Davidson's Theatre Department makes department history this week, debuting its first-ever commissioned original work. Written by award-winning playwright Wendy Hammond and directed by lauded director, producer and founder of three performing arts centers Steve Umberger, What You Will is a provocative comedy about the intersections of belief, attraction, gender identity and diversity.
Drawing inspiration from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Hammond's play takes place at the first "World Interfaith Conference for Peace," and features a cast of conference interns, all ascribing to different personal and religious belief systems.
"There is something wonderful that happens when you choose to do a new work," Umberger said, "sketchy, unpredictable, terrifying as it is, it's wonderful. It takes you back to your most creative impulse."
Now the artistic director of the theatre company Festival Stage of Winston Salem, Umberger has directed world premieres of numerous original works, including others by Hammond. In fact, he premiered her first play–The Ghostman–for the nationally-recognized Charlotte Repertory New Play Festival, and continues to have great respect for her work.
Hammond's plays Absence, Julie Johnson, Family Life: 3 Brutal Comedies, Jersey City, Road Rage and The Ghostman have been produced by off-Broadway in New York City and by U.S. regional theatres, as well as internationally in cities including London, Milan, Rome, Tel Aviv, Singapore and Melbourne. Her play The Hole was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new American play. Her screenplay, Julie Johnson, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has won many awards, including Best Feature in the Barcelona Film Festival and an Audience Award in Berlin.
"Wendy is the perfect person to write this play," Umberger said. "Not only is she a great playwright, she's also a pastor."
In addition to her Masters in Fine Art from New York University's Dramatic Writing Program, Hammond holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. Through her studies first at Hartford University and then at Yale, "I got to see the world through people's eyes who were not my religion," she said, and that perspective informed her character development in What You Will.
The project began in May 2014 and Hammond continued to tweak the script well into the first few weeks of rehearsal this winter. She visited Davidson a few times, and also had Skype meetings with the director and cast, which were extremely helpful, she said.
"I'm just in awe of the people involved," she said. "They have giant souls. Even through Skype I could feel their connections to each other on stage."
"Davidson students are open doors," Umberger said, which is one of the reasons he loves working with them. "They are tenacious, resourceful and willing to learn and do."
And that made his decision to return to Davidson for back-to-back guest-directorships an easy one. Umberger has a long-standing relationship with Davidson, having served as a guest lecturer and guest director multiple times over the years-about every five years or so, he said. He directed Davidson's production of Twelfth Night last year, and welcomed the opportunity to return this year, particularly for a project that incorporated so many of his loves: a new work of theatre, a respected playwright, a committed cast dedicated to its craft and Davidson's top-notch facilities.
The Barber Theatre space invites audience members to become a part of the experience, Umberger explained. It's smaller and quite different from the Duke Family Performance Hall, in which he directed all of his other Davidson shows.
"We treat the Barber room like the set, using the actual doors and walls," Umberger said. "The audience will feel like they're a part of it all."
The intimate space is in keeping with intimate themes–deep, human themes everyone in the audience can relate to, much like those in Twelfth Night.
"Shakespeare may not specifically be talking about different races and orientations, but he is articulating ideas about essential human behavior and acceptance that resonate loud and clear in our multicultural world," Umberger said. "Both Twelfth Night and What You Will are populated with characters who are being transformed by discoveries about beliefs, sexuality, identity."
"We're reaching across centuries," Hammond said, by looking at subjects that all people deal with and relate to.
Though both plays are comedies, both show in a serious way what happens when you fall in love, and how issues of identity, including gender, culture and religion, affect the process.
"What Wendy is writing is advanced," Umberger said. "Like Twelfth Night was for its audience, What You Will is not a reflection of the world we're living in now. It's a big ‘what if.'"
What You Will runs through Feb. 22 at Davidson's Barber Theatre. Buy Tickets.