Lean & Hungry Theater’s Founders Jessica Hansen and Alex Zavistovich on ‘Hamlet’ on WAMU 88.5 on October 30, 2011 at 6 PM

With just a couple weeks before the airing of their production of Hamlet on WAMU 88.5 FM, radio drama company Lean & Hungry Theater’s founders Jessica Hansen and Alex Zavistovich talked to me about the company and its goals.

What’s coming up for you?

Jessica Hansen

Jessica Hansen, Artistic Director, Lean & Hungry Theater: Next up for Lean & Hungry is Hamlet, airing live on Sunday, October 30th at 6 pm on WAMU 88.5 FM, which is the third largest NPR affiliate in the entire country. The actors will perform live from Studio A at WAMU 88.5 FM, and the station’s engineering team will broadcast the play live to listeners. The actors will perform some sound effects live in the studio. Gregg Martin, our resident composer and Technical Director, is providing original underscoring music, cued by the technical team live during the broadcast.

Alex Zavistovich

Alex Zavistovich, Managing Director: This production of Hamlet takes place in the 1860’s Plantation Era in South Carolina. It gives us a chance to explore the class distinctions in the play with an extremely talented and ethnically diverse cast.

Why did you choose Hamlet?

Jessica: We chose Hamlet because it’s timed very well to Halloween. The ghost of Hamlet’s father and the recurring spooky themes of suspicion and madness create a natural thriller mood in the play.

Equally importantly, though, Lean & Hungry strives to support educational curricula across the nation. Hamlet is routinely taught in middle and high schools nationwide, and often taught as early as fourth grade. By selecting Hamlet for this year’s Halloween production, Lean & Hungry adds to its growing body of work available to students and educators as a tool for curriculum support, both in and out of classrooms.

Tell us about your upcoming shows.

Jessica: Our upcoming shows for the 2011-2012 season are The Tempest on March 4, 2012, and Much Ado About Nothing on June 24, 2012.

What is your relationship with Sirius Radio?

Alex: We’re also lucky enough to have a growing relationship with Sirius XM’s Book Radio Channel (Channel 80). This past spring they aired our production of Romeo and Juliet. Coming up, they’ll be playing Macbeth,  which was our first-ever collaboration with WAMU 88.5 FM. Leading up to our production of Hamlet, Sirius XM’s Book Radio Channel (Channel 80) will also air Macbeth twice: On Monday, October 24th at 9 PM, and on Friday, October 28th at 9:30 PM.

How did Lean & Hungry Theater get started?

Jesicca: Lean & Hungry Theater began as an idea to perform Shakespeare in a way that no one else in the DC area was doing it: radio drama adaptations. Shakespeare was written to be heard, so what better way than to create audio versions of the plays, using great local talent and adding live sound effects and original music?  We found that many actors who perform regularly at great DC stage theaters like Shakespeare Theatre Company and Folger Theatre still clamored for the opportunity to work with Shakespeare in this way.

Alex: Jessica’s right about Shakespeare being written to be heard. That was true of most theatre at the time. It’s even in the language of theatre in general. That’s why theatre has an “audience.” If it were mainly to be seen, they’d be “spectators.”

From our perspective, there’s no shortage of established and emerging companies in town tackling Shakespeare, so we really needed to create a way to make our work more distinctive – and more understandable to a wider range of listeners. Since Jessica and I are both fans of Garrison Keillor, radio drama was an obvious choice. We look at what we do as A Prairie Home Companion meets ‘the works of William Shakespeare.’

How large are your casts? Where do you find your actors?

Jessica:  In the tradition of radio drama, Lean & Hungry keeps cast size low – typically eight or so actors – which allows actors to play multiple characters, and challenges them to use their voices in creative and distinct ways. Each character must sound completely different to the listener, so cast members must continually stretch their skills to achieve a unique vocal quality and identity for each character.

Although Lean & Hungry typically casts stage actors with deep professional Shakespearean experience, we occasionally will find a younger talent whose voice is exactly the right sound for a role, like James Majewski for Romeo in our Romeo and Juliet.  That production was set in a prep school in Verona, CA, and we needed an actor with the right sound quality. James had the perfect blend of youth and passion with a hip, laid-back vocal tone.

Do you train your actors how to work with microphones?

Alex: Even our most seasoned actors have said that working on Lean & Hungry’s productions is unlike anything else they’ve ever had to do – with the possible exception of film. The nature of acting for the microphone requires actors to stop thinking about using their vocal skills to project for a live theater audience, and instead consider the audience to be the microphone in front of them. We’ve written an overview on acting for the mic that we share with each actor that’s cast. At the beginning of every production, we have discussion and training for the actors on the basics of acting for the microphone – ideas like moving closer to the mic to create an intimate or threatening sound, and pulling back for raucous scenes, like fights or parties.

Resident Composer Gregg Martin

What has Resident Composer Gregg Martin composed for this production of Hamlet?

Jessica: We also have a much richer soundscape for our productions than any other company in town, which should be expected for radio drama productions. Lean & Hungry has been very fortunate to have Gregg Martin on the team as Resident Composer for the past five productions, and most recently as Technical Director and now a member of our board.

Gregg’s ability to write music for any genre and to suit whatever directorial concept we throw at him makes him invaluable. He has written house music for a party in Romeo and Juliet, soft jazz to underscore a swanky cocktail party in The Winter’s Tale, countless individual character themes, and written jazz versions of Mendelssohn’s works for our 1920′s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Alex: Right, and now he’s taking on old spirituals and Stephen Foster-inspired songs to evoke the sounds of 1860s South Carolina for Hamlet.

It’s been a challenge to take on some of this work from a sound perspective, because even though Shakespeare was written first to be heard, there is a visual component to almost every one of the scripts. Lean & Hungry’s biggest challenge in every production is to create a visual image in the mind’s eye of the audience, using sound only. When our audience members tell us after a performance, as they often do, that they closed their eyes to see what was happening, it’s a terrific compliment to us – and a ringing endorsement of the collaboration that Jessica and I have developed with Gregg.

Alex Zavistovich practices his sword fighting while Sarah E Kamins watches at WAMU 88.5 studio.

Hamlet, airs live on Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 6 pm on WAMU 88.5 FM.

Sirius XM’s Book Radio Channel airs Macbeth twice: on Monday, October 24th at 9 PM, and on Friday, October 28th at 9:30 PM.

Lean and Hungry Theater’s website.