Wednesday, February 02, 2005

An Interview with Hamilton Clancy

Plays and Playwrights 2005

Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of TheDrillingCompany
and conciever of

Don Carter, Brian Dykstra, Andrea Moon, Scott Baker,
Allison Moore, Stephen Bittrich,
Joanna Cherensky

Plays and Playwrights 2005 will be released in February 2005. In advance of publication we invite you to read a q&a with each of the authors.

First of all, let me congratulate you. You have recently become a father. How's it going so far?

Well, having a new baby is a continual discovery of how best to nurture new work. It’s a tremendous time challenge and an interesting balancing act for my wife and I. This makes sharing the stage a piece of cake. We’re very fortunate that our son is extremely healthy and happy. I mean he seems willing to spend time with anybody and he’s got a smile for each one of them.

What are some of the more notable changes fatherhood has made in your career thus far?

The most notable change is having something that actually competes with your heart. My wife and I have always been able to adapt our relationships to out of town jobs, but suddenly I find myself planning not to go out of town because I want to see him grow. It’s like living with a mini-series you can’t miss an episode of. TIVO doesn’t work for this. You’re either there or you’re not.

Okay, now on to business. You are the Artistic Director of TheDrillingCompaNY. What is the origin and significance of the company's name?

Well there are two stories. First is I thought it would be a good name for a company that was searching for the best new plays and playwrights in America. I thought I would aptly capture what we literally have to do – drill. August Wilson suggested that the way to develop playwrights was to do the first five plays that they write. Economically that’s hard to do for full length plays, but with shorts it’s a way we can really support writers we embrace.

Then secondly, my grandfather started an offshore oil drilling company. When I was a young boy I used to hear it referred to all the time. The company was sold long ago when I was young, but I received a windfall that helped me get started in New York. By the time I founded the company, none of it was left. It had all been spent over the years as a performer during low periods of employment. All I had left was the vast network of artistic contacts my life in the arts had earned me. I figured it was appropriate to name the theatre company after the company my grandfather started. I don’t think he ever would have imagined his grandson doing what we do.

According to the company bio, TheDrillingCompaNY "is based on jazz. The collection of many voices around a common universal theme, or melody, as a springboard for the expression of the individual." That's a very evocative image: theater as jazz, and jazz inspiring theater. How did this idea come about?

Well, it was mostly a translation of what I observed happening and what occurred to me was the great potential of the idea of inviting playwrights to write around a single theme: to create a new form altogether. After we began with this idea of inviting writers to work around a common theme, I was fascinated by the conflicts that emerged when you brought so many artists together. There were some good plays being written but I was most attracted to the nature of the arguments over how to do them. “How are we all going to get along?” I used to wonder. The whole thing was a giant exercise in peace making. Wynton Marsalis has referred to jazz as “a musical argument that comes to some conclusion.”
Before starting the company I had spent time in jazz clubs and noticed that jazz musicians were great storytellers and frequently invoked a sacredness when referring to great musicians. I often thought they all seemed like actors, they took their business so seriously. I had heard of other companies doing projects that were theme centered but I had yet to hear of anyone that made it their central mission. I had some experience leading visitors to New York around as a part time tour guide and I noticed that people wanted to go to theatre that had something in it that they could recognize. I became aware of a movement in theatre to bring theatre back to the audience by making theatre that the audience recognized their relationship to. It all seemed like what was happening in jazz music.

I listened to a lot of jazz and was inspired by other theatricians, (that’s a word I’ve coined to describe people in the theatre today – they often do a little of everything, not unlike electricians who can execute many different tasks related to electrical wiring. Since we’re not limited to one role in the theatre anymore we need a new word – theatrician) who respond to jazz music – director, Wynn Handman and playwrights like [Sam] Shepherd. To me it was essentially the most democratic form of music around, combining form and the freedom of improvisation. Jazz music was essentially the most American form of music.

I assume, then, that you're a jazz fan. Any favorites?

Sonny Rollins was the first jazz artist I ever heard and understood. Wynton Marsalis and I are both from New Orleans and as it would happen, the same age. A good friend of mine played in high school band with him. I never understood why my friend never made first trumpet until I went away to college and ran across an album with his name on it in a record store. So, naturally, I’m a fan of Marsalis, not only as a player but also how he has changed the art form of jazz. He has placed in an entirely different arena than his forerunners could have ever foreseen.

Most of the other guys I like have all passed away, Coltrane, Parker, Mingus.

What inspired you to start your own theater company in the first place?

Well, my wife suggested it when we were on a date before we ever got married. I tell the story in the book so I won’t ruin it here. But, Karen Kitz would certainly be my first answer. When we began it was very clear to me that there were not enough theatres that were really bringing people of diversity together. I was very naive at the time. I didn’t understand the difficulty of what occurred to me to do. It seemed that there needed to be new investment in bringing people together across demographic boundaries.

I thought the biggest problem that was developing in the world was that people didn’t know enough about one another. I would go to the theatre with my wife, who happens to be African American. If the play was targeted for a black audience the audience was primarily black. If it was for a white audience, as most theatre is deliberately, the audience was primarily white. Everyone talked about “who’s your audience?” when I first began and they still do.It seemed to me that we needed to commit ourselves to bring people from a lot of diversity, not just racial, together.

