In a word, “Insanity!” That’s how Barter Theatre director Katy Brown answers, ‘Whatever possessed you to take on “The Miracle Worker” and “Hamlet” at the same time?’
“There have been many times I wondered,” she admits. “I’ve had not a lot of sleep.”
The young, lovely taskmaster has built up quite a directorial resume at Barter. “I’m up over 90 shows now,” she points out, citing several favorite productions: “ ‘Streetcar,’ ’39 Steps,’ ‘Holiday Memories,’ ’Around the World in Eighty Days.’ “
Annually, Artistic Director Rick Rose gets a seasonal start by building a play roster. Then Rose, Nicholas Piper and Brown get together, discussing and dividing direction assignments. Sometimes a resident director gets to pick, sometimes not. Much of it’s dependent on what they’ve already done, or on conflicting rehearsal schedules.
Rose himself earmarked Brown for ‘Miracle Worker,’ and she agreed. It’s a wonderful assignment for a woman director. Then the theatre received an NEA grant via the Shakespeare in American Communities program, proposing ‘Hamlet.’ Brown was already written into the grant as director. She may direct anywhere from six-to-nine shows a season. This season, it’s seven.
Brown additionally oversees The Barter Players, “a hybrid between apprentices and non-equity interns who also work on the main stage.” Participants score points toward equity membership. Some may move into residency. ‘Hamlet,’ a Barter Players project from the get-go, also includes some Players alumni.
‘Hamlet’ itself is four hours long, and Brown’s production, like nearly all, has pared down the text, “keeping Shakespeare’s language, meter and all his characters. It’s about 110 minutes long.”
Does she study others’ prior productions? “It depends. We’re all products of what we’ve seen, been exposed to, but mostly I try and stay away from them.”
Both plays have ironic similarities: Disabled offspring; passionate, indulgent mothers, removed father figures, evening of scores, clashing of wills.
“Oh my goodness, I never saw the parallel,” says Brown. Yet she unconsciously did, reflecting on similarities between Prince Hamlet and Helen Keller’s half-brother, James. “There’s something so Hamlet-like about him. In difficult situations, James always uses language and double entendres.”
Director Brown hails from Birmingham---‘The Miracle Worker’s set in 1880’s Alabama. Boning up, she visited Helen Keller’s childhood home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia. It ‘s white clapboard, circa 1820, one year after Alabama became the 22nd state of the union. The architectural deisgn is classic ‘Virginia cottage’---four downstairs rooms bisected by a hall. An upstairs hall connects three bedrooms.
“In the bedroom Helen and Annie shared, much of the ceiling’s so sloped, they wouldn’t have been able to stand up straight.”
There’s also a guesthouse, sporting some later Victorian gingerbread, on the grounds, and figuring into the plot.
“We tend to imagine a plantation kind of place. Instead, it’s…” Brown’s voice trails off, searching for the word.
“Yes, it’s intimate; you get a feeling that real, regular people lived there. You can hold the keys Helen locked the door with; touch the actual [water] pump. It’s such a familiar kind of place. It’s simple, almost like a 1930’s house. You suddenly realize miracles and the people who are catalysts can happen anywhere.
“These people feel very close to home for me. Especially Kate Keller, the mom, a Southern woman I recognize. She’s in charge, running the house, but doesn’t let on; there’s iron behind that. Hannah (Ingram; the actress enacting the role) did a lot of research. Kate was really good at making it look like her husband ran the show.”
Brown’s father is “a Samford University professor who teaches Russian history and American folklore. We visited Native American reservations and listened to Sacred Heart harp singing; took in lots of Southern history, all of Alabama. I had an incredible roots-of-America childhood.
“My mother was a kindergarten teacher---we got education coming and going---she’s now retired, enjoying her grandchildren…I have one big sister, a vet, in New Hampshire; and a brother in Houston. He works for Exxon.
“I attended Berry College, in Georgia. Thought I’d go back and get a Ph.D. in English. I came to Abingdon, to act, for a summer. More acting followed. Then I fell into directing.“
Two of her favorite acting roles at Barter were Juliet; and Suzanne, the spurned young lover of Picasso, in Steve Martin’s ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’
Her favorite playwrights are an “incredible mix of greats---Tennessee [Williams], Steinbeck [whose works have been adapted to the stage] and Shakespeare, mixing them with brand new ones; like Catherine Bush, who writes works for the company. We’re lucky to get brand new things, right off the press.”
