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November 05, 2005

Q&A With George Hunka, Part Two

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today we continue our conversation with the playwright George Hunka. George is the author of the elegant and moving paired plays "In Private / In Public," which recently received a jewelbox production at Manhattantheatresource in Greenwich Village.

In Part One of our chat, George told us about how he became a playwright, and he also sketched out what the lay-of-the-theatrical-land looks like from a playwright's point of view. Today, we talk more specifically about writing "In Private / In Public," and about putting the show up on its feet.


2Blowhards: When and how did you write "In Private / In Public"?
George Hunka: I wrote both "In Private" and "In Public," as a pair of plays with some thematic if not formal connections, in August and September of this year.

"In Public" is probably the most accessible, realistic play I've ever written, though I didn't mean to write it that way. There wasn't any attempt to be accessible or realistic, but the content finds its form eventually. In fact my last play, "Sustaining," was probably the most abstract piece I'd ever written.

Obviously, I've been toying a lot with ideas about sensuality and eroticism, and especially the extent to which language and society can contain these. Not to mention the thoughts I have about culture and society and marriage. After nearly twenty years of this last, I suppose I have some tentative opinions about the institution, opinions that have evolved over time.

Let me take this opportunity to say that the play isn't in any way autobiographical, at least in the traditional sense. Let me also say that it's a very deeply personal play for me, probably the most personal.

As is "In Private," which is far more explicit in its sensuality, in many ways, than "In Public." It constitutes more of a stretch. Because it was the ten-minute curtain-raiser to the much longer, more accessible "In Public," it hasn't gotten as much attention and I haven't received as much feedback about it -- but this play probably better represents the formal linguistic direction my future work will go in, rather than "In Public."

2B: How about the production? How did it come about?
GH: I've been volunteering at the Manhattantheatresource, where the play was workshopped, for a few years now, and they've had a unique development series in which they'll give me the space for free for a few nights. They get to keep the box office.

Isaac Butler, who directed, and I first met when we started our theater blogs a few years ago. We're fortunately each of us early enough in our careers to have the time and leisure to work together. We share some similar concerns, but we've also got our differences, and I think that's all to the good.

I knew Jennifer and Sasha from hanging out at the source. I've seen them both work before, and it was very gratifying to me when they agreed to do this show. The other actors came from Isaac's extraordinarily talented pool of colleagues and friends. Daryl was in "Sustaining" earlier this year (which Isaac also directed), and I was very very happy indeed to get him back to play Drew.

2B: How did the production get financed?
GH: Since we got the space for free (as mentioned above; the space rental is often the largest portion of the budget), the rest of the money came out of my pocket. At this point in my career, grants are still a gleam in my eye. This show cost about $1,000 for a three-night run. That includes everything, from photocopies to rehearsal space rental to props to the excellent postcards and poster that Joanne did for the show.

2B: How important is it for a playwright to have a social relationship with the theater world anyway? After all, how can you create theater without meeting actors, directors, and others? On the other hand, maybe it's better to sit in an attic, write, and ignore all the fuss.
GH: Theater's all about collaboration. You've got to know the people, andthe best way to do this is to put yourself into a position where you meet a lot of them, obviously. Fortunately all theater people, from the director to the tech crew, love to socialize, so it's not hard.

I suppose it's possible to sit in an attic, write plays, and ignore all the fuss. But I don't know of any successful playwright who's ever done that. They were all practical men and women of the theater, from Shakespeare to Beckett, and they all drew a great deal of energy and enthusiasm from this socializing. You could always find Beckett at the theater bar after rehearsals, and he did get to parties on occasion, was even something of a social butterfly according to his diaries. And Harold Pinter always stopped in to check the box office receipts, at least early in his career.

2B: Were the texts of "In Private" and "In Public" still up in the air as you entered rehearsals? Or did you go into rehearsals with every word nailed down?
GH: I change the play very little after the text is done. There's inevitably fine-tuning after I sit down with Isaac to talk about the play. And there are lines in the text that are so poorly-written that there's just no way they're going to work. But I don't know that until I get to rehearsal. In this case, a new scene was added just before we went into rehearsal. But that's rare in my experience, limited as it is.

And then, at a certain point in the process, whether it's a full or a workshop production, you just can't change anything. The actors are invested in a certain version of the text, and it's not fair to them to keep revising it up to the last few days before opening.

