Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Style Weekly: "This Beautiful City" is "what good theater should be."

Pious Peak

“This Beautiful City” takes on the gay marriage debate.
by Rich Griset

In 2006 Colorado found itself the ground zero of the national debate on gay marriage. Long a Christian stronghold, Colorado Springs was home to a series of megachurches, including the followers of evangelical firebrand the Rev. Ted Haggard. As in Virginia that year, an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage was on the ballot and passed.

A theater group from New York City called the Civilians descended upon the city before the vote, conducting dozens of interviews with residents. A play that chronicles the lead-up to and aftermath of the amendment (as well as the downfall of Haggard after allegations arose of drug abuse and a gay affair), “This Beautiful City” attempts to give a glimpse at the forces behind the gay marriage debate.

Borrowing an idea from the playbook of “The Laramie Project,” the script was culled from the interviews that the group made while in what is sometimes called the evangelical Vatican. Every word spoken in the play came from the mouth of a real-life person.

Richmond Triangle Players’ staging of this unusual production gives audience members the feel of being one of the interviewers, jumping from New Life Church’s Christian rock services to voodoo-esque visions in Manitou Springs, a nearby town. Triangle’s talented six-person ensemble brings to life dozens of characters. Whether it’s Tarneé Kendell Hudson’s three Baptist church members, Andrew Hamm’s militant Mikey Weinstein or Layana Burnette’s moving portrayals of a transsexual person and a former drug addict, the cast imbues even the smallest roles with dignity and warmth. The portraits are well-crafted, giving voice to both camps. John Knapp’s direction emphasizes the docu-drama tone. The audience never feels as though it’s watching caricatures — these are real people with real opinions.

Triangle’s bare-bones production focuses more on the tale of Colorado Amendment 43 than glitzy stage values. Sometimes a backdrop and PowerPoint slides are all you need to tell an engaging story. Accompanied by piano, drums and guitar, Kim Fox’s musical direction highlights the beautiful voices of her cast. Philip Milone’s multitiered set is functional, but offers little else, and K. Jenna Ferree’s lighting design is as basic as possible.

“This Beautiful City” obviously has an agenda, but presents its viewpoints in an attractive and often humorous way. This is what good theater should be — something that engages the audience in a conversation about issues that remain quite relevant.

“This Beautiful City” shows through Feb. 5 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 346-8113 or visit for information.


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Saturday, January 22, 2011

WCVE's John Porter: "This Beautiful City" is "a testament to the power of theatre."

This Beautiful City Shines at Triangle Players

It’s taken me a longer time to write a review of THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY, the Acts of Faith entry now playing at the Richmond Triangle Players. I always like to have a few days to think about a piece, formulate my thoughts, and then prepare what I hope will be a well-reasoned story celebrating the magic of theatre; but this piece has taken a week to scribble down, and I’m still nowhere near exhausting my thoughts on this powerful story.

Created by a group called The Civilians much in the manner of The Laramie Project, this group spent time interviewing the citizens of Colorado Springs, Colorado; which has been call “The Evangelical Capital of the World.” The group was examining what it meant to be evangelical and exploring the growth of mega-churches created by James Dobson and Ted Haggard. Yes, that Ted Haggard who was caught in a drug and sex scandal and then tried to lie his way out of it.

This Beautiful City managed to do something that is pretty rare these days – if fooled me with a change of direction as I thought the second act would be dogpile on Ted time, but the playwrights, while touching on the subject, actually developed a parallel story about a pastor who faced a similar crises, admitted he was homosexual, was banished from his church, and who rose again as a more powerful voice within the Christian community.

The ensemble that makes up the cast – each person playing several different roles, is very tight. Each person has more than one standout role, and they are able to create these characters with subtle changes in clothing and props. Andrew Hamm truly makes an impact with his different characters, moving chameleon-like through a Jewish Air Force officer, a balladeer, a writer trying to bring down the evangelicals, and others. Scott Melton is an eerie Ted Haggard, Tarnee Kendell Hudson does fantastic street girls, an Emmanuel Choir Member and Ben Reynolds. Christy Mullins and Lanaya Burnette show up in a variety of roles, and Jason Campbell gives the play its heart and soul in the space of one monologue.