Brown says she has been influenced by two women directors: “Anna D’Shapiro, who brought ‘August: Osage County,’ from the Steppenwolf to New York. I stood up and pumped my fist in the air when it ended. And [‘Metamorphoses’ playwright/director] Mary Zimmerman, because she’s so movement-oriented.
“I try to unify the casts of plays I work on. Very much want people to participate in the creation of what I’m making. As open-ended and inviting of their impulses as I can be on this voyage together. I seek the most honest approach.
“But an actor in the company gave me a nickname; and oh my goodness, I must tell you, it got around and stuck: The Velvet Hammer. If I feel work’s not honest enough, I say it right out.
“I take ideas and move us forward as a unit. My outlook is that it’s going to be the best thing we can possibly do. “
Brown admits she was challenged with ‘Miracle Worker’s aspects of flashbacks and offstage voices: ”How to make it understandable, by using sound and lights. That’s what took us the longest time in tech [rehearsals]. “
She changed ‘Miracle’ from three to two acts, each under an hour, with intermission right after the infamous food fight between Helen Keller (the “just over five feet” Sarah Laughland) and headstrong Anne Sullivan (Carrie Smith Lewis).
“The most interesting part of their relationship---it’s very physical. Figuring out how that’s going to work, letting the actors evolve it organically. It’s a totally different way of working.
They definitely have parameters---grab my hair here, spill that there. And it changes every night. We haven’t timed it, but I’d say the fight takes anywhere from 5-8 minutes. It looks real.”
Barter’s production uses real scrambled eggs---one dozen per performance---about five real biscuits, real water and stage bacon. There’s one breakaway piece. Research unearthed a dishes choice right for the era----pewter---“so the actresses aren’t crawling around in shards of glass.”
Despite their clash of wills, the two real-life women always stayed in touch. When officials “asked Keller to consider being buried in the National Cathedral, she said she would if Annie was buried there alongside her. And there they are.”
Playwright William Gibson, who won both Tony and Academy Awards for his best-known work, “wrote ‘Miracle,’ as a love letter to Sullivan. He knew them, what they were like. Later on, when Helen would get mad at Annie, she’d tuck her hands up under her arms, so Annie couldn’t sign.
“The miraculous---it’s possible when we bring enough passion, love and reach ourselves all the way out. If Kate hadn’t loved her child beyond reason, if Annie had been reasonable and not demanded the situation get better; if Helen hadn’t been so curious, wanted out of her own well, the miracle wouldn’t have happened. Instead, Helen went on to learn four or five languages, traveled the world, finally taught herself to speak.”
The character of Prince Hamlet has no such problem; he is a man of many words. So Brown’s second simultaneous production’s “hard in different ways. Impossible in a great way!” ‘Hamlet’s cast is all actors in their 20’s, emphasizing its youth-oriented daytime shows for school audiences.
Brown does not subscribe to the theory that more than one person wrote Shakespeare’s works; but she does believe Hamlet actually sees his father’s ghost.
“We know in Shakespeare’s time they believed in spirits. And others, beside Hamlet, see him.” The prince’s volatile relationship to his mother Brown describes “as complicated as any of our relationships to our moms. So he’s thrown by his mother’s union with Claudius.
“[Queen Gertrude] lets him get away with a lot because she loves him so much. So in both plays there are mothers with great passions for their children.”
Regarding the tragedy’s ill-fated relationship between Hamlet and doomed Ophelia, “we decided it was a very serious relationship before, where he pursued her more. When she’s ready for it, it flip flops. So who the beloved is changes.”
The idea of Hamlet, a timeless disaffected youth, “has been familiar ever since; he’s exciting, bottomless. During auditions, a different Hamlet emerged from each actor. Casting him wasn’t easy. I chose the actor who made the most sense. The character’s saying so many things! He’s interesting to take apart. Each new psychological study of Hamlet which comes along, we say, ‘Oh, that’s in there, too.’
“If we could nail everything, there’d be no need to do the play. Our job is to get down in the mud, more focused on the question than the conclusion.
“Hamlet’s a little different for everybody. Shakespeare wasn’t just tossing him into the ether. He definitely had things up his sleeve: Death, use, our own immortality.
“There’s a Hamlet,” Brown concludes, “in all of us.”