War stories and insights from Hemmingsen, Ingvarsson, and McNamara — doing it together for decades
Robert McNamara is Artistic Director of SCENA Theatre and Director of The Norwegians, the play by C. Denby Swanson receiving its D.C. premiere at Anacostia Playhouse through April 19th. The production reunites him with actors Nanna Ingvarsson and Brian Hemmingsen. The three artists have worked together frequently over the years. Their shared and combined experiences cover an impressive span of the recent history of D.C. theatre. My previous article related the conversation with Brian and Nanna before Robert arrived on the rehearsal set. All three are old friends and colleagues of mine as well as of each other.
“Oh! I see actor-turned-scribe,” Robert said to me as he breezed in. I asked his two actors to pretend that Robert wasn’t there and to tell me what keeps bringing them back to SCENA.
Brian jumped at the chance: “Will you put this in print? Because I’ve been saying this to actors: You know, the thing about Robert, the first thing is, he gets shit on all the time, which pisses me off. And people say, ‘Oh, it’s a vanity company.’ What fucking theater company, in this town, is not a vanity company? I mean, give me a fucking break. Okay. There’s my rant about that.”
Brian continued: “Robert has the most interesting scripts at all times. He’s the guy who brought Irish theatre to town; opened the eyes of the other theatre companies to Irish theatre. Robert did it and he did it with [Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy] Witkiewicz and [Germany’s Rainer Werner] Fassbinder — I mean, you just name the things he’s done. He’s a little wacky, but we all are. And working with him can be very frustrating. But I know I can be a frustrating asshole.”
Brian then provided “a prime example of what’s different about Robert: I remember when we were doing [A] Prayer for My Daughter at Source. And Robert doesn’t like to dig deep. He expects you to do it on your own. He just leaves that shit to you. You come up with the emotional crap to fill in the stuff. Prayer for My Daughter is about a cop whose daughter is going to kill herself and calls up the cop. So Robert just told David [Sitomer] to look at the phone for thirty seconds. And that’s all he needed to say with a good actor, and it was beautiful. That’s all.”
Brian went on: “I have one of the greatest resumes and I would say fifty percent of it is what he has chosen to cast me in. Most actors, when they’re ninety, are not going to have the resume I have. Because I can lay out all this fucking work that’s been a thrill.”
“Do you want me to leave the room?” Robert asked. No, I wanted him to tell me what keeps him coming back to this pair of actors. “I’m going to leave the room! I’ve gotta piss,” Brian countered. Robert ignored him. “I think I’m here with two of my favorite actors in the Washington community. Brian, to me, is like a right hand. Actors become embedded in my thinking. Brian goes way back, almost thirty years now. We did a reading — he doesn’t remember — he was Jack in The Plough and the Stars at the old Source. I met Nanna a little later. I think the first thing we did was Strindberg.” “Yes!” Nanna recalled, “You added a character to Strindberg!” “I just was trying to make it more like Beckett — like an auditor.” Nanna played a character not in the script of The Stronger. Brian and I were part of the same evening of Strindberg one-acts. Our Stage Manager was a Source intern down from Dartmouth, Steven Cosson, now Artistic Director of the hot N.Y.C. company The Civilians.
Brian and I were founding Company Members at SCENA in 1987; Nanna joined that team during SCENA’s second season, appearing in Exit the King. Robert continued, “There was a time when she said, ‘How’s the house?’ I said, ‘There’re five people; three of them paid,’ and one of them was Nanna’s Mom. I think Nanna’s Mom really liked the show.”
Robert said about his frequent leading man: “Brian, I think, is an artistic alter ego to me in many ways. I plan roles for actors. It’s like knowing a singer, a voice, or music. And with Nanna, basically, it’s anything Danish. [Laughter.] And also you’re looking at people and watching them grow. Their talent — they age, in the sense of wine aging, getting better and better, deeper and deeper. They are the truly artistic actors that I always think are at SCENA Theatre, the actors who aren’t just going to, forgive me for saying this, telephone in a performance, but will do something a little different. Even when they’ve got the role nailed down, they will keep exploring and take the audience on a wild ride.
“I’d talk to Brian and say, ‘This [character] in Catastrophe is a pig’ — yeah, he’s a pig, but we’ve got to make him an interesting person. I think there’s actors who look beneath the surface, like detectives or novelists. Or junkies. We can find stuff nobody else can and create that world. It’s always exciting to be challenged by really great, talented people. It can only make me better. I used to feel differently, I think, as a very young director coming back from Europe. Some people might say the word ‘arrogant.’ I wouldn’t say that. I would say protective of my vision.
“His Hamm in Endgame, that was something to really be proud of,” Robert said, citing a role from SCENA’s first season that brought Brian a Helen Hayes nomination. “Highlights would be Brian as Herod in Salome.” “That show was great by the end,” Brian said about the first time the play was done at SCENA. “We were there at Woolly Mammoth on 14th Street,” Robert continued. “People seem to forget that there was another SCENA show, Sister Mary [Ignatius Explains It All For You], up the street [at Source, which co-produced the hit production that ran for months,] and all the money from that was paying for the really interesting stuff. Brian’s development as an actor is very interesting because he was enmeshed in realism, he was very relaxed in it, but also he is very comfortable in absurdist non-realism.” “Yeah, I love it,” Brian agreed.
