For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed theatremaker Anne Hamburger. She is the founder and Artistic Director of En Garde Arts, the not for profit theatre that put site-specific theatre on the map. In existence since 1985, En Garde Arts has created groundbreaking work with some of the most influential downtown artists of the past four decades. She left New York City in 2000 to run a global division for Disney for nearly nine years and then returned to relaunch En Garde with a new and expanded mission to create work with social change at its core.
What is your latest creative endeavor? Tell us about it.
Downtown Stories is a series of three theatrical adventures that bring to life the secrets and stories of Lower Manhattan. Running June 8 through 25, It consists of three offerings: Sidewalk Echoes, inspired by interviews with small business owners downtown, and two fictional walking tours, Uncovering Downtown: a Magical Expedition of Unrecorded Dreams, and We the people (Not the Bots). Sidewalk Echoes is free of charge. Your ticket reservation for the walking tours will provide you with a $20 voucher to enjoy the food of one of the local restaurants that make Lower Manhattan so special.
What was the inspiration for it?
I’ve spent the better part of 40 years uncovering the magic, the mystery, the beautiful in this city we call New York. Making theatre that uses the city as our stage. Riding around in my beat-up Nissan Sentra with Tina Landau looking for a site for En Garde Arts’ production of ORESTES who sees a twisted metal pier jutting into the Hudson and says “That’s the House of Atreus”. Walking around with Reza Abdoh, the brilliant director who fell in love with the meatpacking warehouses and the cobblestone streets that spawned En Garde Arts’ production of Father Was a Peculiar Man.
Now…40 years later our wonderful, fraught, complicated city still retains its magic, and this magic is the source of all that I do, the artists I commission and the questions we ask.
And the latest questions swirling around in my head are:
What untold stories are yet to be discovered in the neighborhoods where we reside? Who are the people whose courage, resilience and backbone have created a world where our small independent store owners are still surviving and thriving? Who and what predated these modern buildings shooting up around us? What is the history that lay beneath our feet as we step over cracked sidewalks and glance at locked doors with peeling paint that no longer open?
What other projects would you like to tell us about?
En Garde Arts has many projects in different stages of development. Behind Closed Doors is about the secrets we hold and reveal regarding our gender and sexual identity and how these secrets impact family, friends and the quality of our lives. Three multi-hyphenate theatre/filmmakers will be creating short films that will exist within public art structures in which the audience participates as protagonists in revealing these secrets. Two of the filmmakers are trans artist MJ Kaufman and Lesbian comedian Marga Gomez. We are co-producing with San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company. In development for a premiere of one of the films/structures in 2023 and the fully mounted production in 2024.
Sunny’s Breakdown created by playwright Sarah Gancher and Jared Mezzochi, is the story of a marriage, a family, a musical community, a bar, a single place in deep time. It will be both an in-person performance in a Red Hook warehouse and at Sunny’s bar in Red Hook as well as a broader engagement with audiences through digital platforming, allowing our story to expand beyond just the in-person event itself. In Development for a planned premiere fall of 2023.
En Garde Arts also has two developmental series Uncommon Voices and Playdate, opportunities for under-represented artists to develop properties around social change.
In this current time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, what do you believe your role is in this moment?
As a creative producer I develop projects with social change at their core and do everything I can to ensure that they have the widest possible audience. In addition to creative guidance and financial resources I always strive to ensure that the creative process is filled with nurturing, care and understanding.
Who are your inspirations, artistic and otherwise?
My influences are Anne Bogart, Tina Landau, Joseph V. Melillo, Robert Smithson, Pina Bausch to name a few.
What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
I love putting people and projects and ideas together and making them come to life.
What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
We took our show BASETRACK Live, about the impact of war on veterans and their families, to the military base Fort Hood in Kileen, Texas. At the center of the story was a Marine who came back to the US with PTSD and sought therapeutic help. The soldiers were forced to come to the show by their superiors and many of them had never seen a theatre piece before. A young 25 something dude walks in and says, “I hope this isn’t another power point presentation about why we shouldn’t kill ourselves.” I told him that it was theatre. At the end of the show he came to me and said, “Maybe I will go see a therapist. Cool.”
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
When we are on our death bed all we really think about is who we’ve loved and who loves us.
What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I love connecting, connecting with artists in all disciplines who inspire me, whether its theatre, film, television or literature either personally or through their work and exchanging ideas about all the things that could be.
If you could let go of something that holds you back, what would it be?
Self-criticism and feeling like I am never good enough.
What do you do when you feel like giving up?
It never lasts very long so I continue working and wait for it to pass. My mother was manic depressive and laid down on her bed consumed by her depression. I’m not a depressive person but when I’m feeling low, I can buoy myself up by embarking on a project, connecting with friends, taking a walk, hugging my dog.
What surprised you most when you first became a working artist?
How under-resourced the field is.
If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
What advice would you give someone who is just starting out?
Find a mentor and make yourself indispensable.
What is your idea of success?
This is a complicated question. Rather than trying to answer this briefly. When we created Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes), which was a multi-year project with many ups and downs, we had our first preview at La Mama and received a standing ovation. Ususally first previews are a mess. I was so moved I began to weep, seeing the results of a long and difficult collaboration bear fruit.
What is your idea of happiness?
The sun shining through my window in the morning, my Havanese dog curling up in my arms, a close-knit experience with my daughter or son, creating theatrical work I’m proud of, riding my bicycle on a beautiful day and knowing I’m lucky enough to have all these things in one life.
Where can we learn more about you and your work?
Come see Downtown Stories opening on June 8. Check out our website engardearts.org.