Interview with the Hipp’s Lauren Warhol Caldwell

What’s in store for the Hippodrome Theatre’s upcoming season? Artistic Director Lauren Warhol Caldwell sits down with Development Director Wes Jones to discuss the funny, the classic and the thought-provoking.

WJ: To begin, I’m not sure everyone who gets this knows your background.  Could you give a quick refresher on how you got started in theatre and how you came to be at the Hipp?

LWC: Sure. I started in theatre when I was in high school. Even though there wasn’t a theatre program at school, there was a small community theatre in Waco, Texas where I was brought up. I went to Baylor University and started a business degree, but I used to find myself wandering over to the theatre building and sitting in the theatre. So, I switched gears and got degrees in directing and design instead. From that point on there was really no looking back.

For several years I worked freelance, living in and out of New York and working a lot with Liza Minnelli. Eventually I came to Gainesville when a friend of mine joined the Music Department. I admit I did not fall instantly in love with Gainesville. It was a slow love affair, but I love it now.  I didn’t even know the Hippodrome existed when I first moved to town, but when I entered the MFA program I started acting over here.  I really enjoyed it, and soon started directing the HITT program (Hippodrome Improvisational Theatre for Teens). We’d have auditions from all the high schools in town, and we would end up with about 100 kids and put together a troupe of about 12 to 15, and work all fall on writing our own material and then presenting it in the winter and spring on the main stage. We were invited to a lot of conferences, like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. We performed in Tallahassee for the legislature. The kids were great.  

As time went on I became an artistic associate, and when we made the decision years ago to bring in a managing director, Mary Hausch made me Artistic Director along with the Managing Director, and she remained the Producer. Mary has since retired and Jessica Hurov is now our Managing Director as I continue as Artistic Director.

So, here I am! I love the growth that Gainesville is going through now, and I do love the fact that the Hipp is the really the only professional house in the region.  

WJ: What does the artistic director job entail?

LWC: Well basically it’s for the artistic health and growth of the theatre — making sure that the mission is clear and that we are sticking to the mission of the theatre in the kind of shows that we produce. Meaning, part of our mission is to explore different styles, to look at straight-up drama and comedy, and musicals, but also a diversity of pieces. Every season I direct several productions myself and bring in guest directors for the others.  My job also includes a lot of task-driven things, like putting together a season, doing a lot of hiring on the artistic side and working closely with development and the managing director in regards to subscriptions, marketing, and funding. And I continue working Gabby and Marcia in the education department, which I love. I love what we do with kids and it’s still one of my most heartfelt departments in the theatre.  

WJ: One significant innovation you’ve brought to the Hipp as Artistic Director is establishing a permanent company of actors.  Can you tell us about that?

LWC: Yes.  I’ve wanted a company for a long time, and finally it was two years ago, maybe going on three, that I put together a company of actors. I’ve always wanted that since I was a kid and used to go to Actors Theatre of Louisville, which had a company.  It’s what drew me to the regional theatre in the first place.

From the beginning of theatre, theatres have had companies, especially back in Shakespeare’s time. Companies were quite the norm back when regional theatre first started. Margo Jones and Zelda Fichandler put together companies for the Dallas Theater Center and Arena Stage, which were one of the two first regional theatres in the country, and that made flocks and flocks of people move out of New York into these cities.   A company is more or less creating a diverse group of people that have proven, through their talent and their demeanor and their collaboration and their thirst for different genres of theatre, and their courage and bravery in trying new things, that we can create a collaborative group of people that can move in one direction.

WJ: It seems like the Hippodrome company actors are also doing a lot more to expand the theatre’s artistic offerings as individuals.

LWC: Yes.  The other thing the company is doing now is starting a new initiative where any time they’re down here doing a play, they’re also going to do a self-produced piece — either a reading or a piece that’s more fully realized.  For example, Motherline was a story about all the women that have touched our lives throughout the generations – grandmothers, great grandmothers, neighbors, and particularly mothers — told through the act of monologues.  A company in New York that started the Motherline Project, and Lauren Nordvig brought it here.  Another company actor, Ryan George, orchestrated a reading by the writer who won the Academy Award for Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney.  Moonlight is based on the trilogy of his three plays, and he Skyped in to an audience at our cinema and talked to us.  This is all just really getting started.  

WJ: That’s exciting!  So, before we talk about this season in particular, can you describe what you’re thinking about for any given season in general?  How do you get started and what does the process look like?

LWC: Well, the process never really stops. We’ve got this season intact already, obviously, but we’re already starting on 18-19. Reading plays, keeping an eye on what’s coming out, looking more for diverse work — I read a couple of plays last week for the 2018-19 season.   So as you prepare for each play that you’re getting ready to do in the current season –and it takes months to prepare for one play — you’re also combining that with the season after that so that you’re at least ready with 50 or 60 choices to whittle down to the eight that we finally do.

