Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio. Photo by Joan Marcus

Q&A with director Oliver Butler

A Bright New Boise

Written by:
Nella Vera
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Signature Theatre Company’s enthralling revival of “A Bright New Boise” opened recently in a new production with an outstanding company that includes Anna Baryshnikov, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Eva Kaminsky, Peter Mark Kendall, and Angus O’Brien. 

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, who won a 2011 OBIE Award for “Boise,” is the Signature Premiere Residency Playwright. His time at Signature kicked off in 2022 with the stunning “A Case for the Existence of God” (this writer’s favorite play of the past several years) and he is represented in this season’s Oscar race by “The Whale,” a film based on his highly acclaimed 2012 play of the same name.  All three are set in Idaho, Hunter’s home state, and feature characters searching for meaning in their somewhat unremarkable lives. His plays first appear to be dramas about ordinary people but beyond the surface, they are deceptively profound and poignant.  

In the hands of director Oliver Butler, “Boise” deftly balances dark humor with creeping dread—and high stakes even within the play’s mundane setting of a “Hobby Lobby” employee break room. Butler’s impressive resume includes the Broadway premiere of Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated “What the Constitution Means to Me,” as well as the film version which is available now on Amazon Prime. His prior Signature work includes a smashing production of “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” starring Michael C. Hall.

We spoke with Butler about the play, the casting process, and being one of the most sought-after directors for new work.

Congratulations on a fantastic production. How did you get involved with this project?

I’ve worked at Signature a few times, and Sam and I have tried to work together many times and it hasn’t worked out. So, I was on his list of people, and Signature trusts me, and I must have been on his mind when they picked this project. They called me early last year and I quickly accepted. I saw this show 12 year ago, it’s the play that introduced me to Sam’s work.

What do you think makes Samuel Hunter’s writing so compelling?

I’m stealing this from a conversation in rehearsal. In his work, there is a powerful collision between the profound and the quotidian. Regular people, living real lives, but bumping up against their belief systems. He has love for all of his characters—he’s not above his characters judging. He’s with them and in support of them. So, his plays just exude heart and beauty. And I think it creates a world where all of you is welcome. Even the parts of you that you might be embarrassed of, or are unformed, all of those parts of yourself are welcome because the characters you are watching are welcome, even if they are problematic. It’s a healing space that he creates.

I saw this play in 2010 and it seemed timely then, produced when the U.S. economy was shaky and religious fanaticism was on the rise. It was surprising that it is just as fresh and relevant now. What makes this play so germane to our times now? Was any of it updated for 2023?

It sounds like you sort of answered this, fanaticism is still on the rise and the US economy is very shaky. I think we are having a national identity crisis, and we are looking for some sort of belief system or structure to give us meaning. The Myth of the USA has been revealed to us, and people are turning to new stories to understand who we are. Each character has their own belief system to understand their world: God, capitalism, reasonableness, art, courage—and they construct a reality that brings some sort of comfort for the chaotic fear. We are doing the same thing. So much of the world and the universe makes no sense to us—so we need a frame that brings us meaning and gives us a role to play.

I think it’s fair to say that Sam Hunter’s characters are people that are pretty far from the NYC audiences that see his plays. It would be very easy for New Yorkers to have preconceived notions about them but he invites us to look past that and see their humanity. Are you sensing that happening from the current audience? Are you surprised by any of the audience reactions?

I don’t think these characters are so far from NYC audiences. In superficial ways we are different, but so many people have had service jobs or worked in big organizations. Many of us have religion or come from religion. This is a show about fanaticism, and many of us are fanatics about things other than religion. I don’t think it’s hard for people to see themselves in the characters in the play.

At the center of this play is the character of Will, played by Peter Mark Kendall who is sensational. The whole cast is excellent, but Peter’s performance is absolutely remarkable – his big expressive eyes reveal so many layers and contradictions that are at times, devastating.  Did you have him in mind from the beginning? Had you worked with him before?

Peter has worked with Sam before, and they live in the same building. Sam recommended him, and then Peter came in and auditioned, and it was one of those unbelievable experiences. The whole room was quiet, and we were shocked with the beauty. It felt more like a spiritual experience, and he found us, or we found him with some sort of cosmic help. With each of the actors, the audition was a spooky experience. The callback audition day was one of the best days in the theater I’ve had. All of us. We sort of looked at each other and said, “Did that just happen?”

Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov, photo by Joan Marcus

Though we only see them at work, the production really gives a sense of this particular community. What kind of research did you and the cast do to bring to life this very specific group of people from Idaho?

Our scenic designer Wilson Chin went and spent a bunch of time at a Hobby Lobby. I did as well. And many of us have had big box jobs before. Sam worked at a Walmart. I never did, but I worked in food service for a while, and as a carpenter in NYC in a shop. The Big Box Store is ubiquitous in America, and I think has impacted our understanding of what work is. So, we did a lot of research, but also, if we haven’t worked at one of these places, we have friends and family who do. It’s not a foreign experience, it’s what American work has become.

You’ve worked with some of the most important dramatists of our generation, from Will Eno to Heidi Schreck to Sam Hunter.  What draws you to want to work with these playwrights and to contemporary plays in general? Did you, at one point in your career, decide to concentrate on new plays versus the classics?

I love doing the first production. I love figuring out things that other people haven’t. I love seeing a play start and making it happen from nothing. I try to work with artists who are great writers but are also good people. These are all good people. Working on a new play is agreeing to spend a lot of time with a person in very vulnerable situations. So, you want to be sure that the experiment is worth it (what you are working on is interesting and challenging) but also that the person is going to be an exciting and supportive person to have in the journey. We are all different people at the end of the process, and I want to feel that the person I’m working with can help me become a better person and will make me laugh and will let me make some mistakes and be a support. I’ve gotten more spiritual about my work recently, and I see myself as someone who is in the process of becoming. And the artistic projects are a chance to become more myself, and help others become more themself. So, the people and the projects I want to be in, are the ones that give me the best opportunity to become someone who is more themself. And I like the conversation with a playwright. I like the collaboration. I like who I get to be when I’m in the room with them.

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