Philip Milone’s set is all space and platforms – elevating positions while still allowing space for movement. K. Jenna Ferree’s lights are dead on – keeping her actors lit for emphasis, Ashley Davis’ costumes serve well as character definers, and Kim Fox does a great job serving as Musical Director and playing the piano during the show.

John Knapp’s direction is crisp, there is little if any lag time between scenes. The pace builds and takes you along on this journey of discovery. Notice too, the way he presents his performers – those that favor one political side enter on the right, others on the left, with some crossing the stage playing both sides. It’s a nice, subtle touch to help further reveal his characters.

THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY is one of those rare plays that are entertaining and still make you think and explore your own feelings. It is a testament to the power of theatre that will cause more debates than solve. The play has a short run, so do not wait to catch it – make the time to see this one.

For WCVE Public Radio, I’m John Porter.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Raves for "This Beautiful City"!

Wow. It's REALLY wonderful to read criticism that appreciates your work, but it's much better when the critics UNDERSTAND it and express it in cogent language.

I said months ago that I thought This Beautiful City is the most important work I've ever done as a theatre artist. We knew we were working on a special project, and we quickly grew to realize that it was a special company of artists putting it together. While I always tell my actors when I direct that "We don't do shows for critics and we don't take notes from them," I have to acknowledge that it is gratifying to have your work understood and appreciated. All three reviewers thus far have really grokked what we are doing. That's really special.

Come out and see the show, y'all. I guarantee that it will make you think long and hard about a lot of your foundational philosophies, but not in a painful or judgmental way. What may surprise you is that this is also one of the funnniest darn shows I've ever been involved with.

This Beautiful City runs through February 5. Adam Mincks will be playing my roles for the final weekend. You should come see me, then come back to see Adam.

Editorial note: I've taken to copying-and-pasting full reviews into my blog because you never know when a publication is going to change their web server and erase years' worth of archives (*cough cough* Style Weekly and the Richmond Times-Dispatch *cough cough*). I hope no one is offended at the pseudo-copyright-infringement, and I have of course linked to each referenced article.

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GayRVA: "This Beautiful City" is "A Must See to the start of the 2011 theater season."

“This Beautiful City” Review

Matthew Miller
Posted January 17, 2011 filed under Arts & Culture, Featured

Richmond Triangle Players “This Beautiful City” examines questions of religion and identity in a provocative but entertaining performance that kicks off the Acts of Faith Festival. A Must See to the start of the 2011 theater season.

The subject matter of religion and identity is harrowingly animated in This Beautiful City, written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis from interviews by the company The Civilians, which opened Wednesday night at the Richmond Triangle Players. Not only is this adaptation an inspiriting departure from the holiday season of saccharine pieces, but also sets the bar for dramatic excellence for the remainder of the Acts of Faith Festival.

The subject matter may be controversial, but the artistry on stage at the Richmond Triangle Players is wholly engrossing and cathartic. Simply put, director John Knapp creates a provocative but entertaining performance that is not afraid to unleash the soul of storytelling.

This 2-hour “docu-musical” catalogues a series of interviews conducted in 2006 with the citizens of Colorado Springs, CO, the epicenter of American Christian evangelicalism. Interviewees include members of the New Life Church, a megachurch founded in 1984 by preacher Ted Haggard as well as the liberal citizens who oppose the normative Evangelical lifestyle.

The interplay of documentary and musical elements invites the audience to partake in the conversation on the way religion impacts individual identity, either by free will (embodied by Lanaya Burnette’s affecting performance in “Urban Planning” as T Girl who is empowered by her faith despite the scorn she receives from it as a transgender sexual minority) or by social establishment (Tarneeé Kendell Hudson’s brilliant humor as Teenage Girl in Act I’s “Whatever” shows contradictorily how her imposed faith induces teenage anxiety).