I had thought of starting theatre companies before I had just never come up with a better reason than self promotion. It always seemed to me if you didn’t have really good reason to start a company, why do it.What I’ve learned since then is that bringing people of diversity together is something we need to be much better at. The obstacles to doing so are sometimes greater than we can overcome. But we’re still trying.

Finally, I thought the whole thing was a catchy idea. After leaving the Signature one night it occurred to me that a young actor who I had done summer stock with when he was still in college had done quite well for himself. He came to the Signature and was one their first managing directors. I thought the key to a good theatre company like the key to a good play was to have a hook that you stuck with. When we began I thought, well the only other theatre doing short plays is EST and they use stars. We’ll have no trouble being immediately recognized. As with most good ideas in the arts, no one person corners the market. There were several I didn’t know about at the time and of course many have followed, not necessarily in our foot steps but along the same path you might say.

What was the process of putting HONOR together like? Why did you select that particular theme? And how did you select the writers you commissioned?

Unlike some of our themed evenings, as soon as this one occurred I knew it was right and never questioned it. My wife mentioned something in the fall about someone being ‘honored’ for something and the word sounded in my head like a gong. It occurred to me that the word was fraught with dilemma at the time and still is. From my point of view, soldiers were dying honorable deaths in a war that was perpetrated on a “dishonorable” war. The President seemed to be borrowing the “honor” of the dead soldiers to cloak his actions.

Then it occurred to me how fascinated we were with awards shows and benefits. Giving people honor had come to be a big market. Honor was a commodity that was now for sale.
Themes come around. We have workshops now where we explore themes with actors in something we call TheDrillingCompaNY Workout. Sometimes audience members suggest them. We seek themes that will open writes up to a wide variety of responses. We want the plays to be as different as possible while sharing this common thread. For myself, you sort of date them in your head, bounce them off fellow artists who act like your family and tell you whether to get married or not and then finally you just jump and say “Let’s spend a lot of time wondering about this.”

You run TheDrillingCompaNY with your wife. How do you two balance the dynamic of living and working together?

We talk a great deal. She has stepped back a bit since the baby was born. She has very sharp eye that usually gives voice to something that I can’t see. We keep the business of our family between ourselves. I think that’s very helpful. The truth: this is an absolutely crazy thing to do. We have not found the “balanced” way to pull it off. When shows are on and the moments are happening onstage there is a wonderful pay off, but the amount of focus and energy required to bring even the small things off constantly has us evaluating our roles and trying to find strategies that serve both our needs and the needs of the company.

I listen to her, but it’s more selfish than any thing else. She has most of the best ideas and allows me to assume credit for them. She’ll laugh when she reads that but it’s true. We take great stock and comfort in the web of incredible artists that have joined us in the past. Really wonderful people. By their presence they remind us that what we do has meaning. It’s an indescribable benefit. My wife is a realistic dreamer and I am a pragmatic optimist. Other ingredients: lots of patience, flexibility, faith.

Whenever we can we try to see good theatre together – if we’re not making some we should be seeing some – when you see good theatre together it’s a reminder of why we’ve made these choices.

TheDrillingCompaNY is five-and-a-half years old now. What have you learned about running a theater company in that time?

Okay, that’s a book but I’ll try to sum up a few things that stick out:
• “If you build it they will come” is a phrase in the movie Field of Dreams –nobody uses it in show business these days. If you build it they want to know exactly who you think is going to plunk down some money to see it. So figure it out and be honest about it. That’s a good place to start.
• At the same time, it’s all about the work you do. All of your energy should be devoted to making it as special as possible, when it’s not devoted to everything else.
• The Catch 22 – No one will come to see your work unless you have a reputation, and your reputation is based on the people who come see your work.
• #2 Catch 22 – Our foundation invites persons to make applications for funding. To get an invitation to apply for funding you must come up on our radar and to come up on our radar you must be doing work that is funded by others.
• #3 Catch 22 – You cannot apply for funding for general operating support unless you have a paid administrative staff, and you cannot pay your staff unless you receive funding for general operating support.
• General Operating support is understood to refer to the miscellaneous costs of administration. It’s a grant-speak term.
• Respect those who have gone before you. They have paved a way you might enjoy walking behind them on.
• The person who makes the contact sheet is the person in charge.
• Save contact sheets.
• Never take chances on stage managers.
• If you treat actors like stars they are more likely to deliver performances of that caliber.
• Always ask a writer’s permission before relaying their work to anyone else, no matter what the reason.
• Theatre companies turn over every four years or so: if you’ve been a running a company for four years or so, the fifth and sixth can be the toughest to continue.
• People in the press want to write about something they think people will read about – that’s their job. Yours is to give them something that people will read about, if you want them to write about you.
• In not-for-profit theatre, the process you use to discover the work is just as important as the end product itself. Put another way, it doesn’t matter if it’s good if you can’t tell a story about how it got that way. Process process process.
• If you have very little money, spend more of it on tech.
• If you have no money to spend on publicity you will have to spend a lot of time. If you have not a lot of time to spend on publicity you will get less of it. That’s the reality of New York.
• The professional artistic community in New York, both off and off-off Broadway can be very segregated. If we want diversity in our audiences we have to start by filling our lives as artists with true diversity.
• You don’t often get somethin’ for nothin’ – so be prepared to be flexible if you want to do business.
• IMPORTANT: Hiring a publicist does not guarantee you coverage. Strategic producing merits that.
• Pay yourself.
• Don’t start a company and think you’re going to be like Steppenwolf. They already happened.
• Producing in April or May is a bad idea if you want media coverage in New York.
• The only advice worth taking is to do the best work you possibly can. Everything will come if the work is truly original and well presented.
• Your board comes from people who see the work you do.
• If you build it they will come.

