“It has been an autumn of change, I would say. A lot of transition.” Jessica Hansen is Executive Artistic Director/Co-Founder of Lean & Hungry Theater, the company in town that produces radio versions of Shakespearean plays and other classics. Among its partnering organizations are the FM radio station WAMU 88.5 and the arts venue ArtiSphere in Rosslyn. Last month, Arlington County announced that is was pulling the plug on ArtiSphere. It is now slated to close doors in July. WAMU, meanwhile, was undergoing changes of its own. It decided to end its contract with L&H mid-season.
“ArtiSphere has been a fabulous partner for several shows. We’re very sad to hear that they are closing their doors. Any arts venue closing doors in DC is a disappointment for anyone trying to create fulfillment for the soul,” Hansen said.
“We were surprised,” Hansen admitted about the WAMU decision. “We were very proud of our relationship. In four years, it has grown immensely. However, for the last few months, we’ve been looking at creating a more interactive digital presence: podcasts. So the ending of the relationship has just pushed us in that direction more quickly. We’ve been exploring many ideas and models for our performances. We’ve had three live performances a year that people could attend. More people could listen to a broadcast on the radio, or download or stream it from our website at any time. But we do an actual event only three days out of 365, and we are looking to engage our audience more regularly. We’re asking, ‘How can we create a conversation so that we are a more regular presence in our audience’s minds?’ Now, we’ll just launch that plan a little sooner.”
Hansen said that L&H held strategic planning sessions in September. A goal that emerged was to de-emphasize live broadcasts and to “focus more seriously and quickly on our digital operations.”
Unlike most theatre in town, which can really only be experienced during a production run (the occasional taping of something being a poor substitute for the live experience), L&H generates a product that has no expiration date and no geographical restrictions. “For us, a live show up on the internet still meets our business model. Partners like WAMU and other local broadcasters are not critical to that model.”
Still looking for a local broadcast outlet to replace WAMU for the balance of this season, L&H is also thinking nationally. Hansen described an “on-line shopping mall for program directors” at which L&H material can be obtained by programmers anywhere.
“Our relationship with WAMU grew and grew,” Hansen said. “Our first fully-produced production with WAMU was Macbeth in the 21st Century in October of 2010. Prior to that, WAMU had aired our two-hour Twelfth Night, and since then has broadcast eleven shows, ten of which were live broadcasts, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Scarlet Letter, and, most recently, the enormously successful Oedipus the King.” The relationship began when WAMU Arts Beat reporter Stephanie Kaye did a piece on the company.
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“Really, they were a large part of our growth. We learned what it means to make a radio show, to broadcast it, to prepare professional actors for that broadcast.” Hansen pointed out that the WAMU statement announcing the contract’s end stressed that WAMU was “proud of its relationship with us. I don’t think anyone is leaving with hard feelings. Everyone is looking in new directions.”
I remarked that Hansen seemed remarkably optimistic and forward-thinking, and she replied, “That’s me.” She was obviously bending over backwards to be diplomatic about the end of the relationship with WAMU, either because that’s her way or because she doesn’t want to poison the well in case some sort of different partnership might occur in the future.
Still, I asked if there was a sense of getting bruised by the sudden and premature ending of the contract. “They did end the contract before the current contract had expired, so it did happen mid-stream, but there have been many changes over there and so I was not surprised to get this news.” Hansen pointed to other similar arrangements that WAMU has canceled. “We’re certainly disappointed. But we are looking at a new direction and this helps us to move forward with that very quickly. Given where public radio is heading, this could be a great move for us, a strong move. The faster we can get plays into the hands of students and teachers and others who will enjoy them, the better off we are.”
Hansen spoke with excitement about the remainder of the L&H season, which includes a co-production of Othello with WSC Avant Bard. The WSC production will run February 4-March 1, and the broadcast is planned for March 22. “Othello is very relevant to the DC community now. It could have an immediate impact on this city today. It should be heard and should be available to people in this community.”
WAMU’s bailing on the broadcast doesn’t affect the fact that ArtiSphere is still booked for March 22 for their live broadcast. So the goal now is to have that performance of Othello “well-attended and the best darn piece of art we can make.” As the play is about soldiers (and the effects of warfare on combatants will be a key dynamic of the production), Hansen’s hope is to get the podcast online by Veteran’s Day in November. “We are going ahead. We will still have the live recording. We may have a broadcast partner by then. Stations usually plan things six to eight weeks out. We’re in discussions with a few stations, but it’s too soon to say” if those talks will result in a partner by March 22.
Alice in Wonderland is on the docket for June. “I honestly believe that will do better as a digital production. It will have a Victorian, industrial sensibility” that Hansen feels might appeal less to the WAMU “core listeners” than to other audiences. “I’m excited about being freed from the broadest clock on that.” One of the drawbacks to the live broadcasts is the time constraint, often one hour in which to collapse an epic-length novel or play.
When I asked about that dynamic, wishing for more time versus needing to keep the length attractive to radio broadcasters who might not want to devote two or three hours to a production, Hansen said, “Yes, that’s the question we are asking right now. We have a sense that we will always need to produce a broadcast version. But the podcast and digital versions can include bonus features, the director’s cut, deleted scenes. We’re excited about what that means. We can be truer to the original text, more complete, but still create a shorter version for broadcasting for the people who love the shows and want to keep hearing them.”
Hansen said that “Lean & Hungry has always tried to stay as true as possible to the story while trimming any potential fat. For educational purposes, whether in a rural area or in a classroom, we want it to be a tool to help them know the classics. We’ve always stuck strictly to the story that Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Sophocles wrote. It was different with Hamlet. That was hard to cut down. But we made cuts and we fill in with narration when we need to bridge a gap. We don’t change the story.” At the end of the day, she assured me, what the listener will hear is what the listener can see on the page, if following along.
“We would love to hear from people,” Hansen said. “We are in the process of creating the structure of our podcasts. Over the next couple of months, we would love to hear from people what they think a good podcast is. We are open to all ideas and suggestions. We are eager to make something that doesn’t sound like every other podcast in the world.” (Check out the website for contact information and for a taste of the company’s work.)
I asked how the response to the non-Shakespearean classics compared with the Shakespeare they’ve done. “Fabulous. The response to the non-Shakespeare has been overwhelmingly positive. Response to Oedipus the King was the best ever; we and WAMU got more positive feedback on e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook from people we don’t know. We got an unsolicited foundation contribution. They’ve gone over like gangbusters. As an anecdotal example, after the The Scarlet Letter, we had a response from someone who said, ‘I read that book in school, and I hated reading it. But, after hearing the broadcast, I want to read it.’ We want to make reading that seemed hard, seem fun.”
Looking forward, Hansen said of their June production “Alice will be its own special plot of joy.” The next season will be announced in March and Hansen promised “exciting new surprises as well.”
Peter Orvetti says
Did the reporter seek comment from WAMU for this story?