The Interview: Scribe Barbara Hammond Sounds Off Her New Play at The Coop
Say hello to Off-broadway’s new kid on the block, The Coop. Helmed by actress Andrus Nichols, the collective has staked a mighty big claim with a declaration that inclusivity is where it’s at. Be they grand ideas or small, to both Nichols and her compatriots, all are welcome and all are valuable.
This month, the company has unveiled its debut offering, a production of Barbara Hammond’s absurdist dark comedy, Terra Firma, a dystopian exploration of a family living on the brink…literally. The play centers on a small band of people who have set up a country aboard an abandoned platform in the middle of the ocean on the heels of what is called The Big War. They may very well be the last people left on earth. There are explosions, metaphorical and literal fireworks, and an off-stage house cat.
As risible as it all sounds, throughout the blunt, sometimes cryptic, and utterly bombastic events of Terra Firma, playwright Hammond maintained very clear motives. Her goals were clear.
“I was trying to find a way to make ‘real’ to everyone what is actually going on in the world,” she says. “It can be difficult to feel empathy for others. Even the empathy we do feel is often vague and incomplete.”
Playing on a raised set in a single act, it’s a Beckettian microcosm that aims to lay bare the primal side of humanity, while also celebrating the loftiest and most poetic parts of us.
What inspired you to write TERRA FIRMA?
Barbara Hammond: I’ve never written a play that has this tone or was absurdist in any way. The material lent itself to going further than I’d ever gone with comedy. The circumstances were absurd. I read an obituary in the New York Times in 2012 about a guy named Roy Bates who had started his own country on an aircraft platform in the middle of the North Sea. He took his family aboard. I believe it started as a lark and then became something very serious. Fifty years later, they still have a country with a flag and an anthem and progeny. I realized they were not unlike any other country in the world.
Every country started somewhere. Every country decided it was going to be a country and the people there believed in something that was ‘imaginary.’ All nations are imaginary that way, but people don’t like to hear that. The fact that people don’t like to hear it is fascinating. Then I started to think about identity and how attached we are to identities we didn’t chose, and yet, they feel essential to who we are. Whether it’s our name or nationality or the school you went to. The need to identify with something bigger than one’s individual life is a really interesting thing to dig into.
Do you write everyday?
BH: I write a lot. When I really start going, I can write fourteen or fifteen hours in a row. That’s only a certain stage of the writing but it usually lasts for about ten days or so. Usually, it’s an early morning process. I used to go to a cafe in my neighborhood and I would be there when the barista would come to unlock the doors. I grew up in a very noisy household, so I write best when I’m around a lot of people and shut the noise out.
How do you know when something you’ve written is stage-worthy?
BH: For me, a lot of it is working with actors in a room and feeling the completeness of the experience of the play when a reading is finished. And knowing that there’s nothing that I’ve held back that belongs in that play.
Do you do a lot of revision in rehearsal?
BH: I think of actors as the paint, like the tools that you need. I don’t like to write without them. There was some revision, but no major cuts or additions.
What do you ideally want from a director?
BH: I want them to love and understand the play, more than anything.
And from actors?
BH: Oh my god, I love actors! I want them to have the willingness to use their instrument to go as far as I feel like I’ve gone internally to write the roles. I could never play any of the roles I write, but it’s like passing the baton. The rehearsal for this production was a very joyful room. A playful room. Everyone was searching for ways to become one.
It’s impossible not to see the parallels to Beckett.
BH: The form came to me as a way to tell the bigger story and make it feel close to home. The more we read articles or attend rallies or any of the things that happen to invest people with urgency, it’s hard to feel things as personally. That’s part of the problem. It’s tricky. When an audience leaves the theater, I want them to look at other people that they see walking down the street as more human than before. That’s what matters most to me. To see them as human beings struggling to survive and to love to making meaning in their lives is the most important thing. There’s something in this play that allows one to cry for humanity. It’s hard to think that big. By focusing on this small family, I hope that people can have a feeling for all of us.
The way you parse information to your audience seems very careful.
BH: If I became too specific about the details, the audience would feel less for them as opposed to more. I don’t want them to go down the rabbit hole of thinking too much about the character’s past. I’d rather the audience think of their own lives.