An Interview with Hannah Van Sciver on ‘Doing Whatever’s Scary!’

After receiving a classical education at the University of Pennsylvania and graduating with a degree in English and a minor in Theater in 2014, Hannah Van Sciver has appeared in productions at Shakespeare in Clark Park, Revolution Shakespeare, and The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. But along with the classics, she has also done some more contemporary work as an actor, director, and musician, in addition to her own original pieces as a playwright, devisor, and producer.

The Greenfield Collective logo. Design by Sara Outing.
The Greenfield Collective logo. Design by Sara Outing.

Following her success as the creator and star of Marbles in the 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Bicycle Face in Philadelphia’s 2015 SoLow Fest and the Razor’s Edge Solo Performance Festival in New Orleans, and Fifty Days at Iliam in the 2015 Philly Fringe, the multi-talented artist (she’s also a poet and photographer) recently announced the founding of The Greenfield Collective, for which she serves as Artistic Director.

While in preparation for the company’s upcoming show, The Magnus Effect, Hannah sat down with me to discuss the trajectory of her flourishing career and her plans for the future.

Deb: How did The Greenfield Collective originate and what is the meaning of its name?

Hannah Van Sciver. Photo by Jordan Matter.
Hannah Van Sciver. Photo by Jordan Matter.

Hannah: My middle name is Greenfield, and green is also my favorite color, not to mention its associations of sustainability; Collective is because I value a sense of community. Since graduating college in 2014, I’ve found a lot of success making my own work, and I’ve been loving it! This is the next step in formalizing my relationship as a self-producer with a team of frequent collaborators, as well as putting the work we make in conversation with itself. I realized that we’d been having an artistic dialogue together over the past few years, and I wanted to recognize it as such.

Amanda Jill Robinson, Megan Slater, Joseph Ahmed, Hannah Van Sciver, Elizabeth Audley, and Richard Chan in 'Fifty Days at Iliam.' Photo by Dave Sarrafian.
Amanda Jill Robinson, Megan Slater, Joseph Ahmed, Hannah Van Sciver, Elizabeth Audley, and Richard Chan in ‘Fifty Days at Iliam.’ Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

It’s wonderful to be creating inside a community of your own design. I can’t say enough good things about my fellow Collectors Sara Outing, Amanda Jill Robinson, Richard Chan, Mal Cherifi, Elizabeth Audley, and Joseph Ahmed. They’re enormously creative, daring, and kind individuals, and I am learning from them constantly. We also have an extraordinary advisory Board, with Jeremy Berman (Columbia Law), David Kuehn (Cotuit Center for the Arts), and David O’Connor from Philadelphia Young Playwrights, Jacqueline Goldfinger from The Foundry, and Maura Krause from Orbiter 3, who are experienced in working with and developing organizations that focus on emerging theater artists creating new work.

A big part of The Greenfield Collective’s launch effort was a video we did called “I Carry Your Heart,” which is ALL about community engagement and spreading the love. We filmed it over four days, in twelve separate locations across Philadelphia, with 50 of our favorite Philadelphia humans and dogs. Amanda Jill Robinson wrote this gorgeous song, inspired by movement workshops for The Magnus Effect, using the poetry of e.e. cummings–my very favorite poet; I was sort of relentless in my love for it. Eventually it materialized into this community engagement dance project in public spaces and a kind of love letter to the Philadelphia artistic community, which we premiered at Headlong Performance Institute in April, at our official kick-off party “The Lift-Off.”

What are the benefits you find in creating ensemble-devised pieces, as opposed to writing your own work or acting for other companies in well-known plays by established playwrights?

I get wholly different things from each process. When I first graduated college, I expected to work almost exclusively on plays written by other people at local well-established theatres. Of course, that didn’t happen, and I’m terrible at being bored. David O’Connor, who directed me in The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Cymbeline–my first professional production–encouraged me to continue my training, to learn different approaches, to keep growing. Since then, I’ve studied with the British American Drama Academy in conjunction with the Yale School of Drama, as well as locally with Pig Iron Theatre Company and the Wilma Theater. Those experiences have inspired in me a desire to create in as many ways as possible. I like to be firing on all cylinders all the time. Everything I do informs everything else I do. The skills I pick up as a devisor make me a better actor and writer, and vice versa.

Why do you think devised work has become such a huge trend in Philadelphia?

That’s a big question. It’s exciting to watch folks embrace new approaches to creating theater. For me, devising is an exciting way to make use of all the parts of my artistic brain. I imagine others must find that appealing as well. But that’s not always possible, or particularly useful for me, when I’m in a traditional rehearsal room. There is a sort of communal electricity that happens for me when I devise with a group of artists–I am very drawn to it. It feels a little like theatrical skydiving. I also think economics must have something to do with it. Devising lends itself well to a DIY approach, which allows underfunded artists to make something much greater than the sum of its parts.

Do you think it will come to define the Philadelphia theater community of our decade and beyond? 

That’s hard to say, but if you follow the money and the direction in which some of the big theaters are going, I think it’s here to stay for a while at least. It’s exciting to watch FringeArts, theaters like The Wilma, and companies like Lightning Rod Special and New Paradise Laboratories gain national attention for their approach. And of course it’s great to watch companies and self-producers like Sam Tower + Ensemble, Almanac, or Team Sunshine, who embrace a more avant-garde methodology, tear it up locally. The pendulum is always swinging. Who knows what else is coming? In the next few years, touring more is a major goal of mine, to see what the response is outside of Philly.