Are you one of those rare (and lucky) individuals who make a living running their own company?

No I’m not. I make a living as a performer. Obviously I would like to draw something more than the occasional travel compensation for projects. The company has created a number of revenue opportunities for myself and many of the artists who have worked with us, but our operating budget is still too small to accommodate a full time salary.

Between the responsibilities of both the company and your family, do you ever get to see any theater?

As I mentioned before, it’s tough. We seem to have three tiers of theatre going these days: 1) Colleague Motivated – an artistic colleague or friend is in a show. 2) Company business 3) “I just like it” – theatregoing.

What was the last thing you saw in the theater that really knocked you out?

I am a big fan of the latest August Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean – there are some wonderful performances and I believe it’s his best play in some time. I believe the only language that holds an audience in the theatre is what my mentor, Wynn Handman, calls theatrically charged language. August Wilson is one of the only new playwrights you hear on Broadway with such charged poetic language.

You're originally from New Orleans. Has your Southern upbringing shaped or influenced you in any particular ways?

Well, I was brought up in a very racially divided town during a time of great racial division. My parents happened to have joined the Civil Rights movement early, but I think growing up in an area where conflict about race was regularly discussed, shaped me to be very conscious of how such things push people apart.

How long have you lived in New York? Did you experience any culture shock when you first arrived here?

I’ve lived here since the fall of 1990 when I moved up with others from Baltimore where I had been working in dinner theatre after a short stint in the Old Globe’s M.F.A. program. I will always remember the first six months of living in New York. A little like I hope I’ll always remember the first six months of having a son. Both journeys had a lot of similar qualities: I got lost a lot, I walked everywhere in lieu of taking the subway in which I would always get lost, everywhere I went I seemed to bump into famous people. I think famous people are actually tourist attractions in New York. It’s part of the untold price of fame- you literally become some kind of living statue that visitors come to New York, recognize and feel special about seeing. There was a lot of that in the first six months then everything settled down. Since I had been up east for college I wasn’t shocked by the big city, but living here was still daunting. Everyday was some kind of story or adventure. Not many places that can give you that. I believe it’s even more difficult now to begin in New York. The competition for survival work is daunting.

Who are your biggest influences, theatrically speaking?

My biggest influences are Wynn Handman, Peter Brook, Arthur Miller, and Joseph Papp. Handman is a mentor, both as an actor and theatre director. The kind of plays he brought to life at The American Place Theatre are the kind of plays I hope TheDrillingCompaNY will be a place for in the future. He championed playwrights who did not fit into the mainstream of American theatre. His organic way of working with actors, his integration of different styles of acting for different styles of writing and his passionate embrace of plays with a strong voice underneath are all inspirations. Peter Brook has a way of building theatre in which all artists are integrated in the building of the production almost from start to finish. His ideas of what theatre is and why we do it have always awakened my choices.
Arthur Miller, besides writing several plays I believe are glorious, once wrote an article called, “The Lure of the Theatre”. I keep it close to me. It has always inspired me and reminded me why I chose to be in the theatre.Joe Papp was a magnifier and a maximizer. He maximized the talents of those around him and he magnified the attention brought to the artists he worked with. I hope to accomplish both in our work.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

The Path is the Goal by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It’s a book about meditation which is wonderful reading.

Is there anything you haven't done yet that you'd like to do?

  • Repertory presentation of some of our full length plays that have emerged from these shorts.
  • Pay actors a good salary.
  • Broadway as an actor.
  • Meet Arthur Miller.
  • A television series regular.
  • Featured roles in feature films.
  • Cyrano.
  • Richard III.
  • Trigorin.
  • The Scottish Guy.
  • Jamey.
  • Go to Edinburgh with a show.
  • Ride one of our shows to an Off-Broadway run or see it adapted as a film.
  • I always wanted to play P.T. Barnum in Barnum the musical. My wife says I don’t have to play that part now. It plays me.
  • Take my wife to Antarctica. She’s always wanted to go and she’s the person I know who is most fun to travel with.


Blogger Tour Guide Bill said...

Clancy is the greatest! (I've never called him "Hamilton," but I might begin calling him Mr. Clancy.) i think his comments here are very much to the point in any artistic profession - or, even any profession. He's a great example - and I can see he'll be a great father!

10:15 AM  

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