WJ: How many will you read through for 18-19 before all is said and done?

LWC: It’s different each season. We’ve read as many as 200 and as few as 65, something like that. Some seasons are harder to put together than others. The slotting is so important, so that you’re not doing a lot of dramas back-to-back or a lot of comedies back-to-back.

There are certain plays that we know we just want to do. Sometimes you come across a play and you feel like it really does speak to you as an artist, and if it speaks to you that strongly as an artist then you know that you want to put it on the stage and share it with Gainesville audiences. It’s interesting, I think, to put together a season for a college town. We have such an eclectic, diverse audience in Gainesville that you hope that your season is as diverse as the audience that we’re speaking to. I like to keep in mind that since so much of our population is non-permanent, what we’re really doing is creating audience members for another city and another regional theatre when they move. If we can hook them here and they move to Milwaukee, then what we’ve done is given Milwaukee Rep a good new audience member.

WJ: That’s an interesting way to think about it.

LWC: Yeah.

WJ: But then we do also have this loyal base in Gainesville who have been coming for years. What’s your goal for them?

LWC: To keep them surprised.  To keep them moving forward along with wherever the art is going at the time. To be a leader in the art form, in the choice of plays, so that those audiences always know that we are leaders rather than followers. It’s important to me for them to know that you don’t have to get on a plane and go to New York, even though we love to do that. That they’re getting their B12 and their big dose of the kind of theatre that’s being produced in New York and around the country right here in their own hometown. So we do try to stay ahead.

WJ: So then what do you see as some of the frontiers right now?

LWC: Well, I think 1984 is a sort of frontier piece. It fits in well with a program we did years ago called “One City, One Story,” where you ask an entire community to read the same book. We did it several years ago with Diary of Anne Frank. The book version of 1984 started selling out on Amazon and people were yanking it off the shelves and reading it again, and we read a couple of scripts and decided to do it before it even made an announcement that it was going to Broadway. The script we were going to use is the one that they’re using in New York. So, we found another script that they’d used in Chicago with the Looking Glass Theatre, and the Steppenwolf did the same script. So that’s the one we’re going with now.

It’s an interesting way to start the season.  It’s sort of a reflection of the country that we’re living in right now and not choosing sides or trying to make it about Democrats or Republicans, but just a statement about Mr. Orwell’s prediction about what could happen. It’s also a great One City One Story choice too. We’re asking schools, book clubs and retirement communities and all of the citizens of Gainesville to read the same book.

WJ: Since that’s the first show in September, I know you’ve been thinking a lot about it. Do you have thoughts on how to evoke the totalitarian world of 1984, how to take the audience there?

LWC: I think the script gives that to you. So my job will be to follow the words of the playwright. It’s a difficult script to direct because it’s multi-media, and a lot of the multi-media is very challenging. But I think if I stick to the truth of the playwright’s words and tell the story the way Mr. Orwell meant for it to be and the way these adapters have written it, I think that will just take care of itself.

WJ: So you mean some of the actors will appear live, some in video?

LWC: Exactly, yes. I think 1984 is the most difficult story that we’re telling this season, just based on the structure of the piece.

WJ: Which other productions this year do you think will be the most surprising or challenging to audiences?

LWC: I don’t think there’s an artistic director or an artist I know of that can answer that question. We never, ever know. We did a play called The Blue Room years and years ago, and I thought, “Well, this’ll be, you know, a little controversial and it’s only a two-hander; there are only two people in it. Not quite sure how the audiences are going to react to it, or how drawn they’re going to be to the story.” We were packed and turning 20 people away at night. So the audience is the greatest mystery to me in this thing that I wake up and get to do every day. It really depends on where people are coming from, what their belief system is, how really open they are to maybe looking at themselves on stage and asking some questions about not only the world around them but themselves. If word of mouth gets out that something is really dynamic, or a lot of fun or very thought-provoking, that’s usually what sells most of the tickets.

WJ: Fair enough.  Can you walk us through the rest of the season, following 1984?

LWC: Sure.  One new twist this season is that we’ve usually done plays in the October slot that have been driven by some sort of Halloween theme.  We’ve pulled away from that this year in doing The Legend of Georgia McBride. So that is something new, and I think people will really enjoy it. That show has really, really done very well when it’s been produced.

We have our Christmas shows. We’ll do A Christmas Carol as we’ve traditionally done, and bus kids in to see it. We’ll be holding it over again this season for additional evening performances. The holiday musical will be Frog and Toad, which went to Broadway and had a life on Broadway for a while, so we know that’s a good show for the whole family.  It’s based on the illustrated children’s books by Arnold Lobel.

I think The Royale is a piece that will be exciting to people. It has no sound in it other than the sound that is produced rhythmically by the actual characters on stage. And it’s based on the life of a real person – the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson.  Ken Burns produced a documentary about his life several years ago titled “Unforgiveable Blackness.”

