It’s my pleasure to introduce Rick Hammerly, a versatile and accomplished artist now based here in Richmond, VA. With a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from The University of Virginia and a master’s degree in Film and Video Production, and having completed the coursework for a master’s degree in Arts Management (both from American University), Rick has a wealth of experience in the entertainment industry. He has garnered several awards and nominations, including a pair of prestigious Helen Hayes Awards: for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Resident Musical for his performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Signature Theatre and Outstanding Direction of a Play for his work on Factory 449’s Lela & Co. Rick is a founder of Factory 449, an award-winning DC theatre company, and currently serves as the Artistic Director of Programming at Virginia Repertory Theatre right down on Broad Street in the Richmond Arts District.
In this interview, Rick and I dig deep on a number of topics including the new play he is directing at VA Rep titled After December, why you should love live theater and exploring the idea of what “other” means to him. I really enjoyed this one, so I hope you enjoy reading it.
I’m here with Rick Hammerly, director, actor, and now artistic director of programming. For people that don’t know, what is the artistic director of programming?
Well, programming is what you see when you get to the theater. What plays have been selected.
Rick Hammerly, Desirée Roots, and Todd D. Norris, photo by Jay Paul
And you’re in that decision-making process correct?
I am right now for next season. And at Virginia Rep, it is not just for the theater downtown in November, but it’s also for Hanover. So you have a slate of plays downtown, a slate out in Hanover, and then the three artistic directors, two of us do programming for the adult season and Todd does the education theater tours. So he also does programming for the children’s and family theater. So that’s basically what a programming person does.
And then makes sure that all these shows are realized, which means putting creatives together, finding directors, helping out with the casting. And when you’re programming, you want there to be some balance. So you know, if you don’t want it to be too heavy, you don’t want it to be so light that it doesn’t make an impression. So a good mix and match and things change. I will tell you currently now, theaters nationwide are really looking to get butts back in the seats. People have had two years of being accustomed to sitting home watching Netflix. I was one of those people.
So you need to do things that will bring bring people back into the theater and sometimes that’s not a challenging show or a show that pushes an audience. That’s mere entertainment. So you got to kind of balance the climate of what’s going on as well as your audience, as well as the audience you are looking to bring in.
And by that I mean the next audience as in a younger generation to see theater. So you’re balancing that with the older audience. It’s a juggling act.
You started off as an actor, correct?
And did you see yourself at some point doing this job, more management and visualization of a whole season?
No, of course not. You know, when you’re younger and you’re doing acting, what you see is like, “Wow, when do I get my HBO show?” That’s what you see. But then as you start to get older and start to see how things work, and also you start to realize what you gravitate toward. I was really happy as an actor and I was fortunate and I did some wonderful things. I got to do Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Signature Theatre. I got to do it twice there.
Oh, which you won some awards for correct?
Yeah, I won a Helen Hayes Award for it. It was great. I was on cloud nine. But as I got older, that award was sort of about my performance. It didn’t include other people. And as you get older, it’s like, I wasn’t as much about me and it was about working with other people.
And I started to do some directing and producing. I had my own theater company, Factory 449 up in DC. And that’s when I felt like, okay, now you’re doing what you want to be doing. And by management, for me, part of that is it’s bringing the right people together to create something. Finding people who speak your language and have the same sort of passion outlook. So once I started doing that, the directing sort of just came. And because I’m still an actor but have been an actor, you know what an actor needs and how to talk to an actor. And I’m also a big problem solver so I love to get a script where it’s either like how do you do that or how do you make this make sense or how do you do this since it has been written like a movie. How do you do that on stage? Those are great problems to figure your way through. And you surround yourself with creative people and you’re doing just that. So that’s sort of how that happened.
Most of your career, reading about you, most of your career has been in DC, but you spent a lot of time in Richmond. And you went to school in Virginia.
