Theatre Director/ Proud queer Jew
Hannah and I spoke over ‘Womankind’ herbal tea and gingerbread, after a beautiful walk through Regent’s Park.
Ellie: So my first question is: what do you love?
Hannah: I love music. I’m obsessed with music, and I’m realising it more and more, in terms of the kind of work that I want to do and the way that I lead my life, I just love it. I’m the kind of person that always has to have something on, I just find it so cathartic, and I get very obsessed with songs and I’ll listen to them like three thousand times, because I just love them so much; so I love music. I love women. Yeah, romantically and platonically. It took me so long to realise that I was gay, because I had such incredible female friendships, and so I never fell in love with them, we were genuinely friends, so it took me a really long time to realise that that was my sexuality. I’m really passionate about women in theatre and female stories. I love traveling. I love spirituality, I love being Jewish. I feel like we should all be spiritual. It doesn’t need to be through an organized religion; for me it just happens to be Judaism because that’s how I was brought up.
Ellie: I’m someone who, for a long time, really cringed at the word ‘spirituality’; it’s taken me a long time not to. I used to – when I found out someone was religious – assume it would be a thing between us, and it’s taken me until really recently to find my own spirituality and to realise that it’s about faith and having faith in the world. It’s been transformative for me to find that faith. I used to be very jealous of it in other people. My lack of faith made me feel very cynical.
Hannah: It’s something bigger than yourself, not some weird cult or institutionalized thing, just to know it isn’t just you. For me it’s a relief of pressure, this isn’t just ‘The Hannah Show’; I’m this tiny thing, and when it gets to a press night and I’m nervous and I’m able to say ‘Hannah, you’re pretty small, and it’s cool and you should love yourself but you’re not running the show’.
Ellie: Yes, it’s true we get so caught up in our own universes. So my next question is what do you love about yourself?
Hannah: Oh my god. Yeesh. I struggle with self-love, to be honest; it’s one of my biggest struggles. But. Um. I like my brain, I feel that I’m an intelligent person and that I understand people and that I’m emotionally connected to other people. I don’t find emotions scary; I’m very open, like, you and I haven’t known each other very long and I feel very able to talk to you and communicate with you, because I feel comfortable with you and because you’re intelligent. I love that I’m connected to theatre. I really love my sexuality, I’ve got a place of real acceptance with that. I love that I’m a family person.
Ellie: Those are all great, great answers. It’s so rare that we’re ever encouraged to love anything in ourselves, there is such a fear that if we love ourselves then we won’t be wanting for anything, and everything is about keeping us wanting.
Hannah: Or we’ll be deemed arrogant.
Ellie: Exactly. And so it’s so incredible listening to you talk about what you love in yourself – it’s so inspiring. It feels weird to do it ourselves but when we hear it in other people it’s amazing. This is quite personal, but what is the biggest challenge that you are facing in your life today?
Hannah: These are great questions. But they are also really intense. Intense, great questions. One is a very practical thing, which is about independence and financial independence. I come from an affluent childhood but my parents aren’t rich, and I have an ongoing fear and carried shame that I don’t rent, or own my own home, and I have no savings, and I feel quite infantilised because of that. And I’m looking at this future in theatre and in terms of, I guess, success, I’m doing well, but in terms of financial security I’m lost and I’m terrified. I feel this constant sense of embarrassment. I have friends who are working in law firms or management consultancy, and they have lives ahead of them and they have homes and are getting married, they have a sense of security that I don’t have. That is one thing that feels like a huge challenge. The other is just self-belief. I mean, I had a moment before Damsel Develops, I felt like the festival wasn’t going to work, that no-one was going to come and it may not capture people’s imaginations in the way I hoped it would. I had to get up in front of a group of two hundred people every night for this festival and it never got easier; every single night I was terrified. I don’t know if that’s a good answer?
Ellie: Of course it’s a good answer! It’s funny with self-belief, the character I just played in ‘When Midnight Strikes’ was an unemployed actress working as a waitress in New York who hasn’t had an acting job for seven years, and it’s funny that in America you can have not worked for seven years but there is still no wavering in the self belief that you are an actor; whereas it’s a very British thing that even when you’re doing a theatre job it’s like ‘Oh well I’m trying to be an actor, when people let me’ and lots of nervous laughter. I have six months’ work lined up and I still struggle to say I’m an actor with any conviction.
Hannah: Totally. This is actually the first time that I really feel that I’m a theatre director. It’s finally happened; I am walking into rooms and getting a response from people, and I’m being paid to do this and people want my work and people are following my work, and that feels really exciting but it’s taken a while.
Ellie: That is so cool. That is amazing.
Hannah: Well, check in with me in a year. (Laughs) We’ll see.
Ellie: Which women inspire you and why? That can be in a broader sense or individuals.
