Playbill On-Line has joined forces with Camp Broadway and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University during the 2002-03 season to create opportunities for four high school student journalists, covering Broadway news for Playbill's teen readership. From September 2002 until May 2003, four students who were selected for the program will be responsible for writing an article every other month. One such article appears below:
Not many sensible directors would develop their productions completely and exclusively around the interests of a very unique group, namely the defiant, nocturnal, adventurous urban younger generation of New York City. Yet Simon Hammerstein, the 25-year-old artistic director of Last Minute Productions, has initiated a series of audacious new works aimed at this unconventional audience. "We appeal to their darker sensibilities," says Hammerstein, a seasoned director as well as the heir of the universally recognized theatrical family. The Twilight Series, produced by Last Minute Productions (LMP) and settled at The Maverick Theater in Chelsea, is committed to entertain, shock, and challenge this crowd by adjusting the world of theatre to it’s vigorous demands.
One of the adjustments LMP had to make is the 11 PM curtain time. "Younger people stay up later, don’t go out until – I mean, if you get home from work at six, you’re not going to have dinner and be ready to go to an eight o’clock curtain. I think it helps people with more active social lives to actually get comfortable and make our curtain." The late-night show time also warns those outside the target audience against the ideas within. A desire to go out at 11 PM is a good indication of whether the Twilight Series is for you. "It weeds out people who don’t want to stay up late and don’t want to go over there with us."
Hammerstein founded LMP in 1996, and was later joined by producer/directors Richard Kimmel and Eric Sniedze. "What turned out so wonderfully is that we were very open and we listened to each other very well, and supported each other both with our energy and or resources."
The first production of the Twilight Series, Trueblinka by Adam Rapp, was a thought-provoking diatribe on puritanical narrow-mindedness that drew parallels to Nazi Germany. It was enthusiastically received by downtown critics and audiences. "It was an interesting idea and we didn’t know whether it would take off and whether it would be the right mix of energy. But we were wonderfully surprised that people actually did turn up an eleven o’clock show and were right along with it until the end. And the audience was amazingly on – an unusual audience. Funky, and not necessarily educated in theatre in the way that a lot of theatre audiences are." Was anyone skeptical about the probability of this success? "Yeah - me. It was everybody else that didn't contradict what I was trying to do. I was shocked about how everyone was so gung ho about taking a stab at this different time slot. Everyone was very excited about Adam and his work and the concepts of what we were trying to accomplish. It just kept going and building and garnering more attention - and a great buzz. Everyone who I’ve talked to afterwards seems to really want to get involved with whatever we have next. It’s wonderful."
Trueblinka, whose three-week run ended Oct. 12, was born at The Public Theater's 1997 New Work Now! Festival and had never before been fully produced despite its immediate success. Major New York theaters cautiously passed it over because of "the extreme language, kind of graphic, descriptive language about racism, religion, sex." With these effective attributes, Trueblinka was the perfect opening for the unconventional Twilight Series. Still, the production required a lot concentration from its audience. "It certainly wasn’t easy. It’s a difficult piece with a lot of symbolism, and I think what resonated the most was that this is a family as screwed up as it was, and as hateful as it was, and tragic, it was also a family that you could imagine in next door on Main Street, USA." Hammerstein has been involved in theatre all his life. "My parents took me out to the theatre ever since I can remember, and it was always magic for me, seeing a show, and I was actually able to feel like I was inside the world with the cast rather than watching it from a safe distance. That always turned me on."
Since then, he’s directed countless works in Gloucester Stage Co, La MaMa, and The Flea, among many others. "I didn’t know I wanted to be a director at first. I suppose when I was twelve, I thought I wanted to be an actor. And then I was too nervous and I mumbled and I didn’t know what accent I had because I was living in New York and London. I didn’t think anyone could hear me. And then I thought I should be a stage manager and I tried that out until I kept wanting to give notes," he laughed. "So I thought I should be a director."
It may seem ironic that the grandson of legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II explores such intensely scathing material. But to Hammerstein, the difference is mainly stylistic. "I think he inspired love and hope and optimism and I’d like to say that I strive for the same reflective qualities. I’m into kind of a faster, harder, maybe somewhat crazier sense of reality." What would his grandfather’s fans think of Simon’s work? "I have no idea," he replies. "I hope I’m doing him proud."
The Twilight Series continues with The Plank Project by Jeff Whitty, a light-hearted, silly parody of docudrama. "Which is a 1,100 pound transvestite that gets stuck in a well," Hammerstein explains. It runs November 7-30. Also, LMP is looking to move venues. "We all feel strongly that we could assume a space. The Maverick is great and we love it here, but we’re not the owners. I think that’s in the cards, to find a permanent home and look to Season 2, Season 3. We’re all kind of committed to this on the long term, which is wonderful."
As long as there exists an offbeat, passionate audience, Simon Hammerstein will continue to transform theater. "It depends on the audiences. Depends on what they want, what turns them on."
— Ilya Khodosh
Playbill On-Line Stringer