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November 03, 2005

Q&A With George Hunka, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wrote recently about seeing and enjoying "In Private / In Public," an evening of George Hunka plays that The Wife and I attended. We both found the show -- which was staged by Isaac Butler at Manhattantheatresource -- funny, moving, spare, and elegant. George's work got me wondering about many things -- love, betrayal, eroticism, art. But the evening also got me wondering about the theater more generally. How does writing for actors compare to writing for the page? And what is the playwriting life like?

So I asked George, who I know slightly, if he'd mind answering some questions about his experiences as a playwright, and about what it was like putting "In Private / In Public" up on its feet. I was pleased when he graciously agreed. George and I have edited our e-chat into a two-part q&a.

Today, George talks about how he got into playwriting, and what the world of the theater is like.


2Blowhards: How long have you been writing plays?
George Hunka: I've been writing plays since I was 14 or so.

2B: How did you get started?
GH: I grew up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, where there weren't many opportunities to see live theater. Thank god for television -- not an exclamation you expect to hear when you're talking about theater. Around 1975, HBO had just started and was running Ely Landau's American Film Theatre series at the time. I managed to see the AFT's versions of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," David Storey's "In Celebration," Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." I guess something in me said, "Well, I could do this, too."

At that time, PBS also ran a production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," with Ralph Waite, the paterfamilias of that legendary mid-1970s family "The Waltons," as Pozzo. If you had cable then, it was easier to keep abreast of contemporary theater than it is today!

[Editor's note: DVDs of the AFT shows can be bought here and here.]

2B: When did you first make it to the big city?
GH: A year later I started going to New York City once in a while. That was the first time I went to the Public Theater -- on one stage was Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class"; on another, George Dzundza, Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurence Luckinbill were starring in Thomas Babe's extraordinary "A Prayer for My Daughter." I saw them both in one day.

And on Broadway? On another visit, I went to an afternoon matinee of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land," starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, then that night at the Beaumont I saw Richard Foreman's production of "The Threepenny Opera" with Philip Bosco, Caroline Kava and Blair Brown. Now that's a Broadway I would visit again. You'd be insane if you didn't want to be a playwright after that.

2B: What was the first time you saw and heard your own words spoken by actors? And what was that like?
GH: I first saw one of my plays done when I was 16 and I attended this sort-of summer-camp-for-precocious-high-school-students called the Pennsylvania Governors' School for the Arts, a three-week program held annually at Bucknell University. I was in the writing program, but there were programs for visual and performing artists too. And since I'd just written a play about 16- and 17-year-olds, it was a good opportunity for some cross-department fertilization.

I was bowled over to hear my own words actually spoken by actors from a stage, even if they were just sitting in chairs reading from a script.

I had one or two small productions of plays done in the mid-1980s, but then I stopped writing plays for about twenty years, mostly out of disaffection, but also because I'd hit a wall. I wasn't sure that I really had anything to say, and I've always been a great believer that,if you don't have anything to say, you should just shut up. So I shut up.

True, I had a knack for dialogue, and I had a knack for making jokes. I've done stand-up comedy off-and-on through my life. But a knack is just a knack, and I suppose I couldn't rationalize my continuing to write plays if I couldn't throw something more meaningful behind the snappy patter and easy laughs.

Not that this was a bad thing, since playwrights, alone among writers, seem to be late bloomers. Around the time I turned 40 a variety of events in my personal life conspired to push me towards theater and playwriting again. There was no single Road-to-Damascus moment that led me back into drama. But it's also true that it wasn't until the age of 40 that I had any real idea of what it was I wanted to explore in my writing, and that the theater was the appropriate place for it.

2B: What kind of encouragement or discouragement did you get from your family?
GH: Although my father warned me over and over that it would be an enormously difficult career to pursue (Melville spending all of his life in the customs office was a frequent example raised to me), he was also very supportive. He kept me very grounded, at the time being very encouraging. All I really hope for out of this is a living wage -- thankfully I have simple tastes. A house on the beach at Malibu would be nice, but I suppose that's a fantasy that everybody has, whether they're a playwright or a garbage collector.

