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Michael Urie Pulls Double Duty in DC

To say Michael Urie has a busy summer planned is somewhat of an understatement. 

After hosting the Drama Desk Awards on June 2, the versatile actor jumped head-first into a series of projects, that involved acting, directing and producing. 

“I do say, ‘there are not enough hours in the day’ about once a day,” Urie says. “I’m so lucky though that so many things have worked out. I’m not one of those actors who sits around and waits for things to come my way. I like to make my own opportunities and when you spend enough time plotting those, sometimes they come to fruition at the same time.”

Urie’s about to return to DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company to play Hamlet for the second-straight year, this time as part of STC’s Free for All series, running July 10–21 at Sidney Harman Hall.

“Playing Hamlet for most people is once in a lifetime, so to get a chance to do it a second time, I wasn’t going to let it go,” he says. “I wanted to come back because you learn every night, and I certainly wanted to keep playing and exploring what this guy’s all about. Already in rehearsal, I am figuring out things I didn’t quite realize the first time.”

Of course, he was busy during the year away from the part as well, appearing in Torch Song on Broadway from November through January and filming several episodes of the hit TV show, “Younger.”

“Every once in a while, I would think about it, and see if I still knew the lines, and a few weeks ago I started really thinking about who Hamlet is to me now,” Urie says. “I’m a year older, the world is a year older and our country is a year crazier. Our Hamlet takes place in this authoritative state, where a new leader is making a lot of changes and I think we will really feed our audience. I get the sense that the DC audience is truly listening, truly engaged and want to know what’s happening.”

Hamlet was a bucket-list role for Urie and he still feels he is getting so much out of the part this second time through.

“The feeling of accomplishment is quite unlike anything else. Not only is it an enormous role with extremely taxing language, emotions and athleticism, you feel the shoes that have been worn by so many greats before you,” he says. “That is a pride that is tough to describe. To know you are speaking the words that have been spoken by so many legends, it’s extremely exciting and daunting.”

At the same time, Urie will also be directing Studio Theatre’s production of Drew Droege’s Bright Color and Bold Patterns, which is being staged July 9 through July 28. The one-man show, starring Jeff Hiller, was a critical darling when it ran Off-Broadway last year, and the play is about gay marriage told through the perspective of the worst wedding guest of all time.

“Drew is an old-friend and this was a show that he had created in Los Angeles and I told him this was far more than a comedy monologue, so I worked with him to create the production and flesh it out,” Urie said. “We put together the production in New York and it was a big hit, and when Drew stopped starring in it, Jeff Hiller replaced him, and he is fantastic in this role.”

The play takes place on a patio in Palm Springs the night before a gay wedding and there are four guys attending the wedding, but you only meet Gary, someone with complicated feelings about marriage and especially this particular marriage.

“He speaks with three other characters who you don’t see or hear, but are there in the room. He’s not crazy, you just don’t meet them,” Urie says. “You gleam who they are by what he says and does. It’s exciting to watch someone create a world on their own.”

And that’s not all. On an off-day, Urie joined a cast of Broadway greats to read the Mueller Report for 24 hours straight, and he just finished producing Pride Plays, a festival of play readings at New York’s Rattle Stick Theater.

“It was a five-day LGBTQ theater festival that engaged nearly 200 artists in 19 different play readings,” he says. “That took up a lot of my time but it was very exciting and I was so happy that audiences got the chance to hear all of these plays. It was a very inclusive and representative cross-section of LGBTQ theater artists and it was very cool to meet so many people and introduce them to one another.”

For more information about Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Hamlet, visit here. For information about Studio Theatre’s Bright Colors And Bold Patterns, visit here.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: www.studiotheatre.org

Queen of Basel’s Playwright Discusses Adaptation and Influences

Any time a contemporary artist decides to tackle and untangle a literary classic, the task is often monumental. However, when said artist then decides to mix and mold the already established characters into representations of the modern world, an adaptation is in the midst.

Critically acclaimed Hilary Bettis not only took hold of the characters and story from August Strindberg’s 1889 novel Miss Julie, but completely flipped it on itself. In an effort to provoke thoughts from diverse audiences, Bettis adapted the story from the troublesome Strindberg into the play Queen of Basel.

The play charges head first, focusing on societal aspects of power, race and class. Performances of the play are now in their last week at Studio Theatre, and before the Queen’s run ends, we spoke with the passionate Bettis about adapting the story, her process and the influences she draws from.

