The Rebirth of the William Inge Theatre Festival: A Conversation with Hannah Joyce-Hoven

Dan:                 I’m here with Hannah Joyce Hoven, a person who I think of as a dear friend because I have known her for a very long time. When I came to ICC in 2011, she was already an employee here and had been an employee here for, I would say at least two or three years…

Hannah:           Since 2004.

Dan:                 Her husband was an English teacher at the same time, her husband, Matt. And so  I’ve known her ever since then. So, so that means I’ve known you for eight years.

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Hannah:           [Laughs] Yeah.

Dan:                 So what I’m going to do first is I’m going to embarrass Hana by making her sit there while I read who she is, a little bit about her, her biography, which is pretty remarkable. [Hannah laughs.] She’s professionally speaking, she’s in a pretty incredible person and that’s why she is the artistic director of the William Inge Theater Festival here at Independence Community College. Hannah Joyce Hoven is the director of membership programs at the playwrights’ center in Minneapolis. And as the producing director of the William Inge Theater Festival in independence. Here she is the ultimate playwright fan girl. Hannah has helped to develop the new work of some of the country’s finest playwrights among them Caridad Svich, Alice Tuan, and E.M. Lewis. Prior to joining the playwrights’ team, she was the director of operations at the William Inge Center for the arts, which is where I met her originally. In her time at the incenter, Hannah was on the executive producing team for 12 festivals. We have an annual festival here that the William Inge Theater Festival honoring visionary American Playwrights Co produced over 40 new play development workshops with playwrights from across the country and hosted hundreds of guests, theater artists on the center’s campus. Originally from Saint Louis, Hannah has worked and performed with a number of theater companies throughout the Midwest, including the repertory theatre of Saint Louis, the St Louis Shakespeare Company, and the prison performing arts, which is intriguing. Hannah serves on the Board of the William Inge Festival Foundation. Her education and training includes a, a bachelor of arts from Wheaton College. the Lincoln Center education, teaching artists certification and yoga teacher training. She is also an actor, singer and Yogi. And I have seen her do all three of those things. Remarkable. Hannah, welcome to the podcast.

Hannah:           Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here.

Dan:                 I thought maybe I described that you are the artistic director of the William Inge Theater Festival. Now this is a little complicated for somebody who isn’t associated with ICC, but there are actually two entities here with sort of similar names. And to make it worse, one entity is embedded in the other. There is something here called the William Inge Center for the arts. and that is an organization, and but that center for the arts, one of their primary responsibilities is that they put on the William Inge Theater Festival and event, which is an annual event and is the, official state theater festival of the state of Kansas. Hannah is the artistic director actually, Hannah, I say you’re the artistic director. Is that the actual official title?

Hannah:           I think the official title is producing director, but it made they are sort of kind of the same.

Dan:                 Yeah, I think right. I think it changed, I think maybe a year or two ago because when I came here for longest time it was the artistic director and I think they actually changed the name to better reflect what the person was actually doing. Sorry, I change the name to producing director.

Hannah:           Correct.

Dan:                 To reflect with the person was actually doing. You’ve been here a lot longer than I have and you’ve been associated with the festival for a lot longer than I have. Could you just tell our listeners a little bit about what the William Inge Theater Festival is? How it came to be and a little bit about William Inge himself perhaps.

