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Suddenly Studio 3: an interview with Hannah Kennedy

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Hannah Kennedy, a senior theatre major and director of Studio 3’s production of “Suddenly Last Summer.” Studio 3 is a class run by the theatre department where students direct and design a one-act play. Kennedy works with a design team consisting of Adam Ciotta (costumes), Jeremy Mayo (lighting), Alex Roberts (sound) and Gabriela Castillo (set).

If you could just give some background on “Suddenly Last Summer.”

It’s a crazy show. You can’t really talk about a Tennessee Williams show without talking about Tennessee Williams, the actor, first. Tennessee Williams wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and a couple other really famous – “The Glass Menagerie” – things and it’s always based around this battle between two women, almost always. Two really strong women. So this play is really crazy. Before the play even happens, this woman goes with her cousin on a trip, and during that trip, her cousin dies – is killed. Flash forward to now-the-play, the mother, Mrs. Venable, of the cousin, Sebastian, she blames the cousin – the girl who went with him – for possibly murdering him or being somehow a part of it. She has a doctor come in to assess the girl’s – Catherine’s – sanity. During the assessment a whole bunch of secrets come out about the trip itself and the family itself, namely, that Catherine’s story says that Sebastian was murdered by a bunch of children, which is very unbelievable to everyone – no one wants to believe her, but by the end of the play (spoiler alert), the doctor says let’s actually consider the possibly that her story might be true. It’s this battle of wills, which I think is really relevant to today’s world where there’s this battle over truth – who gets to control what the real truth is. So Mrs. Venable, the aunt, doesn’t want Catherine, the younger girl, to say what the real truth is, because it could spoil her son’s name or her reputation as an aristocrat, as someone with a lot of money. Catherine has no money, no status to her name, so if anything she’s ruined – already – Mrs. Venable’s status, so Mrs. Venable has every reason to hate her, and she doesn’t want Catherine’s truth – the real truth – to come out. Catherine, throughout the whole play, says that she will tell nothing but the truth because I’ll have to. There’s this whole threat where if she is proven insane, the doctor would take her for a lobotomy. So this whole time, she not only has to fight for the truth to be heard, but also fight for her own life because while a lobotomy won’t kill you, it makes you dead inside. Mrs. Venable knows this; she’s basically bribing the doctor to give Catherine a lobotomy. Catherine’s already been in a couple insane asylums. She’s already had electroshock; she’s already had insulin shots – a lot of treatments. At this point, Mrs. Venable sees that Catherine still won’t shut up about the story, and so the next thing coming is getting a lobotomy – this is still the 1930’s, so no one really get how bad lobotomy is. And there’s this line in the play where a lobotomy is called “Lion’s View,” where Catherine says, “All right, I’ll go to Lion’s View, but don’t make me tell the story, don’t make me incriminate Sebastian.” The implication is that Sebastian did some wrong things to those children which then caused them to kill him. She doesn’t want to dig all that up if it means also making her family lose money. Sebastian left her family money in his will – this play is just a piling of a whole bunch of different things. You keep on uncovering more and more things, where it’s like Catherine’s mom and brother are trying to get her to tell a fake story, so that way they can get the money Sebastian left them. And who cares if Catherine has to be sent away to an insane asylum. They don’t care; they just want that money. So it’s really refreshing because Mrs. Venable is bribing the doctor as well, but at the end of the play, the doctor says, “Let’s consider the possibility that Catherine’s story is true.” Tennessee Williams wrote this at a time in his life where he’d already written all of his famous stuff – all of his “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” all that stuff had already been written – and he is at this point where it’s come out that he’s gay and it’s come out that he’s an alcoholic. His life is starting to go downhill; he’d written some bad plays that no one really liked, and he goes to a psychiatrist, who says, “Well, just stop being gay. Well, just stop writing, and your life will be so much better.” And he tries. He does. He tries, and after getting so pent-up and frustrated about all this, he writes this play. This is kind of his—you know, everything just comes out. And to me, it’s interesting that he still doesn’t make the doctor a bad guy even though the doctor in his life treated him terribly. This is also based on—his mother did actually lobotomize his sister, Rose, and that’s why a lot of his plays are about that. A lot of his plays are about an older woman fighting with a younger woman and there’s always a question of the younger woman’s sanity, always, one way or the other. It’s almost always centered around a dead character who never actually ever shows their face in the play – they’ve already died. Usually, they’re gay. It’s almost always a story about his life, on way or another. And if it’s not sanity for the girl, in “Glass Menagerie,” it’s a disability. She’s always disadvantaged and the mother is always forcing her to get married or do something. This is just another one of those ways where I think it’s even closer to home for him because this play is even about a lobotomy, and I don’t think any of the other plays are literally about a lobotomy. It also has a doctor in it, and he had just been to a psychiatrist. It also has a nun in it, which kind of represents his on-and-off again relationship with God. He was never very faithful because he was gay and because religion says you can’t be. But there was a time when he decided to convert to Catholicism and denounce being gay. That didn’t last long though. But there are many times where he claimed he stopped drinking, stop doing this, stop doing that, and then he’d come on an interview on TV completely wasted. And they’re literally talking about “And you’ve been sober for how long?” and he’s like “This long.” Yeah, two minutes? He died – what the autopsy says is – drunk and high but choking on a capsule from a pill bottle. That’s at least what the autopsy says. His brother doesn’t believe it, for whatever reason. I don’t know exactly why, but. Oh, his good plays he would write sometimes kind of drunk, but he’d always edit sober. This play, at he’s starting to go downhill in popularity and in his life, he wrote this play mostly drunk and then edited it sober. Then as the plays got worse, he wrote them drunk and then edited them drunk – and high. He always had this battle over whether or not he believed he was insane. He believed that his sister had schizophrenia or autism or something – well, they didn’t know that much about autism so they all just said she had schizophrenia. Although, now looking into the past, most people believe she had autism. He believed that maybe he was insane, and he always was guilty about her getting lobotomized when he wasn’t there for her, that kind of stuff. He tortured himself a lot over that kind of stuff. His dad was abusive and alcoholic as well. His mom was emotionally abusive. His mother was a big dictator, took her whole frustration out on the fact that her husband beat her on her kids. And I don’t think she beat them more than, back then, was allowed, but she definitely was emotionally abusive to them. Tennessee Williams’ father treated him badly because he was a very feminine boy. He preferred writing to working in his shoe factory; he preferred writing to everything. He read poems, he was an artist, and his dad did not like that he was so fruity.

