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Interview

Laying It Bare

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Kristin Hanggi was apparently destined for a showbiz career from the time she was a child growing up in Orange County. She says, "I used to tell my little brother to put on a costume and makeup, and then I would try to round up enough money to put on a show and get people to come and watch it. I directed plays in high school. I had tried performing, playwriting—all of it—and then, when I was about 19, I decided that directing was what I really wanted to do." She's now in her mid-20s, holds two theatre degrees—a bachelor's from UCLA and a master's from USC—and she considers her career path to encompass writing and directing. Her directing résumé is highlighted by the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical Bare, which premiered in L.A., and her most promising writing opportunity thus far is the co-writing credit she shares on an upcoming Disney movie musical. She recently directed two ambitious plays that opened locally a week apart: Brian Crano's autobiographical drama 12th Premise, and slam-poet artist Steve Connell's solo piece 40 Days.

Hanggi explains that it's the work, not the glory, that gets her juices flowing: "Recently, on an opening night, someone asked me if I was excited. My answer was that I don't get excited about opening nights. What excites me is the first rehearsal or the first time I sit down with my designers. It's the process that turns me on. I love collaboration, and I love being the mother of the group, the nurturer."

Hanngi had bittersweet experiences with her first major career break, the pop opera Bare. Despite great reviews in its 2000 premiere production in L.A. and its first Off-Broadway run in spring 2004, as well as a huge bicoastal cult following, the play's fast track hit an abrupt snag. After its original limited engagement, plans to move the show to a larger Off-Broadway house for an extended run were stalled in October when a portion of the financial backing fell through. This was a crushing disappointment, as indications had been that Bare would be an unstoppable phenomenon. Hanggi is realistic enough to admit that the supposedly on-hold production will not be resurrected, but she believes the show will still have a life, that a new production will eventually surface.

As with most of her projects, Hanggi functioned as equal parts dramaturg and director on this musical, a heart-wrenching tale of a young man's painful experiences coming out of the closet in a repressive Catholic school. Right after she got out of grad school, a friend had introduced her to young Damon Intrabartolo, a noted composer-arranger for feature films, and they quickly clicked when they discussed his concepts for the musical. According to Hanggi, they became "creative soul mates." She explains, "After we met and first talked about it, I wasn't sure if he liked me. Then he went to Munich to work on a score, and he called me one night, and we talked for five hours. I had produced a lot of my own shows with money I had saved waiting tables. He said, 'You know how to produce, don't you,' I said, 'Sure,' and he said, 'All right, we're going to do it.'" They set to work on the project, Hanggi producing and directing, Intrabartolo serving as co-librettist-composer, and Jon Hartmiere Jr. as lyricist and co-librettist.

"It was such an exciting time," Hanggi says, "because we didn't have any rules. There was no one watching us and no one to answer to. And of course we didn't know if it was going to work or not. I had total creative freedom at age 22. In school, all you hear is that theatre is dead: You'll never make a career of it. Damon was fearless. And that made me even more fearless. If I wanted something for the show, I'd ask him, 'Can I have this?' and he'd always say, 'We'll make it happen.' I'll never forget the day when I walked up outside the Hudson Theatre, and there was a line around the corner coming to see our show. And, when the reviews came out, it was so thrilling. It started to steamroll after that. Having George C. Wolfe, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Mayer, and Broadway producers come to see it was fantastic. Then, when it was in New York, one of my heroes, Joe Mantello, came to see it." Among their separate endeavors, Hanggi, Intrabartolo, and a few of their peers have formed a play-producing company called God Help! Productions. Hanggi and her associates are energetic self-starters who make their own opportunities. They don't sit around waiting for the phone to ring.

These past several weeks, Hanggi was working hard to put finishing touches on two productions opening a few doors apart at Hollywood's Elephant/Lillian Theatre complex. She faced her most daunting technical challenge with Crano's 12th Premise. To suit the aesthetic needs of a nonlinear narrative that depends upon a lot of surrealistic imagery and rapid time-shifts to get inside the heads of the characters, she worked with writer-actor Crano and her design team to coordinate elaborate film projections and sophisticated lighting effects. The play deals with a group of people in their 20s. The focal character, played by Crano, suffers through the impending death of his mother from cancer and his coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Hanggi explains her history with the show. "I met [21-year-old] Brian when he was 16, and we became friends, and later on I cast him in my production of [Terrence McNally's] Corpus Christi. I have been fostering 12th Premise for the past two years or so. I wasn't involved in the London reading because I was doing Bare at the time. I was available for the reading in New York. Following the readings, we didn't know where we were going to put it up, and we finally decided to do it in L.A., to put it up and see how it works." As with Intrabartolo, she found a kindred collaborator in Crano. "Brian went to the same college I did [UCLA], but a few years later," she explains. "His play reminded me a lot of my college experiences. I knew these places; I had been in these apartments. I knew the people. I even cried on that corner, and I kissed someone there. The play felt like my own memories."

As for 40 Days, she had been a classmate of Connell's at UCLA, and then their paths took separate ways until they began working on early versions of his play. Following college, Connell gained fame as an acclaimed slam poet, winning prestigious championships and appearing on network television. His new piece is described as a blend of storytelling, spoken word, comedy, and hip-hop. 'Whenever we were in the same town at once, we would work on the show," says Hanggi. "I was back here for 12th Premise, and he was here, too, so we decided to finally put the show up. It was quite a feat for me to work on both of these projects at once, but now that they've opened, I finally have a little freedom, and can feel like a human being again. I can clean my room."

Her stage-directing jobs have been in New York and L.A. She helmed several workshops and readings during the time she was on the East Coast with Bare. "I look for shows that have an emotional connection for me," she says. "I love magic realism, and I also love visceral theatre. I love great Gothic stories as much as I do rock musicals. I look for projects that can stretch me in new ways." She is currently working with Anything, a play by Tim McNeil, with premiere venue and city not yet determined; she directed Mark Ruffalo in it during a San Francisco reading. She is working with Intrabartolo on two new musicals: one based on the film Revenge of the Nerds, and one relating the tragic true story of slain gay-rights advocate Harvey Milk

Hanggi says she has found success in fostering relationships with playwrights with whom she can work repeatedly. She has worked frequently at the Elephant and Lillian theatres, and she says she is "really close" with the people at those venues. Because of the contacts she has developed, she gets more offers than she can accept.

Hanggi's burgeoning career seems to show she has done many things correctly along the way. For young theatre artists hoping to forge their careers, her advice is straightforward: "Do it yourself. That's what it's really all about. You have to be totally motivated and not set limits. You just need to do it; you need to keep working all the time. I always learn the most from my mistakes. You also should surround yourself with artists you trust, and you have to trust your own instincts, as well. And, beyond all of this, perseverance is important. But, in the end, it's about touching people in some way. When I'm painting sets at 3 in the morning, I sometimes stop and ask myself, 'Why I am doing this?' After performances of Corpus Christi, teenage boys who had been crying during the play would come up to me afterwards and say that I made them less mad at God. My dad says watching my work has changed the way he votes. It's times like these when my answer as to why I'm doing this becomes clear." BSW

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