Today I am happy to present an interview with my colleague and friend Hannah Hessel. Since dramaturgs typically collaborate with artists in other disciplines, we do not always have a chance to work together, but I am blessed to work with Hannah often. Whether we work together on something large like season planning for Forum Theatre, or on something more individual like notes for my next project idea, Hannah always asks just the right probing, relevant question to open up an enlightening dialogue. I consider myself fortunate to work with someone whose goal is for artists to be their best, all the time.
Name: Hannah Hessel
Hometown: Washington, District of Columbia (taxation without representation)
Current town: Still in the District, still no representation.
How do you explain dramaturgy?
This is always the difficult question. I’ve been explaining dramaturgy for so long to so many people that I have no set way of thinking about it, though I did explore it in a recent post for 2amtheatre.
I think that dramaturgy is a tool. I like the idea that dramaturgy is a way of intellectually and creatively engaging with a work of art. It allows the user to see the piece as a whole and understand the steps needed to move it forward.
For myself, I’ve been attempting to come up with a name for what I do (or think I do) without using the name dramaturg. I would love to have a way of explaining myself that didn’t sound like you need to have a master’s degree in theater to understand (though I have a master’s degree in theater and still don’t fully understand). I fully believe that what I do is an art, but I rarely see myself a the primary artist. I am there in a supporting position. As I’ve grown the Project Gym I’ve started to call myself a Creative Trainer. The title fits the metaphor of the gym but I think it goes deeper. As a trainer I can see where the artist or work of art is, I can look at the goals of said work (or artist) and I can help develop a plan to move closer to the goal.
How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?
I guess it appears everyday. My brain is constantly on dramaturgy-drive. I’m piecing together bits of information trying to decide when to dig in deeper and when to let go, what to highlight and what to push aside.
Professionally, I work at Shakespeare Theatre Company as the Audience Enrichment Manager. The job is almost entirely dramaturgical, though not at all production oriented. I am there as the dramaturg for the audience rather than for the artists. I look at the season and figure out how to frame the plays for the audience and provide them with supplemental material and programming to enrich their experiences. Working with audiences is one of my favorite things about dramaturgy. Theatre is about making connections and I get to spend my time making those connections stronger and richer.
In the rest of my time I have founded the Project Gym which provides space and time for artists to come together to strengthen their artistic and creative muscles. It is there that I’m developing the Creative Trainer position and exploring how dramaturgy can affect the process of artists creative lives as well as their products.
How did you come to dramaturgy?
In high school I was an actor and designer (sets mainly). In undergrad I was a designer (costumes entirely) and director. My non-theater time in undergrad was primarily studying history (which has always and still does fascinate me). My interest in Jewish history led me to Jewish theater which led me to an internship at Theater J. I joined Theater J at a very exciting time for the theater as they grew in size and reputation. One of my first intern jobs was as assistant director on the first production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Welcome to My Rash & Third. Actually, it was the only production, though Third ended up expanding and being produced at Lincoln Center just before her too-early death. The process of watching a playwright who I had always admired create and make changes was thrilling to me. I will never forget sitting in her hotel room going over page after page of her handwritten notes before returning to the office to type up the changes.
I stayed on after my year internship and had four more years at Theater J as the Literary Director, Education and Outreach Associate. Ari Roth, the Artistic Director and a playwright himself, kept me busy with a constant stream of exciting new work and complicated subject matters. I learned that I innately knew how to watch, process and communicate my thoughts on how something worked. I also realized that I lacked any type of formal training to be a dramaturg. I never studied dramaturgy, I never studied playwriting. My training was from a visual rather than textual perspective. I decided it was time to fill out my education and so next step was an MFA in dramaturgy from Columbia University.
Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.
I am terrible with favorites. I will say that the art I love changes me. I am a different person having viewed it. I frequently get frustrated when I see a work of art that is filled with promise and talent and I leave feeling nothing. If it can’t hit me deeply I deem it unsuccessful. I realize that is a strict judgment but for me to really love something it needs to come together on aesthetic, storytelling and emotional levels.
Who/what inspires you?
The passion of my friends. I find passion to be endlessly inspiring. Someone’s excitement and dedication can boost up my own excitement. I feel lucky to be friends with so many talented artists both in DC, New York and around the world.
What is your dream project?
Currently my dream project is to make other people’s dream projects take shape. Making the Project Gym into a sustainable business is a challenging goal, especially without much business experience. I’m moving slowly but I think I’ll get to the point where the Gym can function the way a sports club functions: where member artists can come as they need to for classes, workouts and social interaction. I hope that such a space will allow artists to feel supported and give them a safe yet challenging space to build new work.
If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?
My dream team of artists would be: Caryl Churchill, Salvadore Dali, Pina Bausch, Jarvis Cocker
For the final collaborator, I would pull in one of the number of artists I’ve come attached to in recent years: Wyckham Avery, Anna Brenner, Patrick Bussink, Melissa Brown, James Ryan Caldwell, Michael Dove, Otso Huopaniemi, Jess K Smith, Alexander Strain — the list could go on but it would take over this whole interview.
What are you working on right now?
When not at work, these days I’m working on the Project Gym – I’m in the midst of a successful Kickstarter campaign and the new semester starts in about a month. I’m creating, with my fellow Creative Trainer Jessica Jung, a duo of workshops to serve as orientation for the new semester.
What’s up next for you?
In a few months I’ll be working with Forum Theatre (where I am Senior Dramaturg) on Clementine in the Lower Nine by Dan Deitz. I’m excited to work with him and with director Derek Goldman on this fantastic script.
Thank you, Hannah!
Check back in next week for our next dramaturg interview!