Tell us about the format of The Greenfield’s upcoming work The Magnus Effect. Who’s involved and is it collaboratively created? 

The script itself is set up a bit like Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, but with a twist. It toggles between weekly meetings with a group of strangers attempting to overcome their fear of flying. However, as I began writing, I wondered what it would look like to watch those people dance. And so, there is a lot of interstitial movement between scenes; I call them “anxiety ballets.”  The hope is that they create a sense of magic, and provide an alternate way into understanding these beautifully complex people.

I’m the lead artist and playwright, David O’Connor is directing, Sara Outing is the lead designer, and my sister Sarah Van Sciver is writing the music. Amanda Jill Robinson is serving as music director, and Joseph Ahmed is helping with the choreography. The cast includes myself, Amanda, Richard Chan, Zoe Richards, and David Pica. We have a combination of collaborators old and new, and so I think this will be a fruitful mix.

Community engagement is a big part of our mission with The Greenfield Collective, and so with this piece we’re also featuring a multidisciplinary artist each night in a pre-show performance; we’re asking them to bring work inspired by the theme of anxiety. Already signed on are Bi Jean Ngo, Mal Cherifi, and Elizabeth Audley. In addition, we reached out to the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and they will be distributing resources to our audience pre- and post-show. Lastly, we’re providing free tickets to student theater-makers through Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

What inspired the theme? 

4.Richard Chan, Zoe Richards, Amanda Jill Robinson, David Pica, and Hannah Van Sciver in a promotional image for The Magnus Effect. Photo by Dave Sarrafian.
Richard Chan, Zoe Richards, Amanda Jill Robinson, David Pica, and Hannah Van Sciver in a promotional image for The Magnus Effect. Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Well, I think all actresses under 30 must have anxiety. Actually, scratch that; probably all theater folks of all ages. And I think people in the arts in general often suffer from imposter syndrome–I certainly do. Claiming creative space is hard! I wish we talked about it more.

I’ve always wanted to create a piece about anxiety, and conveniently, within the last five years I’ve developed a real fear of flying onboard airplanes. What’s great dramaturgically about the fear of flying is that there is such a plethora of reasons for it: claustrophobia, motion sickness, germophobia, fear of losing control, to name a few. Plus airplanes are such symbols of modernity and technology. It allows me to write really specifically about something that’s pretty universal.

What do you hope to accomplish with the show? 

I want the audience to identify both with the characters and the conversation being had. We all have things we fear deeply, and sharing them is terribly difficult, let alone facing them head on. I hope the show presents a compassionate portrait of what it looks like to engage with your fears, as well as the complexities behind the impulse to help others.

Also, we’re producing this show without the context of either the SoLow Festival or the Fringe. And so I hope to solidify our audience base further! In many ways, this feels like such a big plunge into the unknown. I hope people come to the production, and feel as excited about what we’re doing as we do.

What’s your first creative memory? 

In pre-school, we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and we were given five little construction paper rounds to glue together into our own caterpillars. All the other kids stopped at five, but I believe I continued until about 30. My mother had my massive and unwieldy caterpillar framed; it lives in the kitchen to this day. It reminds me that I’ve always had the impulse to reject artistic boundaries.

What other projects do you have coming up over the summer and beyond?

Before The Magnus Effect, I’ll be doing Bad Hamlet, a co-production with Lesley Berkowitz and Joseph Ahmed, with the GC involved as well. In September, I’ll be performing in King John with Revolution Shakespeare for the Fringe, before taking Bicycle Face to the United Solo Festival in New York City on October 14, thanks to Jackie Goldfinger pointing me there. This winter, I’ll be performing in Sleeping Beauty: A Musical Panto at People’s Light; choreographer Samantha Reading encouraged me to audition for it, after she directed me in Rev Shakes’ Love’s Labour’s Lost in last year’s Fringe. And I’m in the midst of developing two other ongoing projects: one called Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please with Nicholas Scheppard; and another, called The Importance of Being Wilde, with Brenna Geffers and Ross Beschler, which we worked on this summer on Cape Cod.

Where do you see yourself professionally ten years from now? 

I hope I’m still learning new things, and doing whatever’s scary. When you’re terrified, I think it’s generally a good sign that your work is important.
My ideal season will probably always be one classical work, one contemporary play, and something I make myself, so I hope I’m getting to work on a variety of projects. I hope I’m creating opportunities for others, too, and that I continue to be blessed with outstanding collaborators. And, goodness, I also hope I’m traveling, doing more work nationally and internationally, experiencing how my work is received outside of Philadelphia–though, I want this to remain my home base. I appreciate immensely, and cannot emphasize enough, what a supportive, talented, and close-knit community we have here.

Thanks, Hannah, for sharing your thoughts and introducing us to The Greenfield Collective and its upcoming work! 

The Magnus Effect plays July 14-17 and 21-24, 2016, at The Greenfield Collective, performing at Vox Populi Gallery – 319 North 11th Street, 3rd floor, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them online.