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University of Iowa News Release

May 2, 2006

Photo: Iowa Playwrights Workshop graduate student Samuel D. Hunter. Click here for a high-resolution image.

Experiences In Palestine Inspired Iowa Playwrights Festival Script

University of Iowa President David Skorton declared the 2004-05 academic year the Year of Arts and Humanities, to celebrate the UI's rich traditions and to "forge cultural linkages." Those who assume this declaration was merely high-toned rhetoric might want to check out the tangible results of one of these cultural linkages, the Iowa New Play Festival production of "Pigheart" by Iowa Playwrights Workshop graduate student Samuel D. Hunter.

Performances will be 5:30 and 9 p.m. Thursday, May 4, in the David Thayer Theatre of the UI Theatre Building.

Hunter's play about a young American living on the West Bank, and the turmoil caused when an old friend visits, is a direct result of a UI residency by Palestinian playwright Iman Aoun. The artistic director of the Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah, Aoun participated in the kick-off of the UI Year of Arts and Humanities and then worked with students in the UI Department of Theatre Arts for the next month.

"I got in touch with her then," Hunter recalls, "and she let the department know that she wanted to bring a playwright over there to teach a workshop over the summer. I had minored in Middle Eastern Studies at NYU, and decided that it would be a great opportunity."

So Hunter spent the summer teaching at the Ashtar Theatre, and also at the Ayyam Al-Musrah theater in Hebron, an experience he found so rewarding that he already has ticket in hand to return to the West Bank this summer to teach at both theaters.

"The play came out of those experiences, juxtaposed with my experiences of being a gay teenager in rural Idaho. Though it's inspired by my own experiences, the play actually contains no real events from my own life, or the lives of anyone I know.

"I started writing the play last summer while in Palestine, and continued working on it at the O'Neill Playwright's Conference, where I was workshopping another one of my scripts, 'Norman Rockwell Killed My Father.' I heard the first half or so read out loud there at the O'Neill, and continued writing once I got back to Iowa."

Hunter admits that he was very tense when he first arrived in Palestine, not knowing exactly what to expect. "It was obviously a very strange experience, mostly strange because of the fact that at the end of my stay I found myself not wanting to leave.

"I was staying in a flat in East Jerusalem, so I wasn't staying in the West Bank proper, but this also meant that I had to make the trip daily through one of the largest checkpoints in Israel, the Qalandia checkpoint. The first day we were there we were right next to gunfire (some Palestinian boys were throwing rocks at some Israeli armored jeeps), but after a couple weeks I actually started feeling very comfortable."

The sense of comfort was generated by the warm reception he received from the people in Ramallah and Hebron. "The amazing thing is that you would almost expect some hostility from Palestinians given America's current foreign policies in the Middle East," he says. "But the culture is actually amazingly hospitable, so the white guilt is pretty intense.

"After a while you start wanting the cabbies to say, 'Get out of my cab and go back to consuming 80 percent of the world's resources, you bastard,' but you're constantly greeted with 'You're American? Welcome to Ramallah. Welcome to Palestine.'"

But, of course, no amount of hospitality could mask the fact that Hunter was living in what has been a virtual war zone, where the threat of violence is always present. "Hebron is widely considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the West Bank, given that there is an Israeli settlement in the Old City right next to the burial place of Abraham. I went to the Old City briefly, and tensions are very, very high. It's mostly deserted because of the threat of violence -- while I was there a young man was shot and killed. 

"But, being the American that I was, I pulled out my camera and took several digital pictures. In retrospect I think it was a sort of defense mechanism, it helped to separate myself from it. What's it like to live in a climate like that, I could never say. I was there with the constant knowledge that I would leave in a couple months to my comfortable apartment and TA appointment."

And Hunter also felt it was necessary to conceal his sexual orientation. "I didn't tell anyone. As someone who has been out of the closet since high school, that was strange, but understandable. I don't know that this would be a huge deal in a place like Ramallah, which is actually pretty progressive, but in Hebron, no way.

"Hebron is the redneck state of Palestine. If you think of Ramallah as being equivalent to Paris, then Hebron would be backwater Mississippi. It's very, very conservative, and very, very traditional Muslim, and it is the constant butt of Palestinian jokes. That's where 'Pigheart' is set. And because, like I said, I don't know the first thing about what's it like to be a Palestinian living in Hebron, I wrote about Americans in Hebron."

Learn more about the Ashtar Theatre at

The Iowa New Play Festival, a tradition unique in American collegiate theater, will present a dozen new scripts from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop in productions and readings May 1-6 in the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The UI Department of Theatre Arts concludes each spring semester by dedicating all its resources -- acting, directing, design, stage management and technical -- to an intense and event-packed festival that offers student playwrights the productions and feedback that are essential for their development and offers audiences an opportunity to participate in the creation of significant new American theater at the ground level.

A new play, written by a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting, will be premiered each evening of the 2006 festival, with performances at 5:30 and 9 p.m. (7:30 p.m. on Wednesday). The daytime will feature readings in Room 172.

Tickets for all the evening productions -- $6 for the general public and $4 for UI students, senior citizens and youth -- will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. May 1-6, and tickets will also be on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. each day of the festival at the Theatre Building box office.

The Department of Theatre Arts is a unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,