“And Nanna’s had some great training in dance and movement, so it’s real interesting being in rehearsal when we do [Steven] Berkoff, Nanna and I,” Robert continued. “Nanna was sensational in the last Greek.” Like Endgame and Salome, Greek is a play SCENA brought back years later. “To me, there are pieces in the repertory that I love working on and I’ll come back to them.”
“I wouldn’t mind doing Maggot Scratcher again, Sink the Belgrano.” Nanna mentioned another Berkoff play, one she did at SCENA in 2010. “I just loved the script and the character, and having actually done it for a while, I feel I’d have a better sense of the rhythm and the poetry of it.” Brian griped, “I can’t believe Helen Hayes didn’t even look at that show. Are you kidding me? She was stunning.” Robert agreed: “I think Nanna was short changed, because that was a terrific piece. She was a dynamite Margaret Thatcher, better than you-know-who in the movie, you know what I mean?” “She was good, though,” Brian said, leaping to the defense of La Streep. “It was very different,” Nanna laughed.
Undeterred, Robert continued, “Nanna was playing the Prime Minister of England and on off-nights, the other nights, Brian was playing Lady Bracknell [in The Importance of Being Earnest,] so my leading ladies for that summer were Brian Hemmingsen and Nanna Ingvarsson. I was hoping somehow the media would catch on: ‘What has he done?’” “I didn’t even catch on,” Nanna laughed.
Robert said, “To me, if I had been an American in London and someone was doing Oscar Wilde and Berkoff, I would just be there and say, ‘This sounds really interesting and exciting.’ And Brian was a great Lady Bracknell. And later we had Nanna starring in The Marriage of Maria Braun. She did a dynamite job. So, we’re there, we’re doing these things. It’s like a dialogue, Chris. You have a dialogue with people with whom you create. Like a musician, music.” Nanna added, “Sure, and after so many projects, you also sort of develop a short-hand. You know how to step into that thought process a lot faster.”
Tropical Madness, by Witkiewicz, from the first SCENA season: “Oh my God,” Nanna led the laughter. “When I couldn’t find the gun under Michael Judge?” Brian remembered. “I was in the audience that night,” Nanna jumped in, “and the whole audience, we wouldn’t let you go on, with the laughing.” “It was like a good ten minutes,” Brian continued. “I couldn’t find the gun, so Mike Judge started to crack up — he smirked — and then I started to crack up, and the audience went nuts. I swear it was ten minutes before we could really get back to the play.”
“There was one time,” Robert reminisced about another night of Tropical Madness, “when I had to act with Brian because a certain actor was out. It was a matinee. It was a Sunday. And I remember we had had ten or twelve days to put together Tropical Madness.” “We were so busy with the other two [in the rep] by the time we got to that,” Brian noted. “And I had lost my voice,” Robert continued. “I was, like, grunting directions, and I had to go on, and I remember — this is what I did. I went in and I sat in the house and pretended I was the director, which I was, and I was blocking this actor’s moves. Then I got out and walked down on the stage and looked out at the house as though the director was there telling me where to go. And I remember Brian and I were smoking, and I got high off the cigarette, and then I’d say to Brian, ‘Where do I go next?’ The audience loved the show that day. We had all this nice feedback. But it was kind of an intense experience.” Robert also went on for our good friend Richard Mancini in Salome, and remembered that I had said “Robert knew almost all his words and moves, but just not in order.”
“And then, of course, there was the infamous night of Sebastian’s birth,” Nanna recalled, mentioning her son, “which was a Saturday. What show was that?” “[In the] Jungle of the Cities,” Robert prompted. “My water breaks, we need to go to the hospital, and Brian calls Robert to say ‘It’s happening now,’ and Robert’s response is, ‘Could you wait until tomorrow?’ [Pause.] No, I can’t!” “Well, that’s true,” Robert admitted, “That happened.” “And Sebastian was born at 8:05 that night. Curtain time,” Nanna continued. “And it was the one that sold the most tickets, that night, and you had to get rid of it. That was a shame,” Brian added. “It was a wonderful show; you did wonderful work,” Robert concluded.
A memorable turn for Nanna was in a Danish play, After the Orgy, playing “a character named Vulva in a glass coffin wearing nothing but a lace body suit.”
I ended by asking them about Bart Whiteman, the founder of Source Theatre Company, where we all met in the 80s, which provoked Brian to say: “Most people don’t even know who he is nowadays.” “And it’s such a shame, because he was the catalyst for so much of what has happened in this town,” Nanna agreed. “So many people in this town started there, and he gave you free rein.” Brian: “I wrote a little thing way back when he died, and that’s pretty much what I’d say now. I think I talked about us pushing a piano down the street in Georgetown for Three Sisters. He gave a lot of us our start.”
Remembering all that Bart provided for young, frequently untested artists, Nanna concluded by asking rhetorically, where in town is that sort of opportunity available now? There’s nobody like Bart, and nothing quite like the theatre he led. And it’s a testament to his legacy that, all these decades later, artists who met and formed a bond there are still working together.