The New York Times: Lucas Hnath

Portrait of Newton, Hold the Gravity

Published: February 9, 2013
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Lucas Hnath didn’t plan a career as a playwright. He arrived at New York University determined to pursue a pre-med degree in 1997. But then he saw “Benita Canova” by the avant-garde director Richard Foreman. “After that I decided I had to transfer into dramatic writing because I wanted to make things like that,” he said.

Raised in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Hnath, (pronounced nayth) 33, grew up enraptured by the theatricality of Disney World and the evangelical church he attended. But New York called to him. “I like a lot of stimulation, a lot of noise,” he said. After earning a dramatic writing M.F.A. at 21, Mr. Hnath remained in New York, laboring as a writing instructor, a literary manager and working with law students on unemployment insurance cases, “which actually ended up being really, really great story training,” he said.

All that time he kept writing, rehearsing shows with friends and “literally making props from stuff I found in the dollar store.” A decade or so on, he seems poised to break out Off Broadway. Ensemble Studio Theater is presenting “Isaac’s Eye” (through Feb. 24), his comedy about one of Isaac Newton’s more outré explorations: jamming a needle into his own tear duct. And on April 30 Soho Rep’s artistic director, Sarah Benson, will be at the helm of Mr. Hnath’s experimental script, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.”

On a break from “Isaac’s Eye” rehearsals Mr. Hnath, looking cheerful if slightly bleary-eyed and clutching an enormous container of coffee, spoke to Alexis Soloski about backyard theme parks and the surprising usefulness of long hair. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. What tempted you to write a comedy about Isaac Newton? Was he a funny guy?

A. I didn’t set out to write a funny play about him, it just inevitably happened. Newton was by many accounts very difficult to get along with, a curmudgeon. Towards the end of his life he was heading up the mint, and he really prided himself on how many counterfeiters he had executed. In some ways he was kind of a deeply unpleasant person, which I find funny.

Were you a theme park addict in Orlando?

Yeah. I had a pretty big backyard, and I was always trying to build theme park rides — a wagon on a rope, holes I’d dug up and filled with water, pieces of wood on pulleys.

You often write about real figures. How much research do you do?

I’m in many ways a sloppy researcher. I’ll start reading things, but I won’t finish anything. I want to start writing before I know too much about the truth. And then there comes this point late in the process where I’ll think I’m making something up, but I’ll go back and do my research and I’ll realize, “Wait a minute, that really did happen.” I hope the messier research process leads to work that doesn’t feel researched, but more organic and less like a book report.

You have scripts about Anna Nicole Smith, Street Fighter II, Godard films, classic Japanese Noh plays. How do you navigate between high art and pop culture?

I guess the trick is I don’t navigate. But there is a kind of blending of high and low culture. A lot of the Disney play story is cribbed from “King Lear.”

The Humana Festival asked you to write a play about sleep science. Do you sleep well yourself?

During the process of writing that play [“Nightnight”] I actually became a better sleeper. I can sleep through pretty much anything. I slept through lightning hitting my house when I was a kid and the firefighters coming in and evacuating, and I don’t remember any of it.

You have exceptionally good hair for a playwright. Is there any Samsonesque relationship between your hair and your creativity?

Hair can be very useful if you’re in the audition room and need to hide your reaction. So I grew my hair out. Like Newton, unfortunately, I am starting to get gray hair. He started to gray in his 20s. So did I.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 10, 2013, on page AR2 of the New York edition with the headline: Portrait of Newton, Hold the Gravity. It can be read here

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