After working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in experimental physics for 30 years, Robert F. Benjamin turned to playwriting in his retirement under the guidance of what he describes as “a calling.” Well, thank God he listened, because Benjamin has produced six full-length plays and about 24 shorts, four of which have made their debut at Santa Fe’s own, Teatro Paraguas. His newest work, Hunker Up (7 pm Friday, Sept. 24 and Saturday, Sept. 25; 4 pm Sunday, Sept. 26. By suggested donation. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, (505) 424-1601), is the sequel to a previous work dubbed Hunker Down that was produced in 2020. Set one year apart, the series follows characters Kevin and Bri, two seniors continuing a relationship that developed during the COVID-19 shutdowns in May 2020. Now in 2021, they grapple with adapting that relationship when things start opening up and family and friends start to visit.
Are you expecting to write a third? Maybe Hunker Down Again: Good God Make it Stop!?
I thought about it, and it’s not on my drawing board right now. I won’t say no because I’ve said no to so many things along this path that I’ve had to say yes to subsequently. So, I’m really shy about saying no to ideas because I’ve had to eat my words so many times. I can’t say no to what you’re saying, but it’s not something I’m actively pursuing now. The conversations that I’ve had with the characters in my imagination have all been around Hunker Up and trying to see if there’s some way that the characters can stay together. I’m rooting for the characters. They’ve been working real hard on me to make it an interesting play, so there is a lot of drama in the play. It’s not looking real good for them initially. They have to work each other pretty hard, which, as you well know, that’s what plays are about.
For anybody who hasn’t seen the first one, do you think they need to, to really understand what Hunker Up is about?
Definitely not. I’ve thought carefully about that when I was composing Hunker Up. So, Hunker Up is a self-contained play. It makes reference to Hunker Down events, but it does so in a way that if you haven’t seen Hunker Down, you still get the idea. You still understand what’s happening. It’s definitely a sequel but you don’t have to have seen Hunker Down to appreciate Hunker Up. Thematically they’re different, because Hunker Down had to do with seniors coping with the isolation and the loneliness that came with single seniors dealing with it back in Spring of 2020. Hunker Up has to deal more with how do we use our pandemic experience and our old normal before COVID? How do we combine those into some new lifestyle? You know, what does our new normal look like, based on a combination of the pandemic experience and what came before it?
When you write for theater, that’s obviously an in-person experience. Were you aware that you were writing this for a different medium, Zoom specifically, and do you think virtual theater like this has a future? Do you plan on continuing these kinds of presentations?
I was consciously aware when I was writing this play that I was writing for a new medium that was unfamiliar to me—and it was also unfamiliar to audiences and it was also unfamiliar to play directors and actors. it was just a new animal. A completely new thing. The thing that I worried about the most when I first started this project back in March/April of 2020 was, will an audience relate to the emotionality of characters by watching the characters make a Zoom call to each other? I was very skeptical. I watched a couple of Zoom shows, you know, on Zoom but the characters were not on Zoom. They were not interacting on Zoom, they were on the stage and I was watching it on Zoom. And I could not relate to what the characters were feeling. So, I was rather discouraged from that. But then I had the idea, well, if audiences are watching it on Zoom, maybe the characters need to be on Zoom too so they empathize more with each other. I started off Hunker Down as a stage play, but then I said ‘No, no I’m going to put them on Zoom instead and see how that plays.’ I still had the big question in my head, will audiences respond emotionally to characters who are on a Zoom call with each other? I was happy to see after it was produced a couple of times that the answer to that is yes. I was surprised and delighted.