Saturday, April 11, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 735: Barbara Hammond

Barbara Hammond

Current Town: New York City

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  Three plays set in three different countries – VISIBLE FROM FOUR STATES, a play about modern small-town America, Christianity, cell phone towers and the death penalty; WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, which centers around the 2012 Moscow trial and imprisonment of a feminist art collective called Pussy Riot for their performance of their song “Virgin Mary, chase Putin Away!” in the Russian capital’s main cathedral, and TERRA FIRMA, a play about the building of a nation with no natural resources, no allies or enemies, and one citizen.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I am the youngest in a huge family so, as one friend recently put it, I was “born into chaos and raised by children.” Amidst this, the following points have impacted my work, for better or worse: my father was the mayor, so the home was steeped in the day-to-day ins-and-outs of local politics; I went, against my will, to Catholic School for ten years; and, throughout my childhood, my grown-up brothers and sisters traveled, for varied reasons, all over the globe – to Africa Central America, England, France, the U.S.S.R., China and Hong Kong. So even though I was born in an industrial town on the shores of Lake Michigan, I always felt like a citizen of the world.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I see devoted fearless theatre-makers all over the world creating art from the complexities of our human existence. That is what draws me to theatre. That in a classroom in a 14th century university in Kiev or in the basement of a luxury high rise on the Lower East Side of New York City, actors and directors and designers and writers gather to invent a reality that explores or reveals something vital about who we are, as homo sapiens. Put that way, it’s almost a science, and it’s a group effort – it cannot be achieved through the playwright’s will alone.

So I would say that when the human is ignored and a “show” is being put on – I stay away from that kind of theatre. I would even say that, when given an opportunity to make people more understanding of one another, if you choose to make them less than they are, you’re actually doing some harm.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My mentor, the film and theatre critic Stanley Kauffmann, who died last year at 96. I came to New York at twenty-one wanting to make theatre and film, and I audited many of his classes at Hunter College, where he taught after he retired from Yale, and we became fast friends. I think he was 78 when we met – Marlon Brando had been in a children’s play he had written in the 1930’s. Stanley witnessed all of twentieth century American theatre – and had anecdotes to prove it. He made legends like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller real to me. He made a playwright’s life feel like a vocation. His passion for theatre – for the great playwrights and directors and producers– and for what theatre can do and be and become – has been as important to me as the artists who make theatre. Stanley lifted the work he witnessed to greater heights and recognized their value even when the playwrights themselves didn’t know what they had wrought.

I would say that my theatrical heroes are theatregoers who enter the theatre open to letting in something new, thrilled to share in the ritual of live performance.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre with mature urgency – that pulls from the realm we all intuitively know exists, but seldom visit.

You know how the best music does that – moves you and you’re not sure why? It’s rare that a play can do that, but when it does – that’s the best.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Observe your own thoughts and feelings while you are observing the world. If you don’t know the filters through which you are seeing the world, you are not seeing the world accurately.

Notice, especially, what you really love to do, and don’t forget that life is for THAT, too.

Think about integrity and what it means to you; think about what your values are. Write them down and ask yourself if you live in communion with them, if you write in communion with them.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  My new play WE ARE PUSSY RIOT opens the Contemporary American Theatre Festival July 10th. The cast will be announced in the next few weeks but it will be directed by Téa Alagic and the set designer is Peter Ksandr so I’m already in fantastic hands. I started writing the play because I was compelled to understand why the girls in Pussy Riot did what they did in the Cathedral, and questions of church and state are always on my radar, but as I began to research what has been happening in Russia, especially since 2012, and the slide into what they call “the power vertical” -- the scope of the play exploded. Last autumn I went to Moscow to talk to as many people as I could and absorb as much as I could about Russian culture and, this past week I went to Kiev, Ukraine, a country at war, to meet with theatres about a translation and production of WE ARE PUSSY RIOT there. I am not writing for a U.S. audience even though the play will debut in this country. My next play is a commission for the Royal Court called TERRA FIRMA and explores nation-building at a micro-level. So watching a country like Ukraine try to do it with all the real-world problems of corruption, war and bureaucracy is sobering and, unavoidably, heart-rending.

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