Les Hunter is a Cleveland-based playwright and the author of Down By Contact, which opens on August 17 at Gilmour Academy. In this new, contemporary drama, a down-and-out retired quarterback must decide between his allegiance to his former teammates and his love for his family. Struggling with the debilitating brain disease CTE, he tries to save the last vestige of his glory days: his lavish home. The lives of retired players and their families inspire this site-specific production, which will be presented in Gilmour Academy’s stately Tudor House.
Down By Contact is a co-production of Playwrights Local and Dobama Theatre. It is directed by Dale Heinen and features John Busser, Corin B. Self, Liam Stilson, and Margi Zitelli. Performances run August 17 – September 3 at the special location of the Tudor House at Gilmour Academy. Find more information here, and purchase tickets here.
As a playwright, Les Hunter has received over 40 productions across the country. He was a finalist for the Jewish Plays Project 2016 international Jewish Playwriting Contest for his play To the Orchard (Playwrights Local). He wrote for all three parts of the Off-Broadway hit, The Jackson Heights Trilogy (Theatre 167), and his play Weimar was commissioned and produced by Baldwin Wallace University in 2018. Playscripts, Indie Theatre, and Brooklyn Publishers have published his plays. He is an assistant professor of English at Baldwin Wallace and holds a PhD from Stony Brook University and an MFA from Boston University. Find his complete bio at http://leslielarshunter.com/.
We’re thrilled to presents Les’ preview of the show in the form of the following 3 Questions.
The impact of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) within the world of football has been the center of much controversy. What drew you to write a play on this topic, and what questions about it are you asking?
Football, not baseball, is America’s favorite pastime. Nine of the top ten most-watched broadcasts in American television history are football games; the League profits far more than $10 billion a year and was, until 2015, a tax-exempt non-profit. The men that play these games are idolized, but recent events like the controversy around kneeling during the national anthem show that the public often prefers to see players as entertainers, not necessarily as individuals with their own unique humanity and perspective.
I wanted to utilize the epic American imagery of football as a background to focus on human details: to see these men and their families as individuals with all of their aspirations, contradictions, and messiness. CTE was in the news, and I started conducting interviews with former pro football players and coaches, other people who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries, neurologists, and advocates for awareness about brain injuries. I heard about retired players who suffer depression, substance abuse, anger issues, poverty, suicidal tendencies, and dementia due to their trauma.
I realized that the situation seemed like a natural fit for a play where I could draw on the theater genre of expressionism. This genre creates an abstract reality that demonstrates an objective truth. That is, it depicts the real through unreal, perceived truth. I realized I could explore the subjective experience of someone losing their mind, and the influence it has on those around them. As the audience, we see (protagonist) Carson Kaide’s perspective as someone suffering from CTE.
Additionally through my research, my view of professional athletes began to change. I began to see players more like many of them see themselves: as playing cards who are traded back and forth by cynical team owners, until they grow worn around the edges and are discarded. The average NFL player plays three short, brutal years, and after, their bodies beaten, they face uncertain years of declining health. To this day the League does not provide healthcare benefits for most retired players.
These players are national idols yes, but this play is about the price that many of them pay for that idolatry, and their inevitable downfall. For Carson Kaide, that downfall is exacerbated by the pride that keeps him from admitting that something is wrong. In that way, this is Greek tragedy. So there is the epic at play here, but I want to bring this down to scale and connect with the audience. It is my hope that the play will draw attention to the human tragedy of brain injuries, and empower the public to protect athletes at all levels of play.
Down By Contact involves critical moments between an aging quarterback and his wife, son, and former teammate. What conflicts drive these relationships, and how do they connect to CTE and other issues you mention above?
Carson, like many former players who suffer from CTE, has made a series of poor decisions that force him to choose between continuing to lie about his own condition (and betray former teammates like Trypp—to whom Carson feels a debt), and to save his family from financial ruin. At the same time, Trypp’s feelings of abandonment by Carson complicates his own visit. While Kelsey, Carson’s wife, has to decide if she can stand by Carson as he drags them both down. Kelsey and Carson’s estranged son, Tommy, has also recently returned to lay claim to a small piece of their fortune, only to find that things at home are not well. Each character in the play has to decide what they are willing to sacrifice to keep alive the stories they tell themselves about who they are.
The term “site-specific” refers to plays that are performed in their natural settings or in specific settings, as opposed to on stages with designed sets. What would you say to the audience about the value of seeing Down By Contact in the specific location of a luxurious house?
For Carson Kaide and his family, their house—an opulent mansion outside of a large Midwestern city—is a sign of their success. It’s the last part of Carson’s identity that hasn’t been taken away, and due to decisions that he’s made as a result of CTE, he might lose it. Keep in mind that the play takes place in 2007, just as the public was finally becoming aware of the dangers of CTE to players, and people were losing fortunes in housing properties due to the financial crisis. Director Dale Heinen and I decided that the play would be most powerful in the Kaide’s own home, one that they are fiercely trying to protect. We have been very lucky to partner with the Gilmour Academy to stage the play inside the Tudor House as if it were Carson Kaide’s own home.
So we invite you, the audience, to former pro quarterback Carson Kaide’s stately home for a private glimpse into the life that he’s desperately trying to hold on to. You’ll meet his former teammate, Trypp, his wife Kelsey, and his son Tommy, who all, in their own way, try to negotiate past struggles to try to find a way forward, and to keep hold of each other as best they can.