By Rob Montana
Hope and optimism.
That’s what theatergoers can expect to find when they enter the Hangar Theatre this weekend – Thursday, April 27, through Saturday, April 29 – to take in “I Carry Your Heart,” a play that has something for everyone.
Let’s back up, though, because there is a lot more to this story than just the story penned by Georgette Kelly about how two families connect through the gift of organ donation, about daring to love and the courage it takes to love for the first time.
Spawned by a project on Hope and Optimism – a $5 million, three-year grant shared by Cornell, Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania – co-directed by former Cornell professor Andrew Chignell (now at Penn) and Notre Dame professor Samuel Newlands. In addition to a grant funding research being conducted about the traits of hope and optimism, it also included monies for some public components – including a playwriting competition.
Native Ithacan Eliza VanCort, founder and co-director of Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca (along with co-director Katie Spallone), had connected with Chignell through her VanCort Consulting business. She took on a consulting role for the project, and became a producer of the play.
“I think Andrew is a rock star for including an arts grant embedded in a philosophy grant,” she said. “It’s a real testament to him to say ‘hey, lets put arts in here and get funding for it.’”
That started the ball rolling on bringing three childhood friends together to leave a local mark on the production.
VanCort called Jessica Hanna, with whom she shared the stage in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” when the two were students at Ithaca’s Boynton Middle School, to suggest a collaboration. They arranged a bi-coastal premiere of the play, in Ithaca as well as at Hanna’s Los Angeles, California-based Bootleg Theater. Hanna was tapped to direct the L.A. production and became part of the play-writing competition judging panel. She pulled in Jeremy Webb, another Boynton classmate who took the stage in “Charlie Brown,” to help read contest play submissions. He was included as a member of the final judging panel, and then took the helm of the Ithaca production of the play.
In addition to helping assemble the panel and creative team, VanCort made another local connection for the production – with the United Way of Tompkins County. “I Carry Your Heart” will not just offer an opportunity for local residents to see a high quality theater production, it will benefit the organization that offers so much to the county through its financial generosity.
“I have always believed when the arts and groups working for the betterment of our community partner, we all benefit. Civic minded folks of Tompkins County always rally when they can step up for each other,” VanCort said. “I truly believe they will come out to this special event and see this brilliant, accessible, fun play benefiting the United Way of Tompkins County.”
Infused with Local Flavor
Webb grew up in Ithaca, where he was bit by the theater bug at the Hangar Theatre through it’s youth theater activities. After graduating from the Empire State Institute for Performing Arts in Albany, where he spent his senior year, Webb began his professional acting career that included time on Broadway and regional theater, as well as a film and some television roles. He was honored with a Drama Desk Award in 2001; the awards are presented annually for New York City theater productions and are considered a significant honor in the theater community.
Hanna was on stage in the Ithaca area at the age of 4, and has been working in performing arts “pretty solid since then.” Continuing her theater education at the Theatre School at DePaul University, she became interested in physical improvisational work and became certified as a fight director. She acted around Chicago and then moved to Los Angeles, California in 1996.
After pursuing commercial acting work and continuing to develop her theater techniques, Hanna sought out like-minded people in L.A.
“I discovered a lot of theater here. It may not be called a theater town, but there is a lot here,” she said. “I was a performer in a lot of shows, I directed and produced some shows.”
She helped open the Bootleg Theater, which is a non-profit theater company and a for-profit venue.
“We’ve grown it over 10 years and it has become known as a music venue,” she said. “We try to have something every weekend, with plays and dance – mostly new work – and we try to be as L.A.-based as possible.”
Webb started directing about 5 years ago; he’s directed locally before as well, at the helm of “Rabbit Hole” for the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca.
“Directing is something I’m coming into now after 20 years as a professional actor,” he said. “I love the challenge of it, the big-ness of the job. It’s a lot of fun.
“What’s really neat about this project is that I’ve been able to hire designers and actors I’ve worked with all through my career,” Webb added, noting his connections to cast members Annalee Jeffries, Kristin Sad and Emily Neves. “The costume designer, Gretchen (Darrow-Crotty), grew up in Ithaca, too. It has been a nice feeling of calling together these talented folks from my past, all this talent that I respect.”
Webb spoke about the long theater connection he shares with Van Cort, Hanna and Darrow-Crotty.
“The four of us go all the way back to Boynton Middle School,” he said. “It’s a long friendship and connection that’s fruitful and meaningful for all of us.