Hannah:           Yes. I would be happy to. William Inge, who was a playwright and a screenwriter, and he really hit the world scene on the theater scene in the fifties and sixties; he had plays on Broadway. He had films, his screenplay “Splendor in the Grass,” featured Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. And that was sort of their first, I would say for Warren Beatty. It kind of made his career take off after that. He had a screenplay called “Bus Stop” that featured Marilyn Monroe and he had a number of plays that did really well on Broadway, including “Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” “Picnic,” which many high schools and colleges have done over the years, all over the country. Most recently they did a revival of his play “Come Back, Little Sheba” on Broadway, but I think that was five, four more years ago. So William Inge had an incredible career. He was inspired by Tennessee Williams when Inge was living and working in Saint Louis, and working for the St Louis Post as the theater critic. And he saw “A Glass Menagerie” and was blown away by it. And so he met Tennessee Williams afterward and they talked. Tennessee is actually who encouraged him to start writing plays. So he did and he became quite successful. William Inge was a closeted gay man back in the fifties and sixties and that was a really difficult time to be gay. And he never really found a way to live authentically that way. So he was very depressed, and in his later years he was having some plays, but they weren’t getting great reviews, and he started to feel like he didn’t have anything more to give in terms of the theater. And so tragically he took his life, but William Inge had a really big impact on a lot of people over his career, including people in the town of independence where he grew up. One of his former classmates who was also on faculty at Independence Community College at the time, she wanted to somehow honor his life and his legacy here in his hometown.

Dan:                 That’s Margaret Goheen?

Hannah:           Yes. And William Inge’s sister during that same period decided that she wanted to donate all of Inge’s books and his artwork and his collections and his plays, both finished and unfinished, to the Community College Independence Community College here where he also attended. And so the donation of what is now known as the Inge Collection, and Margaret Goheen’s desire to celebrate Inge was the beginning of this seed of the William Inge Theater Festival. Margaret, who was also teaching theater, happened to have a connection to Jerome Lawrence who was also a playwright. The two of them worked together to decide what would be a fitting way to celebrate Inge. And they decided together that maybe if at the point in his career where he had taken his life, if he had been given some recognition, if someone had said, your work matters, keep writing, that he would have felt like he could continue. So that was sort of the spirit in which the festival began, that they would celebrate playwrights who’d had a long career in theater, who had a significant impact, but who weren’t being celebrated as much anymore because they were getting older, but who were still working to give them a recognition at that moment in their career and tell them, keep going. We see you, we see your work and, and we love you.

Dan:                 Now this, this festival occurred every year for how many years? 30?

Hannah:           38. So we’re about to start our 38th annual festival here in just a few more weeks. And over the years we’ve honored some incredible playwrights. People who many will recognize: Neil Simon, Stevens Sondheim, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Paula Vogel, Wendy Wasserstein, the list goes on and on. There’s some just really incredible playwrights, and they all come to Independence, Kansas.

Dan:                 And that totally blows me away that it hosts the official state theater festival. Because of course, you know, Kansas like many other states, has much larger cities that have large universities in them and can be, you know, are very, very cultural places. And instead of the state theater festival existing in one of those places, it’s here in Independence, which kind of always surprises me.

Hannah:           Oh, it’s incredible. It’s really amazing. Yeah.

Dan:                 Yeah. Well, 38 years. Okay- so let me tell you a story. When I came here, the first year I was president here, I had a meeting during the Inge Festival, which by the way occurs at sort of the end of the academic year. It varies a little from year to year, but it’s, it’s sort of toward the end of what academics think of as the year. And the executive board of the Inge Festival Foundation asked to meet with me, right here in the office where Hannah and I are sitting, and we sat down and I remember that these people were actually, every one of them, was from out of town – I think all of them at the time were from the east coast. So these were not local people that I meet with regularly and they sat down. So we got acquainted for a few minutes and then the person at the time who was the president of the foundation, he, he looked at me and he said, “Now, the most important thing you have to understand is that in 10 years there will be no festival.” Hannah, by the way, just raised her eyebrows. [Hannah laughs.] And you know, I didn’t quite, I said, what do you mean? And he was very frank. He said, “Look, look at me. I’m not getting any younger. And look at the other people in this room. We’re not getting any younger either. And in another 10 years the people who go to this festival, who originally started going to this festival because they were in some way, peers of William Inge, 30-something years ago, those people in another 10 years, we’re all going to need new hips or new knees. Traveling to Independence Kansas in the spring is not something we can all manage to do. When I look at who’s coming to this festival, it feels like it’s the same people coming each year and there are fewer and fewer of them every year.” And he said, so unless something is done about that in 10 years, there will be no more festival. I took that to heart. It’s eight years now and I still remember that exact speech he gave me and I’m thinking to myself, okay, it’s eight years later and unless the festival is going to go away due to lack of attendance in two years, that it seems like he was wrong. Well, he wasn’t wrong at the time. His concern was genuine, and his concern was appropriate for the circumstances that he saw.

