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Meet the Directors’ Studio
In an effort to continue its vision to provide a training ground for the next generation of theatre artists, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has launched its first-ever Directors’ Studio, a series of workshops and discussions designed to investigate the craft of theatrical direction created for local, early-career directors. By application, six directors have been selected for the 2015–2016 season’s Directors’ Studio: Catrin Rowenna Davies, Rick Hammerly, Lee Liebeskind, Carter Lowe, Angela Kay Pirko, and Jason Schlafstein.
As these directors collaborate with one another, they will also meet and learn from local and international directors and participate in an evolving dialogue about directing classic works. To kick-start this dialogue, not only among the Directors’ Studio, but between STC, the Directors’ Studio, and the community, we interviewed each of the participants. Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing these interviews, so you can meet and learn about each of our Directors’ Studio members and start participating in this dialogue with us.
Now, without further ado, meet Directors’ Studio participant Rick Hammerly.
An Interview with Rick Hammerly
Describe your artistic vision/goals:
“If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.”– Jim Morrison
Successful theatre defines the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values and our behavior. To this end, when directing a play, I have always looked to explore narratives that provoke and encourage both visceral and intellectual reactions from audiences and my fellow artists.
In terms of content, I frequently find myself drawn to stories that involve the examination of persons and subject matter exacted from outside the mainstream; the unusual which often proves to be exceptional and far more universal than we would like to believe. In exploring the conditions and experiences of these outcasts and the disenfranchised, I look to offer a glimmer of insight into their lives. We all struggle with the truly critical questions of human existence—like how difficult it is to successfully raise a family—regardless of race, class, location or even period in history. I ask audiences to understand how someone who acts very differently from us may be surprisingly similar, sharing many of the same fundamental thoughts, feelings or beliefs.
As an actor, I am often tasked with comedic roles. I believe this has resulted in my search for more dramatic, even esoteric, narratives when directing. It has led me to the plays of Tennessee Williams (especially his later-career work), Sarah Kane, Tony Kushner, Brad Fraser, Thomas Bradshaw, Phyllis Nagy, Moisés Kaufman (Tectonic Theater Project) and Philip Ridley. Some recent directing work, Radha Bharadwaj’s nightmarish Closet Land and the stage adaption of Dead Man Walking, proved to be thoroughly political, something to which I seem to be increasingly, and surprisingly, drawn.
What do you hope to learn from the Directors’ Studio?
All of the directors participating in the Directors’ Studio have previous directing experience. We each have a directorial skill-set with which we approach any production. However, unless you are actually directing a show, one rarely gets the opportunity to learn more about the art of stage direction, and certainly not the chance to see, first hand, the ways in which other, more accomplished directors work. A program such as STC’s Directors’ Studio, with its series of workshops, discussions and professional guidance from master practitioners, seems like an ideal way to further develop my current skill set, while remaining active in the DC theatre scene. I am eager for the opportunity to continue learning from those already well-regarded as consummate theatre directors. Working with the incredibly diverse group of directors comprising STC’s 2015–2016 season, each with his/her own individual way of working and creating theatre, will greatly benefit my growth and improvement as both an artist and theatre director.
What was the most challenging show you ever directed?
To date, I would say that Closet Land by Radha Bharadwaj, a two-hander I directed for Factory 449 last year, was the most challenging.
The play involves acts of torture and abuse at the hands of a corrupt government. . . activities that are occurring somewhere on our planet as I craft this answer. They will be happening when you are reading it. And although we have become increasingly desensitized to acts of terrorism and abuse, we are still inclined to look the other way. I wanted to make sure that the people who came to this production did NOT look away. I wanted to make sure that their eyes were indeed open to what was happening in this world in which we live. As I wanted the audience to experience this nightmare viscerally, to feel as though they too were complicit in the interrogation or at the very least, silent observers, I staged the piece in the round, asking set designer Greg Stevens to create a “room within a room.” The actors were basically confined to a ten-by-ten foot playing area with 32 seats (two rows of four chairs) forming a tight box around them. In this configuration, the audience was never more than a few feet from the actors. It successfully immersed the audience in the same world of fear and violence that the characters themselves inhabited, but it also created a great deal of issues for myself, the actors and the designers. Nothing could be theatrical. Everything had to be “hyper-realistic.”
