Coming Full Circle: Sitting Down with Luke Herzog

Luke Herzog is an English major, director of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, and award-winning playwright. His interest in writing was encouraged early on by members of his family, leading him to create and produce dozens of original plays.

Coming Full Circle: Sitting Down with Luke Herzog
Luke’s culminating thesis reflects his impressive ability to bring small details of history to life, as well as his tendency to bring his endeavors full circle. Photo courtesy of Luke Herzog ’24.

It’s hard for me to forget the first full conversation I ever had with Luke. There we were, in the hallway on the second floor of Val, sitting outside of a mutual friend’s room. After we talked extensively about our shared love of the Russian literary canon (naturally … what else would two college students talk about on a random Saturday night?), we quickly transitioned to bad Covid hairstyles (for him, not for me). By the end of our talk, Luke and I had discussed our more serious interests, spoken in one too many bad accents, and realized we had way more in common than we had both previously realized.

In hindsight, that relatively short conversation became emblematic of all of the wonderful qualities I now associate with Luke: filled to the brim with humor, sincerity, and overwhelming kindness and care.

Path from Pacific Grove

Luke grew up in Pacific Grove, a small town on the central coast of California. His childhood was characterized by support from two loving parents, a younger brother, and a cockapoo named Pippin (a nod to one of his favorite childhood reads, The Lord of the Rings).  

As a kid, Luke was constantly surrounded by writing and reading: his father, an author who has written everything from magazines to children’s books to travel memoirs, was especially influential to Luke’s early love of writing and creativity. “When I was very little, my dad would write silly little poems and I would draw silly illustrations to go alongside them,” Luke said. “It was a real encouragement to pursue creativity when I was really young. Definitely that is the starting point for me wanting to continue pursuing it into the future.”

When he was nine years old, Luke began writing his first book — a fantasy novel entitled “Dragon Valley.” The story centered around an inventor who bred dragons and set them loose in a valley in California. By the age of 11, he had self-published his creation. “The fact that I had a support system that was like, ‘Hey, if you finish this book, we’ll try to find a way to publish it’ was an incredible opportunity for me,” Luke said. “It’s the kind of thing that makes writing feel possible, when you have a model and support for it.”

Arriving at Amherst

As much as Luke enjoyed growing up in California, he felt a certain draw to the East Coast for college. “I knew I wanted the liberal arts experience pretty early on … I had a feeling that I wanted to go somewhere in New England for whatever reason,” he said. “I love seasons, and I was denied them my whole life. Then I heard about the open curriculum, which was huge for me. I kind of put a premium on flexibility and choosing your own adventure … I remember so clearly driving into Amherst during golden hour, peak fall foliage, the world was orange, and I was like ‘I think this might be it, dad.’ And it was. I applied early decision.”

Despite a relatively normal first semester, the second half of Luke’s freshman year came to a screeching halt when he and his classmates found out they were being sent home due to Covid.

Following a summer of lockdown, Luke decided to take a gap year, living in a house in Williamsburg, Virginia with a few other Amherst friends who were also taking time off from school. “It was a very strange time, but it had a strange silver lining,” Herzog said. “It was a lot of time just the four of us. A lot of antics … We kind of lost our minds in a beautiful way together. I actually wrote a book over the course of that.” The book, a 1930s noir detective novel called “Kloppse: Private Eye,” is loosely based on crimes and characters from Greek mythology and is still sitting on his desktop, untouched. It was during this time when Luke and his friends began a sci-fi podcast, in which they imagined they were in a starship being attacked by aliens. It was their characters’ way — and their real way, during the peak of Covid — to pass the time.

After a tough Covid-infused summer his freshman year and full gap year, Luke returned as a summer tour guide. He described it as the perfect way to transition back onto campus: “I re-entered Amherst, that was right before sophomore year. I wanted to reacquaint myself with campus, I had been gone for a long time.” He continued to serve as a campus tour guide into the academic year, noting how influential and underrated they can be to students’ ultimate decision on whether or not to attend a college.

Con-gad-ulations! Welcome to Gad’s

Luke is perhaps best known on campus for his involvement in Gad’s, Amherst’s one and only improv troupe.

He knew about the improv scene at Amherst well before coming to college. “Before I applied for Amherst, I used a mutual connection, and I called [then Gad’s member] Jenna Wyman to ask what the comedy scene was like at Amherst,” Luke admitted. “It’s kind of embarrassing now, but it’s funny how we are still friends. And that’s technically how we met, me calling her as a high school student.”

Before college, both Luke and his brother dabbled in improv in a group called Wince and Repeat. When he got to Amherst, he eagerly auditioned for Gad’s during his first semester freshman year. Although he received a callback, Luke later found out that he had not made it into the group. At the encouragement of Gad’s members, he re-auditioned the following semester — and this time, he was admitted.

Looking back on it now, Luke is even more grateful to have joined the group when he did. The troupe continued to put on shows remotely when Amherst’s campus closed due to Covid: “We did Zoom shows, which were just as tragic as you are imagining. It was a real bonding experience … It was one of the few things that kept me connected to Amherst. Thank god I had just gotten in, and I was able to have that little mini community even during my gap year. It felt like everything had shifted, but that was the one thing that was secure.”

Although Herzog didn't make it into Gad's his first semester auditioning, he is now the director. Photo courtesy of Luke Herzog ’24.

Now, as a senior, Luke serves as the director of Gad’s. “I really looked up to the directors of Gad’s when I was younger as mentors. Like any freshman does of any senior. It’s been cool to hopefully give back in a positive way, keep the chain going, be part of the legacy.”