Dan:                 But Hannah is one of the people who has been part of the effort. She has worked, I think, every year on the festival, right?

Hannah:           Yeah. Except for one, just one year.

Dan:                 She has been part of the effort to basically take something that began in one context and that, that context may not have a market indefinitely. And basically, she’s been part of the effort to continue to reimagine the festival in ways that will bring what is so interesting and fun about playwriting to a wider and wider audience. So with that long setup, I thought it might be helpful since ultimately this podcast is about how educational institutions can administratively, address challenges they face. I thought it might be interesting to have Hannah talk a little bit about the kinds of changes that have occurred in the festival. Not just since she’s been the artistic director, because remember she worked on the festival even before that, but really what’s been done over the last one to four years or so in which we’ve really made a concerted effort to alter the trajectory of the festival in order to create markets. And now I’m probably stealing her thunder at that point. So, Hannah, can you tell us a little bit about your efforts in that area?

Hannah:           Yes. So I know who you were talking about. And I won’t name any names, but I will say that the concern was real, not imagined. And I think that a lot of theaters across the country are facing this very thing. We giggle and laugh about the gray hairs who show up at theater productions. But what’s true about that is that we have built our theaters to serve a specific audience. And that audience is aging out. And over time that audience, who is well-educated, has money, likes to see specific kinds of plays, won’t be with us anymore. And so what, what does the theater as a whole across the country do about that? And this is a conversation that is not just happening, you know, between you and I right now, but in these major theaters across the country. And the answer is really going to have to be a creative problem solving answer.

Hannah:           And I think a lot of what I believe and am discovering working with playwrights my entire career, which has been really special, is that the stories we see on stage have to matter to the people who are in the audiences. Although we all love Shakespeare, he’s not necessarily speaking to the hearts and minds of the young people who are growing up or even the, you know, middle-aged folks who are possibly going to be in our audiences. There are so many stories. There are so many perspectives that we all want to see right now. We are living in a divided country and if we can’t find common ground across our sides, which seemed to be two sides in every situation, then we’re not going to make it as a society very well. And storytelling plays, in particular because they are alive and on stage, have these universal truths that we can all identify with. And I believe that the power of new plays is that they can bring us together, they can show us these universal truths in a way that allow us to have empathy for people who may not have the same political views or cultural views that as we do. And I also believe that plays and stories are going to show us the way forward in this really difficult and divided time.

Dan:                 So how, how has that manifested itself? I of course, I agree with what you’re saying, and I’ve observed the truth of what you’re saying the entire time that I’ve been here. I know that has led to some very conscious changes in the festival. What are those?

Hannah:           Yeah, so there have been a few different ways that we are kind of activating these beliefs. We have a new play lab that we started a few years ago. And so in the afternoons, during the festival days, we’re now featuring new plays by playwrights who’ve written these plays in there coming from around the country. And they’re on a variety of different topics and things like that. But they’re short 10-minute to 30-minute plays and we’re bringing actors from around the region. So it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of new plays and a very short amount of time and it’s engaging artists. So let me back up and say that we for a long time, the Inge Festival like to bring professional theater artists from LA and New York and Chicago and we like to pull from these bigger cities. But what was happening was that people were coming and enjoying the heck out of the festival and really talking about it all over.

Hannah:           And we started getting this great national reputation, but it didn’t really feel viable for all of these national theater artists to come all the way to Kansas unless we were footing the bill and bringing them out there to do something specific. So what we started doing over the last few years is engaging artists in the region. We are in this, I sort of described, we’re in this tiny little town, but independence, Kansas is in the corner of Kansas where Missouri and Arkansas and Oklahoma and Kansas all come together. And so we’ve started pulling artists from Saint Louis, from Minneapolis, which is, this is a little north of us from Kansas City, from Tulsa, so all kind of around our region. So that not only do they fall in love with the festival and they have an opportunity to perform in these new plays, but then they come back again the next year and they bring their friends because it’s driving distance and they love the festival.