On Tap: How did you select Miami as the backdrop for this modern take on a classic play?
Hilary Bettis: Queen of Basel was originally commissioned by Michel Hausmann at Miami New Drama, with the goal of taking a familiar classic text and reimagining it specifically for a diverse Miami audience. So the backdrop was part of the assignment. Most of America likes to brush poverty under the rug – we don’t like to look at it. We live in gated communities or “gentrifying” neighborhoods, trying to separate ourselves as much as possible, but in Miami it’s so in your face. You literally have homeless encampments across the street from million-dollar condos. After spending time in the city, Miami felt like the perfect setting to explore a modern-day take on a play about wealth, class and power in 2019 America.

OT: What was most difficult when creating Queen of Basel?
HB: [August] Strindberg. Full stop. Aside from the original Miss Julie written as a total fever dream with messy internal logic and structure, which made trying to build a plot complicated, I fundamentally disagree with Strindberg’s view of humanity. He viewed women through the Madonna-whore lens. He believed “white” male sexuality is the epitome of strength. In his author’s preface Strindberg says, “Miss Julie is a modern character. Not that the man-hating half-woman has not existed in all ages but because now that she has been discovered, she has come out in the open to make herself heard.” And, “Jean is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength.” And, in his reference to Kristine (who he calls the “female slave”), “if my minor characters seem abstract, it is because ordinary people are abstract in their occupations.”

I believe ordinary people are unique, complicated and deserving of dignity. I believe sexuality female or male – doesn’t define the character or value of a human being. I believe men are capable of vulnerability and gentleness. I believe women are capable of strength and intellectual ideas. I believe people are equal in their flaws, their need for intimacy and love, their desire to be seen and valued. I believe choice comes out of circumstances. If we can understand the reality of a person’s life, we can find empathy – especially in the darkness.

OT: What will audiences discover or re-contemplate about race and power through Queen of Basel?
HB: The responses to the play have been utterly fascinating. People either love it or don’t know how to process it. The play really digs into the fluidity and messiness and ambiguity of privilege. All of these characters have power in some ways and are oppressed in other ways. They’re all victims and perpetrators. The play is designed to make an audience uncomfortable. My hope is that discomfort sparks conversation.

OT: Why the Latinx influence?
HB: I’m Latinx – my mother is Chicana – so everything I write tends to be through that lens. I was commissioned to write a bilingual adaptation for a Miami audience – so embracing Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian [and] Colombian communities felt necessary. I also think America tends to think of Latinx as a monolithic culture; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Imperialism, slavery, Jewish people fleeing Hitler, genocide against natives, dictators, death squads funded by the U.S. and the empires built on that heritage – also plagues much of Latin America. I wanted an audience to see the nuance and diversity of communities within Latinidad.

OT: How did you and José Zayas get connected and how has it been working with him on this project?
HB: José is my theater soulmate. We’ve know of each other for a few years now, always wanting to work together, but the timing was never right. We finally got to work together at the Alley Theatre’s All New Festival last January on this play. We connected and got each other right away. He understands my voice and what I’m really after in my work and he challenges me to dig deeper, he never lets me settle. He’s really an actor’s director who knows how to make everyone feel empowered.

OT: What did you learn or discover during your creative process?
HB: So, so, so much, I was literally rewriting up until opening. This play is an actor’s play – three people in a room for 75 minutes bearing their souls and flaws and vulnerabilities – I really wanted the cast to have a point of view and a voice in our entire process. We had a lot of conversations about power, gender, race [and] how we navigate that onstage. How we portray these people with empathy, while remaining honest about their flaws.

But what’s fascinating is how Julie’s wealth sort of erases everything else about her. Audience’s are much more likely to forgive John and Christine than Julie, even though Julie is in just as much pain and turmoil.

OT: How has the current immigration conflict impacted your storytelling in Queen of Basel?HB: Immigration is something I write about in almost all of my work. The history of America is the history of immigration, and each generation has its immigrant story. Because I set out to write for a Miami audience, understanding the conflict in Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba and Baby Doc’s Haiti were vital to understanding the very fabric of Miami. Michel Hausmann, who commissioned this, is a Venezuelan ex-pat who fled the country after his theater was tear-gassed by [Hugo] Chavez. His family were Jewish refugees fleeing their homeland. The cycles of oppression, how we wield it in small and large ways, is the spine of this play.

OT: Aside from Strindberg, where else did you draw inspiration for this story?
HB: Certainly my own life. I’m mixed, white and Mexican, so I often struggle with where I fit in the world. All three characters are juggling multiple identities, so that part is very visceral and personal. And I’m a woman, so misogyny is personal. All of my collaborators have inspired me.