Yeah, I went to UVA, which is hilarious. When I was there, it was Preppy-ville, USA, with collars turned up, and sort of the anti-me. But I was fortunate. I actually went to UVA– that’s hilarious– to study genetics. Because when I was in–
Because that works out for you in the end. [laughs]
Yeah really. When I was in high school in Northern Virginia, I grew up in Arlington. And of course, you know, I sang, I did theater, I sang in the choir — I did all of those performing things and I’ll never forget, I’m not gonna say who this was, but a person in leadership at that school, they said, “Oh, Rick, you’re so talented, that was so fun, now what are you really gonna do?” And, you know, back in the 80s, there was no one there to say, “Well, you could do this as a career, you could go to this university or you…” So, I was like, “Okay, what else do I like?” I liked biology, so I ended up applying to the University of Virginia to be a major in biology with an emphasis in genetics. Ridiculous!
I was miserable. I lasted, I think, six months, and then I auditioned for the First Year Players. They were doing Bye Bye Birdie, and they cast me as the male lead, and then it was all over after that. Before I knew it, I was over at the theater building, Within a year I changed my major and here we are. Yeah, sorry genetics. No Punnett squares for me.
What is it about live theater that, and I ask this because there might be more than a few people that have never been to a live theater production, what is it about live theater that you enjoy? Is it the fear of like it not working out and then the joy when it does work out?
It’s an experience you know it’s part of the same reason we go see a movie in a theater when you’re experiencing something with an audience, it changes your experience it it deepens, it informs it, there is nothing more cathartic than sitting in a room full of people experiencing together or laughing at something together or being moved by something and feeling that sort of relationship.
And I don’t know if I call it danger, but “live” theater is just that. There is an element of “this is the one and only time what is happening on that stage will happen” because it will change night to night and it’s how the actors feel, what the audience is giving them, there’s so much going on. It’s… live is a good word because it’s not just that it is live, it’s how you feel. I feel very alive when I’m watching theater. You feel extra tuned in. You’re drawn in as opposed to film where I feel like you’re just a spectator. Live theater, it’s like you’re part of it. Because the actors can feel the reaction of the crowd also. Sure. And no matter what you feel out there in the audience, they can also see you and hear you and that piece of candy you’re unwrapping! [laughs] They know it. But that’s part of it.
How is the stress different from acting to directing?
Oh my God. Directing is so much worse for the stress and I didn’t know that.
And you’re not stressed right now with the production coming out in five days? [laughs]
Oh sure. Sure. Yeah. I had hair before I came in here. [laughs] No, the stress is certainly different. But here’s the difference. As an actor, let’s say I’m on stage and something goes wrong. OK, I’m in the moment. I can correct it. There are other people out there. Forget a line. Someone else jumps to the next line. We get back on track.
When you’re a director, You sit in the back and something goes wrong and you are absolutely 100% powerless. You just have to cross your fingers or leave the room. It is, and also you’re, you know, bottom line, you are, as an actor, you are really only in control of your performance. As a director, you are supposed to be in charge of not just the actors, but all of the designers and how it was put together. It’s a much bigger entity and responsibility. I don’t mind that, but it’s more stressful.
Let’s talk a little bit about your role in programming. Virginia Rep is doing some new kind of programming like this production After December. And it’s a bit challenging. Can you speak a little on the direction of Virginia Rep as you see it programming wise.
You know, here’s the thing. I would have had a clear cut answer for you about three years ago. Then we had this pandemic and it’s changed everything. And it’s changed the course of theater across this nation, probably worldwide.
Like I said, theater people are trying to get people back to the theater. And some people are just out of the habit. Other people, because of their health and safety or fear of their safety, are staying home. Two years is a long time when a lot of your patrons are older, they might not be able to get to the theater, they might not be with us anymore for heaven sakes. So it’s a big change.
The things I will say, I believe we still need to try to do, and Bo [Wilson]’s play After December is a good example of that. Without new plays, there’s no new theater.
Without new theater, we’re doing the same repertory of shows and we’re not addressing things that are currently going on. And that is sort of the responsibility of theater. To address issues in a way that we see them differently or our eyes are open to them or we can explore them in a safe way and react to things we see and hear on the stage.
When I moved down here with my husband Daryus Gazder, I would tell anyone who’ll listen, it’s Richmond first. I want to find the talent in Richmond. I want to find the creatives in Richmond. Bo’s from Richmond. He’s a Richmond playwright. I think that’s important to utilize the talent and the creativity that already exists here.