Was it well received as a play, or was it the beginning of the end?

It was the beginning of the end for him. It was not very well-received. I think there were some people who appreciated it, but he was trying something new. Before, all of his plays were more realistic, a lot more relatable for normal human beings. This one was more heightened realism – close to surrealism, where things don’t make sense, and the characters are very intense and high-stakes because they all – it can be interpreted that they’re all crazy, they’re all insane. Every one of them except for the doctor is insane. One of our teachers has done this where it put the play in an insane asylum, where every single one of them is insane except for the doctor. So it can be interpreted that way. This play is done a lot like how Shakespeare is done where they put it in a lot of different places and a lot of different settings. People can do that. But the natural setting for it is in a jungle – it’s in the backyard of Mrs. Venable’s house in the Garden District, which is the really uppity, high class district in New Orleans, but it’s in her backyard, in her garden that Sebastian cultivated. It’s described as a jungle with – wait let me find it, it’s fantastic. So most of the time stage directions are written by the first production, by the stage managers, but these are almost always written by Tennessee Williams. He’s very particular about how he wants it done. So it says that, “The colors of this jungle are violent, especially since it is steaming with heat after rain. There are massive tree flowers which suggest organs of a body, torn out, still glistening with undried blood. There are harsh cries and sibilant hissings and thrashing sounds in the gardens as if it were inhabited by beasts, serpents, and birds, all of savage nature.” It’s almost commentary on the world of these people. Every single one of them is selfish, and it’s this fight for themselves to survive. So it’s man versus man, or an eat-or-be-eaten kind of world. Throughout the whole play, he has jungle noises – he specifies specific jungle noises that he wants, and that to, to comment that they’re acting as if they’re in some kind of jungle, like they’re crazy. Animalistic instinct kind of stuff. We toned it down a little bit because we were more intrigued about the structure of the house and of the structures that would be in the garden and how that comments on Mrs. Venable’s state of mind and Catherine’s state of mind. The jungle is more like—you never really see it except for some vines here and there, but it’s implied that it’s where the audience is sitting. So the audience is the jungle. That’s how we have it set up.