Queen of Basel is showing at the Studio Theatre through April 7.  Tickets are $20-$97, and available here.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre

Sarah Burgess Returns Home For Kings

Alexandria, Virginia native Sarah Burgess hasn’t spent much of her adult life in DC. As a burgeoning playwright who attended college in New York City, it made sense for Burgess to kick off her fast-rising career in the city that never sleeps.

At 35, her first-ever production Dry Powder was chosen by Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, and starred Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria. Talk about a tough act to follow.

While New York may have put her on the map, you could say the playwright’s DC roots are responsible for her sustained success. Her second show Kings was inspired by her intrigue for the inner belly of Washington, and an article she read about fundraising retreats for politicians and lobbyists.

Where Dry Powder took a witty look at the cut-throat lifestyle of the elite in a New York private equity firm, Kings is “a lacerating comedy about a newly elected congresswoman who refuses to play by the rules of lobbyists – or her own party.”

While the themes of her work – corrosive money and power – do not seem to raise many eyebrows these days, her perspective has reinvigorated the conversation about what drives American progress.

Indeed, Burgess has made a name for herself when it comes to social commentary – so much so shes spun the phrase “art imitates life” upside down. Life imitated art when Kings inspired Washingtonian to create a real version of the play’s made-up listicle “Top DC Gay Power Couples Under 45.”

On Tap chatted with Sarah Burgess prior to the play’s opening about what it feels like to be a young, female playwright seated snugly at the table with Kings. Directed by Marti Lyons, the show’s second run – and first outside of Manhattan – is in production now through January 13 at Studio Theatre.

On Tap: Are you excited to have your work performed in DC where the show is set?
Sarah Burgess: I’m from Alexandria and this is my second play, so I was so pleased. Studio Theatre is such a revered institution and everyone nationally sees them doing interesting, cool, challenging stuff. For them to want to perform Kings, I was really excited. Having had friends who have had plays at Studio, it felt really great. It’s a play that presents challenges and I’m excited about it being at Studio.

OT: Since you’re now based in New York City, have you been shuttling back and forth a lot? How does it feel being in the area again?
SB: Actually, it’s great. I’ve been hopping on the train. I went down [to DC] yesterday just for a few hours to see a run-through. The play is being published and so as I’m continuing to grapple with subject matter that I actually found a bit more challenging than I expected, it’s been a good opportunity. Marti Lyons is directing this production and I got to know her when she came on board. It’s been so helpful to work with her on it, and then obviously working with these great actors, too. I love being able to come back down here.

OT: Tell us a bit about your reaction to Washingtonian’s response to your show. Did it strike a chord with you when a DC magazine created a list inspired by something you had conceived of in Kings?
SB: I was so excited. I remember I talked to Tommy Kale who directed the production in New York, and he’s also from Alexandria. He [said], “Washingtonian to me is like, I grew up with it in line in Safeway and it’s sort of an institution.” I’ve always thought of it as a national magazine, and it’s still part of the fabric of DC. I was bowled over. Like, it’s your hometown and you have the publication, but also there’s something about when you make up something offhand and then someone takes the time to make the actual thing. It was one of my proudest moments.

OT: It certainly speaks to the power of your art for inciting change. Can you walk us through what the past few years have been like for you as a young playwright toiling away and waking up to the dream breakthrough?
SB: Having your first play in New York is challenging because there’s a decent amount of competition and there are pipelines I wasn’t in, so it was a real life change to be a professional writer. It’s hard to make a living writing and to be able to support yourself at all. I feel very fortunate. I’m learning to adapt to writing on a different schedule [and] not having a day job. I feel very fortunate to have different opportunities to pursue, and I recognize that there’s really an element of luck. Artistic director Oskar Eustis, who was interested in the topic Dry Powder raises, was willing to take a risk on a completely unknown and unstudied playwright. There’s just luck in that.

OT: With your recent successes, are you feeling the pressure of expectations now?
SB: I mean, you have expectations for yourself. It’s not a question of returning to the way you were when you wrote whatever. It’s also recognizing that what you’re interested in changes and I think about that a lot. It’s a unique experience to have a play done and have them reviewed, and to be aware how they sell or don’t sell. It definitely is a separate category of experience from writing. I’m kind of an awkward introvert, so it’s a thing I grapple with. I don’t feel pressure or expectation. I don’t know that much is expected of me. I don’t have that from the outside. It’s more about wanting to be better. I think that has intensified since having my plays [produced].

For information about showtimes and ticket prices to Kings at Studio Theatre, visit here. Kings runs through Sunday, January 13.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Kitty Geoghan

A Day in the Life: Studio Theatre Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel

Imagine you’re handed a pile of plays. Hidden among them is the perfect story, waiting to be brought to life. Finding the next great piece for 14th Street’s Studio Theatre is just one of Adrien-Alice Hansel’s many responsibilities. On Tap sat down with Studio’s literary director to talk about her work, the DC theatre scene and what she enjoys doing in the city.

