As the Summer theatre festival season comes to a close, quite a few productions begin to find their way beyond the frenzy of the festival production process.
For some, a theatre festival is an opportunity to see their written work on the stage for the first time. It's an official debut, with a real audience. For others, it's a chance to move the bar and take it closer to a professional production (and everything that comes with that choice). The process is a journey that includes more readings, endless rewrites, and years of further development, not to mention expense.
Getting accepted into into a festival is heady thing. The rush a playwright gets from that type of acknowledgement, especially in light of all the competitive nature of festivals is enough to inspire most playwrights.
Hank H. Kim, who produced his play this past month at the long-running Dream Up Festival at Theatre For The New City is a motivated producing playwright that acknowledges that while a break is merited, the momentum needs to keep going. LocalTheatreNY.com had some questions for Mr. Kim about that on-going process and his expectations.
LocalTheatreNY.com: Your play, Whipped, debuted at this year's Dreamup Festival. Tell us about the festival experience and how it compares to producing on your own.
Hank H. Kim: As a first-time producer, it was definitely trial by fire. Add in the relative chaos of a festival situation and the margin of error is pretty thin. I got lucky. First of all, the Dream Up folks were really great. They were in constant communication with us throughout the entire process and provided excellent support. Secondly, I was very fortunate in connecting with a great director, Anna C. Michael, who not only shared my sensibility and creative vision but was also very organized and paid attention to the details both in terms of the actual staging and creative design but also in terms of process. She put together a team of production and design people, who were very talented and close-knit as many of them had gone through the theater arts program together at Fordham. And then finally, this show was supremely cast. Every actor was fearless and generous in bringing their immense talents to bear. This is not an easy play to perform with the sexual violence and dystopic anxiety, but everyone really invested themselves. Lily Narbonne, who played Cassie, gets special mention. She spends the entire play fending off and reconciling herself to the toxic masculinity that threatens to enslave her character. That can’t be an easy role to play for any woman and she truly embraced and met the challenge.
LocalTheatreNY.com: After completing the run, where would you like to see Whipped realistically go next, and how soon would you like to see this happen?
Hank H. Kim: First of all, I’ve been developing this play off and on over the past decade so it was gratifying just to get the damn thing produced! It was also validating insofar as people were definitely entertained and provoked by it, which was the objective. This play was conceived in 2010 and development began long before Trump, the rise of authoritarianism and #MeToo emerged. What has been interesting is how the current zeitgeist changes the context in which people react to the piece. In all of the developmental readings over the years, audiences reacted more freely to the comedic elements of the play whereas in this run, there seemed to be more of a hesitant quality to the audience’s reactions. One of my friends who came to see the show said he sensed that audience members almost felt it was inappropriate to laugh at certain moments in light of our current political and cultural turmoil. This is my long-winded way of saying that Whipped seems to have lined up with the current mood of the country and the challenges facing it in a way that takes the play’s mise-en-scene from the abstract to the palpable. The fact that a play about 2037 actually echoes in the here and now so directly is troubling from a societal perspective. But as a viable theatrical property, I believe that Whipped is immediately relevant to what’s going on in our body politic in a way that a lot of plays are not. I think this piece could be a potent vehicle by which a theater producer or non-profit theater company could make a powerful statement on our current times, which has been one of the foundational missions of the American theater.
LocalTheatreNY.com: How much emphasis during the festival itself was dedicated to the idea of taking the show beyond the festival by the folks at TNC? Or is this more something you and the production team are seeking? Describe that process... and the motivation.
Hank H. Kim: I can’t speak for the festival itself in terms of its goals with further development of its Dream Up curated choices. But as the playwright and producer of Whipped, I am highly motivated in engaging with potential producers and investors with the objective of launching a full theatrical run as soon as possible. While this play deals with evergreen themes and conflicts, it has particular resonance now because it is in direct dialogue with our current times. Furthermore, a year from now, we are arguably facing the most consequential presidential election in the history of this country. Hopefully, some like-minded backers will jump forward to partner with us in making a full production run a reality.
LocalTheatreNY.com: How do you see the play changing in relationship to the festival version? What are your thoughts?
Hank H. Kim: Naturally, having more resources will allow us even greater flexibility in terms of a production design that can elevate the piece to places it can’t go on a shoestring budget. I was proud that our scenic designer Vincent Gunn was able to capture the unease and fear of America in 2037 without breaking the bank in this run. But with a bigger budget, it would be exciting to integrate other elements to raise the stakes even further. We used projections in a limited way with this production. I could see that being an even more prominent element. Also, overall, I could see the production design and the performances living in a more stylized realm including crafting moments that are more movement-based. We took that approach within a couple places including the lobotomy scene but I could see that element being amped up even higher.
LocalTheatreNY.com: So what actually is the next big step in taking Whipped to the next phase? What will you be doing tomorrow, or next week, to make it happen?
Hank H. Kim: Good question. No clue. (he laughs). I will need to decompress from this experience, which has totally consumed me for the past 3 months. Immediately thereafter, I will proactively pound the pavement looking for partners and backers. I will at this moment invoke the hoariest of clichés—when there’s a will, there’s a way. I honestly have no clue how I will get this production to the next level but this first festival run has me highly motivated to do so.
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Photo by Avery Bart (Left to right) Hank H. Kim, Sal Rodriguez, and Jillian Geurts