Why did you pick this play?

So I had to pick a one-act play, something short. There are very few one-act plays that have very good design aspects. I originally picked a play called “Body Awareness” which is set in about the same time of the 20th century, but has no costume design aspects, no sound design aspects, and regular, normal lighting aspects. Studio 3 is a class for students – for student designers – to design something and so with a play that had no design aspects, it was not a very good learning moment for anybody. So I picked the next extreme, which is “Suddenly Last Summer,” which is nothing but design aspects. I was always really intrigued by it. I’ve always really liked surrealism and heightened realism. I like sitting down and really manipulating a text, and it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. We could’ve made this whatever the heck we wanted it to be, and as students, we really enjoyed that opportunity to broaden the imagination—what is this world about. We had a lot of sit-down conversations about how we felt this world was, and we all came to an agreement that we wanted to place it still in the same setting—because like I said, the question can be totally up to wherever you really want to place it. We still placed it in 1936, New Orleans, in the Garden District in Mrs. Venable’s front yard. I mostly picked it for its design aspects. I’m also really intrigued by these characters—they’re large, every single one of them. Tennessee Williams is so good at this. In a one-act play, most of the time characters are not developed; they’re not that great. We don’t know who they are or anything. In Tennessee Williams’ plays, especially in “Suddenly Last Summer,” each character, down to the servant girl, Miss Foxhill, has clear character. We have seven characters – that’s a lot for a one-act play. They each are so well defined by what they do and how they act. Catherine’s mother, Mrs. Holly, is described as a “fatuous southern woman who needs no other explanation” – that’s literally what he says: “who needs no other explanation.” She’s fatuous and southern and that’s all you need to know about her. And, that is all you need to know about her because the rest of her actions show her arc form desiring nothing but money to desiring safety for her child. There’s really strong arcs from every single character where they all change, one way or another, which is really difficult to do in a one-act. And, it does run longer than a normal one-act, but. There’s one moment in the play where, in the middle of one of Catherine’s really long monologues—it’s a very big monologue play, tons of just sitting there and talking—the doctor goes and grabs a drink for Catherine out of a cocktail shaker, which means he makes her a drink. He just randomly turns into a bartender, and so we joke that little moments like that is why it flopped. Like all these weird moments when people make cocktails or all of a sudden they’re talking for five, ten minutes—it’s a memory play. Most of the time, they’re talking about what happened in the past. There’s less action right then and there than there is memory, though there is a bit of action.

Can you give an overview of Studio 3 as a class?

So you have to apply for the class, and you have to apply for the specific field you want to be in. I applied for directing. Adam, who’s my costume designer, applied to costume design, and so forth. We’re all seniors or juniors, and we’ve all been focused in our fields by now. Once we’re selected and we go into the classroom, we all have our own specific roles. I sit down as the director and say how I feel about the play. And then Adam says, “I think the costumes should be like this….” And then Jeremy, my lighting designer, says, “I think the lights should be like this….” And we talk about why we feel that way, what the world means to us, and we come to a consensus. Since this was a class and everyone is a big part of everything, they’re just as important. Most of the actors are B.F.A.s – one, Parker, I don’t think is a B.F.A. They’re all really good – they’re all, except for one, Ramone, juniors or lower level. Ramone is a senior. They’re all really strong considering they haven’t been here for four years yet or anything. They’re all really amazing, young talents, who will all be really awesome in the coming years. They’re really great and doing really well.