“We were talking the other day amongst ourselves, saying it’s meaningful that we’re all still in the arts,” Webb added. “It’s difficult to make a living in a career like this, making plays, making art. It’s nice to reconnect.”
That connection was meaningful to VanCort and Hanna as well.
“The idea that gawky kids who joyfully sang on the Boynton stage decades ago have come together as grownups to make a difference for our community … well,” VanCort said, “I’m honored we have the chance to give back to a community which has given us both so much throughout our lives. It’s really special.”
“We did a lot of performing together and we all kept in touch over the years,” Hanna added. “What’s been a real joy of this project is getting to work with Eliza and Jeremy, and got to come back to Ithaca. What a gift.”
Webb is also enjoying working with people with whom he shares a deep connection.
“Like all artistic collaborations, sometimes it gets heated and spicy, and we all have different opinions on things,” he added, “but the beauty of our friendship and connection is there is total trust. It’s never personal, and I feel like I can do my best work in that situation, because I know the bedrock, the moral center of my collaborators.”
It’s not just Van Cort, Webb and Hanna putting local fingerprints on the production – the selection team was chock full of local theater founders. Among them were Cynthia Henderson, founder and artistic director of Performing Arts for Social Change; Rachel Hockett, co-founder and director of the Homecoming Players; George Sapio, founder and artistic director of the Ithaca Fringe Festival; and Godfrey Simmons, co-founder and artistic director of Civic Ensemble.
Hockett talked about her panel’s selection meeting, for which she was recommended by Van Cort.
“It was a fabulous and fascinating experience, starting with reading a lot of excellent scripts, conferring with my panel partner, Cynthia Henderson, and winnowing down our list,” she said. “The all-day conference, around Eliza’s welcoming dining room table, to pick the winner, was one of the most stimulating and rewarding days I’ve spent. So many wonderfully creative, deeply experienced, and thoughtful people comprised that group.”
That so many from this community have continued on in performing arts careers speaks to it’s cultural openness.
“We are a community that values the arts, and I don’t think we are a community that says ‘you have to go out and make money’ or ‘what is the intrinsic value of the arts?’” VanCort said. “People feel they can actually do something that’s meaningful to them.”
“Ithaca has a way of instilling lifelong trust and loyalty in a person,” Hockett said. “Maybe it’s the astounding physical beauty that is so inspiring to our local artists.”
“Both colleges boast wonderful performing arts programs, and creativity is in the air. I myself was born and raised in Ithaca, left town when I went to college, and returned seven years ago,” she added. “The siren call of this arts-rich community was irresistible.”
“From my perspective, this is the perfect community for a kid who is interested in the arts,” Webb said. “There was so much available to us – the Ithaca Theatre Company, Ithaca College, Cornell, the Hangar, plus our school shows.
“There was so much exposure to people who were asking or presenting us with a professional standard from a young age,” he added. “This community was able to provide us, as young people, with that foundation and helped me in my first steps of my journey as an artist.”
VanCort noted that she and her friends had several important mentors at that time – notably Hank Neuman.
“I think a lot of people see a career in the performing arts as something that comes from talent. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “Seeing it as a business you take as professional is what is important, and years of hard work and experience create a career. If you were in a Hank Neuman show, you absolutely were going to be treated as a professional.
“He was demanding and rigorous, he demanded discipline and was tough on us,” Webb said. “At the time, we didn’t like it, but that standard must be a reason why we’re all still doing this.”
Hockett also noted Neuman as someone whose influence left an indelible mark.
“If I had to thank one person in the entire world for my life in the theater, it would have to be Hank Neuman,” she said. “It was Mr. Neuman’s magical Ithaca High School production of Pygmalion in 1965 (52 years ago) – which I saw as an eighth grader (at Boynton Junior High School, as it was called then) – that infected me with the theater bug I have not found (nor wanted) a cure for ever since.”
“When I got to Ithaca High School, I became involved in the drama department while remaining heavily involved in music,” Hockett added. “Before too many years, drama altogether supplanted my one-time plan for a career in music. Mr. Neuman was an excellent teacher, director, and empath; I’m deeply grateful to him for laying the foundation of my theater career.”
Gary Race, a vocal teacher who ran the Ithaca Opera Association, was also an influence for the trio.
“He demanded we practice vocalizing every day, and taught us to think about singing in this really serious way,” Webb said.
“Between Gary and Hank, we were very lucky to have some incredible mentors,” VanCort added. “Mentoring, for me, is just one of the most important things that can happen to a young person. Today I mentor people and part of why I’m so committed mentoring is I had mentors that changed my life.”
