Playwright Lucas Hnath recently answered questions posed to him by Literary & Humanities Manager Raphael Martin about the genesis of A PUBLIC READING OF AN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY ABOUT THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY. Lucas’s answers give some interesting background information to the play, as well as its unique structure.
Raphael: This is a fully-produced play, despite the piece’s quirky title. How did you get the idea for this very unconventional structure?
Lucas: Jyana Browne, a director and close friend, wanted to work on a new play with me. She had three weeks that she was going to be in town. She wanted to workshop it, and by the end of the workshop invite friends to see what we’ve made. Time was short, and I knew that we would be able to accomplish a lot more during that workshop if the actors didn’t have to memorize their lines. So I decided to come up with a play in which it part of the staging required the actors to perform with scripts in hand. But as I worked on the play, the formal conceit started to take on meaning. When you see Walt reading from the script, cutting, editing the story; that’s a dramatic image of man who’s struggling to control his legacy.
Raphael: Where and when did your fascination in Walt Disney emerge?
Lucas: I grew up about seven minutes away from Disney World. The Magic Kingdom was effectively my backyard. I was immersed in the Disney aesthetic—total theatrical environments, meticulous crowd management, an uncanny blending of the real and unreal. And I’ve always admired that Disney sensibility, even at its most manipulative. I like the safety of it. I also like that the artist is a puppet master, a god, in the World of Disney. And yet, there’s this quote from Walt that complicates my understanding of the aeshtetic: “You just can’t let nature run wild.” That desire for control implies a fear of that which cannot be dominated or contained: human nature, eros, the wilderness, and most importantly death. Disney gives me an excuse to write a play about both the amazing and terrible things that can result from a fear of “the wild.”
Raphael: This play focuses on Walt Disney, although in the past you’ve written plays about NASA astronauts, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Isaac Newton, and other people who have had a lasting impact in popular history. What draws you to these subjects and people?
Lucas: I tend to write plays about people who are trying to do something that is impossible or nearly impossible. I’m interested in people who are trying accomplish things that very few people will ever accomplish: to become leader of the free world or go to space or, in the case of Walt, build a perfect city. Huge ambition brings with it aspects of wonder, high stakes, and danger. But even more interesting than that, when you combine enormous ambitions with the small conflicts we experience everyday, the ordinary becomes illuminated. There’s a Virginia Woolf quote that I like very much: “The paraphernalia of reality have at certain moments to become the veil through which we see infinity. We are neither roused nor puzzled; we do not have to ask ourselves, What does this mean? We feel simply that the thing we are looking at is lit up, and its depths revealed.” Conflating the mythic with the miniscule has become my strategy for piercing Woolf’s veil.