I’ve wanted to interview Whit Hanna for awhile now, and this seemed like a good time, since the Our Town he directed is going up this week at Clark/Henthorne. With three kids now, Whit didn’t want to lose an entire evening with his family, so I schlepped over to the Hanna/Scarberry household and we talked there.
FRANK: So, kids. There’s just kids everywhere here. And Odeum has its own baby boom, all these kids.
WHIT: And there’s another one coming in March.
FRANK: Really! With who?
WHIT: Dara and David.
WHIT: Kid number in two in March.
FRANK: I kinda vaguely recall hearing about that. Hard to keep up. So how has this whole, expanding families thing affected your work.
WHIT: [Laughing] Well, it’s obviously cut down on what we can do. I think we’re getting back into it, somewhat.
FRANK: OK, it’s affected how much you can do. And of course it’s why we’re doing this here at your house rather than at some coffee shop or bar. Has it affected anything else about your work? Play selection, what theatre means to you?
WHIT: It’s definitely affected my understanding of parental relationships [and how those are portrayed onstage]. That’s something you can’t fully understand until you have a child. For me personally? It’s made me very, very selective about what I want to work on. As opposed to, ‘let’s put on five shows this season and work on everything all the time.’ No, it’s “I want to work on this, with these people.” I’ve gotten these opportunities, Zoo Story [with Will Carpenter], God of Carnage [a TATE winner last year, with wife Erin and the Cruncletons] . . .
FRANK: What’s coming up?
WHIT: Our Town really, for me.
FRANK: I want to talk about Our Town, because I hear some really interesting things about the different approach you’re taking, but let’s leave that til a little later. What about Odeum?
WHIT: We've got Fuddy Mears coming, in May, early June.
FRANK: Run down that cast for me.
WHIT: John and Sara Cruncleton, Will Carpenter, Leslie Long, Knox Blakely, Erin Scarberry and me.
FRANK: Knox Blakely. I hadn’t heard about Knox, I think that’s great.
WHIT: He’s the stoner kid. Knox is talented, man.
FRANK: Tell me about it. I’ve had him in my last two shows at Clark, as Ali Hakim and Christopher Sly. Let’s talk about that. You didn’t audition the kids I’m assuming, you picked him out?
WHIT: Well, I’d seen him onstage, It’s someone we wanted to work with. We! Ha, Erin picked him out, what are you talking about. It’s not like I got to pick, are you kidding me.
FRANK: [Shouting across the room, to where Erin is wrangling the 3 kids] Hey, Erin, why’d you pick Knox?
[And here she gets very diplomatic, ‘considered lots of the Clark kids’, ‘so and so were beginning to get too old’, etc. And then I manage to bump Sky’s head in the process of lifting her up into my lap, now she’s screaming and we’re in chaos for awhile. And I’m reminded that I’m so happy I don’t have toddlers at home anymore. But we get back to it.]
Erin: Well, Knox and Quinn are from a theatre family [dad David teaches theatre at RSU, mom Leslie has a radio gig iirc], so the parents know what they’re getting into.
WHIT: The kid’s supposed to be a stoner, he’s supposed to be high the whole time.
E: Right, they’re comfortable with the content. The only other thing I can say is Knox is so cerebral about process, and I felt like that part of his skill set was a good match was working with the adult group. He approaches it from an adult perspective already.
[I focused on the teenaged member of the cast because, having worked at Clark for so long and having a history with many of the kids there I’m always interested in how they’re progressing and maturing in their art. It goes without saying that the adults in the cast all, every one of them, rank among the very best actors in Tulsa. If you’ve seen the Odeum group and/or the Cruncletons before you know that’s not an empty compliment or an exaggeration.]
FRANK: So this is your show for the season? Any other news, any changes in the group.
WHIT: We talk about this a lot. Odeum, we’re not trying to be Theatre Tulsa or Theatre Pops, or Heller. Its’ like guilty pleasure theatre.
E: It’s an ensemble.
W; It’s a group of people trying to put some stuff together. We’re not trying to have a “season.” I think Jim Watts wrote once that we’re a “shadow” in the theatre scene. There was a time when we were buckled up with Ken Tracy, God bless him, when we were doing 5 shows at the PAC, you know--
Erin: We didn’t have babies then.
WHIT: We didn’t have babies then. Then the girls all drank the Kool Aid and all got pregnant. Even Cassie has a kid.
FRANK: What? No, really?
WHIT: Yeah, I don’t think there was a girl involved in Odeum that didn’t produce a child. We’re raising a whole second generation of artists, then they can go out and try to produce five shows in a season. That’s not really the goal. We want to work with each other. Have fun. I think for me more than anything anymore it’s about, ‘Am I going to have fun doing this?’
FRANK: Switching topics. Maybe. You don’t drink anymore. When did that happen?
WHIT: Oooh, at the top of the year, I just said, “Why not?” Not just drink, quit everything.
FRANK: Straightened up.
WHIT: I don’t care. I don’t care about drinking, smoking pot, shooting heroin [laughs]. I felt a calling, I guess. Mrs. Tarot over here gave me a reading, and I was kinda thinking about it. I kind of thought, maybe that’s what I was supposed to do. That it’s a matter of my own will power than anything else.
FRANK: Yeah? That’s interesting. You gestured towards Erin when you said that?
WHIT: Oh yeah.
FRANK: Well, that’s fun. OK to keep that?
Erin: Um. [General laughter]
FRANK: I can leave it out.
E: No, I don’t care.
FRANK: Cool. So, Whit, you’re back at Henthorne. Does that feel weird?
WHIT: You know, no, it really doesn’t. I don’t have any animosity towards that place. It was a sad thing that happened there. Obviously I had my stake in it, but you know so did a lot of other people. Some poor decisions were made all around.
