Lucas Hnath & Les Waters on “Dana H.”

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"Welcome to '30 to Curtain,' a Center Theatre Group podcast. I'm Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group. For each episode of this podcast, we talk with some of the talented artists working with us across our three stages, the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Our guests on this episode are playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters, who join us for the world premiere of 'Dana H.'"

Michael Ritchie:
Lucas returns to us having last brought is play, "The Christians," to the Mark Taper Forum in 2015 also directed by Les. Lucas is now fresh off two recent Broadway triumphs, "A Doll's House, Part Two" and "Hillary and Clinton." Les was the Artistic Director of Actors Theater of Louisville from 2012 to 2018, and has collaborated with Lucas on a number of projects over the years. Our Director of Communications, James Sims, caught up with Lucas and Les in the lobby of the Douglas as the two took a break from rehearsals to discuss their creative process and what little can be said about this play, which is full of surprises.

As you'll hear Lucas describe, he sees "Dana H." very much as a black box recording and that the audience need only understand what they hear and experience during the play. All that you really need to know about its plot is that it is a deeply personal story for Lucas that recounts the harrowing true story of the five months Dana, a psych ward chaplain, and also Lucas's own mother, was held captive, trapped in a series of Florida motels with her life in the hands of a patient and ex-convict. I hope you enjoy this conversation and we look forward to seeing you at the theatre.

James Sims:
Can you talk about how your collaborative relationship started? What was that first project?

Les Waters:
We met in 2012 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays when Lucas's play "Death Tax" was part of that festival. Then our first collaboration was on "The Christians" at Actors Theatre. Then it was here and in New York. Then we recently did "The Thin Place" at Actors Theatre. Both plays were commissions and that will be in New York later this year.

James Sims:
How would you describe the relationship between playwright and director for you? Is it different on each project you approach? Have you guys built up a rapport together having worked closely on a few key projects?

Les Waters:
Well, I do think we have a rapport. I mean we have probably a similar taste in theatricality, maybe. I think our rhythms of work may be in sync.

James Sims:
Maybe, Lucas, what do you remember about that first time working with Les on a project? I'm sure there's a level of intimacy involved in giving your play over to a director and having that vision added onto what you've written, perhaps.

Lucas Hnath:
Sure. It's very much a brain meld, isn't it? We don't ... There's not much need to talk that much. We just look at each other and know what the other's thinking. You'll know when I want to plow ahead and do script stuff. I think the really reductive way to talk about it is I have a tendency towards having everything be extremely logical, and you have a comfort with mystery that pulls me back from where ... Any spots where I've let the thing get a little looser, a little more mysterious, you've been good at ... You're very tuned into knowing where to preserve that, and you're more comfortable with emotion than I am.

Les Waters:
Yeah. I'm a mess.

James Sims:
Working on world premieres, Les, as a director, I'm sure is ... Is it different than working on, perhaps, second, third, fourth production or a classic? I mean, there's something new to be found in the process, perhaps, and you guys have worked on "Dana H." Here, which we can talk a little bit about as a world premiere. This is the first time it's really coming together and in front of a paid audience. What is that, if at all, any different than a directing process on something else or do you approach it the same way when you're on a project?

Les Waters:
It is different. I mean, as opposed to if you're directing a classic play. What you want to make is something with a feeling that it's new. That it's discovered again. And with a new play, I mean, it's scary, which is fine. And it's enjoyable because you're the, well as the director, you're the first person going into that territory, and sometimes it feels like you're going completely into the dark, and other times it illuminates itself pretty easily as you're going through. But what it is, when you first go into a rehearsal, can often be very different with the thing that's finally presented to an audience. I mean, I love it. I mean, it's what I've done most of my career, and it's a great opportunity to camp out in somebody else's imagination for a period of time.

James Sims:
Lucas, as we're in this moment, right now, with "Dana H.," where it is this first real production in front of an audience. What is that process like for you, as the playwright, going into the rehearsal, the creative process, and now the presentation process of watching an audience experience this work? How does that arc change for you, as the playwright, and the creator of these projects to experience it in these different iterations now being in the staged, fully staged in front of an audience moment of the show?

Lucas Hnath:
Maybe I'm in the part of the arc where it's hard to explain what the arc is or the arc isn't visible. No, it's just you have your to-do list of work to do on the play, and you know there is a date where you don't get to do that anymore, at least, not until the next run of it. My answer is horribly uninteresting. There's, literally, a to-do list I have on a document, and I'm checking things off, and it's just you keep listening to it, and try to hear the thing as though you've never seen it or heard it before. And you keep doing that as long as you can until you can't and then you're kind of useless.

James Sims:
What role does the audience play on, specifically, a world premiere? First audience, which just was here at the Douglas experiencing "Dana H." for the first time. Does that play a part in your constant work until opening night?