Hannah: I’m going to say something controversial. I don’t have a female mentor and I found it really sad how difficult it was to get female directors on board to mentor for Damsel Develops. The creative presences in my life who have mentored me have all been men, which is interesting. That being said, I am really inspired by Katie Mitchell and what she’s done, and having met her very briefly she’s a really wonderful person. I guess my mum is a huge idol for me in terms of what she’s done with her life, going through divorce and then setting up a totally new career and being fiercely intelligent, I find that a huge source of inspiration. I wish I had more people to look up to, to be honest, because I know they’re out there. Jodie May is fantastic. Paulette Randall, is really wonderful, she mentored some of the pieces for Damsel, and Maria Aberg as well. I’m inspired by my generation, the women around me who are my contemporaries. Women like Isley Lynn, Abi Zakarian, Phoebe Eclair-Powell, Rafaella Marcus. Women fighting to do work that they really, really care about.
Ellie: Rafaella directed me in a workshop last year, she was fantastic. What assumptions do you find you tend to make about other women?
Hannah: Um. I will often assume successful women are quite harsh and guarded, because they’ve had to be. I’ll assume that they don’t want to help me or support, I’ll assume that they’re competitive sometimes. I’m really trying to change those assumptions and change that culture, but yeah, if someone says ‘Hannah you’re going for a coffee with an incredibly successful female director’ I immediately think ‘she’s going to be intense and she’s going to be quite guarded and she’s not going to be very warm’. Unfortunately. Is that unfair?
Ellie: Oh my god, no. It’s the assumptions we make. I think you’re right; I think there is an assumption that in order to have become successful as a woman in theatre, one will have had to go against so much shit that you become hardened by the industry. And also, I don’t know about you, but I have spent my whole life in this industry and have been reminded, especially by my parents, on an weekly basis, that I have to toughen up if I want to do this. So it’s only natural to assume a hardness that comes with experience.
Hannah: And I’ve experienced it, to be honest. I really have. I’m specifically talking about female theatre directors because that’s my general context, but they are quite guarded and quite difficult. But I think this generation is changing.
Ellie: Amazing. For you is there a certain stigma surrounding women that you would really like to see go?
Hannah: I guess the obvious thing is us as emotional, shrill beings. What I would really love is to separate that there are feminine and masculine attributes that men and women both hold, so I will have some of the feminine and some of the masculine. That women are capable of being emotional and are also capable of being not emotional. Men should be allowed to be emotional and not emotional. These are traits and they make up the human psyche but it’s not a gendered thing. A woman can be in a room and be totally unemotional but maybe her male lighting designer is a blubbering mess, and that’s okay. Because we don’t have to be one or the other.
Ellie: Yes, absolutely. This came up in the last interview. The amazing Liz Chadwick was saying she would like to change the stigma around the idea of the emotional, hysterical woman. We were discussing how you can’t win, if you aren’t emotional you are seen as hard and cold, but if you are then you’re hysterical; you can’t win. I was watching an interview with Hilary Clinton where she spoke about the second presidential debate, in which Donald Trump kept looming behind her, trying to intimidate her, and how she was torn between staying level headed and calm as a she had trained to do, as a presidential candidate, and, as a woman, the urge to turn around and say ‘You’re not going to intimidate me like you intimidate other women; back off you creep’. Wouldn’t that have been amazing? Anyway, she went on to speak about the dilemma for so many women when they are being intimidated by men, how our go-to response has become to remain silent and disconnect because if you implore them to stop you are perceived as being weak; if you come at them with a masculine energy then you’re angry or ‘shrill’ or one of the many terms reserved to make women feel ashamed and less woman for speaking up and speaking out. It’s all tied into the image of the hysterical woman.
Hannah: That is so rich and it makes me want to say, if I can, three things. The first thing is the tragedy of Hillary Clinton, that if she had been a man she would be in the office right now; she’s the most qualified presidential candidate that we’ve ever had and it’s an abomination that she wasn’t elected and it makes me so angry. The second thing is that it would be amazing if we could be in a place where we could say ‘no, Hillary, you don’t need to respond like that because we don’t see gender and gender isn’t a problem and we’re all equals’. Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury or privilege yet, and actually at this point in time we do really need to see gender. My dream is that in twenty years Damsel Productions will be irrelevant because there will be that gender equality so we won’t need a company putting on shows exclusively written by women, because we’re all just making work together and there is gender equality across the industry. But we’re not there yet, so we need to be talking about this. The third thing I guess is removing the pejorative connotations of being emotional and being reactive and saying that it’s okay to be emotional and be vulnerable and talk about our mental health issues; to say ‘I have anxiety’ in the same way we would say ‘I have a cold’ . To say ‘vulnerability is beautiful’. We’ve assigned all this weird judgement towards female attributes that are seen as ‘less-than’; actually we need to reclaim them, to see vulnerability and intimacy, these feminine attributes, are positive.
