“You Have To Want Something” (Right?): An Interview With Lucas Hnath and Les Waters

Playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters met in 2012 at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where Hnath’s play Death Tax was being performed. Waters had just stepped into his role of artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and was blown away by Hnath’s play. He commissioned Hnath to write another play, and in 2014 the two premiered The Christians at the Humana Festival. The play was subsequently produced nationwide, and the two artists formed a close collaboration and friendship.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard spoke with Waters and Hnath about the great art of creating and performing arguments.

SRL: Les, what draws you to Lucas’ work?

Waters: That’s always difficult to say, because it revolves around instinct. And passion. I’m always a little reluctant to put the words on it because it’s a little mysterious to myself and I prefer to keep the mystery of it. I just found the writing very exciting and rather ferocious. Lucas sometimes talks to me about things that he’s thinking about writing, but they always surprise me. That’s terrific because most things aren’t surprising.With Lucas, I never know what’s coming next. Plus he’s a great friend and a colleague, and I like working with him.

SRL: I’m sorry to make you say that in front of him.
Waters: I’m English, so I’m staring at the floor as I say it. (Laughter.)

SRL: Lucas, how did you go about creating a play that could be understood relationally but also independently of the source text?
The setup is there’s a woman who left her family 15 years ago. That’s kind of the only information you need. The play doesn’t get into much about the specifics of the plot that motivated her to leave. There aren’t really winky references to the original. It seemed necessary that I write the play in a way that did not require knowledge of the original, otherwise it would turn into some kind of inside theatre joke.

SRL: Ibsen didn’t necessarily consider A Doll’s House a feminist text, but it’s come to be one over the years. How have you entered the conversation on feminism that surrounds Ibsen’s play?

Hnath: All of the things that were debated and negotiated in A Doll’s House are still topics that are debated and negotiated now. So one of the first ideas that I had about A Doll’s House, Part 2 is it’s a play about how much we’ve changed,and how much we haven’t, in terms of thinking about equality between men and women. I was reading a lot of Charlotte Perkins Gilman while working on the play, the woman who wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. She wrote a great deal of feminist theory and she had a really interesting line saying, when you hear a school teacher, nurse, secretary — she listed a bunch of occupations — the first thing that anybody imagines is a woman. She goes on to say that she’s looking forward to the day when you can say one of those titles and a woman is not the first image that pops into the mind. She’s thinking about certain limitations interms of how women are perceived.

At a certain point, I brought the play to a number of feminist scholars and asked them to take a look at the play and counter argue anything that gets said in it. One of the questions I asked at one point was, “It was shocking for Nora to leave her children at the end of Doll’s House, but if it were written now, what would be the shocking ending?” The response was, “Well, that’s still the shocking ending! That’s still something that is unthinkable.” That was actually very helpful to hear. I think I had gotten quite numb to the shock. And there were a lot of arguments in my play that some of the scholars thought went too far. More often than not, I would actually give whatever critique they had of Nora’s argument to another character. A lot oftimes, I would just let Anne Marie say something like what the scholars said and it made the argument better.

SRL: How did you decide that the cast would be these four particular characters?

Hnath: I tried out a number of other different characters, but those four offered the most essential and unique points of view. It felt necessary to have a character who’s basically a footnote in the original, but is extremely significant, which is Anne Marie. She was in a position to most directly deal with the fallout from Nora’s leaving. Then of course Torvald had to be there. Nora has three kids and at some point I entertained the notion of having all three, but then it started to come off as fussy, and I was most interested in — as opposed to having one of the boys — the perspective of the daughter.

SRL: Les, what was your casting process like for this production?

Waters: What I learned from working with Lucas on The Christians is that you need performers who could stand up in court as lawyers and really argue, who can get the language in their mouths, and pursue the logic of an argument, find the rhythm of the language, and really go for it. A lot of extraordinary actors came in and they found it difficult. You’re looking for people who, a) have an appetite for it, b) who can do it. It’s not the kind of play that has a subtext, like“what are they really saying underneath all of this?” What they’re saying is what they’re thinking. When you find people who can do that, and think that’s fun and exhilarating to do, then the thing really flies.

SRL: Lucas, this is in many ways a play about marriage. How did your own thoughts on marriage influence your work?

Hnath: The argument that Nora makes at the beginning about predicting and advocating for a world in which there’s no marriage, in which the lines aren’t drawn between couples, that’s something I’ve never really been able to understand. My interest in the arguments in the play does not necessarily have to do with what I believe, but with what I don’t understand. I don’t understand Nora’s initial argument; I have a hard time relating to it. When I’m writing, I try to find examples of people who very convincingly make some of those arguments.George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Getting Married. Shaw often has a cluster of essays in front of his plays. Getting Married has a couple of essays that very strongly inform Nora’s big opening speech about marriage. I often try to find arguments that I don’t really agree with, try to put those arguments in my own words, and try to make them as convincing as possible. That tends to be the relationship between the plays and what I do or don’t believe.

SRL: In one interview Lucas gave he said that Nora asks herself at the end of A Doll’s House, “If I’m left to myself, what do I want for myself?” What is your current answer to that question for yourself?

Hnath: Oh, yeah! It’s so funny, I was actually just re-watching My Dinner with Andre last night. I feel like that question is the big question of that movie. Wally [Wallace Shawn] more or less argues, “You have to want something,” and Andre says, “But what if you don’t? What if you can just not want something or not try to be doing anything?” I’m very, very happy to just always be spending my time making something. I’m more in the Wally camp. I want to be writing a play. I want to be in the rehearsal room. My least favorite thing is actually watching any of my plays because then I’m not getting to actually do anything and having to just sit there passively. I’m happiest when I’m writing, and in the rehearsal room, and in the midst of making or rewriting.

This interview originally appeared in the playbill at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Berkeley co-produced A Doll’s House, Part 2 with the Huntington Theatre Company.

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