KRISTIN HANGGI: MUSICAL THEATRE’S UNSTOPPABLE MIDWIFE
By Jillian Walker
On a sunny January afternoon, Director Kristin Hanggi spoke to League member Jillian Walker about her creative process, the similarities between developing a musical and midwifing, and using her feminine gifts to take over the musical theatre world.
JW: Here’s one of my favorite question to ask creative people: what would you say is the genesis of your journey?
KH: That’s beautiful, ok, I love that. One of the things I always say is that I was just a little girl that liked to play pretend, and that’s just what I still do. I was always putting on pageants in my living room or backyard and enlisting my little brother and all the neighbors to come, and eventually my cousins and trying to charge parents to come watch. I went to high school and just kept being like “Let’s put on a show, people” and didn’t know until college that there was a name for the person who said “C’mon everybody, let’s put on a show,” and that that was a director. And then, I realized that what really turns me on, is getting people who love what they do, who are all great in different ways at different things and bringing them all together and creating a family. It was in college that I really found that that was my juice. My Master’s is in Dramatic Storytelling.
JW: Wow, ok.
KH: I got really interested in how we tell stories in a Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung kind of way. What I’ve always found interesting is how we tell stories also mirrors how we learn in life. In life, we set up these obstacles to go through to teach us what we already know, and it’s that same process that we do when we’re telling a story. I love that. I also love working with a writer at the very beginning when it’s just the spark of an idea and holding that vision and saying that’s what we’re making. It’s like raising a baby.
KH: The first thing that I did after grad school was a musical called Bare, and that show sparked a fire.
JW: Was Bare something that started while you were at USC?
KH: Yeah, I think it was in my last year at USC that we started talking about it and having dramaturgical meetings about it and decided to produce it ourselves. Since then there’ve been over 100 productions worldwide. It felt like a moment when destiny comes and gets you. Like the Universe saying “this is what you’re going to do.” The heart of that story was something that not only the composer and lyricist deeply cared about, but I deeply cared about. It was something that for us was very important, very truthful to talk about.
JW: And you were with the project for several years.
KH: Uh-huh. That’s what I love about musicals. New musicals especially. It’s like running a marathon. You know, you see the spark in the distance of what it could be, and then you get on the ride and you’re like “Alright ride, take me wherever we’re gonna go,” and every show is different, it takes you on a different ride.
JW: I actually think that in a lot of ways, women are equipped for that long process of birthing a musical. Being a doula for a musical.
KH: That’s exactly what it is! I always say I midwife these things.
JW: Is that why you feel like you were drawn to musicals more, or did it just happen that way?
KH: I know that for me that when I listen to music, I see images. The music will tell me what to do with it, so it’s always been a very easy, flowy process if the music speaks to me. I’ve really learned for myself that I can’t do a show unless the music speaks to my soul, and if it does, it will inform me and I’ll listen to it, and I’ll put it on, I’ll start getting images, and that will be the direction that I start to walk in.
JW: So can—this is something that I’m really curious about. You have this idea, this spark that you’re helping to nurture into this fully-fledged show: can you talk about some of the challenges of that walk? Or, how you stick with a project when it seems like it’s coming to a dead end? How do you have endurance through that process?
KH: Sure. So, I believe—and this is just part of my spiritual belief–that you wouldn’t be given a vision if you weren’t also gonna be given the resources to create it. So I know there is a pathway there, and I know that if I’m pregnant with a musical baby, it wants to come into being. One of the challenges off the bat is collaboration. Collaboration is such a yummy, juicy process, but I always say if we’re gonna do a musical together, it’s like we’re gonna get married. We’re gonna see the best of each other and sometimes the worst. So what we have to do is create a lot of space for us to be safe. What I find, just like a marriage, is that in close collaboration, in that intimacy when you’re creating something, all of your wounds will come up. If you’re working with people, you have to know that that’s good. That’s part of the process. I often say to collaborators: let’s work in a zone where’s there no right and wrong, there’s just curiosity about the questions that we’re asking. That’s gonna lead us somewhere interesting. One of the things I love about collaboration is that it teaches us how be better communicators and have more compassion for each other.
