Hitting the Stage Interviews Harry Wong III
Last week, HTS was invited to conduct an interview with Harry Wong III (HW) so we could learn more about Hedda Gabler and the director making it happen for this year's final Hawaii Shakespeare Festival production.
HTS: Thank you for letting us interview you today! You’re directing the third and final installment in the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival this summer, but it’s not done by Shakespeare, and the festival did this last year too…
HW: R. Kevin may have been the first one to do it, it was a restoration play I think.
HTS: The question then becomes- why do non-Shakespeare plays in a Shakespeare Festival?
HW: I went to UH, and one day we were sitting in Intermediate Directing class with Glenn Cannon. R. Kevin was one of my classmates and I was still an undergraduate. Then Glenn, may he rest in peace, goes, “Oh my god, we have a hard time doing these plays because the actors here aren’t good enough!” I think he wouldn’t mind me saying that. Then R. Kevin, under his breath, leaning towards me, goes “You know, these roles make actors great.”
Always, within the Shakespeare Festival, at least for me, Tony, and R. Kevin, the idea was always to do great plays to give actors a chance to become great. I think Ibsen’s one of them, I think Chekhov’s one of them, the Greeks, and more as more writers become public domain. You don’t have to pay for Shakespeare, we didn’t have to pay for this translation of Ibsen. The more challenges we can bring to actors, the better.
That’s also why you move out of Shakespeare, it’s a different muscle you flex when you do Chekhov, when you do Ibsen, or when you do the Greeks, and how about who did Desire Under the Elms? O’Neil? The Hairy Ape, one of his earlier plays, has just become public domain. When you do those plays, you exercise different muscles as an actor. For me, as the Artistic Director of Kumu Kahua Theatre, it’s important to me because I think it’s only the University that does these classic plays a lot.
What made Harold Pinter? It was him growing up in England, getting to see plays. What made Caryl Churchill? Same thing. There’s a tradition of going to the theatre, but not only that, they’ve seen the best plays ever written in the English language. I think that’s important for local writers to have something other than TV and movies to see, and it’s always my intention for local playwrights come to these and see what a good writer can do, how complex a simple realistic scene can be. That’s one of the reasons why I did the Shakespeare Festival, but I think that’s also one of the reasons why we open it up to different writers, different genres, and different talents.
HTS: Speaking to the challenges the plays can offer, what’s the challenge in Hedda Gabler?
HW: During my time at UH, someone told me, I think it was Joe Dodd, who I had never taken a class with but had always hung out with and grabbed a beer or went bowling with, he said when you do a Shakespeare, ask what made it popular. Then when you do a French play, like a Moliere, you have to ask what made it dangerous. When he told that to me, I just thought, “Well, I’m going to ask that about every play: what made it popular, and what made it dangerous.” I think one of the things about Hedda that made it dangerous was that the critics hated it and it wasn’t popular. No one wanted to spend an evening with such an unpleasant woman, thinking “I don’t want to be around a woman that doesn’t smile, you should smile, you look so much better when you do.” Ibsen wasn’t afraid of criticisms, and wanted to show that this woman is going through a lot. I think one of the things that made it dangerous was just that.
The first attempts to make her “popular” was to show that she was a victim of her time, like “oh my goodness, this woman is a victim, can you imagine if she had the opportunities we have now,” but I think that misses the point in making her a tragic hero. Like Oedipus, he realizes he’s the cause of the entire play, so Hedda realizes she’s the cause of her play. If you’re a victim, you can’t really blame yourself, so I think that takes it away from being a tragic figure, once you start to say she’s a victim of her time. That’s another one of the things that makes it dangerous: Ibsen does it in such a realistic manner, meaning that things happen but not in the obvious way, and it ends not the way you’d like it to end like other dramas of his time.
You have to kind of be a scientist. My wife, a psychologist, I assume that if she was sitting in a bar and people started fighting, she would go in and break it up. However, part of her wants to go, “hmm, I want to see how humans behave under this situation.” You can’t do that, it’s unethical to let people punch each other to death for “psychology reasons.” But you can do that on stage. In Hedda, there’s almost a science to the way people react and what they say and don’t say, and what’s driving them deep inside. That can only happen if you sit there, watch intently, and have an open mind. I think that itself is dangerous, even now when things seem laid out for you and simple. That’s the opportunity I wanted to give to actors, to be able to try and show what’s hidden.
