Jack Hilton Cunningham spent many years working as a set designer in opera, educational, regional, summer stock, Off- and Off-Off Broadway Theater. He has an MFA in Theater Design from Brooklyn College. Jack is currently working on three other plays and a novel and continues to work as set designer for Retro Productions.
Check out Jack’s play available from Baker’s Plays
Women and War
Q: Baker’s Plays has recently published your moving, informative docudrama, Women and War. Can you talk a little about the creation of the play? Where did the idea for this historical drama come from?
A. I was watching television one evening a number of years ago and while searching the channels for something interesting to watch I came across a documentary about women nurses in Vietnam narrated by Dana Delaney. Several nurses were interviewed and their stories touched something inside me. I told my wife that there was a play there somewhere. I began mulling it over and over in my mind and decided to work on the idea. As I began work I realized that my idea was too limited for an evening in the theater. As I began to do research I stumbled over some letters on the internet written by a soldier in WWII. A light came up over my head again and the full scope of Women and War began to materialize. I tried contacting the owner of the letters for permission to use them, but never received a reply. I discovered that there were almost no extant letters written to servicemen in the wars of the 20th Century. I decided to write all the letters myself. As my research continued, I unearthed stories of women like the Hello Girls of WWI, the Mother’s Movement of WWII, and the Doughnut Girls.
I began work on Women and War in 2006. The play was originally presented by the Bleecker Street Theatre in their Monday Night Play Reading series and was subsequently produced by Retro Productions in 2010. A joint production by Retro Productions and The Bleecker Company at Archlight Theater and a special performance at the Player’s Club in Manhattan were presented in 2011.
Audience reactions to Women and War suggested it was important material for young audiences. A history lesson of sorts, my play lends itself to productions for all ages.
Q: Women and War is a presentational docudrama, and the story of the play is framed with letters, testimony, and eye−witness accounts of the American female’s experience during periods of combat. What drew you to this style of storytelling and what were some of the challenges you faced in terms of crafting this piece? What kind of research did you do?
A. Allow me to focus on your last question first. Research is not what I do best. So I just purchased a lot of books about women, service men, and others in the American wars beginning with the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I did a lot of reading.
As the monologues and letter exchanges began to take shape I was faced with the problem of how to present the material to an audience. Because I grew up in Louisiana in the 40s and 50s before we had television, radio was my entertainment. Radio, like reading, relies on the imagination of the listener. In high school I participated in interpretive reading: reading poetry and short stories to an audience. Then I discovered Reader’s Theater, and the production of Steven Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body directed by the great Charles Laughton, starring Agnes Moorehead, Raymond Massey and Tyrone Power.
Remembering these interests, I decided to shape Women and War as reader’s theater.
Q: Jack, you spent most of your theatrical career as a set designer before exploring the field of playwriting. How has your experience as a scenic designer inform the writing of this play?
A. I somehow always knew, growing up in a rural town in central Louisiana, that I wanted to be in the theater. I just didn’t know where. After three years in the military and five years working myself through college I decided to focus on a master’s degree in directing. However, when I took my first set design class I switched from a MA in directing to a MFA in stage design. Ironically, my first play does not require scenery. When I see theater in which the design elements overpower the story telling−and theater is ultimately about story telling−I most likely leave the theater disappointed. As Women and War became alive I was determined to focus on the stories of these women and their men be the ultimate goal.
Q: Have you ever come across a production that made you see one of your plays in a new or unexpected way?
A. I recently saw the brilliant Broadway production of The Normal Heart. The simplicity of the design elements allowed the emotional storytelling by the playwright to take precedence. After sitting through Spider Man, Turn Off the Dark, my mind is made up: the words are what is important. I guess my answer is: generally as a set designer, keep it simple; as a playwright, go for the heart.
Q: Finally, what are you currently working on?
A. I guess at my age of 73, writing, being produced, and publishing a first play is quite an accomplishment. But to answer your question, I have been working on a novel for the past 12 years; unfortunately I have not been successful in getting it published. I am now developing two plays based on portions of the novel. Hopefully, I will be work-shopping one of the plays beginning with a reading for an audience late this summer or early fall. With a little luck my new-found career as playwright will continue.
Women and War has been an awesome adventure. It began small; it grew to be a very large manuscript. With the participation of others, especially the director Peter Zinn, lots of cutting, rewriting, reorganizing, and just plain difficult work, the play evolved. Theater, after all is said and done, is one big collaborative adventure.