A philosophical musing on the death penalty centered around a PB&J sandwich, a superhero courtroom drama, musicals about the postal service and the afterlife, historical fiction about the Lincoln assassination, a play about patents and Play-Doh and a 10-minute piece set entirely on a rollercoaster. These plays all have one thing in common: They sprang from the mind of Luke Herzog ’24. This past spring, Herzog’s two-person play titled Pulling the Switch, largely inspired by the book Gruesome Spectacles by Professor Austin Sarat, won the prestigious John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. His other works have been honored at multiple festivals across the country. We sat down to discuss the play, the prize, the peanut butter and much more.
Q: How did you become interested in writing plays?
A: I discovered theater in high school. What I love about it is that I think it’s the most collaborative art form. When you put on a play, it's really putting together a team. Amherst has a great wealth of really 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 the way you can sit in an audience and watch people react to your play. There’s something fun about the live energy of theater that you can’t get anywhere else.
Q: Can you tell us a little about Pulling the Switch and how Professor Sarat’s book inspired you to write it?
A: I wrote the play during a Covid gap year spent with some other students in Williamsburg, Virginia. We lived two blocks from Colonial Williamsburg, and it was really funny: We’d see milkmaids driving Subarus, and our next-door neighbor was the blacksmith. The play is about two prison inmates, who are also prison cooks tasked with preparing someone’s last meal request: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The twist comes when they realize that the prisoner is fatally allergic to peanuts and is trying to take their own life. The cooks wrestle with whether or not to make him the sandwich. It’s very dark. I wanted to write about capital punishment through the lens of the last meal tradition, which is a very bizarre, archaic idea. But I think it’s a good starting point to talking about the absurdity that is capital punishment in this country.
Gruesome Spectacles is a really 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 actually taken any of Austin Sarat’s classes, but I read his book and I sent him the script. I also found a book that was a collection of real last-meal requests in the U.S. A lot of those meal requests found their way in, too. Some are all the person’s favorite foods. Some people make a statement, like by asking for a single unpitted olive. One person asked for a giant list of dishes, and then when the food arrived, they didn’t touch anything. That made Texas discontinue the last-meal policy altogether. The origin of the tradition is that it was supposed to appease the ghosts of people who were executed.
Q: What was your experience like staging and directing the play on campus and then bringing it to the Kennedy Center? And what are you working on now?
A: It was so great. 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 in the world. We performed in Ford Hall and a lot of people from campus came out to see it. It was part of a triple feature with two other student-written one-acts. With Sterling and Matt, we had a month to work on it, but at the Kennedy Center, we only had a day to prepare for the staged reading. One of the actors actually 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 prize comes with automatic membership in the Dramatists' Guild and a developmental residency in the future. There were lots of workshops and seminars and I met some other really talented college playwrights. The highlight for me was being able to sit in on the rehearsal for my own play and see how seriously they took it.
On campus, I do a lot with student theater/improv groups like Ghostlight, Mr. Gad’s House of Improv and The Green Room. I’m currently editing a 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, and the premise is that NASA secretly hires six Hollywood screenwriters to brainstorm what the first words on Mars will be. So the whole play is these screenwriters with big egos debating that. I’m hoping they put it on next semester. Everyone has been so supportive on campus. It’s been an exciting couple of months!