Rick Hammerly talks about how directing Dead Man Walking
has changed him as an artist
On Wednesday night, Sept 21st, as supporters of Troy Davis held a vigil outside the Georgia prison where the prisoner faced execution after 22 years on Death Row, and millions more followed media coverage worldwide, director Rick Hammerly and the American University student cast of Dead Man Walking were in rehearsal, just days away from the opening of the Tim Robbins’ play. It was to open and close with a special message from Troy Davis.
“.. the cast and I were in good spirits knowing Troy’s execution had been delayed for review by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Rick Hammerly told us. According to our information, that meant the execution could be re-scheduled for later the same evening, but up to six days later. We were hopeful for the latter.”
Hammerly’s involvement began as a simple request. American University had scheduled a reading of Dead Man Walking, a play created for universities by Tim Robbins through his Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. The play closely follows Robbins’ 1995 award winning film adaptation of the book by Sister Helen Prejean, based on her experiences with Death Row inmates.
Hammerly, Artistic Director of Factory 449, is pursuing his degree in Arts Management at AU. He was asked to cast the reading. “I thought that with double (and sometimes triple) casting, the forty roles could be undertaken by thirteen actors. Then, the opportunity to work with some of the students during a callback session really convinced me that they would benefit from working on a staged production of the piece. I asked if I might turn the reading into a full-scale production, stripping away the majority of design elements to illuminate the text and showcase the work of the acting ensemble. It was my intention to build Dead Man Walking in the same way that most productions of Our Town are staged.”
The play is the story of Matthew Poncelet, a fictionalized character based on the actual persons chronicled in Sister Prejean’s book. The play itself will be the same as student productions being done around the country. ” Our production at AU will use the recorded words and images of Troy to demonstrate the immediacy and importance of this issue, as well as commemorate Troy’s life.
“It wasn’t until after the rehearsal run of the show, as I was giving notes to the cast, that someone noticed that the Supreme Court had denied Troy’s stay and that the execution had been rescheduled for 11 pm. We remained in the theatre past our 11 pm end of rehearsal and were there at 11:08 pm, when Troy was executed.
When asked whether he will carry this experience over to Factory 449 productions, Rick said: “I have never been the biggest fan of theatre promoting an agenda. Until now, I felt these type of productions to be manipulative and propagandized.
But … Dead Man Walking has shown me just how effective theatre (and the arts in general) can be in illuminating issues and creating a dialogue surrounding these issues that can then be used in any number of ways (to educate, inform, etc.) for the betterment and enrichment of a community. The responsibility of theatre to promote and explore such pressing societal issues is daunting, yet necessary and ultimately empowering.”
“It has been an amazing experience for the student cast, and certainly for myself, having the opportunity to work on such an immediate and affecting piece of theatre. I am extremely proud of the talent, maturity and willingness to explore that the cast has demonstrated in bringing this production to the stage. I hope it has been a compelling learning process for them, not just in putting together this type of production, but in realizing the impact and importance that theatre can have when focused on a particular theme or issue. I can honestly say, it has been that for me.
From my experience with this production, I will certainly be looking for plays with the potential to have immediate social relevance. If I found a play about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for example, I would produce it. The smaller theatre companies can do that. Unlike the larger companies, which book plays a year and a half in advance, we can find a play and get it staged within six months.”
Audiences attending the AU production will still hear Troy Davis speak before the start of the play. On the day after the execution, when we talked, Hammerly was not certain how he will close the evening. “Probably with Troy’s image.”, he said. As Troy himself said, urging them to keep on, “There are so many more Troy Davis’.”
Dead Man Walking runs September 29 – October 1, 2011 at American University’s Katzen Studio Theatre, located at 1021 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. Performances are Thursday, September 29 – Saturday, October 1 at 8 pm, with a matinee performance Saturday, October 1 at 2 pm.
All tickets are $15 ($10 AU community and seniors) and can be purchased by phone at (202) 885-ARTS or online at: www.american.edu/auarts
Friday, September 30th following the 8 pm performance of Dead Man Walking. An informal discussion with the cast and director to discuss the play, the production process and thoughts regarding the issues on which the play focuses.
Saturday, October 1st, at 4 pm, following the 2 pm matinee performance, a panel discussion, “Dead Man Walking and The Death Penalty.” The panel includes Kirk Bloodsworth (first U.S. Death Row inmate exonerated by DNA), Jim Rocap (attorney for the first woman executed in Virginia), Terry Steinberg (mother of the youngest person on Virginia’s Death Row), Diann Rust-Tierney (Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty), and Gemma Puglisi, Assistant Professor at American University, whose contact with Troy Davis, encouraged him to participate in the project.