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Theda Hammel
Theda HammelDaniel Rampulla

Wallace Shawn and Theda Hammel on acting, life, and why bodies are weird

Traditionally a musician, Hammel is the first trans person to take the lead role in Marie and Bruce, a play written by Shawn in 1978 that’s currently showing in New York

Many young people know Wallace Shawn from his myriad film roles, like Vizzini in The Princess Bride or Mr. Hall in Clueless, or maybe even from his long-running role as Cyrus on Gossip Girl. He’s one of those beloved film actors with an unmistakable speaking voice – cleverly lent to animated franchises like Toy Story and The Incredibles – who’s popped up in nearly everything. More discerning film and theatre-goers might revere him for highbrow classics like the experimental, 1981 bio-drama My Dinner With Andre, in which Shawn and the great theatre director Andre Gregory play themselves, arguing over a meal. In ’94’s Vanya on 42nd Street, Shawn and a group of actors (including Lynn Cohen and Julianne Moore) rehearsed Uncle Vanya for Louis Malle’s cameras, giving a new cinematic resonance to the experience of putting on a play. He is, in many respects, an icon of screen of stage. But not everybody is aware of his impressive résumé as a playwright, which makes the young musician Theda Hammel’s appreciation of him all the more rare.

Hammel discovered Shawn’s work in high school, which makes her current production of Marie and Bruce (1978) at the Jack Theater in Brooklyn, all the more special. Directed by Knud Adams and produced by the comedian John Early, the production interprets Shawn’s story of a disgruntled marriage to radically modern effect. It’s a multidisciplinary production: Hammel serves as the play’s lead as well as sound designer, and her co-lead Gordon Landenberger also designed the set. But it’s also, in addition to being Hammel’s first acting role, the first time a trans actress tackles the part of Marie. Upon the play’s debut, Hammel spoke to her hero over the phone to discuss process, the evolutionary aspects of theatre, and why unresolved stories are often the most enduring.

Theda Hammel: I became acquainted and very much fascinated by your work, Wally, when I was in high school. My high school teacher gave me a copy of The Fever and said “I think you would be really interested in it.” And I was! Even though I don’t think I fully apprehended it, as somebody who hadn’t quite figured out the reality of the world that it was describing. Then I found, in the library – I think I stole it from the library – a copy of Four Plays, one of which was Marie and Bruce and I think I’ve been really fascinated with it ever since.

Wallace Shawn: Incredible. I’m deeply touched. What can I say, that’s incredible!

Theda Hammel: The play starts out with this amazing torrent of vulgarity and profanity, and I found myself immediately engrossed in it. But the entire play is not like that, right, Wally? Would you say?

Wallace Shawn: Yes, you could say in the first five minutes, or ten minutes, whatever, it shows somebody at the end of their rope. And I would think many people in the audience wouldn’t immediately see why. Marie is so unbelievably exasperated with Bruce, and Bruce doesn’t seem to be doing anything really that bad. So, there is a kind of question in your mind at the beginning, which is sort of answered by the end, in a way. And humans are creatures that don’t understand themselves very well, and maybe we don’t understand what’s going on between these two either. Why they torment each other, or why they stick with each other, but we understand it a little bit by the end, maybe.

Theda Hammel: I think this is one of those things you are so remarkable at. We know that they don’t have jobs, that it’s summer, and Marie threw out his typewriter, and then he cried. And we know very little else about their circumstances! But by the end of the play we experience so much of their emotional life, both in isolation and in relation to each other. And I think in relationships, or in life, emotion isn’t quite as attached to circumstances as it sometimes is in plays, or movies, or things of that nature.

Wallace Shawn: Yes, well you just explained why I write the way I do, which I never understood! I suppose I really do believe that, in a way, the explanations that we give for our behaviour are actually not the real reasons for our behaviour. So why put them in a play? Of course, you have to see the play to know what we’re talking about. If you’ve never seen one of my plays, you really wouldn’t quite follow what we’re saying here or care. A lot of theatre, not so much now, but really all of theatre when I was starting to write in my 20s, had an awful lot of detail in it, for instance about things that happened in the past, where you would understand after having watched the play for many hours and at the end they would say “Don’t you remember this happened 30 years ago?” And long monologues would explain supposedly things why the people felt the way they did, and behave the way they did, and I suppose I found that boring and not really believable. It made it boring, because it wasn’t believable. That’s not really why these people are doing these things. And actually you could say somebody like me should never have written plays because I’m honestly puzzled by most of the things that people do, and I don’t know why they are doing them, really, and I don’t know if you would recommend that a young man who felt that way should write plays! Because if he doesn’t understand human behavior or psychology he should do something else maybe. But instead I wanted to write plays.

