Theater insiders will call someone who acts, writes, and directs a triple threat. Kyle Hatley, Kansas City Repertory Theatre's resident director, is such a person. Following his acclaimed performance in An Iliad earlier this year, he's now at the helm of Sticky Traps, the theater's third play by Kansas City's own Nathan Louis Jackson.
In this month's installment of Director's Cuts, Hatley talks about his history with Jackson, a playwright-in-residence at the Rep, and what it means to rehearse a show with the playwright in the room.
Sticky Traps is about a mother’s response to protesters at her gay son’s funeral, and the third play you’ve directed by Kansas City, Kansas native Nathan Louis Jackson. Can you talk about your relationship with him?
"Nathan’s work came to me one day in 2008 when we (Hatley and artistic director Eric Rosen) were looking for new plays. And we heard about Nathan through fellow Kansas City artists, that he was from the Kansas City area and was doing well at Juilliard and was doing well at Lincoln Center with his production of Broke-ology. We all fell in love with it.
And something about the way Nathan sees the world attracted me. He doesn’t just tell stories that feel human. He tells stories about people who normally don’t have their stories told. That’s probably one of the more exciting things about Nathan’s work — that he does have a way to bridge people of any kind, of any background, of any history, across any challenge. That he has a way of sort of leveling the playing field so we can realize we’re actually all on the same horizon, we're all looking at each other in the exact same way."
Kyle, how does having the playwright present change the process? Because you’ve directed lots of plays where the playwright’s long dead and not in the room. So what happens when you and the playwright have differing opinions or points of view?
"I’ve worked with a lot of playwrights in the room and I’ve worked on plays, as you said, without playwrights there. I think I’m always going to be drawn to the playwright’s point of view as I interpret it. And however I interpret that, I need to make sure that Nathan’s play is being served as well.
It’s a fun experience for me. It can be exhausting but only in a good way though, because you’re having to work on the balls of your feet, in a way. And if at any moment you run into a snag, the great thing about having the playwright in the room is that you can turn to that playwright who’s been watching what you’re doing, and have an immediate conversation about how to solve this. Or if it needs solving. Or if we’re all just misinterpreting it. And Nathan’s great about that."
But I can imagine it can be fraught and tense, and you’ve probably had experiences where there isn’t that much collaboration in the room.
"Oh, sure. I think in the end my job will always be to serve what the playwright wrote, so if there is something I’m going after that I feel passionate about that Nathan disagrees with or the playwright disagrees with, then I’m in error. I need to restructure it or redirect it in a way that serves what they want, but especially with a world premiere, where the most important thing is to give the play its full life the first time out as best as you can but serve the play first."
Can you describe a scene or passage from Sticky Traps that exemplifies what you like about Jackson’s writing?
"In Sticky Traps, the mother is trying to bury her son, who was homosexual and he had committed suicide. He didn't know how to fit in to the world because of this. And the mother’s brother is the preacher that's leading the protests outside, and, at one point, the brother, this preacher, comes into the church and has a conversation with the sister. And the kids are like, ‘Let’s not bring him in. Let's not bring him in." and the mother is like, ‘No, I want to hear what he has to say, because he promised me he wouldn’t do this and here he is – he’s outside doing this.’ That’s the kind of scene that gets your blood pumping when you watch his plays."
Your acting in An Iliad was so physical. Can directing ever be as physical as acting is?
"For me it almost always is. If I sit down in a rehearsal room, I’m standing back up five seconds later. I’m very hands on. As an actor myself, I love it when directors talk to me because there’s meaning in that, I think, and that proximity addresses a certain care. But I can’t keep still when I’m excited about what I’m working on, which is almost every play, thankfully. I'm very lucky that that's true. But I get very excited very easily and when that happens I turn into a twelve-year-old who can’t keep his feet still."
Your title at KC Rep has changed since you relocated to Chicago, from associate artistic director to resident director. Can you talk about what that means for you and what does that mean for Rep audiences?
"Yeah, the associate artistic director position I held from 2008 to 2014 involved a lot of administrative responsibilities as well as, you know, a lot of artistic responsibilities per production, whether I was directing it or in it or not. With me relocating to Chicago with my fiancée (actress Emily Peterson), it changed the game a little bit because I wasn’t going to be here. For Eric giving me the opportunity to stay around and stay included in the conversation at the Rep, it's very meaningful to me, especially to someone who’s embarking on a freelance directing and acting lifestyle.
If there’s anything I learned it’s how important your personal life (is) balanced against your professional life. For a long time, I really didn’t focus much on my personal life and that’s sad because things can suffer but that’s not true for me anymore. I really want to focus on that side of my life."