At age 32, Braden Abraham recently became associate artistic director at Seattle Rep and is now staging a stripped-down Harold Pinter. At 40, Ed Hawkins is a master of the drag spectacular, and this spring will revive a lesser-known Charles Ludlam piece at the Annex. Directors don’t so much have careers as careens, and these two have pinballed into very different places in the Seattle theater world. Abraham’s high-profile career rests on small-cast dramas, while Hawkins has never directed professionally but is a veteran of complicated comic epics. For both, the ability to do a lot with a little has become a highly prized skill.
Most of Abraham’s work prior to his new job was at Seattle’s small fringe venues, including Theater Schmeater, CHAC, and Washington Ensemble Theatre. He managed to win an internship at Seattle Rep just a couple of years after graduating from the drama program at Western Washington University. He directed only one show at the Rep, but made his mark with it: the highly successful 2007 production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie.
Corrie was presented in the Rep’s smaller Leo K. Space, where Abraham’s also putting on Betrayal, Pinter’s dark analysis of adultery. “This play fits the Leo K. because it’s a series of intimate scenes, really,” Abraham says. (Corrie, too, was largely free of visual effects.) “It’s a very personal play, really taken from Pinter’s life. I see it as an unlikely love poem. It doesn’t judge who’s right and who’s wrong, but instead shows this difficult situation from each person’s point of view. You really see their strengths and weaknesses, their compromises and their stumbles.”
Stark production values have become something of a specialty for Abraham: In The 10,000 Things, the tiny WET space was transformed into an anytime of dark earth for scenes set across a span of 10,000 years. For that show, “we wanted to keep it very spare,” he says, “because the action spans thousands of years. Etta [Lilienthal, the set designer] and I spoke a lot about textures and colors and a space we could easily transform with light and sound. So I thought, ‘What about peat? What about salt?’ Because they’re both cheap, and right for the play. If we’d had a Rep budget for the show, it might have ended up as something similar.”
Something simple (“the simplest thing, the simplest gesture, is always so powerful”) has guided Abraham’s approach to the notoriously difficult Pinter, whose characters’ motivations are often willfully obscure and whose language is filled with idiosyncratic verbal tricks, like his infamous…pauses. But Abraham believes Pinter was not trying to make his text more opaque, but easier for directors and actors to understand. “He’s trying to help the actors and the director know that there’s a change of thought or of direction,” he argues. “It’s part of the blueprint. When I’m working with Pinter, I’m very aware of the stage directions. He doesn’t put many in, so I assume when they’re present it’s one of his clearest thoughts, and it’s important.”
The sort of detailed and intimate work that’s become Abraham’s specialty suits modern American theater, with its small casts and often intimate acting style—not to mention the current climate of budget cuts. But ironically, the fact that there’s little or no pay for artists on the fringe means it’s become one of the last places where large-cast shows can flourish.
And this is a genre in which Hawkins is an acknowledged master, creating shows where a dozen or more actors negotiate complicated traffic patterns and stage elaborate comic routines. Hawkins has directed primarily at Annex, where he’s been involved in a staggering 23 productions, as well as working with several other small fringe groups. His first big break came in the early ’90s, co-directing Annex’s production of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, a ridiculous drag romp that was a silly, sloppy revelation on a grand scale. [This story has been corrected since it was first posted. It had erroneously said that Allison Narver co-directed The Women with Hawkins and that the cast was all-male.]
In a long, varied, and largely unpaid career, he’s specialized in comedies, including a long love affair with the plays and theatrical philosophy of Ludlam. This New York drag artist/playwright/producer founded the hugely influential Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which combined anarchic gender-bending humor with sly and occasionally profound social commentary. In April, Hawkins will tackle Ludlam again when Annex stages Love’s Tangled Web.
“If you’re going to do this sort of show right, it needs to be gutsy, like a dangerous carnival ride,” says Hawkins. “Playwright Jeffrey Jones says the reason that people go to theater is to see actors with real chops kicking ass. Ludlam saw his main job as providing them with good material.” Web features a strong role for an actress, a rarity in the playwright’s work—he wrote most of the best female roles for himself. Also uncharacteristic for a Ridiculous script is a cast of only six. “I love large-cast shows, giving every performer a ‘Scooby Snack’ no matter how small their part. But Annex is in a smaller space with fewer resources. I enjoyed directing shows like Stage Door and Front Page”—both American classics reimagined through Hawkins’ high-camp holiday vision—“but this is more what we can tackle right now.”