Pulling the Switch, by English major Luke Herzog ’24, won the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play at the 2023 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The one-act play is inspired by a book by Austin Sarat, Amherst’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science.

Why did you start writing plays?

It’s the most collaborative art form. When you put on a play, you’re putting together a team. Amherst has a great wealth of talented actors, stage managers and set/lighting designers. So I love that aspect of it. And then, not to sound conceited, but you can’t really sit and watch someone read your book.

What’s the premise of Pulling the Switch?

The play takes place in a prison kitchen. It is about two inmates, who are also prison cooks, tasked with preparing a last-meal request: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The twist comes when they realize the prisoner requesting the meal is fatally allergic to peanuts and is trying to take his own life. The cooks wrestle with whether or not to make him the sandwich. 

What’s the connection to Professor Sarat?

Austin Sarat’s book Gruesome Spectacles is a morbid but interesting account of all sorts of botched executions throughout the years. A lot of the book’s anecdotes found their way into the play. I haven’t taken any of his classes, but I read the book and sent him the script. I also found a book that was a collection of real last-meal requests in the U.S. I wanted to write about capital punishment through the lens of the last-meal tradition, which is bizarre and archaic. The origin of the tradition is that it was supposed to appease the ghosts of people who were executed.

What were the differences between staging and directing the play on campus and then seeing it staged [in April 2023] at the Kennedy Center by a professional director and professional actors?

At Amherst, I got to work with Sterling Kee ’23 and Matt Vitelli ’24, two of the most talented actors on campus and two of my closest friends. We had a month to work on it. At the Kennedy Center, we only had a day to prepare for the staged reading. One of the actors had experience working with inmates, and the other, the more comedic role, had experience with The Second City, the improv group. That whole experience was incredible. The highlight for me was being able to sit in on the rehearsal and see how seriously they took it. 

What are you working on now?

I’m editing my final draft of a full-length play called We Open on a Red Desert. It takes place in the near future, right before a Mars landing. The premise is that NASA secretly hires six Hollywood screenwriters to brainstorm what the first words said on Mars will be. The whole play is these screenwriters with big egos debating that.

Photograph courtesy Luke Herzog ’24