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Warren Hammack on Liz’s Circus Story

HammackWarren Hammack, founding artistic director of Kentucky’s Horse Cave Theatre, first worked with Liz Bussey Fentress in the 1980s, when Fentress was an actor and stage manager at Horse Cave. Around 1990, Horse Cave began offering a series of classes for adults in acting, stagecraft, and playwriting. The classes became part of Horse Cave’s Kentucky Voices program, which encourages the development of original scripts by Kentuckians and provides staged readings and full theatrical productions of selected plays. In this interview with Louisville writer Barbara Myerson Katz, Hammack, now retired, discusses playwriting and his involvement with Liz’s Circus Story.

What is Kentucky Voices?

Kentucky Voices is the name of the whole play development program at Horse Cave Theatre. The workshop is one part of that; the other part is staged readings and then full productions of the plays. Sometimes we also had staged readings of plays not developed in the workshop. When I was involved in the program, we met weekly for eight to ten sessions. We would usually have six to ten playwrights from all over the state—Louisville, Somerset, Butler County. They were an interesting group, usually. It developed from working with those who hadn’t had experience writing plays to those who had.

Once the workshop got started, the word-of-mouth spread among playwrights. The program has had participants as young as high school age and as old as in their 60s, pushing 70—a very wide range. That was an interesting dynamic, and it worked very well—their energies, ideas, points of view playing off each other. The workshop encouraged lots of ideas.

How do you work with playwrights on the development of a play?

Once the playwright gets an idea—and I emphasize that plays are written to communicate ideas, not to entertain; even a half-hour sitcom on TV has an idea—it’s a matter of encouragement, of communicating what you think are the strengths and weaknesses at any point during that process. When you’re writing, you’re revealing something about yourself, and that’s very scary. In the playwriting workshops, I tried to create an atmosphere where people felt safe to do that. I would guide them if I saw some structural problems. For example, if you get to the end of the first act, and you don’t know what’s happening in the story or if there’s some wrong leads in there, then you have to fix it.

It’s mostly encouraging the playwrights and giving them an ear to talk to. In your first class, you’re just trying to get the idea for the play down on paper. You’ve got a rough pile of maybe some good stuff. As a playwright, or any writer, you can’t think about the end product while you’re doing it; you’ve just got to do it. You’ve got a diamond in the rough, hopefully, and that diamond has to be polished and cut, and there’s a lot of cutting in playwriting. It’s totally a process; you don’t just stamp it out on a production line. You hear that Arthur Miller wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in two weeks, but the reality is that the idea for the whole play was in his mind well before that.

Why was Liz’s Circus Story chosen to be produced at Horse Cave Theatre?

I think it’s a terrific play. It’s a story that is universal. It’s about people trying to decide how their lives are going to be lived, and everybody goes through that. You have these two main characters, Liz and the circus owner, and their lives are woven together through the play. They affect each other. They have dreams that seem utterly impossible, but they achieve them. One achieves it, and it costs him his life, and the other learns from it. It has wonderful characters in it, although it’s technically a one-person show. It has conflict, obstacles to be overcome. It’s a very inspiring story, although it has tragedy in it—a very moving and inspiring story.

For use on TV, the play was cut to 56 minutes. How did you help Liz shape the play for the stage and then adapt the play for TV?

It took Liz three years to go from initial idea to the stage production, which is a pretty typical length of time. I used to be very hesitant to cut a script, but most of the time a play can be cut, and most of the time cutting improves it. In Liz’s play, the two strands of the two lives each had to somehow stay intact, and then they had to come apart and separate, and come together at certain points. We tried to keep those two strands active and moving and coming together at the right time. Then you say, do we really need this content in order to make that happen?

It was a long process with Liz. She would do the first editing, and then she’d send it to me, and I’d do some and send it back to her, and then we’d go through that process again: a whittle here and a whittle there, like a sculptor in a way. We knew this play has to be balanced between those two stories and keep them active and relating to each other. It was not easy.

What advice would you give to young playwrights and others interested in writing a play?

If they’re interested in writing, they’ve got to write. Just start writing. The other thing I encourage is, everybody has something that they care about, and they should write, should have an idea. Just don’t sit down and write the next great comedy. They’ve got to write about something they care about. Actually getting [a play produced] ... it’s networking: You’ve got to know somebody. You’ve got to look for ways to do it. Join a theater company. Go to a playwriting workshop. It’s very difficult, because there are hundreds, thousands of plays being written all the time, and there is no system in this country, or any other country that I know of, where you can guarantee development of a play. But once you get known, then doors open to you.

about Horse Cave Theatre and the Kentucky Voices program, visit the Horse Cave Theatre web site.

600 Cooper Drive, Lexington, KY 40502 (859) 258-7000 (800) 432-0951