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Q&A: Hyde Park Theatre’s artistic director on 'Death Tax'

Ken Webster talks prophetic lines and the power of big money

Andrew Friedenthal / Special to the American-Statesman
"Death Tax," a play by Lucas Hnath, runs at Hyde Park Theatre through July 27, 2019. [CONTRIBUTED BY HYDE PARK THEATRE]

In Austin, as elsewhere, a great deal of local theater is supported primarily by older audiences. This, however, is not the case at Hyde Park Theatre.

In any given show at the theater, you can look around at the audience and see a weird, hip, eclectic mix of people who reflect the diversity and strangeness that came to define Austin in days of yore. Hyde Park has a mission of producing cutting-edge work by today’s best playwrights, including quite a few regional premieres.

The newest work at the theater, Lucas Hnath’s “Death Tax,” is now playing and runs through July 27. The company’s website summarizes the play like this: “Maxine has weeks to live — and she thinks her daughter is paying her nurse to make sure she dies before new, higher death taxes kick in next month. She's wrong — but she offers the nurse a good chunk of change to keep her alive instead.”

We spoke with Hyde Park Theatre artistic director and bona fide Austin theater legend Ken Webster about Hnath’s work, the craft of directing and celebrating 40 years of creating theater in the city.

American-Statesman: “Death Tax” will be Hyde Park Theatre's third Lucas Hnath play in recent years. What is it about his work that speaks to you, and to the theater's sensibilities?

Ken Webster: I like to say that if I were charged with creating a Mount Rushmore of the four best living playwrights in the U.S., it would include Annie Baker, Will Eno, Lucas Hnath and Mickle Maher. They are all vastly different, but they share a remarkable ability to tell irresistible stories. I’ve been fortunate to direct six of Baker’s plays; perform in and direct five of Eno’s plays; direct two of Hnath’s other plays; and perform in five of Maher’s plays. We’ve been very lucky at HPT to produce the second production in the country of Hnath’s “The Christians,” Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” and Baker’s “The Antipodes.”

One of the things I love most about Hnath’s work is that there are no good guys or bad guys. It’s true in all three of his plays we’ve produced — "The Christians,” “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Death Tax.” When each play begins, the audience might have their eye on a villain, but as the plays progress, we find every character is flawed, and every character has a point, and no one character is all right or wrong.

Another Hnath trademark is the expert mixture of monologues and rapid-fire, point-counterpoint dialogue. He writes characters that are exciting for actors to sink their teeth into, and for audiences, his plays are damn funny and thought provoking. And fortunately, our audiences seem to love his plays as much as I do.

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With a plot inspired in part by the stress of taxes, how does “Death Tax” speak to contemporary issues about the intersection of money and human relationships?

Hnath wrote this play before the 2016 election, but it does seem that the intersection of money and human relations is the Achilles heel for all four main characters in “Death Tax.” To some extent, the play is about the power big money has to corrupt everything it touches. The play also juxtaposes a person of extreme wealth with a person in severe financial need, which is becoming the story of our country. And finally, the play asks what exactly money can buy you. My wife has this thing about what she calls the “luxury-box-ification of America,” where you're either squeezed miserably into economy or drinking champagne in first class; you’re either doing a GoFundMe to cover your child’s out-of-pocket medical expenses or you have a concierge doctor ready to attend every need. But even in an economic dystopia like ours, money only goes so far, and the play talks about that as well.

By the way, Hnath is prophetic with one of the lines that one of the characters utters — a direct quote by Donald Trump, four years before he actually said it.

How does your approach to directing a production differ when you're not acting in it (as with “Death Tax”) versus those shows where you're also on stage?

I always schedule long rehearsal periods, but if I’m also acting in a production that I’m directing, it's even longer. I'll generally rehearse twice a day — afternoon rehearsals for me to learn lines and find my character, and evening rehearsals for the entire cast. I also rely more heavily on my assistant directors for their input if I am in the cast. I also will have one of the assistant directors stand in for me during blocking rehearsals.

Whether I’m acting in the production or not, we do a lot of table work — breaking the show down into units, and doing quite a bit of repetition before we get on our feet.

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What can you say about the cast you've assembled for "Death Tax"?

I’m really blessed to have such a terrific cast for this show. Lana Dieterich, who portrays Maxine, has always been one of my favorite actors in town. She started doing theater in Austin just a few months after me and was seen most recently at HPT in Annie Baker’s play "John." I’ve been fortunate enough to act alongside her, as well as direct her. Chase Brewer, who plays Todd, is a wonderfully talented and versatile actor who appeared in our productions of “A Bright New Boise” and “The Quarry.” Sarah Chong Harmer, who plays Maxine’s daughter, is one of the bright new actors in the local theater scene and gave a lovely, critically acclaimed performance in our recent production of Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Web Jerome, who portrays Tina, Maxine's Haitian nurse, is also a talented newcomer to Austin’s theater scene and is making her Hyde Park Theatre debut. And she has an impeccable Haitian accent. Our award-winning HPT design team of Mark Pickell, Don Day, Robert S. Fisher and Cheryl Painter are all on board for this production as well.

Congratulations on forty years of making theater in Austin, by the way. What are some of the most important things you've learned about creating theater in this town over that time?

Thank you! Having done theater in Austin for forty years has been a real gift for me. I met my wife Katherine Catmull at auditions at HPT. She is the smartest actor I’ve ever worked with, and she makes me want to be the best director and actor I can possibly be. If I hadn’t met her, I might have become not unlike The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” I’ve directed over a hundred productions and acted in over a hundred. I’m proud that I was one of the pioneers of paying actors for their work in Austin. After forty years I’ve learned so much. I’d have to have been pretty stubborn not, too. I’ve just about figured how to stage a show at the quirky space that is Hyde Park Theatre. I guess the main things I’ve learned is to be more even tempered when things are difficult, and more patient with actors and designers.