Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Hannah Hauer-King: Dry Land

By | Published on Thursday 29 October 2015

Ruby Rae Spiegel’s ‘Dry Land’ was a huge hit when it premiered in New York last year. The play, an exploration of sexuality and the pressure of youth, is set in the locker room of a Florida High School.


The piece gets its first UK outing next week, helmed by up and coming director Hannah Hauer-King. I spoke to Hannah, to find out more about the play and its young author, as well as her own career in the theatre.

CM: Tell us about the play. What’s it about, and what themes does it address?
HHK: In short, ‘Dry Land’ is about 17 year old female swimmers, desperate to escape the banality and boredom of small town Florida. The play’s two central characters are Amy and Ester – Amy is vivacious, funny, a little cruel, and 13 weeks pregnant after a drunken encounter at a house party. Ester is kind, shy, an immensely talented swimmer, and we suspect a little in love with Amy. The focus of the play is the relationship of these girls, the journey that they go on, their desire to escape Florida, and the people around them that so immensely impact their lives.

CM: What genre would you say it falls into? Drama? Comedy?
HHK: Ben Brantley captured it perfectly in his NYT review when he described the piece as, “tender, caustic, funny and harrowing, often all at the same time.” ‘Dry Land’ deals with important issues with an acute sensibility and laconic humour. Tackling important social issues and a central character trapped in an unwanted pregnancy, the piece is often high drama. And with a narrative based around characters grappling with reproductive health, mental illness, and confused sexuality, the play certainly doesn’t scream comedy. Yet the dialogue has a cutting wit and intelligence that will resonate, and hopefully provide momentary – and needed – comic relief. In many ways ‘Dry Land’ falls into the land and genre of more off beat Americana pieces like ‘Juno’, ‘The Squid and The Whale’ and ‘Diary Of A Teenage Girl’, which have been helpful references throughout the rehearsal process.

CM: What attracted you to this piece? What made you want to direct it?
HHK: As my time working at Soho Theatre was coming to an end, I was desperately looking for a play and project. I remember Nina Steiger (Associate Director at Soho Theatre) putting ‘Dry Land’ on my desk and saying, “you have to read this”. I sat in a tiny coffee shop and devoured it in 30 minutes. It was completely intoxicating: in terms of where I’m at in my career – and indeed life – it felt appropriate and timely. As a queer, half American twentysomething, I felt I could explore and talk about young women, sexuality and reproductive health in Florida with acumen and a needed degree of sensitivity.

Other than that? ‘Dry Land’ is not particularly revolutionary or radical in its content. We know that there’s teenage pregnancy, and that girls are routinely unsupported in their reproductive rights. We know that young women suffer from mental health issues and abuse. But what makes the piece special is Ruby’s profound capacity to talk about these issues with an honesty and astuteness that really gets under your skin, not to mention a courage that enabled her to write the climactic scene of the play… (no spoilers here!)

CM: What kind of audience do you think this would appeal to? Is it a young person’s play – given the relative youth of its author?
HHK: The audiences we have primarily targeted are schools and sixth form colleges, drama schools, members of the LGBTQ community and organisations interested in working with youth and mental health. But my hope is that Dry Land will appeal to most… The intelligence of the writing, the comedy and the sophistication of the relationships and story will I hope appeal to anyone who loves a compelling narrative. But in terms of themes and hitting home, if you are a woman and 14 or above, you need to be seeing this show… Almost every single woman who I have sent this script (theatre and non-theatre enthusiasts alike) have had a visceral and marked response to the piece, identifying their own or their close ones’ personal experience in Ruby’s writing.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the writer, and the history of the play?
HHK: The way I’ve been describing Ruby to practitioners here is a US iteration or answer to Polly Stenham. Her youth and ability to pen the heartbreak and truth of her generation is astonishing, even more so when I learnt that she developed this play when she was 21. Ruby wrote the piece in her Freshman year at Yale having had her own brief pregnancy scare, as well as being inspired by a graphic article in the New Republic about ‘The Rise of DIY Abortions’. The opening scene inspired by these experiences, in which Ester is punching Amy in a futile attempt to terminate the pregnancy, triggered what is now a fully fledged eighty minute piece.

CM: This is the UK premiere, isn’t it? Have you had any contact with the playwright? Has she made any contribution to this particular production?
HHK: This is the UK premiere, which is certainly exciting. There are also numerous productions going on in the States around us, including an October run in Boston and Providence. Ruby has been incredibly responsive and connected to the process – we speak frequently to bounce off ideas and discuss anything from line changes to sound design, from costume ideas to excavating particular moments in the script. It was always important to me that she would see the piece – and so I’m thrilled she is able to fly to London to see the show in the final week.

CM: A bit about you: what made you become a theatre director? Was this something you always wanted to do, and how did you go about making this your career?
HHK: My career started (as many theatre directors will relate) trying to be an actor, and failing woefully at it. I had the ongoing and frustrating experience of knowing what a good performance looks like, but being completely unable to execute it. A girl at college who I auditioned for refused to cast me (quite understandably), but offered me an assisting position on a mad but wonderful Spanish surrealist play called ‘References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot’, and I fell in love with the process. I spent my last three years at Georgetown avoiding academic work and directing anything I could get my hands on, including a site-specific piece of Mark Ravenhill’s ‘Pool No Water’ with a theatre company called Nomadic. I then moved back to London to act as Resident AD at Soho Theatre for six months, a thorough and needed immersion into the workings of British theatre.

CM: What’s the most satisfying element of your job?
HHK: Quite simply, reading a play, being moved and impassioned, then (hopefully) being able to communicate and ignite that passion in your cast and creative team. Seeing it come to life and met by an audience who leave as impacted and moved as you are is the even greater bonus.

Conveniently I also absolutely LOVE actors. Being in the room with an actor and suddenly reaching that eureka moment where their eyes are shining and you are both going “That was it!” is total kryptonite for me.

CM: What’s next for you?
HHK: Good question! As a theatre director, knowing what’s happening in even the next six months feels like a complete luxury… But for now I’m directing Roundhouse Resident Artist Izzy Tennyson’s one woman show ‘Brute’ at Soho Theatre in March, and a new play by Adam Foster at the Pleasance in April. I’m also going to be acting as assistant to Daniel Kramer on ‘Tristan and Isolde’ at the ENO – which will be a very different but exciting challenge.

‘Dry Land’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 3-21 November. See this page here for more info and to book tickets.