2B: I understand that British theater people are much more likely than Americans to take the play as a given and then get on with the production.
GH: Not necessarily. There's a wonderful book by Simon Gray called "An Unnatural Pursuit," in which he chronicles the production of his play "The Common Pursuit," which he apparently had to tear apart and reconstruct three or four times during the five weeks of its rehearsal. And it still didn't work. I wonder if Gray wouldn't think the American workshop process a bit more helpful, at least in terms of that play.

The theater life is different in Britain. British theater has a very strong repertory tradition. Playwrights and actors and directors tend to be much more permanently connected to theaters there; there are National Theatre people, Royal Court people, and so on. They stick together for several years. In the US, most theater production is an ad-hoc process. People come together for the six weeks it takes to do a full production of the play, they're together through the run, then after the show closes they necessarily go off in their different directions again.

This is probably the worst way to develop a national theater culture, by the way, and we've suffered for it. O'Neill did most of his work for the Provincetown Playhouse then, later, for the Theatre Guild. Sam Shepard was associated with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. David Mamet hung out around the small and institutional theaters in Chicago. But these are the exceptions.

2B: What did the actual process of staging "In Private/In Public" involve?
GH: "In Private / In Public" had a three-week rehearsal period, most of this in rehearsal studios around town. We didn't get a chance to work in the theater itself until 10:00am the day before the performance. That's when all the cues, all the tech work, all the final blocking had to be done.

We didn't have a full dress runthrough until 3:00pm on Sunday afternoon, five hours before curtain. Since most of the performers had regular 9-5 day jobs, we had to work around that. So we scheduled rehearsals over four weekdays, 7-10, then on Sundays we rehearsed from 1-6. If you do the math, that's 17 hours a week, altogether 51 hours, give or take.

Not a lot, especially when you consider that this show is all about subtext and realistic behavior, so we had to do several days of what's called "table work" at the outset. "Table work" is exactly what it sounds like: we all sit around a table, read the play, then talk about the play generally and the characters individually. If I'm allowed into rehearsals, this is where I can make the greatest contribution and talk my "writer-talk" -- we can talk about theme, subtext, what the characters "need" emotionally and psychologically.

As a writer, my role lessens considerably after this table work -- it's then that the play becomes theatrically alive. Directors and actors have a unique vocabulary, all part of the discipline. Since I wasn't trained in the theater -- my degree is in Languages and Literature -- my "writer-talk" becomes increasingly more useless as the rehearsals go on.

The director and the actors need to find out, physically, why they sit the way they sit, why they move the way they move. It's the time for "actor-talk" and "director-talk." Many directors, like Isaac, already have performance training, so they can communicate with the actors far more effectively than I ever could.

When I do have anything to offer, especially late in the rehearsal process, I try very much not to speak to the actors and actresses. Instead, Isaac and I talk between ourselves. Then Isaac can decide whether what I say makes any sense or could be of any help, and he communicates this to the performers, if he decides to do so. But ultimately the decision is his, at this point. It has to be.

This is very different, of course, than writing prose and poetry. In the last phases of composition, the writer enters into the text to complete it alone. He or she draws closer to what he or she is writing. The playwright, in contrast, has to distance himself further from the text as it reaches its final realization in the hands of the director and the performers.

2B: What's it like for you to go through with a production? I wouldn't have the nerves for it myself.
GH: I adore the rehearsal process. I adore working with a good director who has insights into my writing that I don't necessarily have, who can translate my own abstract ideas into concrete visual movement and design.

And I especially adore actors and actresses, who have been trained to exhibit through their bodies and voices these characters I've written (and who similarly teach me more about my writing that I would ever have suspected myself). It's really in rehearsal that all the risk-taking takes place, and it's just awe-inspiring to watch good actors and actresses at work. Mind you, there are off-days on which the rehearsal is more of a slog than an inspiration, but that's true for any

There are cringe-inducing moments when the play is just getting on its feet and I hear the play aloud the first few times, and I think, "Jesus, how could I have written such terrible lines?" And I worry constantly that I haven't given enough for the actors and director to work with. Also, during more personal moments in the writing, I feel tremendously revealed and vulnerable when these moments are rehearsed in front of me. I can't speak for actors and actresses. But I know there are plenty of vulnerable and painful moments for them, too, apart from speaking these difficult lines I've given them.