Les Waters:
Yeah, it does on a new play, because the audience come in with clean ears. I mean, we've been sitting in a room for many weeks, and you suddenly can get, well, can they hear that? Is that clicking in? Is this going too fast? Is it going too slow? Were they ahead of the thing? In which case, what do you do? I mean, it's a shock when they arrive.

James Sims:
Has there been anything that stood out for you here on this production? Seeing how we just went through those first couple performances?

Les Waters:
I think the rhythm of it is very interesting. I mean, we all know it very well, and is the piece holding the audience in its hand and moving them forward? So that's interesting.

James Sims:
With "Dana H.," specifically, knowing that there's a lot of this play that we don't want to talk about in depth now or, really ever, for the audience perspective. That there's a bit of this play that the audience is just going to come to understand when they experience it. Lucas, can you talk a little bit about why that's important to you that we let the play speak for itself and not really get into a lot of the details of what is happening and why it's happening the way it does in the show?

Lucas Hnath:
Some of it's just you want it to remain a surprise for the audience. There's that reason for it. I am, generally, not comfortable saying anything about what happens in the play in part, because it is a play about my mother, and I was present for some of the events of the play, so it is ... There's this semi, at least for me, semi-autobiographical aspect to it. To talk about it in interviews, means that people will ask me further questions about the events, and I feel as though the play is this black box recording. You watch it and there will not be any additional information about it. You don't go see "Hamlet" and ask further questions about what he was like as a child. But you do tend to do that when you know that you have access to people who lived the events of the story. But I am asking that people receive it as a story on its own terms and not seek out supplementary information.

James Sims:
Les, have you worked on projects before that I've dealt with real people and real events? Or have you mostly focused on the world of fiction?

Les Waters:
I'm trying to think. I don't think I have. I worked for a long while in England in my former existence as an English person with a theatre group called Joint Stock, which was interview based, but then the interviews would try ... The people were often two interviewees turned into one character on stage. No, I think this is a first.

Lucas Hnath:
What about "Dear Elizabeth?" Where does that fall?

Les Waters:
Well, I did Sarah Ruhl's "Dear Elizabeth," which was the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. But no, that didn't feel ... I mean, that was their words. Well, this is Dana H.'s words. No, it somehow feels different. Well, that was that for me, as a director, was very research-based and this isn't.

James Sims:
I'd love to talk about the form of this play, "Dana H.," In that, there's a prerecorded audio component to the show that Deirdre, the actress, playing Dana in this is, in fact, not using her own voice. I think that opens up such an interesting avenue of creativity and I imagine challenges or unique opportunity for you, Les, as a director, to direct an actress in movement alone, no vocal work to be done. Could we talk just a little bit about ... Lucas, maybe, starting with you, what it is like as someone who is often a playwright, writing the words from your own imagination to, in this point, doing something different in that you're working off of pre-recorded audio, and, Les, what that means for you, as a director, and how that changes the game, if at all, for how you approach it?

Lucas Hnath:
I mean, it is, of course, undeniably different from how I write most of my plays. And yet, at the same time, the way that I write is I will spend a period of time, essentially, just vomiting up text until I get somewhere between 200 and 400 pages of material. Then the writing process is just simply organizing that material and arranging it. And I've always thought of it as being ... I've always found it useful to think about that part of the writing process as going into the editing room with footage that I went out and collected. So when I knew that I wanted this play to be composed from transcripts, I went ahead and just took the transcripts and organized them like I would any of my other plays at that point in the process where I stop and I figure out what are the compelling moments.

I title each of them and I start arranging them. So the thing that this has also opened up is not only composing with words and sentences, but we're composing the play with utterances. Sighs, laughs, those all become tools for the storytelling, and also when I assembled the first draft of it, I had no idea because I didn't listen to the recordings. I only worked off of the transcripts and that was intentional. But I had no idea if the cadences were going to line up, because I was using material from all over the place, from different days, and many hours. So composing the story out of her tone of voice, and the speed with which she's speaking, that was another tool.

James Sims:
As a director, working with an actress, beyond just the vision of the show, you're directing Deirdre, the actress, what is that process like with this conceit that she's not using her own voice throughout the entire play?

Les Waters:
Well, it should have been headbangingly difficult or a huge challenge, because I have no experience of lip syncing. It's not been because of three people really, Mikhail, the sound designer, Steve, who worked with Dee Dee on lip syncing, and because of Dee Dee, really, who is what is she, immensely kind, very funny, very generous, and genius at it. The tone of Dana's voice, or the rhythm of how she's speaking on the tapes, dictates a lot of work Dee Dee does.

James Sims:
Lucas, I believe Steve had been telling us in a previous interview that you two had played around with the idea of lip syncing before. What was that?

Lucas Hnath:
I wrote a play that was written to be lip synced many, many years ago, probably, 2004, 2005. That was the first experiment with that, and I knew that Steve Cuiffo had had experience with lip syncing working with Lypsinka. So I brought him in for advice about how to make that play work. So that was the first experiment with lip syncing.