John Knapp seems dutifully aware of the multifaceted and complex nature of the source material. His incisively resuscitated production intelligently executes both the documentary and musical apparatus while neither sacrificing one over the other for simple commercial appeal. This balance provides the framework for the characters to express their individual stories of struggles with identity and faith.

Demonstrating an intelligent awareness of the subjective life experience of each character – from the alternative liberal writer (played powerfully by Andrew Hamm) to self-hating gay evangelical Tem Haggard (portrayed admirably by Scott Melton) – Knapp’s approach leaves each character a protagonist unto himself and it is only each character’s inner conflict with faith as the antagonist. It is each character’s idiosyncratic story told through prose and music that produced the standing ovation on Wednesday’s opening night.

Where one might expect in an LGBT social issues theater the tone to be overly scathing toward Christian conservatism, it appears that it is balanced. Consequently, the moral of the story emerges most insightfully in the consecutive affecting performances of Act II’s “Freedom” and “Urban Planning”: Take ownership of your life whether within or outside your faith.

On a technical note, John Knapp is right to place the set/video design in the adroit capability of Philip Milone. The set mimics a pulpit that is seen at evangelical churches replete with the band on stage and with a slideshow in the background. Milone’s creativity is clever, and invites the audience to literally “witness” the performance and relate with the actors. While some actors trip at some points in the score, musical director Kim Fox nonetheless synthesizes the distinct individual voices of each cast member to unearth lyricist Michael Friedman’s serious social messages that are embedded in the score while maintaining its entertainment appeal. The artistic direction coupled with these technical assets makes this show a truly must see this quarter.

At its greatest depth, This Beautiful City exposes that faith, when abused, is no better than the narcotics people take to cope with (or rather escape) existence. On the other side, however, the narrative shows that faith can be used as a tool for self-empowerment embodied by Hudson and Burnette’s poignant performances of out gay pastor Ben Reynolds and T-Girl, respectively. Knapp admits that in this show “there are no succinct answers”, but his creation accentuates the individual dilemmas that induce genuine reflective thinking. Any theatergoer looking to engage fully in the Acts of Faith Festival will do himself a great favor seeing this RTP performance.

Highly Recommended


Dave Timberline: "This Beautiful City" is "reflective and thought-provoking, not to mention very entertaining."

From Dave T's blog:

City Story

I’ve been trying to avoid the phrase “Laramie Project Lite” to describe “This Beautiful City” because it sounds diminutive and not altogether laudatory. But I don’t mean it that way. Compared to the monumental, ambitious, sometimes harrowing “Laramie,” just about anything seems more lightweight. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, “This Beautiful City” is also light as in funny. Sometimes very funny. And that suits the subject given that the true story of Ted Haggard is sort of tragicomic – with big doses of Schadenfreude mixed in – versus the outright tragedy of Matthew Shepard.

Ultimately, I don’t think you can avoid invoking “Laramie” when talking about TBC because of a very good reason: both shows do an exceptional job of developing a sense of place, of presenting the story of a whole community, not just of a handful of characters in a specific setting. That broad-based sociological perspective is one of the things that make TBC a fascinating piece of theater. While essentially a documentary, the show enhances the dialogue lifted directly from interviews by wrapping some of it in song – spare, simply melodic songs by Michael Friedman – that are delivered exceedingly well by the cast in RTP’s production.

Some of the most riveting scenes involve juxtapositions of different viewpoints where the political is rendered dramatically personal. Each cast member plays multiple roles and, among the many exceptional portrayals by Andrew Hamm, the most bracing is of Mikey Weinstein whose stunning rebuke of the “churchification” of the military plays out next to a group of Air Force cadets earnestly declaring their faith as expressed in on-base prayer groups. And while I expect there is a field-day of parody that could be had in the explication of Ted Haggard’s hypocrisy and whack-job denial of his sexuality, TBC is ultimately more effective and intriguing by focusing on people’s reactions, from confusion to anger to glee.