“The first work I did that wasn’t acting was being his prop manager,” said Hanna. “I was assistant directing for him when I was 14. The fact that I had those opportunities was amazing.”
She also named Robert Moss as an influence; he was artistic director for the Hangar when she was going through school.
“I do a welcome speech before shows and I channel Bob Moss, because he gave great opening speeches,” Hanna said. “He was always pretty spectacular that way; that was a huge influence on me, maybe even subconsciously why I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
The cast of “I Carry Your Heart” has local flair as well.
“Jeremy was very committed to working with local actors, and we auditioned local actors before we opened it up,” VanCort said. “Three of the six actors are local; two from Actor’s Workshop and one is from Ithaca College. It’s an amazing opportunity for local actors to work with pros.”
Hanna is bringing the local philosophy to her production as well, focusing on Los Angeles actors for her cast.
“We are a city of imports and our big stages get a lot of New York actors,” she said. “I think there are a lot of good L.A.-based actors, and I’m excited about showing that.”
In addition to a different cast and director, the L.A. production of “I Carry Your Heart” will feature design difference as well. It runs from May 19-June 10.
“My design here will be a little more abstract and not so literal,” Hanna said.
Something For Everyone
The story of “I Carry Your Heart” follows Phoebe, a young poet living in the shadow of her estranged mother’s literary acclaim. When her mother unexpectedly dies, Phoebe is left with a complicated legacy. Lydia and her partner Tess, who is gravely ill, and their college-age son find themselves facing the idea of mortality. As the two families form an unlikely connection, they dare to hope that pieces of us can live on after tragedy.
A common theme among the producer and directors is that every person will find something with which to connect.
“Georgette Kelly’s story is an utterly relatable, gorgeously written, stunningly uplifting and hopeful piece of entertainment,” said VanCort. “I cried and laughed out loud and felt so inspired the first time I read it. It’s one of a kind and I believe those who come to see it will eventually be able to say they saw it first, before it burst onto the national scene.
“I so hope people will come to this show who don’t usually come out to see local plays. Folks will experience the magic of fun, uplifting and inspiring live theater,” she added. “This play isn’t just for seasoned theater goers. It’s a play about mothers and daughters. It’s a play about discovery and joy and the healing power of love after loss. We all can relate to stories about searching for joy and love in our lives. This play is universal.”
“This is a beautiful play,” Webb said. “I think people will be moved and entertained and changed by this play.”
“I Carry Your Heart” is one of five plays written by Kelly. In addition to being the winner of this inaugural Hope on Stage playwriting competition, her work has been featured on The Kilroy’s List, and Kelly has been a finalist for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the Lark Playwrights Week, the Goodman Playwrights Unit, the Stage Left Playwright Residency, and the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. Her plays have been developed with The DC Source Festival, The National New Play Network, The Alliance Theatre, terraNOVA Collective, Taffety Punk, and Diversionary Theatre. A resident of Chicago Dramatists and a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Kelly received a bachelor’s degree in performance studies from Northwestern University and a master’s of fine arts in playwriting from Hunter College.
Having been immersed in the world of the production for a while now, what is it that Webb likes most about the project?
“I guess the language of the play itself,” he said. “You have a different experience when you view the play on the page and when you perform a play. In the preparation stage, there has been so much time spent in the library or my apartment reading it to myself.
“What I’m enjoying the most is hearing the words spoken out loud and watching the connections build with this incredible cast,” Webb added. “It’s a nice affirmation, that the richness and the interconnectedness of these people and these characters are supported when the actors are speaking the words. It’s exciting, and I’m invigorated by the work.”
Hanna has seen her thoughts about the future grow brighter through her involvement.
“I have so much more hope and optimism, from working on this project, for the future possibilities for theater and art,” she said. “That, alone, is pretty awesome.”
Webb was drawn to the directing role by the opportunity to work on a new play, particularly one at the level of “I Carry Your Heart.”
“It’s exciting to work on new plays, because you have the opportunity to shape the material and help it be the best it can be,” Webb said. “It’s exciting to work with emerging and young playwrights.”
He noted that that the playwriting competition was judged without knowing who had written the works, but Kelly fits the definition of an “emerging playwright.”
“We now can be part of her story, hopefully to launch her work, to launch her name,” Webb said.
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For more information about the Ithaca premiere of “I Carry Your Heart” or to order tickets, visit the Hangar Theatre website at HangarTheatre.org, call (607) 273-2787 or visit its box office at 171 E. State St., Suite 230, in downtown Ithaca.