On Tap: What exactly does being a literary director entail on a daily basis?  
Adrien-Alice Hansel: I listen to our artistic director tell me the kind of work he wants to be doing in the next season and beyond, and then I reverse-engineer the process to get us there. I find projects to share with our literary committee, who review and discuss the work we’re considering. I have to understand what Studio is and does, and to understand what work is out there – both in the United States and internationally. I learn the work of many different writers and read their past work. Sometimes, we will even commission a play from a writer. I also do marketing and the initial publicity for each play. It’s a big, amazing job.

OT: Any other facets of the job that are particularly interesting?
AAH: I also work as what’s called a dramaturg, which means that for all of the shows of the season, my associate literary director Lauren Halverson [and I] get to know the play really well. [We get] to know the work of the writer and get deep into the world of the play. A piece set in 1838 but written in 1980 will have a different context now than it did in its initial run, and we have to understand that context.

OT: What makes Studio Theatre such a  unique space?
AAH: One great thing about Studio is that we have four spaces with 200 or fewer seats. It’s a big operation, but they’re all really intimate spaces so being able to hand that to a writer is an amazing privilege. Plays can speak at their own volume here – it can be quiet, it can be loud, it can be exuberant – and that’s one of the really wonderful and exciting things about my work.

OT: What are you looking for in a play that makes it a good fit for Studio?
AAH: Across the season, we’re looking for range. The kinds of work that we’re drawn to and that work well in our spaces are engaged and immediate. They reflect the contemporary world, and they’re somewhat political. We tend to do plays about people who are engaged in their lives and very affected by the outside world. They’re grappling with big questions. We do both dramas and comedies of character. We’re looking for plays that give you a ride and leave you with things to talk about. Our plays will give you a couple of ideas, a couple of perspectives. You’ll have felt your way through arguments on both sides. The “empathy gymnasium” of the theatre is a piece of what Studio does. You’re going to have fun, and you’re going to be up close with the actors on a journey.

OT: You’ve been at Studio for seven years. How has the DC theatre scene changed in your time there?
AAH: There was and there remains a passion for new work. There have always been great small theatre companies here, and I have definitely seen actors come through and move up. A lot of studios have started commissioning new work. There’s a sense of DC as a place, and theatre [companies] around the city are examining what it means to be in our nation’s capital in such an interesting intersection of different diaspora and communities. Increasingly, I see a lot of theaters engaging with questions of difference and inclusion, working to open the eyes of the mainstream theaters to the talent that is here.

OT: Has Studio changed along with the local scene?
AAH: At Studio, we’re asking aggressive questions about who is and isn’t on our stages and attending our plays – who used to be in our neighborhood and who isn’t here anymore. There’s a lot of work to do, and I think that plays are the best when the audience is different from each other. The thing that happens in theatre that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that when your audience is a mixed group of people, one group’s response to what’s happening onstage can teach the other.

OT: What plays from Studio’s 2018-2019 season are you most excited about?
AAH: Cry It Out [begins November 14] is about parenting. The main characters are these two new moms, and it’s a very, very funny play about how parenting looks different depending on your class. If I Forget [begins September 12] is set in DC in the early 2000s and is about Jewish identity as well as life in DC – and the 14th Street corridor itself. Queen of Basel [begins next March] is set in Miami and is a new version of Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Each of the main characters have a connection to the Caribbean or South America, and it’s about power, race and desire. And finally, there’s another new work called P.Y.G. [begins next April] about a boy band rock star who hires two musicians from a hip-hop group called Petty Young Goons to toughen up his image, all on reality TV. It’s a play about race, appropriation and the consequences of trying to tell your story.

OT: What do you like to do in DC when you’re not working?
AAH: I have two kids so that dictates a lot of my free time. DC is excellent on so many fronts. It doesn’t have the reputation that it should for its art scene. Big, small, culturally specific – it’s all here. As a parent, so much stuff is free, so you can take your kids to see so much and it’s close to nature. I grew up barefoot in back yards and fields. You can do that in Rock Creek Park in small ways or go outside the city easily and do that. Everything from the Kennedy Center to the Atlas [Performing Arts Center] is within reach. And as a side note, the coffee shops here are truly top notch.

OT: Do you like to go see plays by yourself, or do you prefer to go with other people?
AAH: I don’t have a strong preference. But if you go with me, we will definitely talk about it – but only after when we’re in a private place. I prefer to be incognito.

Learn more about Hansel’s work and Studio Theatre’s 2018-2019 season at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org