What was the production process like?

For me, I had to fill out and write so many different essays about why I thought I was qualified and what I saw for the play. I had to suggest the play, and all of my thought processes on it. Then when we were selected, we all sat down in the classroom and we read through the play and talked about what we saw the world of the play was – like I said, we slowly got to an understanding of how we wanted to set this play and how we wanted to go about it as a whole design team. And then we all split off and in our different worlds, came up with a beginning costume design, and they all presented all their designs in a PowerPoint, like “This is what I’ve been thinking, what I’ve been feeling.” And me, as the director, would say “This totally fits the world and what we’ve been talking about” or “I’m not sure this totally fits in this world. Talk to me more about why you like this.” And there was really a large communication about what fits the world of the play and what doesn’t, what do we see we can push to go bigger, and what do we need to pull back and make grounded so that we don’t lose our audience in complete craziness – which was one of the biggest conversations: how do we not lose our audience by going super crazy. It’s so easy – and I’m sure we probably did it anyway – as young artists to go further than you should because you’re so excited and you want to do all these crazy things. You want to try out the new lighting or sound effects – and you’re like yeah, let’s do all this and let’s make this so insane. And there came a point where we all had to sit down and I had to be kind of like, “Here are moments where we can go a bit farther, and here are moments where we have to pull a bit back.” We talked about lighting and sound, how they can play off each other with sound being the grounding aspect with regular plain outside noises and lighting being able to go a little crazy – that kind of stuff. We definitely had to do a lot of balancing things out and I’m sure that process is going to happen again once we get into tech week. But then, that was a whole semester of a class. So all last semester we sat in class every week and we came up with all these things. When we got closer to the end and started splitting off more, when we understood everything, we would go to our mentors during that class time and come up with our own individual things—so we would separate for longer periods of time and then we would come back to each other and present our ideas as they’ve changed. At the end of the semester, we auditioned, and I saw the actors and I had a really hard time auditioning and selecting – so many people were so great and there’s so many right answers for everything. Once I got my cast, we met and then it was winter break, so I sent them off on winter break with a little bit of research to do on Tennessee Williams and his plays, some research on this and that, and we came back and started the directing process. Now, about every other week I still meet with my designers, but it’s not quite as much. Now we’ve hit the point where we’re most separated and we just have to keep coming back every other week to make sure we’re all on track, with the assumption being that we made all of our agreements earlier and there shouldn’t be any changes. It’s really difficult though because once you’re in blocking, as a director, things change. There’s no guarantee – like, you know what, we actually need a bar cart. Can you get me a bar cart? And that’s exactly what happened. My mentor, Niles, kept telling me “You’re going to need a bar cart.” And I was like, “No, I think that I have enough room on the table. I think it’ll be fine.” “No, you’re going to need a bar cart.” And he was right: I need a bar cart. I need something for them to put the liquid on that they drink twice during the whole play. It needs to be somewhere. It’s definitely been a growing process where I just finished blocking the entire show. Blocking my scene one was total crap, but by the time I got to scene four, I would only have trouble spots here and there. It’s really difficult for a couple of moments where all seven people are on stage. My set is gorgeous and beautiful, but just a little bit skinny. Because it’s just a little bit skinny, there’s only so many places I can put seven actors. And the Black Box is smaller than the PT [Proscenium Theatre] so it’s just already small and there’s just so many different ways I can put the actors without making it start to look weird where they’re too close to each other. That’s been my biggest struggle, just working all that out. And working with sometimes chatty actors, also. That’s always fun.

What drew you to directing? Why not set design or acting?