2B: How did you wind up doing the specific kind of theater-writing that you do?
GH: During my time away from playwriting I didn't go to the theater much at all, and I didn't read too many plays. Actually, this hasn't changed much, though my reviewing duties for get me out of the house more these days.

I find very little contemporary conventional drama that interests me. I've been listening to more music like Schubert, Wagner, Schoenberg and Morton Feldman, seeing more painting and sculpture like the painters of the Northern Renaissance, Schiele, and Rothko, reading more philosophy like Schopenhauer and Lacan.

Theatrically speaking, I get much more inspiration from the so-called "avant-garde," director-based work of the Wooster Group and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, even though I have little talent for formal innovation myself.

2B: How does the world of serious theater today compare to that same world when you came to NYC to take part in it?
GH: I first got to NYC after graduating from college in 1983, and I was only here for a year or two. At the time I was working for a journal-and-book publisher called Performing Arts Journal Publications.

The experimental theater scene back then was pretty amazing, if the traditional theater scene really wasn't. The Wooster Group was doing their astonishing "L.S.D.," Spalding Gray was just starting to do the monologues for which he'd become famous, Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines cooked up the gospel/Greek tragedy montage of "Gospel at Colonus" at BAM.

Unfortunately I didn't take too many of the opportunities that the PAJ job offered to me. I was too busy hanging out with my college friends, drinking too much and grousing about the lack of a girlfriend. What can I say? I was young and stupid, and if I hadn't been (stupid, that is), I wouldn't have twenty years of connections and networking to catch up on, not to mention writing.

In the mid-1980s, the more traditional forms of theater were far less evident downtown than they are today, there was far more work in experimental theater than in traditional drama. Today, there are literally hundreds of off-off-Broadway shows going on south of 14th Street every month, but most of them are straight plays, musicals, sketch comedy troupes. Although there are a lot of excellent young avant-garde groups out there, their numbers are dwarfed by the people doing more traditional sorts of theater. Like myself, I should hasten to add.

2B: Before you became a real-life man of the theater, what did you imagine such a life would be like? Cocktail-swilling, blowjobs, granting interviews, fending off Hollywood blandishments?
GH: The lack of blowjobs, obviously, has been the first and to date largest disappointment.

Seriously, I wasn't sure what to expect, except that I didn't really care for the work of people like Neil Simon, Noel Coward et al., and figured I'd have a pretty long haul of it. Also, I don't see writing for the stage as a springboard to writing for television or the movies, and I've grudgingly accepted the accompanying pay scale.

Now that I've spent some time devoting myself to this life, I've actually had some of my cocktail-swilling types of fantasies come true. You'll be saddened to hear that they don't run much past being able to meet, talk and drink with people whose work I admire. (And the women are attractive whether they're off-off-Broadway or on. My marriage keeps the related fantasies out of reach even if I were Eugene O'Neill.) If I fantasized about interviews at all it was the hoity-toity Paris Review type of interview and not Liz Smith's column.

For the longest time, when I finished my plays up in my garret and didn't get seriously, practically involved in theater work, I would make copies, go through the "Dramatists Sourcebook" and send my plays out, then come back to the house and sit expectantly by the phone, expecting the next call to be from Joseph Papp. Needless to say, that didn't happen -- and I ran through a lot of postage charges besides. Sometimes rejection slips came back. Often the manuscripts just disappeared into the growing maw of the unsolicited-script slush pile. I hope I've gotten smarter.

2B: What do you find most people's picture of a playwright's life is like? Blowjobs, Broadway openings, opening-night triumphs, etc?
GH: That's all my friends want to hear about -- the blowjobs. But an honorable man never tells. Neither do I.