It doesn't get much better as the rehearsal process goes on, because the more the play is transferred into the hands of the director and the actors, the less and less I feel connected to it -- as it should be, that's the peculiar nature of theatrical work. But then, at the end of the process, we've all collectively spent hundreds of hours, separately and together, to put together this 90 minutes for a paying audience, and they react, and it belongs to all of us. There are many times when I'm much more proud and amazed of their work than I am of mine, I assure you, but it belongs to all of us in the end, and I'm gratified.

2B: What's your writing schedule? How do you squeeze creative work in around job and life obligations?
GH: Fortunately I work as an Internet consultant and can set my own hours, and in this I'm far luckier than most people working in downtown theater.

When I'm working on a play I work in the mornings, always writing in long-hand. And after I've typed this up, it goes to my wife Joanne, who reads everything I write very early in the process. After this, I usually go through three or four drafts before I start thinking about production.

I write very quickly and don't take many notes before I sit down to write. I may sketch out the overall structure in the few days before I actually start writing the text, but other than that it's all in my head. It gets there over the many months before I start writing, while I sit and stare out of the window or go on long drives down the turnpike to visit family and friends. You can get a lot of plays written between exits 4 and 13 on the New Jersey Turnpike.

2B: How do you contend with the nerves and the anxiety of putting on a show?
GH: I quit smoking for a few months earlier this year, then had the idea for this play. It proved impossible to write before I resumed my two-pack-a-day habit. The drinking doesn't come in until after the show opens, since we all need to concentrate on the work at hand. But we all make up for the alcohol consumption at the post-opening parties. Other than that I sleep very little the week before the show opens, and my diet would amaze most nutritionists.

2B: What is your blogging for you?
GH: I've been using the blog as a marketing tool for my own work and to clarify some thoughts I've had about writing for the theater. Obviously, though, my real work is for the stage, as far as I'm concerned.

2B: I have a hunch that most fiction writers would benefit from taking a year or two to write for actors and for live audiences. A lot of fiction writers have had no audiences but their fellow workshop members, after all, and that can result in ingrown and hermetic writing. Working with actors for a live audience can help open a writer up. Agree? Disagree?
GH: I'm not sure about that. Fiction writers have very rarely been good playwrights, and vice versa, and I think this is just because the inspiration, the sort of talent you need for either, comes from different psychic places. If that's true, there'd be little benefit, no matter how many years you spend doing it. People write verse and prose to be read. The connection is between writer and individual reader, not to a mass audience, in one place, at one time.

I think poetry and prose readings are fine, great ways to get word about a work out there, and wonderful marketing tools. But most readings are quite dull to me because I'd prefer to read something that's meant to be read, not to listen to it. Unless it's written with public reading in mind, which is an entirely different ball of wax.

2B: I'm always amazed how many people think that being a working artist is ... Well, living like Julian Schnabel or Cameron Diaz, basically. When you're out with civilians, what do you find they most often fail to understand about the theater life?
GH: What amazes me most is the attitude towards actors and actresses. If you're a director or a playwright, you tend to get a certain amount of respect. But the cultural attitudes to performers are just ludicrous. They're painted as flighty, unreliable people who just play "let's pretend" all day long. Worse, people think they're just reading words that are written for them. This is ridiculous.

I've worked for the arts and I've worked in offices (I spent those twenty years not writing plays working for a lot of companies and organizations in 9-to-5 jobs), and I'll tell you this: compared to all the middle-managers and administrators I've worked with, actors are immensely responsible, disciplined, sensitive, practical, mature, and possessed of the most supple imaginations I've ever seen.

They know how to work and cooperate together profitably, and they know how to work alone. Many of them have an extraordinarily broad range of interests that reach far outside the theater. They're problem-solvers, each and every one of them. At the same time, while there's a lot of lip-service paid to "thinking outside the box" in the corporate, business and non-profit worlds, fewer people do it more profitably, with more visible results, than actors.

The best actors know when to allow their ego some rein and when to suppress it. That's more than I can say about the egos of plenty of middle-managers, lawyers, professionals and administrators I know, many of whom are playing "let's pretend" far more than actors or actresses.

