Dramaturg Becomes Playwright with The Welders ‘In This Hope: A Pericles Project’

Welder member Hannah Hessel Ratner is a trained dramaturg. How does that training influence her approach to playwriting?

The DC playwright collective The Welders bills itself as “the only playwright collective devoted exclusively to developing and producing new work.” When the second grouping of The Welders – whose members change every three years – were chosen in 2016, it was decided that the collective would develop plays not just by known DC playwrights but by theater artists from other mediums as well.

Hannah Hessel Ratner. Photo courtesy of The Welders.
Hannah Hessel Ratner. Photo courtesy of The Welders.

Specifically, Dramaturg (Hannah Hessel Ratner) and Costume Designer (Deb Sivigny) joined the collective, meaning that each would have the opportunity to write and produce a play under the Welders’ banner.

Costume Designer Deb Sevigny’s debut play “Hello, My Name Is…” earned three Helen Hayes nominations last year as well as critical praise from reviewers. Now it’s the dramaturg’s turn. Ratner’s In The Hope: A Pericles Project, opens on November 8th.

So what does it look like when a dramaturg – someone who traditionally helps playwrights or directors research and develop a show –  sets out to write her first play?

“The goal is to break down barriers between audience and actor and character,” Ratner says. “I’m writing this as a dramaturg, and creating a show that is the kind of theatrical experience that I want to see more of.”

Ratner describes her creation as loosely based on Shakespeare’s Pericles, a work she has been “thinking about adapting since grad school.” (Ratner obtained her MA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University in 2011).

Ratner was fascinated that Shakespeare chose to have the play narrated by “John Gower.” Gower was a contemporary of Chaucer’s and wrote a version of the Pericles story (Apollonius of Tyre). “It’s the first time that I saw Shakespeare directly reference the artists whose work he built off of,” Ratner says. “It made me think about how artists all build off of each other – directly and indirectly – and then I realized it’s all of us, it’s how stories are passed and memories are made.”

Although Pericles provided a launch point, the show has evolved to be 20% Shakespeare and 80% Ratner. Like Pericles, which follows the titular character as he searches for his lost daughter, In This Hope tells a story of displacement. The cast is comprised of four actors, all women, three with connections to other countries and one who is a bi-racial American. Questions of displacement and identity appear at many levels of the play – through the characters as well as through the actors themselves.

Hannah Hessel Ratner in a Welders promo ad. Photo courtesy of The Welders.
Hannah Hessel Ratner. Photo courtesy of The Welders.

Audiences should expect a theatrical experience described as “part play and part ritual,” expressed in several layers and languages. The Pericles story ties the rest of the action together, but Ratner stresses that her story is “not plot-driven.” Actor Raghad Almakhalouf, for example, shifts between playing herself, a narrator, and Pericles, as the show shifts between different layers of characters.

Language will feature heavily in Ratner’s piece. In her day job as Audience Enrichment Manager at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Ratner spends a lot of time thinking about how English speakers perceive Shakespeare’s language in particular. “People who idolize Shakespeare sometimes don’t recognize how much of a different language it can be to someone who hasn’t studied it or seen it a lot or to someone who isn’t a native speaker.”

Ratner hopes that by adding multiple languages into her play, audiences will pause and reflect on language that they might otherwise take for granted. In keeping with the meta feel of the show, the second language spoken by individual cast members will make its way into their character. Expect the actors’ linguistic backgrounds and personal experiences to make a mark on the final play.

In writing her first play, Ratner drew on three fundamental parts of her own identity: She is a dramaturg, she is Jewish, she is a woman. Ratner openly describes this show as an “experiment.” ”I have no ego on the line. If it works, it works. If not, I’m ok with that, but it’s a glorious time to be able to experiment and use the values I have as a Jewish woman who is a trained dramaturg.”

In This Hope will play at Spooky Action Theatre. The intimate 34-seat performance space will place the audience in a circle and offer multiple opportunities for audience participation. By implementing in-the-round seating, Ratner hopes that “people will see each other at all times, make a personal connection with each other and with the actors and also experience it as entertainment.”

In This Hope: A Pericles Project plays November 8 through December 2 at Spooky Action Theatre – 1810 16th Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

Cast: Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts.Director Anna Brenner, Dramaturg Hannah Hessel Ratner, Environmental Designer Colin K. Bills, Costume Designer Pei Lee, Sound Designer Roc Lee, Associate Director and Dramaturg Jess Phillips, Artistic Consultant Isaiah Matthew Wooden, Stage Manager Emma Heck, Assistant Stage Manager JR Hersh, and Production Manager KayCee Tucker.