There are some members of my family who heard I was doing a play in New York and asked me to comp them into orchestra seats. As you probably noticed when you attended the show, there weren't many of those to go around. I'm not so sure that it's theater that creates these fantasies of luxury, but Broadway certainly does, and I'm probably less likely ever to see my work on the Broadway stage than I am to indulge in my fantasies of scantily-clad actresses.

So I tell them they'd better lower their expectations. And once they learn it's a 50-seat theater downtown, and that some of the language I use and the content I create is ... shall we say "challenging," their interest wanes quickly.

2B: In books, you learn what kind of writer you are partly by figuring out which of the sub-worlds of the meta-booksworld you're comfiest in. If you really can't stand the literary-fiction crowd, for instance, then you probably shouldn't be writing literary fiction. Your life will just be too miserable. Does that rule hold in playwriting/theater-making too? What has your own process of finding-your-way-to-where-you're-happiest been like? What did you learn about yourself along the way?
GH: You can get a pretty good idea of the playwriting world amongst the up-and-comers by reading their blogs, many of which I link to from my Web site.

There tend to be three circles of young theater people, so far as I can see. The first is the scrappy, let's-put-on-a-show, deliberately out-there theater that's done by companies like the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company. Very energetic, very young -- maybe too energetic and young for me.

The second are the companies that specialize in traditional new plays and the classics, like Playwrights Horizons, the Mint and the Cocteau. Finally, there's the avant-garde, who work out of P.S.122 and the Ontological-Hysteric's development series.

My work doesn't really fit comfortably into any of these categories (which are very broadly sketched here, anyway), though my own sympathies lie more with the latter two groups than with the first. They all throw great parties, I hear, and there's some movement among the groups.

I'm still looking for a place where I'll be happy, or fulfilled, or whatever. Manhattantheatresource, so far, has been a great place for me, and I couldn't have come as far as I have in two years without their support and encouragement.

What I've learned about myself is that I was wrong to have given up on theater back when I did. I should have given myself up to it instead.

2B: Many civilians seem to imagine the book-writing life to be a glamorous one: an endless round of self-expression, hanging with brilliant friends, granting interviews to prestigious publications, not having to go to a lousy day job ... When I inform them of what it's really like, they close down the conversation fast. Which leaves me wondering: Maybe the arts need people's fantasies. Would people be interested in the arts at all if weren't for their fantasies?
GH: Maybe not.

As a playwright I run into less of this. The fantasies tend to go more to publishing and Oprah's Book Club and Hollywood and television than to the theater in this country, although in New York, everybody has a play in their desk drawer. I don't know why they write them. I'm not even sure why I write them.

The thing that civilians don't seem to understand is that ninety percent of developing a career of any sort in the arts is sheer drudgery on the level of secretarial work: returning calls, writing thank-you notes, going to the post office, waiting in line at Kinko's. And rewriting. And all this takes one hell of a lot of time and effort, as does secretarial work, except the pay is worse.

Mostly what people need to believe, I suppose, is that their creative thoughts are worth expressing, that people want to hear them and will pay for them. Which I don't understand, since I never know whether or not people want to hear what I have to offer, either. So far, though, nobody's asked for their $12.00 back for "In Private / In Public," so maybe I'd better not say any more.

2B: You're a thoughtful, even intellectual guy. Most of the time we (the great ignorant masses) think of theater people as being physical, demonstrative, showy. Is it a stretch for you to work in a collaborative, social art like the theater?
GH: I get that a lot -- that thoughtful, intellectual guy stuff. Whenever I hear somebody describe me (or my work) that way, I hear undertones of a line I heard from women all through college and after: "Of course I love you, George. As a friend."

I think that's because some writers (and I was one of these until very recently) tend to abstract what they need from their personal experience to say whatever it is we want to say, and that's how we think we should say it: abstractly. We make ourselves cold, thinking that this is how we're supposed to communicate artistically.

But there's another step, and it's far more important in the theater because playwrights need to collaborate with actors and directors. We need to re-flesh this thought, these feelings, and we have to do so quite deliberately so that the actors and actresses have something to work with.