James Sims:
What intrigued you by that concept? What led you to even experiment with that form?

Lucas Hnath:
It goes back to when I was in grad school. I got really interested in the work of this director, a director, who has since passed, Reza Abdoh, who would ... A number of his plays were written to be lip synced. They allowed him a certain narrative freedom, because there's this implicit understanding that the thing that you're watching is on a track. And it even goes back as far as grad school. I was doing experiments in one of Richard Schechner's classes with lip syncing. So it goes back even further than that play from 2005. I was just interested in theatrical conventions that can share some of the burden that certain narrative structures typically take responsibility for.

James Sims:
There's a core production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, so it has its world premiere here, in Los Angeles, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Then it moves to Chicago. What happens with the creative process between here and there? Is there any more ... Will you look back at the piece once the run's complete and do anything between the two or is that unknown at this point?

Les Waters:
I think it's unknown. I'm sure we'll talk. There will be some conversation.

James Sims:
Thinking of Center Theatre Group, the Goodman, Lucas, Les, your previous work as the Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Could you talk about the role nonprofit theatre has played in your careers? Lucas, clearly a lot of your work is coming out of the nonprofit theatre world. What is that role in the American theatre construct and maybe just speaking a little bit about how it really allows things like this, this true new form of sorts, and new experience to happen, and get an audience in front of it. What are your thoughts on the state of nonprofit theatre and its importance in the culture right now?

Les Waters:
Well, my American career has mainly been in nonprofit regional theatre. I mean, my New York work tends to be work that I was commissioned by regional theatre and has moved to New York. So these places that can commission writers and artists to make work and give you the time and facilities to do it are remarkable. I worked at Actors Theatre for six and a half years, and the Humana Festival, I suppose, is still part of the engine that moves the thing along. For young artists, it's not easy to get a break and to be able to do your work at a bigger scale that you usually do.

James Sims:
Les talks about young writers, perhaps, getting a break that might come only by way of regional nonprofit theatre sort of being a place. Do you remember ... Can you talk about, perhaps, your first break or what you remember of really having an opportunity to see your words brought to the stage?

Lucas Hnath:
Well, the first full length play of mine that was professionally produced, I mean, before that it was 10 years of putting up anything I could, in whatever free space I could get, with dollar store props. Then Actors Theatre of Louisville produced my play, "Death Tax." The fact is, most theatres not-for-profit theatre. The commercial theatre represents an incredibly small percentage of theatre that gets done. And it may be more amplified I guess. But most theatre is in the not-for-profit sector. So it's also hard to speak generally about it, because it's basically, well that's all of theatre. In the case of Actors Theatre in Louisville, it was a place where I was given remarkable freedom to fail with as little interference as possible. It was just they came to me and asked me what I needed to do the play. And that's ideally how it works.

James Sims:
Speaking of the, I guess, dichotomy of most theatre being nonprofit, you've had some very recent high profile opportunities in Broadway's universe, the for-profit world. Does that change anything for you, as a playwright? Does that open new doors for you? I mean, you definitely have, for instance, "Doll's House, Part Two," certainly had origins in the nonprofit space, but then went to Broadway as does "Hillary and Clinton." There was that pre-New York iteration of the work. What changes for you when it does go to Broadway and and have a much more commercial sensibility about it and how it's handled?

Lucas Hnath:
Honestly, in my case, very little. It's because I worked with a producer, Scott Rudin, who when we did "Doll's House, Part Two," ask me how I liked to work. And because Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival trained me to know what I want to ask for, I actually, literally, said to him, "I want to do this, like I work on plays at Humana." And he said, "Okay." So there is significantly more press you have to do. That changes the experience a lot. And there's other things, but the actual process of working, for me, and I'm very happy to say, has been very similar to my experiences in the not-for-profit world.

Michael Ritchie:
You've been listening to "30 to Curtain," a Center Theatre Group podcast. You can find out more about "Dana H.," our organization, and upcoming productions on our website at CenterTheatreGroup.org.

Center Theatre Group’s Artistic Director Michael Ritchie hosts “30 to Curtain,” a podcast featuring 30-minute interviews with some of the theatre artists creating work across the stages of the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, and Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.

Our guests on this episode are playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters, who join us for the World premiere of “Dana H.” Lucas returns to us, having last brought his play The Christians to the Mark Taper Forum in 2015, also directed by Les. Lucas is now fresh off two huge Broadway triumphs: “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Hillary & Clinton.” Les was Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville from 2012 to 2018 and has collaborated with Lucas on a number of projects over the years. Our Director of Communications James Sims caught up with Lucas and Les in the lobby of the Douglas as the two took a break from rehearsals to discuss their creative process and what little can be said about this play, which is full of surprises. “Dana H.” is onstage at the Douglas May 26 – June 23, 2019.

For more on Center Theatre Group and its upcoming productions, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org

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