Halena Kays | Performer of the week

The Fall of the House of Usher at the Hypocrites

The Fall of the House of Usher at the Hypocrites Photograph: Matthew Gregory Hollis

For his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Sean Graney cast three actresses to play all the parts, with the performers switching roles throughout. Making her first appearance onstage with the Hypocrites since being named artistic director, Halena Kays gives a rousing performance in Graney’s melodramatic production. Raised in Michigan before moving to Tennessee at 16, Kays divided her time between sports and performance growing up. She came to Chicago to attend Northwestern University, and has since become an innovative voice in the theater community, cofounding the arts education ensemble Barrel of Monkeys with Erica Halverson in 1997, the same year Sean Graney founded the Hypocrites. A fan of Graney’s company after seeing its inaugural production of The Bald Soprano, Kays later became a company member before being named Graney’s successor as artistic director last year. Kays speaks to us about juggling her multiple responsibilities, the challenges of Graney’s adaptation, and how she’s moving the Hypocrites forward.

Right now, you’re not only balancing performing and artistic director duties, you’re also a new mom. How are you dealing with the juggling act?

I don’t know, ask me in a year. Who knows? It’s really difficult, but in the end, I always think that choosing to do something with your life that isn’t super traditional, everyday you’re just lucky that you’re still doing it. That I don’t have to go to the same job everyday or do something that I don’t care about, I feel that’s such a gift. The fact that I have a kid and we’re still figuring out a way to make this life work for us, I just think it’s really lucky. And it’s a ton of hard work to continue this. Anyone’s career where you choose to do something that’s never going to pay you a lot of money—and that is absurd—you have to have a sense of humor about it. Not take yourself too seriously and be willing to work really hard to make it work out. So far, so good. I’m really glad I did [Usher], I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea or not because I started it when my kid was only two months old. So I was still recovering from surgery, basically. [Laughs.] And it has been such a great thing. There were all women in the room besides Graney making this show, and that was great when I had to go pump breast milk at the break for rehearsal [Laughs].

What was the rehearsal process like? Because the roles switch throughout, were you always paying attention to each other’s character notes?

The process was different from any show any of us had worked on, and we couldn’t figure out how to process it, so we just kept checking in with each other, telling each other things that we’d figured out. Like creating any character, 90 percent got thrown out and the 10 percent that remained we all tried to keep consistent with each other, or really find the particular gestures that we knew would stay throughout, even if the character shifted. And then you had to figure out from the beginning to the end—two of the characters change and one pretty much stays the same, so you’re tracking that and allowing for change to happen or it would be stilted within itself. It was such a crazy process, I think it will continue to shift and become more and more distinct as we run the show, too.

How were the parts split? Was it firmly decided who would be playing what and when from the beginning?

Yeah, the script is written with the shifts in there, so from the beginning we knew how it was going to work. I think the characters the three of us begin playing are the ones that are most comfortable for us, and as the play shifts, it becomes more of a challenge for each of us. And that made it fun, too.

How did you work to balance the comedy and horror aspects of the adaptation? What do you think incorporating that campy element adds to the story?

Trying to figure out tone in this show for Sean and for us was challenging, and I think it went through a lot of different tones as we tried to find what would be best. We all kept our eye on classic melodrama and how to play that, both in fun and in including the audience. What we now think of as camp at one point was really just straightforward melodrama, with jesters and a lot of silent-movie eye acting and things like that. We just started to embrace that as a skill and tried to become experts at it and tried to show that there’s a lot of fun in this but there’s a lot of expertise and great storytelling, especially for horror-filled, trickery-filled theater. So we embraced that as something to hang onto tone-wise, and then you just, I think with any kind of style choices, ultimately it’s still being honest once you have a physical language for your character. You’re still just communicating with each other and the audience, and ideally in an honest way where you’re still trying to get something from each other and still have hope that it’s going to turn out well. Which it doesn’t for these guys. [Laughs.]

Hypocrites shows always take advantage of the fact that it’s live theater to create an experience that is unique from other media, whether its promenade staging in Pirates of Penzance, setting 6 Characters in Search of an Author at a rehearsal or having three actors playing all the roles in Fall of the House of Usher. Do you think that’s an essential part of the theater’s mission?