You'd think this would be easier -- that we playwrights can just push it to a certain point and the performers will take it the rest of the way. Absolutely not true. The difficulty also lies in being able to let go enough to permit the actors and actresses to do the work they need to do, and playwrights need to do this in the text itself. Playwrights need to accept what these creative artists bring to their feelings, to their words.

As I said earlier, I'm generally closed-off emotionally, and I find working with actors and actresses quite therapeutic, along with everything else. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, and I'm still learning it.

So I guess, in a way, that in my essays about theater I keep my intellectual-looking glasses on. In the theater, when I write plays, I try to take them off.

2B: Why are different kinds of writers attracted to different forms of expression?
GH: I think much of what you say about the inwardness of page-writing and the outwardness of stage-writing has to do with that whole temperament question.

Also, different expressions require different forms, of course. Look at my own plays, or those of Pinter, or most recent playwrights. When you read them (if that's all you ever do), they tend to sit on the page rather uneventfully and aren't particularly interesting or meaningful.

The first time I read "Waiting for Godot" I was shocked that such meaninglessness had such a huge reputation. Then I saw the play in that 1977 television production, and I understood why it had that reputation. Those big spaces in the text, between the lines, are a good metaphor for the missing elements that the actors and director fill in. I personally leave a lot of space. The Elizabethans didn't, but the aesthetic was far different then.

Part of this is the sense of the written work as a completed expression. A poem or a story is meant to be holistically complete. Even read aloud, there isn't much for the performer to add, nor is there supposed to be, by intention. Playwrights know that their work is incomplete, that it exists as nothing more than a blueprint or a musical score before it's performed. Novelists create music, orchestrations, worlds all supposed to be self-sufficient.

I actually wrote a novel a few years ago, and it was pretty bad. I doubt I'll do that ever again. And yeah, I missed that social interaction between the artistic collaborators and the audience. It's a physical thing, I suppose, that I used to refuse, churlish and reserved Central European that I am, and now I'm developing more, trying to be more open.

If I write anything non-dramatic in the future, it'll probably be poems, for myself or for a few close friends, so that the intimate contact can be maintained.

2B: From your p-o-v, and in your experience, how are the clusters and galaxies in the playwrighting cosmos arranged? Is there a Lincoln Center bunch, for instance? Or a Louisville pack? And how do people get into these positions?
GH: I think that graduate playwriting programs are playing the largest part in creating these constellations among young playwrights. It's a recent development. At the time I was starting out, only Yale offered any sort of MFA in playwriting, and of course there were a bunch of playwrights out of Yale at the time, like Chris Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, who seemed to form a Yale-School-of-Drama cabal, but that's rare. Now any arts-oriented university or college worth its salt does so. Just the other night I met the first playwriting major from Bard College, my alma mater. She was all of 23 or 24.

There aren't many theaters like Lincoln Center, which has its John Guare, or The New Group, which is producing Wally Shawn's work quite a bit now. Most playwrights are lone riders, moving from city to city and theater to theater, hoping to get their work done somewhere, anywhere. They rack up the frequent flier miles.

2B: How do you see someone like Richard Foreman in the midst of all this? Artist though he is, he's also been brilliant at making a life for himself as a fulltime theaterguy.
GH: He's also just plain brilliant. Thank god we've got his career as an example; it gives one hope.

Foreman deserves the accolades, the fringe benefits of celebrity, and if he can use his reputation and the aura surrounding his work to get him free dinners and free transatlantic trips now and again, more power to him. On the other hand, he also spends half his time in Europe, directing operas and things he might not particularly care for just so he can continue his own work at the Ontological-Hysteric six months of the year.

This is a hard business, especially if you don't want to use the theater as a springboard to other things. And there's a sense in which a rising tide lifts all boats. If these playwrights bring more people to the theater, that's more people who might one day decide to see my own plays. I've never begrudged any successful playwright, whether I like his or her work or not, a single penny. Maybe it's professional courtesy, but there you are.

