What's Upintheair with theatre maker Julie Hammond

Opening rEvolver festival’s 2019 edition, Other Inland Empires (May 22-26) traces the Jewish roots of surf culture from Europe to California and back again. Inspired by historical coincidence and field research in Berlin and Slovakia, writer and director Julie Hammond’s works to connect the dots with her Cali-surf-bum family to uncover details of her grandmother's Holocaust survival.

Julie Hammond

Julie Hammond

Julie Hammond is a theatre maker and instigator of public projects who works between Vancouver and Portland, Oregon. Her work has been presented across the west coast and been supported by Vancouver New Music, On the Boards, Art Starts Gallery, Vancouver Foundation, and Oregon Arts Commission, among others. She was a 2018 Artist in Communities in South Vancouver, a 2019 Artist in Residence at Caldera.

1. How did you get your start in theatre arts?

I started doing theatre as a pretty little kid (my first role was as an elf in a non-denominational school play), studied theatre as an undergrad, and worked as a performer/created with an ensemble devising company for a little over a decade.

In my teens and early 20s I had a side life in improv comedy (I once performed in the parking lot of a drive thru coffee shop as part of their grand opening party), which more than anything else taught me how to create with others out of nothing. As a teenager I started seeing experimental performance in odd spaces which turned me on to aesthetics I only later realized were derived from necessity/lack of budget, but also set me up with a really wide understanding of how to tell stories and probe ideas.

While my tastes and interests continue to lean towards performance, in the last few years I've been opening myself up to and trying to learn more about theatre by watching play plays again.

2. You have recently returned to Vancouver from Portland. Is the Vancouver theatre scene different from Portland?

In some ways it's really hard for me to say—I'm not sure if I see enough theatre in either city for me to make a proclamation of What It's Like. I was also so immersed in graduate school for my first 2.5 years here that I feel like I am just now, and only barely, starting to figure out what the Vancouver scene is all about. I throw myself into PuSh each winter, but that feels like taking the temperature of contemporary performance globally more than figuring out the local scene.

For a while I thought that Portland had more small companies, but then I hear or read about yet another company or collective in Vancouver, and of course new things are happening in both places all the time. Both cities are really struggling with space for artists to rehearse and present shows, but Vancouver seems to do more co-productions, perhaps out of necessity, and more remounts of shows from venue-to-venue. Funding of course is massively different; there is so much more money available to artists in Vancouver (and Canada generally) than in Portland, and while this means that people can pay and be paid for work (which I am 300% in favour of), I do find small shows here to be less scrappy, but even this statement ignores a whole world of super scrappy happenings so... I'm back where I started: it's hard to say.

Other inland Empires

Other inland Empires

3. Other Inland Empires deals with immigration, a hot topic around the world at the moment, what did you hope to convey about this issue?

I did not set out to make a show dealing with immigration, but I was in Europe in summer 2016 as the Syrian refugee crisis and anti-Muslim bias were reaching a fever pitch, so questions of who was welcome and who belonged and who controlled the narrative were really present for me.

In Berlin I went to an exhibit of 130 years of antisemitic stickers, and saw stickers from the 1890s displayed next to those from the present day; in some cases the cartoon drawings were identical and all that had been changed was who was being blamed: from Jews to Muslims, yarmulkes to hijab.

In Slovakia, the country from which my grandmother fled and where most of her family was killed for being Jewish, not only was I welcomed, I was given preferential treatment because of my passport. And of course today in North America, most Jews have both the privilege of being seen as white and the fear of being shot in their places of worship. Neither I nor my play claim to have any answers, but I hope we are both part of a complex conversation that acknowledges the flows of people and ideas across borders.

4. A thriving surf culture in Slovakia — was that a surprise to you?

This was a massive surprise! I went to Europe with failure in mind; I really did not expect to find anything surf-related, but it was relentless. At the same time, I realized that surfing as I was seeing it wasn't about the sport itself, but was a representation of an idea and aesthetic. I'm still curious about the kinds of beach culture I saw and would love to know more about the when/where origins of certain beach behaviours. At nearly every lake-side beach I visited I would see 100 things that would fit right in at Third Beach and one or two that would never happen here.

5. Did you know much about your grandmother's experience in WWII before you embarked on researching this project?

I knew shockingly few details about my grandmother's 1941-1946 life, but this is part of the culture of silence that develops around deep family trauma. My mother was surprised I didn't know that my grandmother had been in Dachau, but my grandmother never spoke about it and my mother never told me, so how I was I to know? As a kid I didn't have a need to ask, and when I got old enough to want to ask I knew it would be painful and I didn't want to cause her any harm. I started asking questions about her life in Slovakia before the war as a way to lead into more difficult territory, but those hard conversations are yet to come. It wasn't until I was pretty far into writing the play text that I finally listened to an interview my cousin did with my grandmother in 2008 or so. I'd had the audio on my computer for years and had always meant to listen, but something stood in the way. He asks gentle and beautiful questions and she opens up as though she has told those stories over and over. Her language is particular and considered, while her voice is deeply emotional; the events she describe feel both very far away and very very close. I lay on the studio floor and cried for a long long time after that first listen.

Other Inland Empires

Other Inland Empires

6. How would you describe the design aesthetic of Other Inland Empires that includes bunch of plastic palm trees and a green screen?

When I was in Germany I visited a place called Tropical Islands Resort, an indoor beach paradise built from a former airship factory on a site first developed as a Nazi air force base. The space is hard-to-describe huge: there's a rain forest, two beaches, hotels, hot air balloon rides, bars, ice cream shacks, water slides, tent platforms, flamingos, and all of it is inside this massive bubble building heated to a balmy 25 degrees (though of course the hotel buildings inside the main building are then air conditioned).

The space is so obviously fake—it is a beach inside a building sitting in a field an hour outside Berlin—but it is also so delightfully real. There's a massive blue sky banner that hangs over one of the beaches, and at night a sunset is projected onto it; snuggled inside the dirt and trees of the rain forest are camouflaged speakers playing sounds of insects; the grains of sand are all identical in shape and colour.

Tropical Islands Resort

Tropical Islands Resort

When I first started discussing ideas with scenic designer Robert Leveroos I kept coming back to this contrast of fake and real found at Tropical Islands, and thinking about how these same ideas of fake/real work (and don't) in the theatre. Rob suggested the green screen as a kind of portal, a surface that stands in for presence and absence. I love that the green screen creates a space onto which the audience can project their own images. I wanted to find other ways of playing with the real/fake divide, so brought inflatable palms from the Party Bazaar as well as a bunch of real plants into some early workshops and almost everything stuck.

I suppose the short answer would be to say my design aesthetic for this show is Tropical Stop Making Sense Maximalism.

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7. What's up next for you? Do you have a new project you are developing?

The most immediate thing will be taking Other Inland Empires to Portland at the end of June! I also just started on a new public art project in Richmond called Minoru Manifesto. I'll be working with folks from the community over the next six months on the twinned ideas of the manifest—the things we carry—and the manifesto—the things we claim—and building a performance of some sort. I don't know what the final piece will look or feel like, but I know it will happen September 27-29 at the Minoru Chapel, I'm also pretty sure there will be lots of words.

Thanks Julie for letting us know more about Other Inland Empires that plays opening week of rEvolver Festival.