However (did you sense there was a however coming?), the “research project” perspective also contributes to some of the shows problems. While a remarkable majority of the scenes present full-bodied, well-rounded characters, a couple still ended up presenting caricatures. And while that may be unavoidable, it left me feeling like the authors were trying to have their cake and eat it to, at least a little bit. We are clearly meant to empathize with the empowered trans girl (a flawless portrayal by Lanaya Burnette) but laugh at the Revolution House of Prayer zealots. There is reverence and respect in songs like “Freedom” and “Urban Planning” while a teenage girl’s confusion is wrapped up in the joke of a song, “Whatever.” It’s seems like if you are going to present these characters with dignity, don’t they all deserve respect?

But even as I write that, I realize I’m overthinking this a bit, which is also ultimately a good indictor of the value of this show, at least in my opinion. This is a show that could have been largely a joke at Ted Haggard’s expense or an over-obvious put-down of hypocrisy and, instead, ends up being reflective and thought-provoking, not to mention very entertaining.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight each member of the cast, since each has at least one moment – usually many moments – where they do great work. I loved the brittleness Christy Mullins gave to the Colorado Springs Economic Development Woman. Scott Melton’s Associate Pastor at Haggard’s church seems genuinely lost when Haggard’s “indiscretions” are exposed. Tarnee Kendell Hudson has many delightful moments but none so powerful as her turn as a New Pastor at the Emmanuel Church. And, in a scene both deceptively simple and insightfully complex, Jason Campbell renders Haggard’s son Marcus with refreshing regular-guy straightforwardness.

As far as its technical aspects, this is not a production I would place among RTP’s best. The set (by Philip Milone) is simply functional with pianist Kim Fox (who does a fine job as musical director) and a percussionist placed neatly in two islands. But having video and slides projected on a loose sheet evokes community theater, as does the somewhat flat and spotty lighting. The costumes (by Ashley Davis) were also fine, though I thought some, like the Emmanuel Choir Member outfit, were a bit cartoonish.

I hadn’t been planning to see TBC and was lucky that last night opened up so I could. If I were you, I wouldn’t count on luck; make plans to see it now or it’ll be gone before you know it.


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Richmond Times-Dispatch: "This Beautiful City" is "a disarmingly fresh and thought-provoking theatrical experience."

'This Beautiful City' examines faith and values


Published: January 15, 2011

I'll predict right now which will be the most interesting Acts of Faith Festival discussions: the ones about "This Beautiful City," Richmond Triangle Players' contribution to the series.

The festival's website says that Acts of Faith fosters "discussion about how faith and values shape our public and private life," and "This Beautiful City" examines just that. Created by The Civilians, a New York-based theater company whose process involves interviews by company members shaped into theater pieces, the play focuses on Colorado Springs, Colo., home to many evangelical Christian organizations.

"The company completed its investigative phase in 2006," according to the website of The Civilians, "compiling hundreds of hours of interviews.… Every leading church in the area participated in the project, as did numerous civic organizations, progressive activists and individuals from all walks of life."

The work Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis fashioned from the interview material, with songs by Michael Friedman, premiered at the Louisville, Ky., Humana Festival in 2008, and it makes for a disarmingly fresh and thought-provoking theatrical experience. It's simply and straightforwardly presented, with six singer-actors portraying a gallery of characters — some individual people, some composites of various Coloradans. And director John Knapp uses the same unadorned style, with able assistance from Kim Fox as musical director, effectively showcasing a multitude of viewpoints with a minimum of cynicism and snark.

The result is fascinating, from Christy Mullins' cheery economic development pro explaining how so many Christian nonprofits came to be in town, to Jason Campbell's energetic youth minister, to Andrew Hamm's angry alternative-newspaper writer. Scott Melton is particularly affecting as Ted Haggard's associate pastor (he plays Haggard, too), and Tarneé Kendall Harrison is especially funny as a teenager singing about Christian youth events. Lanaya Burnette is equally convincing as a former drug user.

