Aspen Times Q&A: Playwright Lucas Hnath on ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The playwright Lucas Hnath (USA), New York, March 6, 2015. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan
Beowulf Sheehan | Beowulf Sheehan

Forbes has called him a “rockstar playwright” and the New York Times has dubbed him “one of the brightest new voices of his generation.” Lucas Hnath, 39, has quickly become the scribe of our moment.

His provocative plays of the past few years have taken on topics like doping in sports and the American dream (“Red Speedo”), evangelical Christianity and faith (“The Christians”) and, most recently, gender roles and a stage classic (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”). He’s won critics awards and an Obie and a Windham-Campbell Literary Prize, was nominated for a Tony for his Broadway debut and this weekend he’s coming to the Aspen Fringe Festival.

The Fringe Fest is staging Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” on Saturday and Monday night at the Black Box Theatre. The play imagines what would happen if Nora, who leaves her husband and children at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 work “A Doll’s House,” returned home years later. In between the shows, on Sunday, the playwright will discuss his process and his inspiration for the play in a presentation that will include readings from Ibsen’s play and from Hnath’s audacious sequel.

In July, Fringe Fest will produce Hnath’s “The Christians” — about a megachurch pastor — at the Aspen Chapel, with Crossroads Church pastor (and sometime actor) Dan Bosko playing the lead.

After his time at the Fringe Fest this weekend, Hnath will head to the Steamboat Springs to workshop an in-progress piece, “The Thin Place,” with director Les Waters at the Colorado New Play Festival (June 10 to 16).

In advance of Hnath’s visit, the playwright spoke to Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers in a phone interview from New York.

Aspen Times: “A Doll’s House, Part 2” premiered last year on Broadway just after the national women’s marches and closed just before the #MeToo movement took off. As you were writing it, and revisiting Ibsen’s play, did you have some sense of the historical reckoning that was coming?

Lucas Hnath: I always have a hard time thinking about a play in the context of the time that it’s happening — I’m very good at it with other people’s plays, but not with my own. I may have some kind of mental firewall around my doing so. It’s like being on a tightrope and looking down at the ground. One thing I thought about with the play and writing it was simply, “What were the problems that Ibsen was trying to address in his time?” and thinking about how so many of the problems he was trying to address have not evolved from where they were 100 years ago. So I don’t know. I think it has more to do with how things that were progressive and revolutionary 100 years ago still are progressive and revolutionary. That’s remarkable.

AT: The story I’ve heard is that you wrote down the title ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2,’ laughed about how absurd it was, and then got to work. Is that how it went or was it more complicated than that?

LH: That’s basically it. I thought the title was funny and found it audacious. So that was enough to get started. A lot of the plays I work on start that way and then don’t make it much further than the title.

The next stage in the process was re-reading “A Doll’s House.” The exercise I did was that I found a really bad free translation from some website — a lilac-colored website with a cheesy font — and I cut-and-pasted it into a document and then went through and tried to write the play in my own words. That was the real Launchpad for the play, because by the time I worked my way through it was struck by the debate that begins at the end of the play and how that debate has just started.

There’s a degree to which (her husband) Torvald’s response is a bit dumb. And if he had more time to think it through and craft a finer argument, what would Nora say? And then what would happen? And that seemed to be a reason to write the play.

AT: I was looking at the script with the actors here at Fringe Fest. They appreciated the idiosyncratic way you laid out dialogue on the page, with odd line breaks in the style of poetry and ellipses to indicate a character’s silent response. What do you hope the unique style and formatting does to the performances?

LH: The original manuscript actually has a more eccentric layout — not only are there line breaks but there are monologues where the words are spread all over the page like an Anne Carson or Marianne Moore poem.

There are a couple dumb reasons why I do the line breaks. I like how it moves the eye on the page, for one. And it’s not meant to communicate a pause or stop at the line break. But it does become a way for me to change some of the phrasing. I know from doing a lot of cold readings with actors that there are ways to trick — this is not the best way to put it — to trick them or help the actors to get into the rhythm I want them to speak in. Experimenting with how a line breaks can coax out of the actor a particular cadence or speed of delivery.

AT: Next month Fringe Fest is also staging “The Christians” and they’re doing it in a church with a local pastor playing the lead. What do you think that kind of experience will do to the play?

LH: Wow, I didn’t know they were doing it in a church with a pastor — that’s exciting. I am very fond of the idea of doing that play in an actual church. … That’s the ideal setting for it.

AT: What can you say about the new play that you’re bringing to Steamboat?

LH: I’m in the middle of writing a horror play about psychics. That’s what I’m completely immersed in at the moment. I’ll be working on that with Les Waters in Steamboat just after Aspen.


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