Discovering Theater

In addition to the immense work and time he has put into improv, Luke’s expertise shines through in his playwriting. During his senior year of high school, Luke wrote his first ever play — a musical entitled “Going Up.”

“That was a really formative experience for me, when I really started to realize I love writing scripts and I love creating shows,” Luke said.

The list of Luke’s theatrical creations is impressive and extensive. It includes a full-length superhero courtroom drama he wrote during his Schupf fellowship at Amherst; a play entitled “Meteoric,” which wrestles with whether or not a comedian should inform an audience of an impending and deadly natural disaster or let them enjoy one last show; “We Open on a Red Desert,” which imagines a group of Hollywood writers determining what the first words on Mars should be; and “Pulling the Switch,” a one-act play that tasks inmates with preparing a last meal for another prisoner, knowing it will kill him before he gets to the electric chair. “Pulling the Switch” was selected by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in 2023, winning the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play. His other works, which are far more expansive than I listed above, have received various awards as well.

Although Luke has written in many mediums now, he has learned his true passion is playwriting. “What I love in general about student theater is that it is essentially assembling a team of people. It’s like a heist,” he said. “We need a lighting guy and someone on sound, and we need a great stage manager and all these actors. You put together a superteam. … I enjoy that feeling of it, of the teamwork there.”

Finding a Place in the Classroom

Given his interest in creative writing, Luke had a general idea of what he would major in at Amherst. “I knew humanities was what I would do. [Although] I knew I loved to write, I wasn’t sure if that would translate to English or FAMS [film and media studies] or theater,” he said. Ultimately, Luke found his place in the English department.

Although many of the classes he loved taking at Amherst involved creative writing, his favorite courses were ones that were taught by Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture Ilan Stavans. Herzog took “Imposters,” “Love,” “The People’s Tongue,” and “Yiddish” with Stavans.

Stavans recounts his first memory of Luke: “He came to Imposters. He was very quiet, and he was sitting next to a senior at the time. He didn’t quite know what to expect of what was happening. There was some trepidation, but his eyes were wide open,” Stavans said. “Even if I shorten my broad perspective of Luke to only that semester, I can see perfectly the metamorphosis of occupying a smaller place in the classroom to feeling more solid and more committed.”

From the Top: The Full-Circle Thesis

During his last year at Amherst, Luke wrote a thesis in the English department centered around Lincoln’s assassination. After learning that on the night of his assassination, Lincoln’s bodyguard and John Wilkes Booth were in the same bar during an intermission, Luke knew the premise for his play. Under the guidance of his advisor, Associate Professor of English Christopher Grobe, Luke adapted a 10-minute play he had written his freshman year for the Green Room into a full-length play.

“I’ve discovered that I really like latching onto little tidbits of information that can then become larger things … Finding out weird, peripheral facts, I like making them the central idea,” he said. Stavans explained that this is part of why he finds Luke’s work so compelling: “He finds these little edges or wrinkles in history and he makes stories out of them. He has that capacity of finding a little interesting moment and then making it come alive.”

Luke reflected on how finishing his full-length play based on something he started as a small project his first year of college was incredibly fulfilling. “It felt kind of satisfying to return to something that I started with. Like truly, the first thing and make it the last thing,” he said. “I had this 10-minute play. But there were so many more untapped stories around the same thing.”
His impressive thesis, entitled “From the Top,” recently won the Runner Up Award at the Three-Minute Thesis competition, a deserved accolade to say the least.

Going (And Growing) Up, Looking Ahead

After graduation, Luke hopes to make his way to New York City, where he would like to continue writing. “I’ve been applying for a lot of literary management positions for off-Broadway theaters. Departments that get script submissions. You do book reports and get involved in conversations that decide what the season should look like,” he said.

Luke noted that his line of work poses specific challenges, such as a somewhat ambiguous starting point. “Some people have jobs that have a very clear hierarchy, you do this first, then you do this next … what I’m hoping to do doesn’t have that very clear roadmap,” he remarked. “It’s completely ambiguous, there are a million different ways to get started, which is exciting [and] thrilling, but also it can be a little bit intimidating. But it’s what I want to do and it’s the choice I’ve made.”

Luke was selected this year as one of two speakers for Senior Assembly, a call back to his high school graduation when he was also chosen to speak. In his high school speech, Luke talked about feeling comfortable in the face of humiliation and embarrassment. At Senior Assembly, he spoke about how the people at Amherst have simultaneously been some of the most stupid yet smartest individuals he has ever met, as well as the power of “holding close to your friends and being okay with what you don’t know right now.”

With a smile, Herzog compared the feeling of speaking at both events. “It is cool to be able to return to give another speech for another capstone moment in my student life. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.”

If there’s one thing Stavans and I can agree on, it’s that even though Luke is graduating from Amherst soon, this is not the last we’ll be seeing of him. “Luke has brought me into his world, and I have brought him into mine. And that is a student who leaves a mark,” Stavans said. “I thank Luke Herzog for renewing my love for theater. He has a brilliant imagination and a unique talent for dialogue … With him, I see why theater will always matter, why it will never go out of fashion: because it is where the classics teach us how to live and where the young rehearse a better future for us.”

Luke’s brilliance, hilarity, and achievement are much more than I can highlight in just one article. Spend all of five minutes — heck, 30 seconds — with the guy, and you’ll see what I mean for yourself.