I can remember 30 years ago in DC, we were frustrated as performers. The large theaters were going to New York for all of their performers. So it was hard to get cast. And as an actor, as a director, as a creator, if you don’t work, you don’t get better. You can go to class all you want, you can read all the books you want, but you have to do it. And I remember when we, in DC, we started to finally get the chance to show what we had there, and more people got more experience, and they got better, and the pool got broader. And now look at DC, it is one of the theatrical centers of the United States.
I mean, I lived through that. There’s no reason that other regions can’t do that or at least build the base they have. And that’s why for me it is important to look here first. Sometimes you can’t find it, but we need to start here. And so, Bo’s play, perfect example. And everyone in the cast, local. All the designers are local. So, you know that that’s important and that’s how we grow as a community. That’s how Richmond theater grows, so I think those are important but I also know right now those shows are the hardest to sell because people don’t know them.
When I say oh hey Mamma Mia! Well you just say it and oh look you’re selling tickets! You haven’t cast it yet, you haven’t done anything but people know the show.
But those are the types of things that you can count on an audience. So you’re always taking a chance when you do something like this, but you still have to do it or else theater is gonna die.
As a director and looking at a new work, what was it about After December that was appealing about that project, that particular script?
The scope, and I mean that both in terms of what the script is saying in my opinion, and in the physical production. I knew immediately we were going to have to create things that the only way to do that is through projection, through technical means rather than just something physical on a stage. I think we found good people to do that. The script, it’s interesting. This is what I love about theater, it’s what I love about new plays.
You get to define this. This is the first time it’s gonna show anywhere ever.
Totally, and also, it means different things to different people and that changes. It changed for me considerably. I don’t know what Bo spoke about the play, but for him it’s sort of a marriage of science and art and his love of science fiction. And I always think that’s a gift for the science fiction play because you’re creating a world that no one else knows. So you can do whatever you want.
But it also, with science fiction, kind of shines a light and a mirror on where we are now. And so in this role we’ve created, it’s like I think in the costuming it’s non-gendered. So we sort of moved on. Because it takes place in the future.
There are a lot of things that we’ve addressed, but the play before was one thing and it’s moved into something else. The lead character of December …this woman appears in this world, at least she appears to be a woman, but there are a lot of indications that she’s either more than a woman or she’s in the form of a woman. She’s materialized in a collider where that’s impossible. Humans can’t live in there. So what does that mean right off the bat? And so as we kind of move through this play and the rehearsals, all of a sudden the role of December became “other” for me. And by that I mean she is now existing in a world where all of these people are the same except for her.
And I started talking to the cast about that. For me that’s good science fiction because we deal with other every day whether that’s gender, racial, sexual identity, religion, all of these, people feel like they are other and society can either accept that and grow richer and better for it or they can try to change them into what they are and that was an interesting conversation between Bo and I, Bo was like, “So I think she becomes more and more like the other people.” And I’m like, “What message are we sending with that?” that you should become like everyone else? That you’re not appreciated for your uniqueness?
That’s where this whole world of “other” came in, which then opened up a whole other conversation between Bo and I about who this person was. And he changed some things and he rewrote lines to make her seem sort of less human, more entity… I mean, that’s exciting when you’re creating with someone that way.
And also, I believe that we’re dealing in this play with something that a lot of people are dealing with right now in this climate where some people readily want to accept the differences of others. Other people are looking to penalize them, to take them away, to keep them from the same rights and happiness that the rest of us have.
So, it became timelier than I knew when I first read it.
And it seems like it, and just getting to know you and by reading your other interviews, that’s important to you, acceptance of “other.”
And yes … wait you stalked me?! [laughs]
I didn’t stalk you! I just googled you! [laughs] And we’ve talked before, but… it makes sense why you might be interested in this project and how it’s evolving.
Virginia and/or Richmond theater, especially after the pandemic, you’re right, it’s kind of reset. Is that one of the appealing aspects of taking this position to be able to kind of help define and try to figure out how to grow the local talent, put some programming in that’s a little more challenging.