My point is that whatever luxuries we get (however small, and far fewer of them in the theater than "All About Eve" would suggest), whatever fantasies we get to fulfill, of course we're happy with them. To quote from the esteemed producer Max Bialystock: "If you've got it, baby, flaunt it, flaunt it!"

Most playwrights on my level, like most novelists or poets on any level, spend a lot of their time teaching playwriting. It's better than waiting on tables, and it keeps our hands in the game.


Many thanks to George Hunka. At his very classy theaterblog, George keeps matters popping with first-rate ideas, observations, reviews, and essays.

Please tune in tomorrow to learn what it was like for George to write and produce "In Private / In Public."

And I urge you to jump into the comments. After all, how often do you get the chance to ask about what it's like to be a playwright? George has promised to respond to any and all.



posted by Michael at November 3, 2005


Speaking as someone with a half (well maybe quarter) finished play in the drawer, I'd be curious to hear you expand on this statement:

"For the longest time, when I finished my plays up in my garret and didn't get seriously, practically involved in theater work, I would make copies, go through the "Dramatists Sourcebook" and send my plays out, then come back to the house and sit expectantly by the phone, expecting the next call to be from Joseph Papp. Needless to say, that didn't happen... I hope I've gotten smarter."

How have you gotten smarter about getting your stuff out there? What's your opinion on the best ways for a newcomer to at least get his/her work read and considered?

Thanks for indulging a random amateur...

Posted by: MQ on November 3, 2005 6:09 PM

Fascinating glimpse into the playwriting prrocess, thanks! So are you basically saying there's no such thing as a career for a writer to be had in the theater? Does that bug you or do you enjoy the process enough that it sustains you?

Posted by: annabeth on November 3, 2005 10:40 PM

Mr. Hunka:

You say:

True, I had a knack for dialogue, and I had a knack for making jokes. I've done stand-up comedy off-and-on through my life. But a knack is just a knack, and I suppose I couldn't rationalize my continuing to write plays if I couldn't throw something more meaningful behind the snappy patter and easy laughs.

Speaking in a philosophical sense, are you sure that writing a coherent play is a better guarantee of conveying meaning than "snappy patter and easy laughs"? To give one example, the snappy patter and easy laughs of the Marx Brothers have always struck me as much more meaningful than many quite sober plays of the same era.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2005 12:34 AM

MQ--I've gotten smarter (I hope, as I say) in that I think much smaller now; instead of going straight to the top with institutional theaters like Playwrights Horizons or Ensemble Studio Theatre, I spend more time looking at things like Bob Jude Ferrante's Sanctuary workshop ( Or I just go to new plays and hang around; if I see a performance I like, I'll introduce myself to the performer or the playwright and tell them I enjoyed the show. Or I volunteer at a small theater that needs the help. (That's how I started working at the source.) If you can make a personal contact, that'll save six months of waiting.

Annabeth: That's a hard one to answer, since I don't know what you mean by "career," exactly. If you mean the ability to just write plays, ship 'em off to producers and have the royalty checks come in--sure, that may be possible, but it's extremely unlikely. I like the process enough that it has its own significance to me.

FvonB: Speaking in a philosophical sense, sure, "Animal Crackers" is a more lasting aesthetic achievement than, say, "Strange Interlude." I suppose it boils down to intent: I'm arrogant enough to think that I have something different (not necessarily "better") to offer than snappy patter and easy laughs, and I'd be unhappy if I didn't try to express that. For my money, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a greater achievement than 90% of the new plays I see, or for that matter of the television shows and movies that I watch. I just don't want to do "Curb"; Larry David seems to have that sewn up just fine.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 4, 2005 5:43 AM

I'm interested in the deliniation of tools required for different literary forms. You talk about 'a knack for dialogue'. That kind of ear is important in any form except, usually, poetry. George V. Higgins' talent may be mostly a remarkable ability to recreate the way a certain kind of person talks. As long as you can fascinate with with that kind of verisimilitude, plot problems are often forgiven. It's kind of thrilling, on the stage or on the page, to be convinced that a real person said those words in a real situation.