I definitely think so. Beyond the theatricality of all the shows, as far as design elements are concerned and presentation—there are so many things you can do, so if you’re choosing to come to see something live, you’re choosing to commune with your fellow Chicagoans and watch a story together and I think we really sincerely embrace that as something that feels important and delightful, whatever the subject of the play is. I know we take that all really seriously together, and we love that the Hypocrites' audience has embraced that as well, so they come in hoping for an opportunity to have a new experience and to be really live and present in the room with each other. [Usher] has a completely different set-up and a really different way of including the audience in the spectacle of the show, but ultimately it still feels a lot like a Hypocrites show.

What are you most proud of in your past year as artistic director?

Oh god, that I didn’t bring the company down single-handedly. Thank Christ. [Laughs.] Transitioning from a founding artistic director to the next wave of whatever for any company is always a huge challenge, and I’m just really happy that in this first year, we had such a successful year artistically. I think all of our shows were artistically really satisfying for the people who made them and our audiences responded to them really well. To me, that meant we’re continuing to push ourselves and to grow rather than either to remain stagnant or go backwards out of some sort of fear that now there’s a new artistic director. ...I feel like it means that the Hypocrites are going to be around for another 15 years, and ultimately that’s the goal.

With the recent expansion of the company, it seems like you’re striving to build a bigger Hypocrites family and make something more sustainable.

Yeah. The group that we brought in, these are guys that have been working with us the past five years really consistently, and it seemed crazy that these guys were not company members and that our company was so small and full of us old-timers who started it so long ago. And some of the old-timers don’t live here anymore, some of them are in New York, some of them are Equity, and it seemed like it was really time to make sure that we were an actor’s company, and that’s what that was about. It’s been great, [Usher is] the first show to have me in it along with new company members, and it just infused a sense of energy that I’m really looking forward to exploring over the next couple years.

Can you tell us anything about Stealing A Ferris Wheel? Burning Bluebeard was one of my favorite shows of last year, and I’m excited to see you working with Jay Torrence again.

I’m really excited, because Bluebeard and the Daredevil shows that I made with those guys are my favorite creative experiences as a director, so I just feel so excited that we have the opportunity to make something. All I can tell you now is that I just came to Jay, who wrote Bluebeard, and said, “If you can write anything, what would you write?” And he’s really interested in these historic figures from Chicago, and I said, “Great, let’s get on it.” So we’ll probably gather a couple of our other collaborators from Bluebeard together, plus some new Hypocrites collaborators, and work really similarly to how we built Bluebeard, which is with a main playwright, but with also a lot of influence from the ensemble, both writing and creating things physically and through clown work. So right now Jay’s working on the new 500 Clown show, and I know he’s using a lot of the way they build a show to bring into our process, and then we’ll start building our show actually really soon. It’s always scary walking into a process without a script fully finished, but that’s how we make those shows. [Laughs.] So cross your fingers.

It seems to work out.

Yeah, that’s why the Hypocrites exist, so that directors and writers can come together and take a risk and make something and produce things that are difficult to get produced otherwise. If Sean sent his script around the country, I think they would look at it and not know what to do with it originally. I feel like we’re a laboratory that gets to make these kinds of shows that have some crazy and strong visions from our directors, and just take the risk. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but I’m just really glad we have a place we can do that.

In your bio, you have an anecdote about how you received a letter from Mr. Rogers saying you were “special,” which I think is adorable. What’s the story behind that?

When I was little, my mom told me that Mr. Rogers filmed his show in Pittsburgh, and my grandparents lived there. So I wrote him a letter and told him I’d be stopping by, because people used to just come by his house, and so I thought he would let me come by. So he really wrote me back, a really nice letter explaining to me that he had television friends and neighborhood friends, and that I couldn’t swing by, but that I was really special. And it had signed pictures of all the weird puppets from the Imagination Land that he goes to. I have that letter framed on my wall, it’s pretty great. The thing about Mr. Rogers that I like to remember, especially from having made Barrel of Monkeys, is to not be cynical all the time. You don’t always have to have distance from things. Sometimes just straightforward caring about the people you live near and your neighborhood—which for me is Chicago—is really important to me. And it’s so fun to be a hipster and be snide about everything that you see, but I really like that letter because it reminds me that sometimes it’s just great to remember you have imagination and to be sincere about it.

The Hypocrites' The Fall of the House of Usher runs through September 23 at Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St, 773-989-7352). Read our review of The Fall of the House of Usher.

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