Yeah! Well, I guess that goes back to high school where I just got into theatre as a thing to do. It was fun, and some of my friends were doing it. And I just enjoyed it, but I was never the best actor in the world. Mainly, because I am bad at memorization. I’m not too bad at the actual acting aspect but because I never actually got a part because everyone knew I was bad at memorization, I never got to grow in it. I’m definitely not that good. [laughs] But I’ve always had a very good imagination, really clear visuals for what I want for what parts. I originally was going to be a double major with Art / Graphic Design as well [as Theatre]. I’ve always had clear visuals of pictures, what pictures should do, and then I’m also a big people person and I love to talk and boss people around. It was a good piecing together of what I like and what I’m good at. I didn’t start here at UMBC; I was originally at a different school in Kentucky, and I transferred here when my family moved here and because of the transfer I had to drop the double major. But if I had started here at UMBC, I probably would have had the time to go into set design as well and focus on both because that’s also something I really enjoy. I took a set design class; I really enjoyed that. It’s also another visual, where to put things, artistic sort of thing. My dad’s an artist, and my mom’s a social worker so it’s definitely a balance of the two of them.

Have you had previous directing experience?

I directed “The Addams Family” for Musical Theatre Club last year. When I was in high school, I couldn’t do one of our summer musicals, and I was upset that I wasn’t immersing myself in theatre as I should because that’s what society tells you to do – you need to decide early what you want to do and immerse yourself in it. I wrote and directed one act of a two-act musical that I put on. It was a version of “Oliver Twist” set in a different time period and stuff and I only wrote one act and I only directed one act, but it was supposed to be two acts long, so I left out some of it.

What has been the most fun aspect of the play or the part that you’re most excited about?

Well, I really enjoy directing. I enjoy sitting there and helping people grow. I always said that I was doomed to be a teacher, and this is kind of a teacher-y thing where I sit there and – not that I know a lot about acting, so I’m not an actor teacher – but I can sit there and say “You doing this doesn’t come off the way you want it to. So let’s think of another way to do it.” Because I’m so visually aware, it’s definitely really fun to help people grow and understand what kind of movements say what. I also really, really enjoyed the beginning of working with my designers and designing this whole thing together. Like I said, someday, I’d like to look into set design as well because that design aspect also really is fun. And it was a lot easier for us because, in a lot of the worlds, a director is a director. Usually a director is an acting person, not much of a designer, so they don’t communicate very well with designers usually. Except for the good directors. My designers really enjoyed that I was more of a design-based person and we all did a really good job with figuring out everything.

What is the overall significance of the play? What do you want the audience to walk away with?

I definitely want them to walk away feeling something, and it’s totally okay if they don’t know what they’re feeling. There are going to be a lot of really hidden things that they may not get right away and then, as they’re walking out, they’re going to be like “Oh, I get it.” And that’s cool. It’s definitely a crazy ride, so I don’t expect anybody to come out 100% positive if they’re going to believe Catherine or not. That’s the whole question: Do you believe Catherine? Everybody is going to have a different opinion and I would love for that to spark up a conversation between people. But also, like I mentioned, the whole idea of truth, of this woman with a lot of money thinking that she has a right to control the truth because she has money and has the right to control this other human being’s life with the lobotomy because she has money and because she can – she’s an aristocrat. The fight for the underdog, you know? I definitely want them to come out feeling rejuvenated thinking, okay good, even if I don’t believe Catherine, at least someone is sticking up for her. At least she was able to be heard. Because that’s a big problem we have even today with people who have the money shutting down the truth of the underdogs. So it’d be really nice if that was also a today interpretation.

Even though it is a fully formed one-act play, is there anything you wish could be added to it?