In terms of endurance, I do believe that every piece of the puzzle is right, and sometimes the big production doesn’t come in, because you’re not ready for the big production yet. There’s still things that need to get ironed out. I find if there’s not an open door to the big flashy production, it probably means the material needs more development. You have to be a musical whisperer, leaning in to it and letting it tell you what it wants. And no two musicals can be raised in the same way. You have to let your children be raised in a different way. I try to work in a way that I’m not forcing, but listening.
JW: So what would you say is consistent about your process, throughout Bare, Rock of Ages and now your development of the Clueless project? What is the consistent way you show up as a collaborator?
KH: One of things that’s consistent is my intuition, and I think that is a natural feminine quality, to be able to listen to ourselves and to our gut and to follow those instincts. When does something feel right? When does something feel wrong? I think that that’s a powerful tool to be able to go, “I don’t know why this feels wrong, but I’m going to sit back and think about what would feel more right.” And I’m not afraid of using my gifts as a woman: intuition, nurturing, receptivity, as part of my power of what makes me a great director.
JW: That’s really refreshing to hear. (laughter)
KH: Thank you! I know that’s what makes me wonderful. My ability to be in those feminine gifts.
JW: How do you feel that’s received by the industry? By the mostly male environment?
KH: Well the thing about the industry is that they’re not really in the room. All they know is that the show is working. No one is seeing my process except for the people that are in the room with me and that’s where my dedication is. I believe that a director should almost have an invisible hand and that part of my job is to create a safe space where everyone can perform at the highest level of themselves and then I can get out of the way.
JW: When Rock of Ages became a big success and you were putting it up all over the world, did your process change at all?
KH: The thing about doing a show all over the world is knowing that every time you cast it, different people bring different gifts. You only benefit if you let them bring their gifts. So that was really interesting. But what I also learned that’s fascinating, is that moments that hit in one country—when Franz does his rip-away in “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” the pitch that was created in the audience was the same in every single country.
KH: I could play it on a piano. And that shows you the interconnectedness of all human beings, and that was really powerful. Certain things are the same no matter what and then because we are all different there’s things that become their own and you have to let them become their own animal.
JW: You are a director who allows for the specificity of the human being to be the thing that then makes it universal.
KH: That’s it! That’s exactly right, well said. Thanks, Jillian.
JW: You’re welcome.
JW: One more question about Rock of Ages. What was the beginning of that?
KH: I was directing a show called The Pussycat Dolls at The Roxy. I think I was 24. I was directing Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Charlize Theron, Christina Applegate, and we put on this really fun burlesque show. All these celebrities came to The Roxy, including all these rock stars. What would happen is people would start telling me stories. Dave Navarro would tell me stories about playing [there] and the guy that was the barback, the sound guy, and everybody [had] all these stories. I was a big fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I loved how that took place in a concert venue. I remember a feeling at the time of: there’s a show about the Sunset Strip. I filed it away in my head. A couple years later some producers called me and said, “we can get the rights to some eighties music. Come on in for a meeting.” I went in and I said “Well, what about this idea? We can do it about a club on the Sunset Strip in the eighties.” I went and I found a writer and the Universe brought me Chris D’Arienzo.
JW: Wait, let me make sure I understand. You filed it away in your mind and you hadn’t mentioned it to these producers?
JW: Wow, that’s really cool. The synchronicity of it.
KH: Well, I believe in synchronicity. I don’t think it’s random. Four years later we were on Broadway.
For more information and inspiration about Kristin Hanggi, visit her website.
Jillian Walker is a playwright, lyricist, performer and current MFA Dramaturgy candidate at Columbia University. She’s lovingly obsessed with the creative process and has been a proud LPTW member since 2013.