It was an unusual invitation that I received from a colleague and friend about the final four chances to see her current performance:
“Please read the description and warnings about the show. It is rather brutal. That said, I am very proud of the production and believe it is an experience in the theatre unlike any other. It has been generally well-reviewed (DC Theatre Scene gives it a “highly recommended”) and has received the distinction of being Helen Hayes Awards Recommended.”
It’s clear from Sara Barker’s e-blast that Closet Land is not for everyone, but that it will be greatly-appreciated and long-remembered by those who will value a theatre experience no one would describe as routine.
You know who you are: the theatre-goer who likes to be challenged by difficult material; who likes to be engaged by issues and subjects intended to provoke, and not only to distract; who seeks out an experience that is unusually presented.
“It’s been on my radar for years, actually,” Rick Hammerly said about Radha Bharadwaj’s play that runs through this weekend at Anacostia Arts Center. It’s a production of Factory 449, the company of which Hammerly is Producing Artistic Director.
“In 1991, I think it was, I saw the film, which came first, and thought it was really powerful. I read somewhere that it had been adapted into a play. We decided to do it last Fall.” Rahda Bharadwaj wrote and directed the film and is also the author of the stage adaptation.
Hammerly’s plans for a production last Fall were delayed after he wasn’t able to line up the design team he wanted. Factory 449 calls itself a theatre collective, and “when you have a company, you want to use them as much as possible, and it didn’t work out for the Fall.” By the time things fell into place, the original director was no longer available. Patrick Pearson is on staff at Ford’s Theatre and was heavily involved in its programming commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination last month.
“Since we put it [Factory 449] together, I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to direct, but I always thought, ‘If I do that, who’s going to produce it?’ Now that Gillian Shelly is on board as our Managing Director, I have more help, so I decided to direct it myself.”
Two actors in the Factory 449 company are Sara Barker (she of the above-quoted e-blast) and David Lamont Wilson, both of whom were in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, which was the company’s inaugural production. Barker told me that her role, as a writer of children’s books who is fiercely interrogated by a government official for the purported subversive messages embedded in her work, was the most difficult thing she’d ever done, and that includes her role as the suicidal lead character in 4.48 Psychosis.
Hammerly pointed out that Wilson is “not the sort of person people would normally choose for this type of role, which interested me. I wanted to show that he can do more than play a nice guy. And if you can’t do that in a small show at your own theatre company, where can you do it?”
The production has opened to universally strong reviews. On DCTS.com, Jayne Blanchard was effusive: “When was the last time theater was a white-knuckle experience?” In The Washington Post, Celia Wren heaped praise on the production and the artists involved and proclaimed it “courageously mounted.”
“When I found out that I was going to direct it,” Hammerly told me, “I went all out. I wanted to take control of the piece and do something different. I’ve staged it in the round, which I don’t believe has been done with this show.” He pointed out that Potomac Theatre Project did the play while in residence at Olney Theatre Center some years ago and that, more recently, Molotov Theatre Group did five performances during a run at Capital Fringe Festival.
“We wanted to take Anacosia Arts Center and make it smaller, so we created a room within a room. The audience is right in the thick of it. They can’t just sit back and watch; they experience what the woman is going through.” (Greg Stevens designed the set.) Hammerly recalled that many who have seen the show consider it not just a play, but “an experience. I’ve had so many people say that to me. I consider that a huge victory.”
Hammerly pointed to a speech in the play during which Barker’s character speaks about complacency in response to repressive government: “People don’t stand up and scream, so governments walk over the suppressed. No one speaks up.” Audiences watching the woman’s ordeal have told him, “‘I felt like I should do something, but I didn’t.’ They feel complicit in what’s going on. Numerous people have told me, ‘I’m still thinking about it two days later; it was really powerful.’ It has an impact, and that’s why we do theatre. Not all theatre needs to be that way. I sometimes want to go out for a couple of hours to enjoy a theatre production and escape. This isn’t that show. And, in general, that’s not what Factory 449 is about.”
I asked if Hammerly considers the play to be timeless in its relevance, or if it speaks particularly to the current moment. “Originally I thought it was relevant to right now, but then, as I started to think more about what’s happening across the world, I think that it’s pretty timeless. There will be governments that will always be trying to dictate policy, what it will or will not tolerate from their citizens. We have freedom of expression here, supposedly, but so many countries don’t, and that probably won’t ever completely change. That’s the reason it’s set in a nameless country in an unknown time.” The impulse to repress the influence of individuals, of free-thinkers, he noted, “is timeless, unfortunately.”
We talked about the production’s design and how it limits audience capacity. “A year and a half ago, Kate Taylor Davis called and said, ‘Hey, come and look at the space here. We like what you do and you might like it here.’ And I do like it, because it’s small. I hear about spaces in L.A. that have 50 seats and I think that sounds so great, because it allows such intimacy.”
