We stopped in at the Garage Theater to talk with Peter Christian Hansen, founder and artistic director of St. Paul’s Gremlin Theater, about his approach to his craft as well as his current project, a regional premier of Jane Martin’s H20. Joining us for the latter half of the conversation was Ashley Montondo, Hansen’s H20 co-star, an actress who has made waves with a recent string of standout performances at the Guthrie, including roles in The Crucible as Mary Warren and Pride and Prejudice as Elizabeth Bennet, playing opposite Vincent Kartheiser.
H20 is a two-person show that tells the story of Jake, an aimless L.A. movie star invited to Broadway to play the leading role in a revival of Hamlet. Given complete casting approval, he holds auditions for the role of Ophelia and quickly finds his life intertwined with Deborah, a talented young actress struggling to balance her Christian faith and her desire for a big break.
David Berglund: How do the rehearsals for a two person show differ from a bigger cast?
Peter Christian Hansen: I love two person shows. I’ve done, strangely enough, one a year for like the last five years. They’re great, assuming that the two people are good, and right for the roles, and get along, because it can literally just be you, the actor, the director, the stage manager – that’s it! So it’s kind of relaxed, and you can work on it very naturally.
And I like plays where you’re always engaged – always on and active in what you are doing, because it helps just keep you chugging through, and a two person play virtually guarantees that. But at the same time, the downside to that is that you always have to be doing your job really, really well because there’s no relief.
DB: And the Minneapolis Theatre Garage is an intimate space.
PCH: Which I like. It’s fun to act on the big, big stages – it’s a different kind of energy, but I like being right in amongst people and being close.
DB: How did you come across this play?
PCH: Actually Jack Reuler, who runs Mixed Blood, had become familiar with this play. It’s only a year and a half or two years old, and he has contacts with the mysterious Jane Martin, and he got a hold of this play early on. He’s actually directed it elsewhere, but he sent it to me and he was like “Hey, I think this would be a great show for you, I think this would be a great show for the Gremlin to do. What do you think?”
I brought it to Ellen [Fenster], who is a director we work with a lot, one of my favorite directors, and had her read it and see what she thought about it and see if it might be something to collaborate on. And then we put together this season of collaboration with Torch Theater where we’re coming here for a year. This sort of fit in as part of that. So, it was kind of a lucky little coup for us to be able to do it.
DB: Are there distinct advantages or disadvantages from doing a regional premiere like this?
PCH: I love it. I love it. I love doing new stuff. One the things that drives me nuts is that… Well, surprise, I like really good plays! I wish there were more new, good plays, because I think that it’s important to theater that there be new, interesting, worthwhile things being written. I like doing stuff that’s either new, or something that is old and that people don’t know about.
DB: What do you hope comes from this production? What kind of conversations do you hope it starts?
PCH: I think that every single great play wrestles with pretty much the same ideas, which is what is at the core of humanity, what is the struggle of the individual person in that, how do they make sense of the world, how are they desperate to get through it, and what is the tragedy here? So, this play does all of that, and it has something to say about our modern world, which is it’s kind of adrift and things that seemed normal and traditional now seem kind of alien. And we have this other kind of new modernism, but it’s kind of empty, and so what happens when these two things come together?
DB: You are an actor in high demand in the Twin Cities.
PCH (laughing): Would that everyone can feel that way!
DB: But you also have the Gremlin. How do you as an artist manage your own professional life between those two worlds?
PCH: It’s tricky sometimes. One of the things that has been really nice about not having a space is that [the Gremlin is] not on any kind of scheduling pressure to come up with a show.
Chelsea Berglund: What do you see for the future of the Gremlin? What’s up next for the company?
PCH: Next is we have to pick this last, fourth show to do here [at the Theatre Garage] in the fall, and then we’ll kind of see. There [are] a bunch of scripts that I’m looking at right now that I think are really interesting, and there are some different actors or directors that I’ve talked to about different plays that are sort of up in the air.
In the next three to six months we will start to figure those things out, then we can begin to start landing things for the next year. But we’re still going to be nomadic for at least another couple of years. Right now it’s been kind of liberating not to be a landlord. It’s also been kind of nice to remember why it is that you want to do theater and what is important in terms of what the setup is going to be, how do we want to do this, what kind of place do we want to do it, and what kind of involvement do we want with having that place.
At this moment, Hansen’s co-star Ashley Montondo arrived for the night’s rehearsal.
PCH: You want to talk to Ashley, too? She’s great.
CB: Of course! Ashley, what drew you to the role?
Ashley Montondo: What drew me to the play in general is that both of the characters are just trying to survive, day to day and [my character’s] belief system is the thing that gets her through the end of the day, helps her get up the next morning. And as much as that makes her strong, she has as many doubts as anybody else.
The rehearsal process has been really interesting because I came into the process thinking of [my character] one way and realizing that she was completely different. She can have all of the right lingo of somebody who is very strong and passionate about their faith but still has doubts and still has unanswered questions, but makes a conscious effort to maintain her faith as a way to just survive.
DB: Were you able to draw from personal experiences? From interactions with Evangelicalism?
AM: Maybe not from particularly Evangelicalism, but just trying to make it day to day through all the rough patches and what you have to do, especially as an actor, with all the disappointments and all the uncertainty – of how you talk yourself down out of panic and fear. Our whole life is…
PCH: Pretty much up in the air, all the time.
AM: And it’s job to job, month to month. Both [characters] have that fear and uncertainty. He is seen by everybody, and she is seen by no one, but they are both equally alone and wanting to be real artists in the world and make something meaningful.
And [the play] is funny! It’s not just funny, it’s also sad and… upsetting. It’ll get under your skin, in good and bad ways.
CB: A final question for the road. Favorite local haunts? Where do you hang out?
PCH: Well, I live right around the corner from the Blue Door in St. Paul, so that’s where I go.
AM: I like Pat’s Tap. You have to go! Their happy hour is awesome.
Peter and Ashley will be performing the Gremlin Theater’s production of H20, running from June 5 to 27 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, located at 711 W Franklin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55405. Tickets can be purchased at the Gremlin website (http://www.gremlin-theatre.org/).