Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Times-Dispatch: Andrew Hamm is "Cultivating Richmond Theater"

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Cultivating Richmond theater
An insider is devoted to fostering a vibrant local art scene

Sunday, Apr 13, 2008 - 12:03 AM


"There's no shame in wanting to be a big fish in a small pond," observes Richmond Shakespeare's new associate artistic director, Andrew Hamm, "if you recognize that a big fish in a small pond has big responsibilities to care for the pond."

An intense 35-year-old with a shaved head, glasses and an earring, Hamm is sitting in the theater company's quiet office in the Fan, drinking coffee and discussing, among other matters, the importance of nurturing a vibrant local theater scene. It is a subject he feels strongly about: His voice is emotional, almost tremulous, as he deplores the inclination of certain big fish (talented Richmond thespians) to relocate to a larger pond (New York City).

"Smaller-city and small-town art scenes need great artists to stay there: That is what makes art healthy," the Virginia native stresses.

Since he began working with Richmond Shakespeare in 2004 -- his first freelance assignment was to supervise music for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- Hamm has done his part to cultivate the pond that is Richmond theater.

For 18 months, until his promotion in March to associate artistic director, he served as Richmond Shakespeare's director of training, coordinating career-enrichment classes (such as the upcoming clowning intensive) aimed at local actors. "I felt a responsibility to do what little I can, not only to put on a good show, but to help the other artists in town to put on good shows," he says, explaining his perspective on the job.

He has also directed for the company, most recently mounting "As You Like It," running at the Second Presbyterian Church through April 20. Hamm has followed the five-actor template that's a Richmond Shakespeare hallmark: Between a clothes rack and a flower-draped piano, the performers ricochet from character to character, frantically donning hats, aprons and the like to signal their identity.

"I've been calling it a love letter to the five-actor format," says Hamm. "We're not trying to hide the costume changes or the character changes -- we're absolutely glorifying in them!"

All the same, he'll be expanding the cast, to a dozen or so, for the comedy's run at Agecroft Hall July 3 through July 13.

In addition to directing "As You Like It," Hamm has written the production's incidental music, and he serves as pianist for the montage of 1980s pop songs (Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," etc.) that introduces Act I. "Once alternative and grunge became mainstream, you couldn't have love songs without irony," Hamm said, of the choice of tunes.

"The '80s were really the last time in history where you could have love songs that were really just kooky love songs." (His Virginia Commonwealth University graduate thesis was a theater piece built from Joe Jackson albums.)

As if he didn't have enough to do, Hamm also depicts Hymen in the production, adding that tiny role to a list of previous Richmond Shakespeare acting credits.

"He has a great energy," said James Alexander Bond, the New York-based artist who directed Hamm in "Measure for Measure" and in "Julius Caesar."

"He does his work fast and well, and if something's not going in a direction that feels right, he has no problem letting go and trying new things. He's very specific -- and the more specific a character is, the better it is."

Grant Mudge, the company's artistic director, is equally enthusiastic. "He can work as a teaching artist, he can work as an actor -- his versatility is incredibly valuable to me, " he said. "At any small not-for-profit theater company, if you've got someone who can handle more than one area of emphasis, that's incredibly valuable."

If Mudge sounds a note of pragmatism, Hamm takes an idealistic view of his work. "I view this thing of art-making as mission and vocation," he said.

And for that mission, he thinks, Richmond is an ideal location. "You can perform in front of bigger houses if you wish, in bigger towns," said Hamm. "But I guarantee: You're going to touch people so much more deeply here."

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