Hammerly said the space can seat 60 (“70 if you cram the chairs in”) and told me that a previous Factory 449 show in the space (The Amish Project) was set-up for only 45. “It’s harder to get people over to Anacostia. We’re working to make it a viable destination for theatre and it’s improved a lot, even in the past year.” He pointed to the 14th Street and H Street corridors, and to the changes to those neighborhoods after theaters began to populate them, although they had been considered sketchy: “I believe in this neighborhood in Anacostia. I wanted Factory 449 to be in on the ground floor and help, as Anacostia Arts Center continues to promote this area as a thriving hub for the arts.”
Hammerly went through how the dimensions of the performance space eventually determined the capacity number of 32. “We wanted to put the audience in the middle, with the actors moving on all four sides of them, so they are on the inside, not on the outside.” He then referenced Trey Graham’s CityPaper review and its appreciation of the way the audience configuration and the production design enhances the experience: “…the oppressive intimacy of this Factory 449 production underscores live theater’s singular ability to turn the audience’s stomach. Sound and sight and especially smell drive home the interrogation’s vulgarity and invasiveness.” Hammerly told me, “I love that. And you don’t get to see that very much in D.C. I’m happy to be a part of a group that’s trying to do a little of that.”
Still, “It is difficult to get people to Anacostia. The Amish Project was a tough sell, and we had Nanna Ingvarsson in it [she won this year’s Helen Hayes Award for the one-actor piece] and Holly Twyford directing it, but people have to be willing to cross the bridge and see the shows.” He then mentioned that projects staged in Anacostia received 23 Hayes nominations this year, which demonstrates that “there’s high quality theatre going on over here.” And what do people say when they do make the trek? After mentioning how much positive feedback they’ve gotten about the production, he related the surprised reaction to the new and upcoming ‘hood and to Anacostia Arts Center: “Oh my gosh! It’s really nice!”
Moving beyond Hedwig
I reminded Rick (okay, I’m switching to the familiar as I admit to our past collaborations) that, having been in one of the earliest plays he directed (the Harold Pinter one-act New World Order at SCENA Theatre in 1994), I was aware of his long-standing interest in being on that side of the table. Nevertheless, he remains much better known as an actor, and seems to be offered many more opportunities as an actor than as a director, his long and ever-expanding resume notwithstanding. Is it difficult for someone to gain traction as a director, when he is best-known for his on-stage work?
“Boy, have you opened a can of worms,” Rick said, after tweaking me about the memory of the Pinter project we had done together. (“Yes, I keep making you people take your clothes off!”)
“I’ve thought about this a lot the past few years. I’ll tell you: I’ve been kicking around for thirty years, as a performer and then as a director.” Rick mentioned his early work at Fourth Wall Productions (which included a hit version of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom that he directed) as well as his work at SCENA. “It’s a different mind-set. When I was younger, I really liked being on the stage, the attention. But I got to the point where I was taking roles I didn’t really want to do to pay the rent. I was thinking, ‘This would be a good thing for me to do,’ rather than, ‘Wow, I really want to do that!’
“So I stopped and went to grad school for film and video production, and I made a film. I wrote, directed, produced, and was in it. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, but it was my thesis project and I wanted to be involved in every aspect of it, to know how things worked. I’d never do it again, but that’s why I was into it. I was involved from the ground floor, instrumental in putting it all together. It was my film, and if it failed or if it flew, I was responsible for it. And I was fortunate in that it did well.”
That sort of ground-up involvement, he told me, stands in contrast to most of his experiences as an actor. “You can feel like you’re jobbed in,” he said, at the end of the pre-production process. The designers have been hired and many conceptual decisions have been made before the actors become involved. It’s not always like that, but often, he said, “actors are hired who they think they can get to do a role the way they want them to do it, and I would think, ‘Where’s my artistic vision as an actor? I’m just someone who has been brought in.’ And it began to frustrate me. I felt I had no creative voice. And that’s why I began to produce and direct in addition to my acting.”
Rick then mentioned an experience that proved a catalyst for him. “It was 2013, I think, and I directed Dead Man Walking at A.U. with fourteen students, some chairs, and two projection screens. And I could not have been prouder, of the production, and of the students.” And that satisfaction became more appealing than continuing to say yes to many of the acting offers that were coming in — mostly for a certain kind of role. “The tricky part is that people think of me as Rick Hammerly slash Hedwig,” he said, mentioning the part for which he won a Helen Hayes award in 2003. “That’s who they see me as.” So it was time for him to make the things that he really wanted to do happen for himself.
“Unless you’re one of the handful of actors in town who work continuously, you have to diversify. As an actor, director, producer, and artistic director, I am continually flexing different muscles.” Looking ahead, in addition to more work with Factory 449 (which in September will produce the world premiere of Allyson Currin’s play Memory Like Water as part of the city-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival), Rick will play Fagin in Oliver! at Adventure Theatre/MTC this summer and will return to Ford’s in A Christmas Carol for the holidays. As he mentioned his need to continue at his restaurant job, he also spoke of how he enjoys the many hats he now wears as a theatre artist: “It’s so much more interesting having your hand in several different pies rather than just one.”