I’m happy there because all the kids at Clark are fantastic, so talented. I got 20 kids in the show and every single one of them are good. It’s fun for me because I like to teach while I work. I done it so long I feel like I can impart wisdom while I direct. I’ve told them from the beginning I’m going to treat them like adults, and treat this like an adult piece of theatre. I have high expectations, and they’ve taken that challenge and run with it. Plus, we’re doing some real interesting stuff with the show.
FRANK: I heard you had a different approach to the show.
WHIT: I’ve been interested for some time in the relationships . . . we all see everyone with their head buried in their cell phone, obeying their robot overlord. It’s just a staple of society. I see it every day at the barbershop, a place that’s been imbued with conversation for a hundred years and guys don’t even talk with each other anymore, they just sit there and surf Facebook. I’ve been interested in how you can have a conversation with the audience about that, and I was interested in what would happen if you gave the audience access, during a show, to that? Actually ask them to post live, on Facebook, where they can see it. To where it not only appears on their feed but it appears for everybody else to see in the middle of the show. And I had thought for a real long time that Our Town, kinda fit the bill in a weird way, because of the way Wilder had already broken he fourth wall, the Stage Manager . . .
So we’ve got video screens out there, and we’ve got live Google searches that are going on, that sometimes challenge the text, or that we use them as a story telling apparatus. We’ve got three video screens, we do stuff live over Facetime via phone, so it doesn’t even take place on stage. Where we force the audience to look at a screen, as there’s nothing actually happening on stage. We just toy around with it. How do you take modern technology, and they layer that on top of a play that takes place in the early 1900’s, where you still have a milk man bringing milk. We’re breaking the wall in a lot of ways. Obviously the kids are very good, enormously talented, but they are kids. This is not an ‘accurate’ Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, this is not an ‘accurate’ casting. So they will be posting live offstage as themselves, and also as the characters.
FRANK: I saw that they have Facebook identities as their characters.
WHIT: They have their FB pages as their characters and those will come into play, and preshow you should be able to live video, live selfies, when they come in for the wedding scene they’re all taking selfies, like you would see at a wedding. I don’t know. Art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not my job to tell the audience how they should feel about something, but we’ve given them enough to think about. And I’m really interested to see if they are more interested in posting than watching a show, and at what point the show takes over.
When I initially thought about doing the show, I had talked to John about putting the screens where they’re accessible to the actors, where they could be turned off, like telling the audience that it’s time to turn this stuff off. But it’s not necessary. And that third act is probably the trickiest.
FRANK: I was debating asking about that. It’s about death. A subject that kids on the whole don’t think about.
WHIT: No, but it was very interesting to have philosophical conversations about death with them. He’s written it with a particular idea what the afterlife is like. That the dead should be very disconnected. Which we don’t agree with and we’re not doing it that way [Laughs]. This whole show is about, on one level, about how jacked in are you to the social network, or whatever. How jacked in are the dead to what’s going on in the living. You have text, especially from the Simon Stimson character, that has a lot of underlying animosity, anger. It didn’t make any sense to me that that’s coming out of an uncaring, disconnected soul. Clearly this soul has some feeling, some remorse about how they lived their life on earth. And that’s a hell of a part.
I’m real interested in what people are going to think. I don’t know if it will rub ‘em the wrong way, or if they’ll wonder why, why are you doing it this way.
FRANK: It’s an experiment.
WHIT: Yes. We also put the tech booth onstage, the left side of the audience is the tech booth. I want everyone to know that they’re watching a piece of theatre. If we’re going to break the fourth wall first thing out their mouths, then we need to consistently break the fourth wall.
FRANK: It goes along with Wilder’s ideas.
WHIT:And we have hundreds of static images that we’re constantly bombarding the audience with.
FRANK: Did you compile all these images?
WHIT: I did some of them, Jake Davis has been my right hand man, searching and finding these images. We’ve literally been teching this show for almost a month.
FRANK: One more for you. You post a lot of political stuff on Facebook. So what’s your take on the presidential race this year.
[I’m braced for a rant, something brutal, something that justifies the whole ‘angry young man’ image Whit has. And here it comes . . .]
WHIT: I think it’s absolutely . . . fantastic. [I burst into laughter] It is by far my most favorite presidential election yet.
WHIT: I see both the parties splintering. And I have for a very long time advocated that we needed to get rid of the two party system. It is absolutely astounding to me that a country of our size still sticks to “Douchebag” vs. “Shit Sandwich” as our only two choices for President. Because let’s be honest, they’re run by big money machines. I think Bernie Sanders is right when he says we’re borderline oligarchy. In a perfect world I’d like to see Sanders and Cruz and Trump and Michael Bloomberg run in the election. I’d like to see all four of them, you know. And since none of them are establishment candidates, you could get Hilary and Rubio to run for the establishment. How wonderful it would be to have a coalition government! Have the loser become the Vice President! I’d like to see the Constitution changed to make that happen.
FRANK: You got a candidate?
WHIT: On the Republican side I like John Kasich. On the Democratic side I like Bernie. I think (sigh), I don’t think he’ll be able to, to . . . I love the idea of spending money on education rather than wars. Ooof. We’re the richest nation in the world, why don’t we take care of our citizens.
[The conversation continues on a political vein for some time, highlighted by Whitson calling Trump “Obama on crack” and admitting that he likes to use dirty words on Facebook posts. “Isn’t that true for everything, not just politics?” Erin adds. Sky then crawls into my lap, having forgiven my clumsiness earlier, and I’m reminded how much I used to like having toddlers in the house. Awww . . . ]
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