“We were trying to figure it out the other day,” Nanna Ingvarsson said after I asked her how many times she and her husband Brian Hemmingsen have worked together. I was talking to them in the dressing room at Anacostia Playhouse before a rehearsal of The Norwegians, their latest project. The SCENA Theatre production runs through April 19th.
“I actually have to look at my resume to get that. It’s at least twenty-five,” Nanna continued. “We could also count how many times all three of us have been in something together,” she added with a chuckle. “A lot of those,” Brian concurred. You see, dear reader, the subjects of this interview are people I have worked with closely and often. I went to Copenhagen representing D.C. at their 1990 wedding. Forgive me if I break journalistic convention and refer to them by their first names. Brian and I have worked together the longest, since 1981, and count our collaborations upward of forty.
The three of us did “practically everything at WSC.” Brian was referring to the early days of Washington Shakespeare Company (now WSC Avant Bard). We were founding Ensemble Members, Brian served three years as Artistic Director, and Brian and Nanna have returned periodically, most recently as the Father and Mother in Six Characters in Search of an Author (2012).
“It was rare when we weren’t in something [at WSC], except when she did Rocky.” That was the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company production of The Rocky Horror Show. Nanna, as Janet, won that year’s Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. The production kept her out of Julius Caesar, the show that put WSC on the map. “But she ended up in the film of Caesar,” Brian (who played Brutus) footnoted. Nanna pinch-hit when the production was video-taped. Nanna added a second Hayes award this month, taking the Helen for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play for the solo show The Amish Project at Factory 449; she was also nominated this year in the same category for Terminus at Studio Theatre.
Brian talked about the challenge presented by the script of their current show: “This is a hard fucking show. I think we found it this weekend. It’s deceptive. When you first read it, you think, ‘Oh, this is a piece of cake.’ And it’s not a piece of cake. It’s real hard.” Nanna continued, “There’s something about finding just the right tone. It’s not what you think it is at first. It’s very naturalistically conversational, but heightened.” Brian said, “I think it’s really funny. It’s a lonely play. It’s about people who are alone even though they are together. And it’s about finding something in that.”
When I said that it sounded as if it might appeal to fans of Coen Brothers films, Nanna agreed: “It’s definitely working on that sensibility. It’s almost cinematic in the way it’s written. It goes back and forth, jumps from time period to time period.” “It’s written like a screenplay in a lot of ways,” Brian agreed.
The production has gotten rave reviews. “Audience members giggled, and then guffawed, and then left with a spring in their step. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is,” wrote Hannah Landsberger on BroadwayWorld.com, while Steven McKnight on DCTS.com praised the “brilliant acting.”
“There were a couple things before WSC,” Brian said, returning the subject of shows the couple have done together. “I thought we did something with Robert before WSC.” He was referring to SCENA Artistic Director Robert McNamara, the director of The Norwegians. “We did some Pinter; we did [The] Ruffian on the Stair. That was all with Robert.” But that was later, after WSC started, Nanna nudged: “Remember?” Brian did. “Oh, yeah.”
Looking back, what are the highlights of the work they have done together? “I’d actually have the three of us do No Exit again,” Nanna offered without hesitation. “I loved that.” “I’d do that in a second,” her husband agreed. “I still feel, as a director, it was my stroke of genius. The way that came together…and then, when we did it a second time, I just thought it was better. We took all that stuff that happened out of our instincts and I thought made it better. The imaginative acting — I mean, you guys would come up with shit every fucking night. I watched that show every night — every night! Both productions. And I loved it.”
Both acted in my 1993 production of Uncle Vanya, which Brian mentioned next: “I loved doing Vanya. I had always wanted to play Astrov. But I think you were totally right that I play Vanya. And I loved doing that. To be on stage with Nanna every night [she played Yelena] — you know that dragging walk she did? That was one of the most exciting things for me to watch. I was laughing every night, as Brian and Vanya both.”
Flash forward to 1995 and A Streetcar Named Desire: “I thought we were a good Stanley and Stella. That was a very frustrating play for me. Remember, that’s the one when I told you I was so dissatisfied? And finally I realized that — most characters, when you do a play, grow, and I thought Stanley was reverting to the caveman. He was going backwards. And once I figured that out, I was much happier as an actor.”
The Birthday Party came in 1996 and “was a lot of fun,” Brian remembered. By then, WSC was at Clark Street Playhouse, the building of which occurred on his watch and involved a tremendous amount of sweat-equity on the part of the company, chiefly on his part, and he mentioned the toll it took. “I think that was — not the beginning, but that anxiety shit I went through. It was great to get through that.”
I asked Brian and Nanna whether it’s easier or harder for them, as parents, to be in a play together. “It used to be a lot harder,” Nanna said. “It’s harder when he was younger, when our son was younger, but he’s sixteen now,” Brian agreed. “He’s sixteen and my mom, God bless her,” Nanna picked up, “when she’s in the country, she totally helps out as much as she can. Not that she even needs to anymore, but she has this thing — ‘I’ll be there!’”
Now versus Then
I asked, was it more fun in the days when we were young, and things were less institutional? “God, yeah,” Brian said. “I don’t think it’s as much fun. It used to make a difference. Of course, when you’re young, you think you’re changing the world. At least, you’re changing little pockets of it, with the work that you do, because, to me, theatre’s about enlightenment. But a lot of times, theatre now is like a cheeseburger. It’s just who makes the better one.” “That week,” Nanna amended. “Yeah, that week,” Brian concurred.
Nanna added, “But that was also a very special time because it [D.C.] was on the cusp of becoming a really good theatre town, and I think people were taking more risks and just throwing things up on their feet, I’m sure very often before it was even ready — you know, no money — and that was a thrill! But now that this scene has sort of become established — it’s great that it has — and then we’re older now. It was so much easier when you didn’t have a family, didn’t have to pay a mortgage, and can just up and leave and do what you need to do and get a temp job when you had to.”
“Also, because I’m older, I don’t know if there’re young companies that have the same bite out there. I just don’t know. I see these new companies coming up, but I don’t see their work.,” Brian added, meaning that he hasn’t been to performances by the new companies.”So the same thing that we had may be there but I don’t know. I’m sure they think so.”
— to be continued with an interview with Robert McNamara, director of The Norwegians —