Acting isn't easy. It takes an enormous amount of work, commitment and personal risk. And you can see it easily enough. There are far more bad actors out there than good ones, and the good ones shine out wherever they go, on stage or off it. (I've been very lucky to work with excellent actors, almost exclusively.) It's rare for even the good ones to make a decent living in this business. But even when they're not paid to do it, they still give it their all. Would you work as a Vice President of Human Resources, the Chief Financial Officer of a museum, or the manager of a Starbucks if you weren't paid for it?

2B: I feel the same way about actors. I think that, generally speaking, actors are the purest of all artists, working out of love, taking big chances with their lives, and putting themselves on the line in daring ways that aren't often sufficiently appreciated. When and how did you wake up to how great actors often are?
GH: It wasn't until I got to college, when I started getting to know very talented actors and actresses personally, that I saw how much they had to offer to me, to my work, to everybody else.

As I get older this appreciation just becomes more acute, largely because I see myself and my (non-actor) friends hardening into social roles, into a culturally-acceptable sameness, and I rather selfishly try to escape from it through the theater. I guess this is ultimately the "instability" that's often ascribed to theater people. But really, it's freedom.

2B: What's next on the Hunka playwriting agenda?
GH: At the moment, there's been some interest expressed in doing a full production of "In Private / In Public," but that will be at least ten months away. I'm trying to keep the fires glowing in the meantime.

I'm doing a lot of research on the Phaedra myth right now: reading the various versions that have come down to us through the years (Euripides, Seneca and Racine, and there's also an early Ovid poem which is just fascinating). For the past few years, I've been constructing my plays around women in their 30s and 40s, so this falls right in with it. I hope to have a draft of this early in the next year. Also another more traditional, realistic play, probably the last of these I'll write.

And a third. Most of my plays emerge from images that occur to me (maybe they're dream images that just hang on into waking life; they just pop into my head, I can't shake them). For some reason, this one is of a woman in a wedding dress standing next to a green waterfall. So I'll probably need to sort out where that came from in some way.

2B: Imagine talking to some bright, eager people. They know nothing about the reality of putting a show up, but they're going to go through with it anyway. What would the three most helpful tips you could give them be?
GH: First, Max Bialystock's first rule of show business -- "Never put your own money in the show" -- simply doesn't apply any more, at least when you're starting out. If you wait until some angel flies down to pour buckets of money over your play, you'll wait until Doomsday. If you believe in a show, spend your savings, beg, borrow and steal to put it on, and don't wait for some producer to come around with a big fat check. It'll never happen.

Second, be smart. There are a lot of shows in this town, and publicity is key. When you budget your money and your time, the show comes first, but the publicity and advertising effort should come a very close second. Use every tool at your disposal: postcards, email lists, bulletin boards, posters, everything. Ultimately publicity can't make up for the quality if your show if the show is bad. But if it's good, nobody's going to find that out until they know about it and can find you and the theater.

Third, get a good stage manager. They're worth their weight in gold. A good stage manager is essential to running a show properly. Their contribution should be invisible to the audience (even, to an extent, to the director, playwright and cast), but that's when they do their job right.

And an important fourth: You'll fail. You'll have your successes, and they'll make up for the failures, but you'll fail. Know that going in. Know that you won't make your money back. Know that what's on the stage will never resemble what's in your head. But remember too that this isn't why you're in the business anyway.


Be sure to visit George's blog, where you'll find some of the best theater-chat and theater-think around.

And don't be shy about joining in the conversation here. It's a wonderful opportunity to find out about the life of the arts. For my own part, if I could continue my chat with George, here's where I'd go:

  • I'd ask about what George calls "writer talk" and "director/actor talk." What's the difference between the way literary people think and communicate, and the way theater people do?
  • Theater people often go on about how something -- a play, a gesture, a line reading, a characterizaton -- either "works" or "doesn't work." What on earth are they talking about? How objectively can working/not-working even be discussed?
  • And finally, I'd ask George to recommend two or three books that give truthful, fun, and helpful accounts of what it's like to work in the theater.

But I'm eager to hear what other people wonder about when they think about a life in the theater.

Many thanks once again to George Hunka.



posted by Michael at November 5, 2005


Thanks for the great post, Michael.

Mr. Hunka, I am interested in hearing more about what "writer talk" comprises. In film, writers rarely get the chance to be involved with production. How does the writer-director relationship work in theater? Is there an accepted hierarchy, e.g., does one of you have the final word if you disagree on something?