Philip Milone provides the stripped-down platform set backed by simple projections, and Ashley Davis the ordinary but precisely right costumes, while K. Jenna Ferree's excellent lighting design handles the changes of scene and mood.

Those post-play discussions will follow the 4 p.m. Sunday matinees on Jan. 23 and Jan. 30.


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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Building "This Beautiful City"

Last night, I had the immense honor of performing in the opening performance of the Richmond Triangle Players' This Beautiful City. A few months ago I wrote about the script, its origins and its incredible importance. Now, with the show on its feet for audiences (through February 5), I want to touch on the experience of putting it up.

One of the key pieces of context for me in this show is that it marks my return to the stage as an actor after two years of teaching and directing. That's been very exciting, but also quite nerve-wracking. I forgot, for example, just how much the addition of new technical elements can mess with my muscle-memory; the first day we rehearsed on the assembled set I blew dozens of lines I had known cold two weeks earlier. I even made an entrance from the wrong side of the stage. Lights and costumes were less of an issue. I'm very much a foot actor; it's my connection to the ground that you can't mess with. Change my footing or adjust my blocking at a late date and I can guarantee trouble will ensue.

It's nice to be back in a multiple-character role, a genre I grew to specialize in during my years with Richmond Shakespeare. (In fact, RS devotees may even recognize the appearance of Moped Man during the second act.) It's an interesting and unique set of challenges for us to be playing real people rather than fictional characters. Two of my roles, military religious freedom activist Michael Weinstein and journalist Noel Black, are published authors, and several of us play people who can be easily found on YouTube and CNN. That said, I have to admit here that I refrained from looking up my characters. It's a bit snooty, but I'm not a fan of impersonation as a foundational acting technique, unless one is playing an exceptionally famous person. Scott Melton, for example, is playing Pastor Ted Haggard, and many of his lines are culled from national television footage; in his case, impersonation was necessary. By eschewing that requirement, I was freed up to create characters using more traditional actor tools.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention here that my Revolution House of Prayer leader has a little bit of Stephen A. Smith in him--mainly because I can't stand Stephen A. Smith.)

It's a fascinating challenge to be speaking the words of real people, people who are still around and who could conceivably show up to see your performance, as Ted Haggard himself did in New York last year. (You've gotta give the man huge respect for that.) Even more interesting is the contrast between Weinstein and an unnamed Catholic priest I play, each of whom has completely opposite perspectives on the issue of separation of church and state. As an actor, you must naturally always find something to love about each character you play, and you must certainly believe in the right of what they believe in. I've certainly played enough villains to have learned that. Playing a real person and speaking their exact words is a whole other level of responsibility. We must have complete respect for each role we play or the integrity of the show is completely lost.

Because the thing about This Beautiful City that makes it unique is its genre. It's a documentary, pure and simple, something almost never seen on stage. Yes, it's full of music (a musical documentary??), it's often moving, frequently hilarious, and occasionally somewhat terrifying. But it's non-fiction from start to finish, and we have to approach the show with a documentarian's eye. It's one thing to pursue the artistic or emotional truth of a script, to honor a playwright's intention and a director's vision. Honoring the personal truth of a city full of real, vital, dynamic, diverse people is an entirely different challenge, and it is one we took very seriously. Complete respect was our responsibility.

This Beautiful City is unlike any other play you will see in Richmond this season. It may be unlike any other play you have ever seen, or that you will ever see. I really hope you come out to see it. It approaches issues of faith and identity in a way that is more frank, more real, and more necessary than any piece of fictional theatre can do. It will make you laugh and it may make you cry. It will make you think and it may make you angry. I am immensely proud to be working with this cast and crew, and to be making my debut with director John Knapp and the ambitious Richmond Triangle Players.

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