Idaho is his canvas: Sam Hunter puts his home state on a national stage with his award-winning plays


The past few weeks have been busy for Sam Hunter.

The 33-year-old playwright has traveled back and forth to Chicago from New York for the opening of one of his plays, seen his first anthology published, received a $625,000 Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and this weekend, his award-winning play, “A Bright New Boise,” will be produced in his hometown of Moscow for the first time.

The show opens Friday night at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, where the first four performances will be held, followed by eight more at the Hartung Theater beginning Oct. 10.

For Hunter it has been a shocking, overwhelming and amazing experience, beginning with the phone call Sept. 2 from the MacArthur Foundation informing him of the honor. It came with a slight caveat — he could only share the information with one other person, so naturally he told his husband.

“It just felt surreal,” Hunter said. “It felt like it maybe hadn’t happened to me, like it was a strange narcissistic delusion I was having, and so when it was finally made public it feels much better. It feels real, it doesn’t feel like it’s totally settled in my body yet.”

Hunter said he loved growing up in Moscow. It allowed him to experience a small-town environment while benefiting from the opportunities available at the University of Idaho, which served as a “window to the larger culture.” He attended Logos School in Moscow before graduating from New York University. He earned a master’s degree in English through the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and studied for two years at the Juilliard School in New York City.

He’s written more than 30 plays, with about a third of them eventually being produced across the country. Many of his plays are based in various parts of the Gem State, which early on in his career led him to believe he was just a regional writer bringing attention to an area that typically goes unnoticed in terms of stage performances.

He has now grown to understand his stories could take place anywhere and there’s nothing necessarily Idahoan about them. Instead, his stories serve a different purpose.

“What I’ve come to realize that I’m doing is I’m creating this fictionalized Idaho and it’s just become a really useful canvas that I enjoy returning to. And setting them in Idaho just immediately grounds me in the plays in a very real way,” he said.

He is always shocked by which of his plays turn out to be smash hits and he was again surprised with the success of “A Bright New Boise.” He wrote the play four years ago with no anticipation of it being produced more than twice. It’s now nearing 30 productions after beginning as a character he was developing for an actor friend of his.

“What I hope about that play that seems unique is that it’s a play about a religious person who isn’t totally condescending, that’s actually trying to get at it in an emotionally honest way,” he said. “I frequently love to write about religion and I love how religion interacts with people. I think it’s written about in the culture in a way that’s sort of often two-dimensional, so hopefully that’s one thing the play is getting at that is a little uncommon.”

Throughout his career, Hunter has been the recipient of several artistic awards, though none like the MacArthur grant, which came with an honor he’s not quite ready to accept. The stipulation-free $625,000 is nice because it gives him and his husband the stability they didn’t have before, but the award comes with the slightly tongue-in-cheek notion the recipient is a genius — and that’s not exactly a title Hunter is looking to claim any time soon.

“No, absolutely not,” Hunter said when asked about being a genius. “... I’ve never taken an IQ test that got it to that high. It’s a weird word to be put up against. That’s been one of the strangest things about this whole experience so far.”

Others, however, would beg to differ.

“Those MacArthur grants are informally called ‘Genius Grants’ and he truly is a genius, and he’s also just nice, which is a nice combination,” said David Harlan, the director of the “A Bright New Boise” production opening this weekend.

Hunter credits his consistency as a writer — an asset he feels is critical in his profession — for his success.

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