a whole new world for me.”

Hunter described writing poetry in secret and loving to read it out loud, which eventually piqued his interest in theater.

Hunter attended New York University to study playwriting. The change from a fundamentalist background in a small town in Idaho to New York City was a formative transition that he continues to incorporate in his work, Hunter said.

“The tension between rural and urban, religious and atheist, spiritual and secular — my plays are always somewhere in the middle,” he said.

Hunter also spoke about some of the challenges of writing plays, including balancing passion and work while making a career. It can be difficult to identify tangible contributions to society in a profession that isn’t mechanical, he said. Hunter also advised students not to anticipate making a lot of money, especially at the beginning of their careers, and to always have an alternate source of income.

“It’s really hard to figure out a balance,” Hunter said. “We are artists and love what we do, but we live inside capitalism. … You can’t expect to make money, or you’re going to come to resent it.”

After the talk, Hunter answered questions from the audience, offering advice for aspiring playwrights and solutions for common problems including writer’s block.

“The way I deal with (writer’s block) is to not believe that it exists,” Hunter said. “It’s like giving yourself permission to stop working. There’s always a way to keep the pen moving.”

Eva Victor, Vertigo Productions’ development chair, said Hunter was the group’s first choice for a speaker this year. Last year, the group hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker for a similar event.

“Something that strikes me both with Sam Hunter and Annie Baker, who came last year, is that they’re both very grounded and humble people,” the Communication junior said. “It’s a nice reminder that these people are just living their lives and they’re model people as well as model artists.”

Communication junior Justine Gelfman who attended the event, said she was impressed with Hunter.

“He was incredibly articulate and well-spoken,” Gelfman said. “I saw his play last December, and he definitely lives up to his body of work.”

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