“You could say somebody like me should never have written plays because I’m honestly puzzled by most of the things that people do, and I don’t know why they are doing them” – Wallace Shawn

Theda Hammel:I would definitely recommend that to that young man! Because the amazing thing actually, after admiring your work for so long, and now finally being able to go through a rehearsal process with it, is the written document – the play that you’ve written – is extremely dense and interconnected. In this way where, without anybody even knowing why, an acting decision you make in the beginning is suddenly borne out of something 30 minutes or 40 minutes later and it feels...I don’t know, it feels very densely emotionally complex and true without ever quite explaining anything.

Wallace Shawn: There are many different ways to write characters, and you know the Greek plays had “characters” but they don’t exactly have the sort of personalities that you would have for instance, I don’t know, on a television sitcom. People have very very pronounced personality traits and there are some writers who are incredibly skilled at writing that type of character, but it’s not the only way. I mean Oedipus and Clytemnestra they are characters, and actors can play them but, in a way, they don’t have the same kind of closely delineated personalities. And my knowledge of life is pretty limited. I grew up in a certain kind of bubble, in a way, and never learned much about life. So if I wanted to write plays, it mostly comes out of my unconscious. And yet those characters do sort of have a certain consistency as people. because somehow, rightly or wrongly or happily or sadly, we all do have characteristics that we can’t escape! And the other thing about the play Marie and Bruce that’s sort of interesting is that I’ve had the good fortune to have that play done every few years somehow, somewhere. It’s been alive now since the late 70s. So, you could say that’s almost 40 years. And each time it’s been done, I’ve revised it a little bit. So, it’s lived longer than a lot of people.

Theda Hammel: Well I kind of want to ask you about both revision and interpretation because you’ve acted in many of your plays over the years, and those have had multiple productions, and multiple directors in different cities, at different times. And it seems like the nature of a play is that it’s this kind of dense object of meaning, but at the same time it has all this space for interpretation, so that it can float throughout time or from place to place being interpreted over and over again. It’s very different from the idea of a definitive document or a definitive performance in a way that a film would be. Ultimately you make certain decisions while making a film and those are then locked into the film and that becomes the definitive version of that story. And I guess I just wanted your thoughts on that quality of porosity, of some things being able to change while certain things stay the same. What are your thoughts on the concrete parts of this play, or any play, versus the things that are so subject to interpretation and revision?

Wallace Shawn: Well for me this is sort of the fun of theatre. You know, the vanity of the writer is flattered by the idea that the flexibility of the play might make it live after he’s dead. This is something I love about theatre. Something amazing about theatre is that you set up, you could say, the rules of the game, or you set up the framework and you control quite a bit, but then other artists participate and make it into something ideally much better than you could by yourself and it’s at least – in the form that its existed in my lifetime – it’s been a pretty great balance. The directors and the actors have been able to expand the play into many many different types of play. You know Marie and Bruce could be mainly tragic if someone felt that way, mainly funny if someone felt that way. In one production the balance between the two characters could be totally different. But for me, it’s the most exciting thing about theatre to hear an actor do something I could never dreamed of and yet that seems absolutely right for what I wrote. It’s almost kind of a magical trick, it’s thrilling! I’ve had a very...lucky life so far. I mean I’m sure it will, you know, deteriorate soon, but I have so far had a very lucky life, and part of the fun of it has been that. It’s an absolutely amazing experience to write something and have it perfectly realised but not in a way that you could have possibly predicted.

Theda Hammel: I feel like this time that we’re living in, there are a lot of competing forms of media and it seems theatre might not be so central in society maybe or in many people’s lives. But I guess that invites an opportunity to kind of reassess what makes it necessary and magical and this weird quality of interpretability, where there is something happening right in front of you that won’t happen in the same way ever again, and it’s not really mediated by anything except for the actor and the text...I think that’s what has been so delightful. Because I’m not really a professional actor, in any real way.

Wallace Shawn: Well, me neither!

Theda Hammel: [laughs] OK, I’ll allow that, although I think you’re one of the great actors, honestly. One of the great interpreters. But as a non-actor, from the vantage of someone who has seen certain plays or watched certain movies and read certain plays as well, I have some ideas on what it means to act or to be in a play and to do it over and over or to go through a rehearsal process. But one of the delights of this process for me, who doesn’t do this very often, is just reorienting myself to exactly where the balance lies. Because it’s so bewildering that something can happen one time in a rehearsal or a run and then never ever happen again. It’s terrifying, and I think it might be at the heart of what is so thrilling as a performer. I guess you’re just trying to set up the circumstances that allow those moments to happen, and as an audience member or as an attendee you’re just hoping that something like that will happen in front of you.

Wallace Shawn: Yeah, well I mean I have spent you know many decades working with the director Andre Gregory who...I don’t mean to misquote him, but I think it’s fair to say in his work that we do with him, myself and other actors, repeating yourself is basically frowned upon because his ideal is that you’re living in the moment and that you’re responding to what’s happening at the moment. And it’s sort of obvious that if you’re remembering what you did yesterday and trying to repeat it you’re definitely not living in the moment or responding to what’s happening to you at the time. You’re thinking about the past, you’re thinking about yourself, and you’re thinking about trying to repeat something. So, we avoid doing that.

