Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher’s works have been staged from Broadway to Hollywood. He co-wrote the theatrical adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie with author Mitch Albom, Claire Danes starred in the film version of his original play Stage Beauty (for which he also wrote the screenplay), and he even wrote some episodes of Columbo back in the day. Which makes us doubly lucky that some 28 years ago the Ohioan-turned-New Yorker came to Minneapolis and never left. Hatcher’s works are rife with snappy dialogue and edgy humor (no wonder he counts Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Bill Corbett among friends). His latest play, the delightfully self-deprecating Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet, is a one-man retelling of his fifth-grade staging of the Shakespearean play.
You’ve done everything from big, blown-out blockbuster films to one-man plays. What’s it like moving between them?
They’re three different cultures, theater, film and television. They have certain similarities—you type up the script, actors say the words, there are directors, etc.—but different people are in charge of different things; there are different traditions, different structures.
For example, in the theater, when a playwright writes something, people can want the playwright to change dialogue or what have you, but they have to ask, and the playwright can say no. Why? Because the playwright owns the material. But when you work in television and film, with very few rare exceptions, they’ll ask you, but if you don’t change it they’ll just get somebody else to, because you sell them your work. So you don’t own it anymore.
You’re much more connected to the process and the people, and the sweat, the blood and the tears and that sort of thing in the theater.
Is there a particular appeal for you of small, community theaters?
I like going to community theaters because the people who show up really want to be there. You know, sometimes in the theater people show up because they have season tickets or they’re on the board, or they feel guilted into going. But sometimes when you go to places in the middle of nowhere, there’s three hours of cornfield and then suddenly a town—if people go to the theater there, they must really want to. Because they’re not going to get their pictures in the paper. It’s not the social event of the season. It’s like going to the well for water.
Is that one of the reasons you've settled in Minnesota?
It’s a great town for theater. I forget the number, but what have we got, 60, 70 theaters that are at some level professional? We’ve got terrific actors, we’ve got terrific directors and designers. You can go to a lot of cities (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis) where there’s one big theater. But you look far and wide and you won’t find Guthrie, CTC, History Theater, Illusion, 10,000 Things, etc., etc., etc.
Actors will go where actors must go. But in terms of directors and writers flowing into a city because they know they can get work there, and good work? This is one of the few that I can think of. It’s certainly one of the reasons I stay. Very good town for playwrights, and that’s not always the case in theater towns. We do a lot of old plays in Minneapolis, but in the course of a given year, it’d be interesting to see how many new plays by writers who live here are actually produced every year. I’m sure it would be dozens and dozens.
Speaking of new plays, let's talk about your latest work, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet, the retelling of your childhood directing debut.
My childhood triumph!
Sounds like you knew early on what you wanted to do.
I’m pretty sure back then I thought primarily about performing. You know, a kid who wants to act in front of everybody and have ‘em go “Oh, look at him! He’s good!” And because I suggested we do Hamlet in fifth grade and I had seen some of the film of Hamlet, that Olivier did in the late ‘40s. I’d gotten my hands on a copy of the script. But to get on stage, in that situation, I had to direct it and I had to adapt it, so those were kind of like layers I had to get through to get on stage. As it transpired, I didn’t even get to play Hamlet.
I thought that was a rather magnanimous behavior for an 11-year-old.
It wasn’t very magnanimous as it was realizing I wasn’t really cut out for the role. But, that’s part of the play, the moment I realized I shouldn’t, or I can’t play the lead role. It was a very early learning experience. It was like being shot into the middle of a battlefield and said, okay, you have to make the bullets, fire the bullets, make the gun, throw the gun, run away, try not to get killed. You know, that sort of thing.
Is it particularly different from work you've done before, as it's essentially a monologue written about your childhood, performed by you?
I’ve done plenty of monologue plays where an actor speaks to the audience for say, half an hour. But when you’re playing a character, a fictional character, you do have something to hide behind. Ostensibly, you’re pretending to be someone else. Where in this one, I’m pretending to be myself. Whenever you’re onstage you’re playing a character, whether it’s you or a version of you, or somebody else entirely. You do recreate and re-craft yourself for public consumption, so to speak.