For example, with audiences only a foot or two from them, it was necessary for the actors to refrain from traditional performance techniques required to fill a larger theatre venue. It was extremely important that the actors be as truthful and realistic as possible. I ended up directing the actors more as I would in a film, rather than on a stage, working with them to create smaller, more intimate performances.
In the end, the play was far more difficult and exacting that I had anticipated. That is a good thing. Collaboration, creativity and problem solving became important parts of our rehearsal process. And in the end, I could not have been more pleased with the production’s outcome. For me, Factory 449’s production at Anacostia Arts Center was more than a play, it was an experience shared by both performers and audiences that demonstrated the power and effectiveness of live theatre.
What got you started in the arts?
One could argue that I experienced my first theatrical calling at Camp Highroad, during the Methodist church camp’s talent show. . . singing “I’m Wishing” in full Snow White drag one summer (age nine) or singing Cher’s “Miss Subway of 1952” (as Cher), while stripping from overcoat to bikini with a sash emblazoned “Miss Subway,” the next (age ten). But I’m going with sixth grade, the year my music teacher felt that my performance as FDR in our bicentennial production of Our Country ‘Tis of Thee, warranted an audition for the Gian Carlo Menotti opera, Martin’s Lie, making its U.S. premiere at the Washington Cathedral. The music director not only cast me, but also wanted me to understudy the role of Martin. . . that is until his attempts to have me sing a cappella with the score of an opera being played simultaneously, resulted in a tragic, tearful breakdown. . . mine, not his. But I was still part of the cast! We worked every afternoon, learning music and staging the piece. Mr. Menotti moved me to the front of the scenes saying, “You are actor.” I was to be paid $200! And best of all. . . I got to leave sixth grade every day at noon! Then, finally, after weeks of work, on the eve of my operatic debut. . . I had an itch on the back of my neck. . . and the next day, full blown chicken pox. Needless to say, I never made it to the stage during the run of the opera, but the seed had been planted, the bug had bitten. Martin’s Lie was a gateway drug to a life in the arts. And I still got my 200 bucks!
What’s your dream show to direct?
For nearly five years now, I have been waiting for the right time to direct The People’s Temple by Leigh Fondakowski. The play, a theatrical exploration of the history, the rise and the tragic demise in Jonestown, Guyana of the movement led by the Reverend Jim Jones, weaves together gospel music from the Temple, archival materials and interviews with survivors to create a conversation between the living and the dead.
The play is quite similar in structure and format to The Laramie Project on which Fondakowski was the lead writer. The 12 person cast speak the words of those who were interviewed as well as those whose writings are represented in the archive. As with The Laramie Project, this play is a docudrama, meaning it presents an audience with a version or an interpretation of events as told by witnesses.
I would like to create an immersive feel for the play, using a performance space designed to resemble a church. (Why not an actual church?) The play would then take place during one of Rev. Jim Jones’ epic church services at The People’s Temple, when it was still located in California. The music would become part of the service, opening and closing the play, sometimes being front and center, but more often as background for the production. The actors could then basically “testify” when their character was part of the congregation or take to the podium and “preach” if necessary.
Rick Hammerly is the founder and producing artistic director of Factory 449: a theatre collective. He has directed at Factory 449: a theatre collective, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Ford’s Theatre, Source Festival, American University, Rainbow Theatre Project, Capital Fringe Festival, SCENA Theatre, Fourth Wall Productions, Actors’ Theatre of Washington, among others. A Helen Hayes Award-winning actor (Hedwig in Signature Theatre’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and film director, Hammerly received an MA in film and video production and is currently completing a second MA in arts management both from American University.