We sat down with Kyle Hatley, director of Oklahoma! for a conversation about his vision for this production.
TW: What is your vision for this production of Oklahoma!? Is there anything in particular that drew you to this show?
KH: Whether it’s a book, a poem, a song, a film or a play, the best stories stand the test of time. They somehow co-exist with us humans, shifting, changing, responding to the times in which we are all living. This story is no different. Our idea is to simultaneously celebrate the American musical theatre classic that is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, while also re-imagining it for today’s audience.
In 2011, I directed a production of Carousel at The Living Room Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. Two years later we remounted it for a larger audience in a co-production with a larger theatre, Kansas City Repertory Theatre. It is, for me, the most personal work I’ve ever been a part of as an artist. Rodgers and Hammerstein mean more to me now than before those two productions. I like being in a room with their words and music. I like finding the human being with real concern and real joy and real folly inside the rich style of their worlds. They’ve become foundational to me as an artist. Voices to learn from, as well as voices to challenge. I wasn’t sure Oklahoma! would speak to me as personally, but it speaks to all of us. To tell the story of Oklahoma! is to tell the story of early, optimistic America, brimming with anticipation, wonder and innovation. And, also, injustice. A sharp, jagged blade of injustice cuts into this story, revealing another side of the American spirit, darkening its otherwise glossy, bright shine. It’s a simple but complicated story for a simple but complicated time. And for me, personally, the thing that most excited me was the opportunity to tell this story for your community in what is such an important moment in THEATREWORKS’ history. I’m proud to be a part of that.
TW: What is interesting to you about performing a musical in a black box theater?
KH: A black box theater is analogous to an artist’s creative canvas, an empty space, capable of anything, and are therefore, hands down, without a doubt, the most exciting venue for theatrical creation. It not only provides flexibility with your playing space, but also flexibility with how your audience perceives the story. Whether it's proscenium, in-the-round, thrust, alley, promenade, or whatever, black box theaters allow you to customize your audience’s experience. That is a game changer for creative thinkers AND audiences. How you orient the audience to the story and the story to the audience is EVERYTHING.
TW: This is a classic musical—what do you think draws modern audiences to this production over and over again?
KH: Oklahoma!’s been around for 75 years. It’s still one of the most popular musicals in the American musical canon. When it’s produced, people make a point to see it. But it’s hard to produce. It’s often tied to expensive scenery with enormous scene changes and a parade of beautiful, turn of the century, period costumes, a cast of dozens and full orchestras. But that’s not how we’re doing it. One thing I’ve learned about this company, and what I continue to learn about Murray Ross, is that THEATREWORKS cares enough about their audience to find something urgent and immediate in the classics that mean something right now. And I think that makes exciting theatre. Because it frees and relaxes the mind to think differently about this trophy story, this icon. Because the exciting thing is not the icon. The exciting thing is breaking the icon. To see what’s inside. To see what makes it. To see why its parts do what they do. And then, once you’ve studied it, toiled over it, fought over it, lost sleep over it, obsess over it, then you start to build a relationship with it. And only then can you start to see it for what it is. It’s more than a play. It’s a whole world of truths. Some are fun and some are hilarious. But some are dark. Dangerous. Some are so sad. Some are so sad you can’t even take the full reality of what it means to ACTUALLY feel it. That relationship our team develops with the story is critical to our creative output or how we connect the story and the audience.
One of the things Rodgers and Hammerstein do so well is let their characters struggle to tell the truth, which ultimately leads to anxiety, even anguish, or sometimes even death. How this production is going to be different from other productions, I can’t tell you that yet. The cast will teach me that. The creative team will teach me that. My ideas colliding with their ideas will teach me that. Watching audiences (in the rehearsal room and in the theater) will tell me that. Our job is to bring the story and the audience as close together as possible without any of us getting in the way. I’m very excited about our cast and our creative team. It’s gonna be a really fun room. Our set design is simple and gorgeous and singular, with so many cool surprises. And while the tunes are familiar, our orchestra is a little folksier, a little smokier, and a little stringier, with a few tricks up their sleeves. Sure, it’s got title recognition. But it’s also got a hell of a cast and creative team.
TW: Is there anything you want audiences to know before they sit down to watch the performance?
KH: If I could tell audience members one thing it’s this: there’s not a seat in the theater that won’t be completely surrounded by the story.