Growing up in northern Idaho, Samuel D. Hunter fell in love with playwriting, not through the usual route of being an actor or involved with theater (although he was), but rather through his love of literature.
"I started reading a lot of the Beats in high school and went backwards to James Joyce and Blake, and it spiraled," he says. "When I found playwriting, it felt like a natural fit to me, because I feel like I'm not a prose writer. But what I try to accomplish I like to do through dialogue and a multiplicity of perspectives, and not through first or third person."
Those perspectives have turned him into a writer to watch on the national scene, beginning with his breakout play, A Bright New Boise, which won an Obie Award in 2011, and then with his work whose central character is a 600-pound man, The Whale, which after its off-Broadway production in 2012 is getting productions at major regional theaters.
The Whale and A Bright New Boise, having its North Texas premiere at Circle Theatre and the first of Hunter's plays to be produced in DFW, share something in the writer's exploration of a multiplicity of perspectives. They both feature a character who's a religious fundamentalist -- evangelical Christian for Boise, and Mormon for The Whale, via a character who knocks on the title character's door.
In Boise, the character of Will, who believes the end times are nigh and the Rapture will soon happen, has taken a job at a Hobby Lobby in Boise to connect with his son, whom the mother had to give up for adoption when he was a baby.
Hunter was raised in an Episcopalian house, but he attended a fundamentalist Christian high school because it offered a better education. He finds himself drawn to this theme.
"Almost all of my plays have some sort of religious aspect to them," says Hunter, who is now based in New York City, where he lives with his husband, whom he married in 2012. "Fundamentalism occupies such a large part of the American consciousness, but very little of our art. So I like to explore what it's like to live with these beliefs in a constantly modernizing world."
His idea for Boise stemmed from an earlier work, titled Jack's Precious Moment, which he admits "wasn't entirely successful."
"[In Moment] each main character was struggling with his fundamental beliefs, but it was overshadowed by the play's tone," he says. "The real emotional journey that I was trying to get across was lost in the craziness of the play itself. So what I wanted to do with this play was calm down and write something that was more of a character study."
Hunter's other plays, many of which are set in Idaho, include A Permanent Image, Norway and The Era of Whales, which he wrote when he worked in the West Bank with Ashtar Theatre of Ramallah and Ayyam al-Masrah of Hebron. He has active commissions from the Manhattan Theatre Club, Seattle Repertory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons. He holds degrees in playwriting from New York University, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and the Juilliard School.
Creativity from isolation
With The Whale, Hunter has really started getting national attention. This week, he returned from South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., where the play just opened, then went to Chicago to prepare for its opening at Victory Gardens Theater.
Hunter has said in interviews that he was an awkward kid, having reached 6 feet at age 12, and although he says The Whale is not necessarily about obesity, it does reflect some of his feelings growing up in small-town Idaho.
"It is sort of like a roundabout emotional autobiography in a certain way," he says. "Everybody feels isolation, and I think I brought it through the play. I wanted to ground it in something universal. Everybody's had that experience of feeling isolated."
Although he might keep exploring the concept, his rising status means that for Hunter, isolation could be a thing of the past.