After a play's first run, would you have any involvement in subsequent productions of it? What sort of say do you have (if any) regarding other groups that might want to produce your plays down the line?

Posted by: claire on November 5, 2005 3:13 PM

thanks for doing this interview with george! i was honored to be a part of this production and feel that george, isaac and the rest of the cast invested of themselves tremendously in doing this project.
blogs like these are a great way to share the intricicies of the theatre...and hopefully, inspire others to share in the process.
anything that inspires art awareness into the minds of the average american is, in my mind, a worthy endeavor.

Posted by: jennifer gordon thomas on November 5, 2005 5:14 PM

Claire: Oh, god, don't call me Mr. Hunka, please. George will do.

There's a tradition in the theater that the playwright ultimately decides what gets said and what doesn't get said on stage; if the director or an actor wants a line changed, they can ask (if the playwright is there), but ultimately it's the playwright's decision. If, on the other hand, the playwright isn't there, common tradition is that the play is performed word-for-word (including all the dirty ones), as the playwright wrote it. Obviously, some actors and directors disagree with this.

If, someday, I get some kind of agent or representation, groups wanting to produce a play of mine would have to get permission from the representative. As a playwright, I could set restrictions--I don't want my play produced by an all-teenage cast, say, or I don't want any productions by one theater or another. I have a pretty broad say in it, in other words, but really it depends on how careful my representative would be to do some research into these requests.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 5, 2005 10:21 PM

Jennifer: You invested yourself tremendously in the project too!

And that actually answers one of Michael's questions about "actor-talk" and "writer-talk". The short way of saying this is that the writer knows the play largely from the outside (though he's in each of the characters, too, of course), in terms of structure and language; but in terms of body and emotion and voice, the performer has a different set of techniques that they bring to their work. This is where all those techniques come into play--the various methods, emotional memories, etc. A director has a broad knowledge of these and can tailor his direction to the way an actor or a performer works. Whereas I could sit there and talk subtext all day, or vaguely about personal relationships, and it wouldn't give Jennifer what she needs to do a scene.

This doesn't mean that we're not each personally invested in what we're trying to express. But our tools and techniques for expressing it are different. Sometimes what I say helps; sometimes it doesn't. That's what we've got directors for.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 5, 2005 10:28 PM

Hi George, a couple of questions for you.

1. Have you given any thought to allowing comments on your blog?

2. More a suggestion, that being you obtain a recent issue of Dungeon (should be available in a local game store) and asses the adventures therein as possible scenarios for improvisational theater. Include what changes you would make to fit the basic situation to the stage.

(Yes, I do like presenting odd problems to people. :) )

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 5, 2005 11:10 PM

Thanks, George! Having a background in film, I find the different ways of working and storytelling between theater and film really interesting.

Posted by: claire on November 6, 2005 5:01 PM

Alan: The blog software I use, Blosxom, is notoriously prone to comment-spam, and most of my entries in the past went without comment; at this point, I prefer email. As to your second point: I don't do any improvisational theater myself, but your suggestion is interesting, and others should try.

Claire: Your citation of the "different ways" of storytelling in film and television says something about Michael's question about what "works" and "what doesn't work" in the stage. The main difference for actors is that the emotional life of a play develops, for them, over the two hours of its life on stage: they have to develop a performative rhythm that's consistent, reproducable, and effective, night after night. When a moment "doesn't work," it's because it's somehow out of keeping with the rest of the play: like a wrong note played in a piece of music. You can usually tell when it happens, and though it's only one note, its memory colors whatever comes after for the audience. In most film acting, these moments can emerge from the actor out-of-sequence, and every second can be shaped--and discarded, if unsatisfactory. This may be why some stage actors aren't very good on film, and vice versa: the approach to performance is different, and it affects the way they present themselves.

Posted by: George Hunka on November 6, 2005 7:53 PM

Absolutely. I was also thinking of differences in how the crews interact with each other and the actors. (In this case, I'm using the word crew very broadly.)

Though there is nothing without the writer, in film the screenwriter's contribution is typically ignored in favor of the director's. The "A film by" credit in addition to the "Directed by" credit film directors get says a lot about the film industry's creative hierarchy.

The difference in how writers are treated between theater and film is pretty striking.

Posted by: claire on November 7, 2005 11:11 PM

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