It was written back in the fifties, so there are a couple of things that are implied that we don’t catch onto as well nowadays. It’s implied that Sebastian was gay with the implication being that he was living at home with his mom at forty years old. Which is what that meant – if you lived at home with your mom when you were forty it meant that you were gay, but today that’s not what that means anymore. It means that the economy sucks and that it’s really hard for people to not live with their parents. Today, that interpretation gets a little lost. If there was any way for that to be more obvious to us today, more accessible to us today, I would like for that. There’s a couple other – I can’t think of them right now – that are just a little less accessible to today’s audience. Also, it would be really nice to know what actually ends up happening to Catherine. It would always be nice to know what happens to Mrs. Venable and Catherine. They mention sometime in the play that it is only a matter of time before Mrs. Venable passes away, and you are kind of left like, okay so what happens? At the end of the play, she collapses and she is shouting and it’s implied that she goes crazy, and maybe something happens. It would be nice to know what happens to everyone after the play, but it’s so refreshing to me to have a play that doesn’t have a solid ending. In the end, I enjoy that about the play. It’s kind of a commonality for us in today’s world to want everything to be finished, everything to be capped off. I really like it when it’s not, and I’m left thinking “Okay, the artist wants me to interpret this.” My dad likes to do crazy art and I’m always like “What is this?” and he’s always like “Well, what do you think it is? That’s the meaning of my art – that it’s not what I wanted it to be, it’s what you see it as. It’s about the viewer.” That’s what I really like about this play. It’s about you as the viewer and what you as the viewer take away, not just what I want to say as the director.

Do you have any advice for any other theatre majors interested in directing?

Definitely get more involved in acting. I really wish I could have done more acting stuff myself, because there are many times where I find myself saying, “I don’t know I’m not an actor, but I think it’s like this, maybe?” I definitely struggle with that a little bit. But I would also encourage people who are already very actor-y to look more into design because it definitely makes talking with design easy and helps you really create a wonderful world. Get involved quickly. Don’t scoff at student productions because it’s through the student productions that you get better and are then able to go into department productions like Studio 3. It’s where you learn where your flaws are or maybe you shouldn’t handle a whole group of kids this way.

What have you learned about directing that you didn’t necessarily know before?

I learned that I need to know more about acting. I learned that you have to remember not to hold onto things like they’re your baby. You create a wonderful, wonderful idea—oh my goodness, it’s so great, you know—but you can’t let it disappoint you when it’s not what you want. You can’t let it disappoint you when someone else is right. I sit there with the designers and say, “I think it’s this way,” and they’re like “Well, what about this? I see it this way.” And I’m like “You’re right.” You can’t disregard other people’s opinions because as a director you’re going to have every single kind of person sitting there in that audience who are going to see things the way your designers are seeing them or not the way you’re seeing it. You have to not hold on to all these beliefs and ways you think something should go just because you have the final say-so. Because, in the end, you kind of don’t—I mean you kind of do and you kind of don’t—and even if you do, sometimes that’s not the right thing. You cannot hold onto things like they’re your babies because they’re not. I mean, maybe they are your baby, but you need to let that baby bird fly. Let it go. So there’s definitely many moments where all of us, me, my designer, we had to compromise and let our baby birds fly. It’s really difficult and we don’t always do it 100%. We’ll sit there with a Band-Aid over our sore, like “I still want this thing,” but we are still all learning and I think sometimes you never do get over it—you still hear about Broadway people getting butthurt over stuff. But you’ve gotta let your babies go, and it’s really hard. And it will never be 100% accomplished, because it will always be your baby.

Any additional comments?

I’d like to just emphasize Studio 3 as a class that any [theatre major] can do. It’s new; this is only its second year. It’s happening again next year, and it’s something that I don’t think everyone realizes the theatre now does. I’m sure there’s plenty of people, like even myself, who don’t know if the theatre offers enough for them, and now we also have Studio 3 which offers this moment, where no matter what major you are, there is an opportunity for you. Because I still have stage managers, I have an assistant director as well, who is also my assistant stage manager. It’s an opportunity for every single person—I have a props manager, I have all that kind of stuff. Depending on the show, I could have had a projections person, so it’s an opportunity for everything, and it’s very important.

“Suddenly Last Summer” will be performed from March 30 to April 1 at 8 p.m. There will also be matinee performances on April 1 and 2 at 2 p.m. for which student comp tickets are available. Tickets can be purchased online on the Theatre Department website.