The Christians is one show that is, I would say pretty highly controversial. Not a difficult piece to put together, but the subject matter is very challenging. It shows both sides of faith and Christianity and the dilemmas that we go through as human beings to put forth our best efforts and the beliefs that we have, some of which are very strong in some people. But you walk out of the play and both sides have been presented so equally that it really is one of the most interesting pieces that I’ve ever sat in the room with. I saw it at Playwrights Horizon, and it really caused a lot of conversation. People just did not get up. The lights went out, the actors came out for curtain call, the applause began, and when it was done the house lights came up and everyone just sat there. And the dialogue began. It was instantaneous. So I’m really delighted that that’s on our season. I think that one is probably one of the best pieces I’ve been in the room with in a long time.

WJ: Every season there are a couple of shows that end up being just riotously hilarious and fun.  What’s in that category for this season?

LWC: Well, I think Ripcord is a rip. It’s in a place — a living establishment — where these two ladies find themselves.  They’re older. One has her own room, and the other one has moved in. The one who had occupied the room first does not want her in there. And so they place this bet, and I won’t say what the bet is, but they make this very odd bet with each other, and the one who loses has to move out of the room. It’s very quirky, it’s very interesting, and as you wind down that road it take some pretty sharp turns. And I think it’s a great show for our core audiences. I can’t imagine that a college student would not appreciate the comedy in it, but I do think it’s more for our core audiences than it is for students.

It’s written by David Lindsay-Abaire, and he is one of our favorite playwrights. He wrote Good People, which we did a couple of years ago. He’s really very up- and-coming, very accessible. I had a couple of questions in the show that I directed, and he’s very available to talk to you and work with you or clarify something. It’s always great to have a living playwright that you can go and talk to when you’re working on a production.

WJ: That’s exciting. I’d never thought about that as an option.

LWC: Yeah. And I’ll track them down too, you know. Sometimes you can find them on Facebook, or on Twitter. Sometimes you have to go through the agent. But I would say most contemporary playwrights at this time are very eager to talk to you. So, I enjoy that. I enjoy working with playwrights. One goal that I have is to do more world premieres, with the playwright coming in and workshopping the show. The Hippodrome would be the first theatre to produce it, and we’d really let the actors and the director and the playwright kind of dig in and do the rewrites and work on the piece. We’ve done that a few times, and I’d like for us to get back to that at least once every two seasons.

WJ: What does it take to make that happen?

LWC: It starts with establishing a relationship with the playwright. You keep an eye on whether they have a piece out that’s been produced, maybe by a smaller theatre, and they’re looking for a second venue. The Humana Festival is a good place you can go; they do new plays at Humana, and they’re always looking for a second home. A lot of times we’ve had playwrights come down and work on the play for its second incarnation, but I’m looking for that playwright that wants to begin the process here so that the world premiere is in Gainesville.  And I’ve got relationships with quite a few playwrights, so I’m just keeping an eye on who’s up for wanting to workshop.  

Being able to show world premieres is also money-driven. We normally do three weeks of rehearsal for a show, and if you do a new play it’s going to be six to eight weeks of rehearsal, because you have to workshop it and that kind of thing. So there are more resources involved in doing them, too.

WJ: Changing gears a little bit, going back to the acting company:  One of the good things about having a professional theatre in town is that unlike a touring production, people get acquainted with the individual actors and can see them grow and do different things from year to year. For you as artistic director and as a mentor, what is that like to watch that growth?

LWC: Well, it’s great, and it takes the word typecasting out of your vocabulary a lot. Actors are so used to being typecast, that when you have a company you get to know the actor on a level that’s very different than just bringing someone in for a show and then they leave, and maybe you don’t bring them back in for another year or so. It gives you a real shortcut to the actor. You get to know the actor’s wingspan, so to speak. If you think about putting together a play in three weeks, it’s a little like guerrilla warfare. And by having a company, even with it being sprinkled with new actors, there’s a shortcut that we’ve developed in terms of our dialogue, our trust, our vocabulary, our language together. It allows us to get to the meat of the story quicker than having to have a room full of people that you’re trying to figure out, “How do I talk to these people? What buttons do I push to make them function the best they can?” I know how to talk to a specific actor, which is often very different than the way you talk to the next actor. So there’s a lot of benefits to that.

It also keeps the actor employed. Just like any company who wants to take care of their employees, my job and my goal and my belief is that I can’t take care of all the actors in the world, but I can certainly take care of a company as best as I can. So there are a lot of benefits to it on both sides.

WJ: Thanks, and thanks so much for your time.  Anything else folks should know about this season?

LWC: Nope, at least nothing that I’m going to tell them.  Now they just need to come out and see it for themselves!