You know, just kind of being part of the overall maybe vision because Virginia Rep is important to Richmond Theater in general. I told everybody, and I told the founders of the theater, I feel like my job is to continue the legacy that they have started. Is that the same programming that they started with 40 years ago? Probably not. A lot has changed. Audiences have changed, but we still have to honor people who are still seeing the theater. So again, back to that juggling act, it’s finding ways to keep theater alive and Virginia Rep alive. And part of that is appealing to the next generation of theater artists and theater-goers. And a show like Bo’s will probably do that.
Will we still have big shows that people know? Absolutely. I think right now one of the things that people need most from theater is entertainment. There’s enough heavy. We’ve dealt with heavy for two and a half years now. So I feel like if we err on the side of escapism and entertainment. This one has a different set of entertainment about it, but it also has a message to it. I think that’s the path we need to walk to kind of bring everything back now. And I feel that’s my job, not to come and change this theater. This theater is what it is. It’s taking it and continuing to move it forward and mindful of the past mindful of the present and with a look to keeping things moving in a exciting and productive way in the future.
I know you’re stressed out with everything, but are you still excited about everything? Are you having fun?
Oh my god, of course. I mean, stress is… it comes with all of it.
I’m sorry you lost your hair before you walked in here. [laughs]
Yeah, damn it.
That was my final question.
You know, you asked about live theater. Part of that is that stress. As an actor, as a director, it’s that energy, it’s that it’s going to work, is it not going to work. You know, that’s adrenaline. It’s a little bit of a drug. And believe you me, I have tried to get away. I’ve tried several times. Like, okay, I’m done with theater. I’m going to move on to something where I just make a bunch of money. And I can’t do it, cannot do it. It drags you back every time like some kind of drug. It’s awful. But in a good way. In a good way. In a creative way. Let me ask you, when you ask me about the ‘other’ and everything, what do you mean?
Being a gay man I mean …
Are you moving over to personal?
Just a little bit. It seems like there are some obvious parallels between the character December and her way of thinking being more poetry and creative based and then being judged by these people that are scientists that are very logical and stiff and it has to be like them and she can’t change. I mean it feels like that would be something familiar for you doesn’t it? It feels like something that at least getting to know you a little bit and then doing a little research — it’s like oh, that’s why Rick would want to take that project. You know I bet that’s part of it.
Absolutely and you know it’s interesting. I remember years ago doing a show at the center called Sheer Madness and I did that show off and on for like a decade and I played a very flamboyant hairdresser and it’s the lead in the show and I remember the first year I did it and you would run out on stage and you would actually feel the audience be like oh my god! It was like shocking. It was taboo. And by the time I finished working on that show, Will and Grace had been out and when that character ran on the stage, people applauded during the intermission. They wanted pictures with you, wanted to hug you.
In that 10 years, I watched things change so much for how gay people were interpreted, how they were treated, how they… and honestly, part of that is just exploring who these people are, letting people know who they are, and almost all people we would term “other” turned out to be just people like everybody else. But you feel like because they had a difference that you might not understand, that becomes scary. But as soon as we shine some light on it, it goes away. They’re just like everybody else. I will tell you, someone like me, I feel like I’ve become like everybody. The same that way. It turns out I’m not the unique different person I thought I was when I was 23. I’m just like everybody else.
So yeah, this play explores that a little bit and I do think that’s one of the reasons. And one reason when I read it and started talking to Bo about it, it had my perspective on it, too, which isn’t necessarily Bo’s perspective, but in the end, isn’t that why as artists we work with each other? To kind of have that kind of connection and learn things. And that’s what theater is for. So that we’re not the only ones learning, but you come to see the show, you’ve learned something, or at least you’re questioning something, or you have something to discuss when you leave. To me, that’s what theater is. That’s what I’d love to do here.
I love that. Thank you, Rick.
That gave me chills.
After December opens this weekend and runs through March 26th 2023.
When a particle collider deep beneath the earth’s surface malfunctions, a mysterious woman appears. She cannot say where she’s from or how she got here; she only knows that she is a poet. But when she gives voice to her strange and beautiful poems, reality itself begins to ripple and shift, becoming eerily unreliable. To the physicists, she’s an intriguing mystery; to the authorities, she’s a threat. Could both be right? Unravel the riddle of the poet in this exciting new play.
You can find out more information and buy tickets HERE!
Main photo by Kimberly Frost