HTS: The average Honolulu theatre goer may not know what Hedda Gabler is about. Can you distill it and describe it’s essence to us?
HW: You’ll find a lot of this in my director’s note. I tell actors that if you go and audition, and you ask the director what the show is, and they can’t tell you in a sentence, then they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s like you’re asking them to take you to Kauai on a canoe and they don’t know how to get there! Hedda Gabler is about a newly married aristocratic woman in the late 1800’s who is compelled to commit the ultimate act of beauty.
HTS: Going back to talking about how we were talking about how the show is dangerous and how the events that surround Hedda are a look into the whole “what would humans do in this situation,” and how uncomfortable it may be to face such realism up close, what ultimately do you hope the audience walks away with after the show?
HW: I think the ultimate goal of any kind of art is pleasure. I hope they have received pleasure. But, there’s different kinds of pleasure: there’s the pleasure of eating at McDonald’s, there’s a pleasure of eating at a five star restaurant, there’s a pleasure of eating at a health foods store. I think most entertainment and theatre in this town is either reduced or bought with a lot of fat and sugar, where I think this is a nutritious kind of pleasure. At least, that’s what I hope.
HTS: Has Hedda Gabler ever been produced before in Hawaii?
HW: I think it was done at HPU, TAG, and in 1990 it was done at UHM. When I went with Kumu Kahua Theatre to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in Scotland, the first production I saw was Hedda Gabler done by university students. I can’t recall when the HPU and TAG ones were done, but I think they were recent.
HTS: With Shakespeare, there are different framings and different approaches to his plays all the time. Is your version of Hedda Gabler going to be a fairly straightforward version or is there going to be a special framing to it?
HW: I guess it would be more straightforward. I think people have set it today, but it’s just weird because Hedda doesn’t have a cell phone or other modern things accessible to her in the play.
HTS: How long were you rehearsing with your cast?
HW: About a month and a half, but we only met three times a week maybe.
HTS: When did you find you wanted to do Hedda Gabler?
HW: I apologize, I have another story about one of my professors at UH. A Hawaiian professor once told me that I speak in a certain way, like I have to recite the genealogy before answering, it’s just something I feel compelled to do. One of my professors at UH, Dennis Carroll, a director always has a list of things they want to direct, so you should always have a list of things you’re working on or thinking about. Maybe when I was a Philosophy student at UH, in the late 80’s, I think I was forced to read Hedda for a modern drama class. I started thinking about it then. The urge always returns and comes back to your brain, but it didn’t come back seriously until about two years ago, when my daughter would be old enough and that I knew I wanted to direct for the Shakespeare Festival again.
HTS: How long have you been directing for?
HW: I think the first show I directed was a summer when the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre was free, I did three plays by Bertolt Brecht. That was ’89, I think.
HTS: Is there anything you’ve learned or gleaned from working on Hedda?
HW: I think you always learn something from the productions you do, and one of the most important things to learn is how you work. Learn how you work, then learn how to articulate that to the actors. Every time you direct, it’s a different species, so you’re always finding something new. For this production specifically, this is the most talking I’ve directed in a long time. How do you make that much talking compelling and evocative? The first ten to fifteen minutes are exposition, but beneath that are a lot of hidden things and desires, and all of it is happening between an aunt and her nephew! More than most other plays, that’s the thing for me.
HTS: What’s next after Hedda for you?
HW: I’m directing the third play and the fourth play in Kumu Kahua’s season, one is a one-man show set in the 1800’s. He’s a man who was tattooed in the Pacific, and he makes his living telling stories about the Pacific. The other is The Watcher of Waipuna, an adaptation of a short story by Gary Pak.
HTS: Thank you so much for letting HTS interview you before your show opens! We wish you the best for Hedda Gabler!
Hedda Gabler opens at The ARTS at Mark’s Garage on Friday August 10 and runs through August 19. Wednesday-Sunday shows begin at 7:30pm, and on Sundays they begin at 3:30pm. Buy tickets online at https://hsfhedda.brownpapertickets.com/. Seating is limited!