And I think, about the ephemeral...well I mean to get back to what we were saying earlier: life is very very hard to understand, so theatre is a way of going over certain moments in enormous detail and trying to understand them. You know, basically repeating certain behaviours and words over and over again trying to figure out “why would someone do that? Why would somebody say that?” It’s not a purely intellectual question, and it’s not a purely intellectual answer that you get, but you’re basically doing what we’re unable to do in real life, which is to go back over a moment and do it differently or understand it better. We are trapped in the present and driven on with the whip of time. We must go on the next moment whether we want to or not. But people who work in theatre have the opportunity to do something quite different to go back over a moment and relive again and again and it’s very interesting. And if the play – I mean you can do this with a bad play – but a good play is one that for some reason the writer has some insight to life. So the basic story you’re going over makes some kind of sense and you can come to understand it much better than the writer ever did.

“Life is very very hard to understand, so theatre is a way of going over certain moments in enormous detail and trying to understand them” – Wallace Shawn

Theda Hammel: I wanted to ask you about these durational rehearsal processes that you’ve had with Andre Gregory. So, in a weird way I had a simulation of that, just by being able to think about and contemplate this play Marie and Bruce for over 10 years. But we’ve only had a chance to work on it for two months. And the mounting panic that I have as we approach opening is it keeps revealing untold detail and complexity. I’m terrified of that! It makes me long for more time, to rehearse long enough that something forms that was not the result of a decision necessarily, or an interpretative choice, but of erosion.

Wallace Shawn: Yes, I know the unconscious is a concept that is hard to toss into a conversation because people use that word for a lot of different meanings but obviously there's a lot going on in us that we’re not aware of, let's put it that way. And the better you know a play the more it becomes life. You’re not sort of controlling it the way inevitably you are in the early stages of acting something. Yes, it gets more and more a part of you. We worked on Uncle Vanya and then we made a movie of it, and I was really shocked when I saw the movie at how much I revealed or how raw it was. I had no idea, I sort of thought “What!?” I didn’t even mean to show people that that was a part of me.

Theda Hammel: I think the interesting thing about trying to define what the unconscious is, the only definition that you can hold onto is that the minute you are aware of something it’s no longer unconscious! So you have to work in such a way that things are happening and you are not aware of. But then, on the other hand you have no idea what is going to be revealed.

Wallace Shawn: I have to leave in about 8 minutes for a plane!

Theda Hammel: OK so for my last question: I feel that one of your qualities that comes through in your plays is that you understand what it’s like to live in human body, and the ways in which it feels actually a little filthy. It’s not the way that we would like to think about ourselves, or how we want ourselves represented. It’s very weird to have a body, and digest food, and to feel hot and cold, and to feel nausea, and I guess there is this kind of element of corporeal vulgarity that I think is handled in such a magnificent way in your plays. So I suppose I wanted to ask you your thoughts on the vulgarity of the body.

Wallace Shawn: I think a lot of writing, in at least western culture, has just skipped over the body. The discovery of evolution and the fact that we really are – it came as a shock – that we truly and really are animal creatures, like the other creatures, opened up the possibility of greater awareness of our bodies. But on on the other hand our minds have not caught up really with this reality that we’ve discovered. Really, we still have 19th century concepts that most of us or almost all of us deal with in our heads and if we didn’t, we could be considered insane. For instance, it is, in a way, rather fantastical and mind boggling that absolutely everybody that you know wears clothes! Because you could say...what point is being made exactly? I mean obviously shoes, certainly in the urban environment are absolutely necessary, but otherwise isn’t it sort of amazing? Every single person you know, including some far out people, they’re all walking around in clothes. And when someone needs to urinate, he or she goes into a little secret cubicle to do that. Either they’re actually ashamed of it, or pretend to be. You would think if people had read about evolution and realised that, really, a man urinates, a dog urinates, people do also, and do we really need to be ashamed of it and go into these secret cubicles? And yet the parts of our minds that are still in the 19th century or the 10th century are pretty strong! And yes, in my writing I am very interested and always have been in the physical, in bodies, and in this incredibly bizarre fact of sex and sexuality, which we share with all the other creatures even insects. And yet in contrast to, let’s say, urinating, which has to do with the body but which we somehow got tied up with the deepest aspects of our souls and minds, with sex and sexuality for some amazing reason we don’t understand the wires that are sparking and wiggling when sexuality is awakened in us. They flow through every part of our souls. There’s something about sex that is both comically at odds with our 19th century minds, but also connected to the deeper part of ourselves. The part where the human animal may even have some wisdom.