Ellie: Absolutely, the mass miscommunication of vulnerability as weakness has almost been the downfall of society. Putting just a little vulnerability on the table opens up communication and allows intimacy. Imagine if you were having an issue with someone in a rehearsal room and – I suppose this is what I try to do – but I put a piece of my own vulnerability or shame on the table in the hope of connecting with the other person and forging understanding and compassion. I think we could totally change this industry if we encouraged honest and vulnerable conversations instead of all the masks and shit that so often gets layered on. What I think has happened is that a lot of women in theatre have felt the need to take on the more masculine traits in order to feel included or heard, rather than theatre and rehearsal rooms being a space where vulnerability and intimacy is celebrated. Someone asked me the other day: why ‘women in theatre’ for your website? Apart from being a ‘write what you know’ situation, I think theatre is interesting because it’s so assumed to be feminine, to be a feminine environment. It’s so assumed to be about emotions and vulnerability that a lot actually ends up going more unspoken. It feels like an industry that should be rife with communication. Which is perfect for my next question: how has gender affected you at work?
Hannah: I’ve had so many weird experiences. I’ve had so many conversations with myself about what I should be wearing: How should I present myself? Does it help me to to make more of an effort with my physical appearance or does it not? I’ve definitely had male directors, I feel, take me less seriously. I find myself, very quickly, playing the gay card to shift dynamics in the room, because I find if I do that, first of all, other women are nicer to me, and also men are less likely to flirt with me. I find myself constantly navigating in all these weird, and probably misguided ways, it’s a constant thing. I mean, being a woman in this industry has also, obviously, changed my life, because I’ve created this community around me and it’s been super empowering, but I grapple with it every single day, worrying that I’m overplaying it or am I over-analysing something that has happened in the room -would that have happened regardless? It’s all there.
Ellie: Yes, I was talking recently about the shame we can then carry about the panic of making things about gender that aren’t about gender; it’s such a minefield at times.
Hannah: Yes. It has also been so rich and wonderful and the challenges it has brought have enabled this amazing group of women around me. I actually feel it’s pushed me up and given me more chutzpah.
Ellie: Well it’s amazing that, for you, the problem of gender within your workplace has acted as a springboard for your company, your success. Everything you’ve done has been a pushback to the gender issue that is unavoidably there. So in a a way it’s been a wonderful thing.
Hannah: It really forced me into action in an unavoidable way.
Ellie: Have you ever felt that you had to apologise for being a woman?
Hannah: I feel like sometimes, because more and more I’m creating rooms of women with one or two men, I end up feeling I have to help them, I have to apologise for it being intense for them. There are certain men in the industry, artistic directors, where I feel I have to meet their energy so as not to make them feel uncomfortable.
Ellie: What’s one bit of advice you wish you had been given, or you wish you could give your younger self?
Hannah: I wish someone had just said: ‘cultivate self-love, it’s so important. You’re worth it, you’re good at this. The work, it’s never worth doing if you don’t like the people you are collaborating with. If you feel undermined or disrespected by a co-worker or a boss or someone you’re in the room with, it’s not worth it. Trust yourself. Your integrity is the most important thing. Trust your gut instinct.’
Ellie: So part of what this project is trying to achieve is to encourage communication between women, so I have a question for you from the wonderful Liz Chadwick, and the question is: What does the woman of the future look like?
Hannah: Thank you Liz! I would say: hopefully, really confident, aware of her rights and what she deserves, though realistic about the history of gender. I really like to think – especially with what’s been happening recently – a lot more empowered. Perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, but I don’t see us collapsing into this Snapchat, social media world; I think there is change coming. I think the woman of the future is probably overwhelmed with information and stimuli but hopefully aware of her rights and where she wants to go. I’d like to think there is going to be a decrease in eating disorders. I really feel like that’s changing, that people aren’t desperate to emulate Burberry models or whatever.
Ellie: God, I hope so. Also, you’re so right, louder would be good. With everything that’s been happening, it would be nice if the woman of the future was heard.
Hannah: Like walking into an office space, if someone says something that’s not okay, feeling able to turn around and say ‘that’s inappropriate’, which is not our generation; we wouldn’t have done that, but I really like to think a woman twenty years younger than me would say “that’s not okay and I will invoke my rights here, you cannot communicate with me like that.”
Ellie: So, my last question is what’s one question that you would like to ask the next wonderful lady?
Hannah: What is our personal responsibility and what can we do?
Ellie: That was so good, gosh, no-one has answered that quickly! What is our personal responsibility, as women and what can we do? My God, that’s amazing. Hannah you’ve been amazing.