The Interview: Director Sarah Hankins On Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s Romantic Action Adventure
Interview by Michael Raver
Sarah Hankins is an anomaly. At times it seems that her effusive warmth could have no place against the backdrop of the demands of a director juggling the responsibility of shepherding actors through rehearsal. But the major trick up Hankins’ sleeve is her razor sharp determination to integrate. It’s possible that her success as a director and as an actor have come from her willingness to allow her light and dark to peacefully coexist. All parts are welcome.
And it’s not really a surprise. She’s been and done it all. A road dog, an underpaid actor on tour. She’s been a resident artist at a highly respected regional house. She’s been (and still is) a venerated college professor. She’s performed around the country and studied with some of the best. Through it all, this southern belle maintains that creating live theater should always be fun.
She currently serves as the Associate Artistic Director at Triad Stage and helms their upcoming production of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play, White Lightning.
“I was also drawn to the style of the play, which defies expectation,” says Hankins. “Structurally, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder refuses to remain in a naturalistic setting, but takes us out of that world to heightened race scenes that require a change in staging vocabulary and innovative design.”
A rollicking affair, Wilder’s play is a fictionalized account of race car driver Avery McAllister’s adventures in 1940’s America and the beginning of NASCAR. Performances begin January 27th at Triad Stage at the The Pyrle Theater in Greensboro, NC.
What was the decision behind Triad programming White Lightning?
At Triad Stage we have a strong commitment to our core values and use them to guide every decision — from season selection to engagement with community partners. When Preston and I were talking last spring about plays that would uphold our core value of a Southern Voice, we discussed many of our favorite Southern playwrights and their work.In a flash of inspiration, he remembered a play about racing from Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder — a Southern playwright who has the particular skill of capturing the energy and cadence of the South. We both felt that the connection to racing would resonate well with our audiences. North Carolina is home to many racing heroes and families, including Junior Johnson, the Pettys, the Earnhardts, and Richard Childress Racing. Wilkes County, North Carolina was famous for being one of the hotbeds of the illegal moonshine industry. White Lightning gives us a chance to tell a story that doesn’t usually make it on to the stage.
What was your initial response to it after reading it?
When I initially read it, I immediately fell in love with the characters and the world of the play. Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s description of red dirt roads evoked memories of learning to drive in North Carolina — where the clay and the sand of the Piedmont meet. The races in the play reminded me of the fun and exhilaration I had with my father watching NASCAR in my teen years. We had infield seats at the Coca Cola 600 and would camp out there overnight. We’d hit up the dirt track races the night before, getting covered with dust and rubber. The sound of the cars would make my whole body vibrate and every crash or victory was a visceral experience. I can completely identify with our lead character’s need for speed and freedom. But more than the NASCAR connection… my family dealt in moonshine. I was a grown woman before my mom told me one of the family secrets: that her uncles made and ran shine. The sheriff — a distant cousin — turned a blind eye when properly inspired by a few jars of the good stuff (for medicinal purposes I’m sure). On the other side of the family there are stories of Aunt Lou, who was famous on the ridge for her good shine. She was a tiny woman who wore huge hobnailed boots — and didn’t like to be crossed.
How has your relationship to the piece changed now that you’re in rehearsal?
I am still navigating how to articulate those discoveries in the rehearsal room. The story of White Lightning is romantic, daring, and adventurous. But it also asks us to look at the hard economic circumstances in the South that drove these moonshiners to take such risks. An early NASCAR star, Raymond Parks, started working in moonshine as a young teen — mostly as a way to escape the poverty of his father’s farm and the ten or so children there. Thanks to the moonshine business, in a very short time he owned several liquor stores, was considered respectable by Atlanta folks, and was able to provide jobs and financial support for his siblings and cousins. Moonshine provided financial security beyond the imagination of a common farmer or factory worker. But moonshine could also cost you your freedom or your life. Between raids, explosive stills, poisonous moonshine, alcoholism, and competition with other distillers, the life of a moonshiner could quickly be cut short As the designers and I approached the play, we firmly decided not to indulge in the nostalgia of the past. Instead we are endeavoring to investigate the life and death stakes that face our characters in both the design and in our rehearsals, as well as the poverty in which they live.
Why is White Lightning relevant now?
We all struggle with identity and how we define success. Throughout the play, Avery discovers that the material success he had initially fought for was hollow compared with self-worth. Although he struggles at times, ultimately he wants to live life on his own terms. By discovering his own worth, he becomes a better partner, athlete, and person. In our hyper-capitalistic society, it is almost revolutionary to value self-worth over financial success and outside accolades, making it very relevant to today’s world.
What do you ideally want from an actor in an audition? In rehearsal?
I think they are the same – just in different spaces. In the audition room, I love to see you. Just you. Whoever you are in all your glory. And then observe and enjoy how you experience and talk about the work. I ask questions and delight in actors who are smart and have done their homework. I also enjoy seeing how you like to play. Do new ideas scare you? Can we experiment? What makes you laugh and sparks an idea? Do you bring ideas to the table?
Perhaps because of my clown training, I am always seeking actors who are game to play. Of course, when you play gloriously and with true abandon, sometimes you fail. So I am also excited to work with folks who are willing to fail and get back in the game. I strongly believe in collaborative work in rehearsal, so I seek actors who are committed storytellers, which oftentimes means having the ability to release the ego of the character for the good of the story. Collaborative work also asks actors to co-create moments, which is the highest level of fun. My assistant directors would insist that I also work technically, which I blame on my Shakespeare training. I will give a specific note about a rhetorical ladder right after I give a note that gives permission to follow a physical impulse in a different spot each night.
What do you wish more actors knew when auditioning?
I’m on your side. I WANT you to be the answer to all my problems and to be the number one pick for the role. Please be awesome and solve my casting nightmares. Have fun! I’m not just casting an actor, but a person I want to engage with for 8+ hours on a daily basis. If I don’t cast you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t awesome and wonderful in your audition. So many factors come in to play that you have no control over: height, hair, suitability with the co-star, internal energy. As strange as it sounds, please don’t take it personally if you weren’t cast. If you got a callback, absolutely know that I already liked you and will remember you. Years later I have cast actors that impressed me with an initial audition. My dad used to say that every audition was like a penny in the bank: low impact initially, but it grew over time.
As an actor yourself, what do you wish more directors did that they don’t do when relating to actors?
Keep us in the loop design-wise. I love to collaborate and can support and elevate design elements when given an opportunity to incorporate them into the rehearsal process. I love a pre-show email with some ideas about the approach, so I can research and support the vision. In fact, I can lend my creativity to help solve problems and bring new ideas to the table. So many directors fear that actors cannot see beyond the role and the character’s needs. I believe that if actors are empowered to see the whole, we can contribute to the larger conversation about the story itself. Instead of isolating actors and designers, allow us to collaborate. Don’t be scared to talk to me if I auditioned for your show and you didn’t cast me. I get it and I don’t take it personally.
What is a play that you’re champing at the bit to act in and/or direct?
To direct: The Rover (I have a really exciting all-female approach). The Roaring Girl. Anything Chuck Mee. More Anne Washburn (my thesis show was Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play). I’d like to expand my experience with musicals, but love the odd, dark show. So Murder Ballad or Sweeney are both probably up my aisle. I’d also love to look at something immersive to challenge myself to work within those parameters. To act: Much Ado about Nothing (I’m ready for Beatrice). The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. Jez Butterworth’s The River. Richard in Richard III and Hamlet — because why not? The cop in The Nether. The Last Wife.
For more information about White Lightning or to purchase tickets, visit www.triadstage.org
For more information about Sarah Hankins, visit www.sarahhankins.com