But what constitutes a 'knack for plot'? What do you think is the nature of the gift for being equally convincing about the course of events presented? No matter how fantastic or surreal the story, the audience can be convinced that in this world, this can happen.

Thanks so much to you and to Michael for this. We've had conversations here before about a lot of this, but lacked a practitioner's handbook.

Posted by: Sluggo on November 4, 2005 10:56 AM

Actually, Sluggo, I'd take exception to your first point. When I talk about a "knack for dialogue," I'm talking about a good ear (and yes, I agree that it's just as necessary to good prose as to good drama), an ability to recreate, with verisimilitude, the way group of people might talk, with all the backtracking, the revision of our statements as we speak them.

But good dramatic dialogue, anyway, is different from this and does resemble poetry more than prose. It's not so much the recreation of the rhythms of speech but the resemblance of that speech to a dramatist's lyrical imagination. David Mamet's petit-criminal characters and their milieu are similar to George Higgins', and they both have a reputation for "verisimilitude," but Mamet's dialogue approaches poetry more than Higgins'. If you read a page of American Buffalo out loud, then a page of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (say), you'll see what I mean.

I've got no knack for plot myself--the way one event follows another--but do have some sense of structure--the manner in which themes and events echo each other through the length of a play. I wish I did have that knack. There are a lot of (potential) events in IP/IP, far too many for the three-days-time allotted to the plot. But impossible for all those to occur, not believably, anyway.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 4, 2005 12:50 PM

It is fascinating. But I have a very basic question: how does the plot itself come to you? Do you outline it first and then "fill it in" or do you write scene by scene and the next action flows from the last? Do you know who these people are and where the story is going? How does the idea itself come up?

Posted by: annette on November 4, 2005 4:24 PM

Annette--Plots don't really come to me at all; images do, and in thinking where these come from, how these people may have gotten there and where they may go, a plot (or, at least, a series of events) begins to present itself. Of course I choose and shape these events, and they're colored by my own preoccupations, but they do arise organically from that first image.

And that's what that very rough sketch comes from--the events, and the order in which they occur. Once I've got that, I write from page 1 through the end; the plot may change, but not very much, usually.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 4, 2005 10:10 PM

Mr. Hunka, thank you. This is a wonderful interaction.

I'm fascinated by the MFA in playwriting thing. It seems that in the novel world, 'you're a workshop writer," or "that's what an MFA does to the novel," is the ultimate put down (at least from what I can glean reading blogs and the like. I know nothing about the creative world, other than as an observer). What's the idea behind having an MFA in playwriting? It's interesting how the academic world continually enlarges the set of credentials available.

Posted by: MD on November 5, 2005 11:42 AM

MD--Please, call me George.

MFA programs in creative writing and playwriting do serve a practical purpose: they provide an opportunity to network regularly with practicing writers (who do have the connections so necessary to developing a career; every little bit helps), and they provide a necessary camaraderie. That's the plus side, from the writers' point-of-view. On the minus side, if a teacher is not broad-minded enough to entertain a variety of techniques and subject matter, sure, there's the danger of a house style emerging from the process. But that's only a possibility and doesn't necessarily occur.

You'd be surprised how many courses in playwriting MFA programs have very little to do with how to write plays. There are courses in screenplay and television technique, in filmmaking, too, and they're by-and-large very practical.

Whether a writing-workshop-style body of plays will emerge from this growing role of the academy in playwriting is still an open question. Will these plays turn out to be as addressed to other playwrights as writing-workshop-style novels and poetry appear to be addressed to other writing-workshop-style novelists and poets? The jury's still out.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 6, 2005 8:13 AM

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