Dan:                 I should probably mention, you know, you reminded me of something when you said that it’s not necessarily financially feasible for people to come from far away. playwriting is not lucrative. Acting on stage for the most part is not lucrative. And so part of the challenge of the festival is that the very people who are supplying that beautiful raw material of the festival are not in a position to provide it without help. Is that a good way to put it?

Hannah:           Yeah, that’s true. Yes. Yes, absolutely. We’ve had some incredible artists on that stage though you’ll see on TV and movies and television shows and commercials popping up all the time. And that’s sort of the beauty of what we do at the festival is that we have all of these regional artists who nobody would recognize unless they go to the theater. But then you also have that all mixed in with these people they have seen on screen and they’re all incredibly talented and just so happy to be here. So you’re rubbing elbows with famous folks and regional folks who you can go see up in Kansas City, you know, and a month from now in a play on a main stage. So it’s pretty special. The other thing that we’ve started doing is to engage our local community in a new way that we haven’t done for a long time. The festival kind of felt like an elite festival for theater lovers up on the hill where the college was. We catered all of the meals. We had everything in one location and the prices for tickets were really high. So it was going to cost you a lot of money to come and you might not know enough about theater to feel comfortable showing up for some of the events. And it was really unfortunate because we have a community here that loves its theater. It’s not just the Inge festival. We have a big Neewollah festival and they have productions through that. We have an Astra arts festival and there’s more theater through that. There’s a children’s summer theatre…

Dan:                 [Laughs I’m laughing cause the one I was about to mention was the children’s summer theater, which I think is actually for me probably the best barometer of the obsession with theater in Independence, Kansas. So Independence, Kansas currently has, I think, about 8,700 or 8,800 residents. So this is a small town and, and by the way, as Hannah said in the beginning, it’s fairly isolated and Kansas has a small population density. So you know, there’s not much on the outskirts, I guess is the way to put it. So you’re really, you’ve really just got that 9,000 or so people and somehow in this town of 9,000 people, there’s now three separate children’s summer theaters that put on these elaborate productions. And that’s in addition to everything that the high school does, and the college does, and the elementary school does, and so forth during the regular school year. And then on top of that, you do have other arts festivals including the, the annual theater festival. And so this community, there is a, a just an amazing embedding of the theater in the culture of this place. And I’ve always wondered actually what, which was the chicken and which was the egg? Was William Inge partly great because he came out of this culture or was it the opposite? That he was great, and so the community learned to appreciate that culture. I’m not really sure which, and I don’t know if Hannah has any insight into that.

Hannah:           I know that our Memorial Hall used to bring through a lot of touring shows and that was how William and fell in love with the theater. I think he was attending with his boy scout troop and I think I heard that. Yeah. So he, he encountered his first theater here and Independence as well, even though it wasn’t locally grown. And that was an inspiration for him. So I don’t know about the chicken or the egg, but he’s definitely changed my life and so many other people’s lives. I have spent since 2000 working with playwrights that’s almost 20 years, which is a little insane. And that’s a very strange niche in the theater. So, and what’s really cool is now to see some of these young people who I have had the pleasure of watching grow up, come back to town now as professional theater artists to be involved in the festival.

Dan:                 For those people who may be interested in this year’s festival, would you care to just tell people when it is and maybe who the honoree is?

Hannah:           Yes. So this year the William Inge Theater Festival is celebrating playwright Octavio Solis. He is a Latino writer who grew up in El Paso, Texas and now he lives up in Ashland, Oregon. He currently has a play going at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s called “Mother Road.” It is basically the sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” And it is about what happened to the Joad family and their ancestors after the dust bowl and the depression. And, there is a remaining Joad and he is dying, and he wants to leave his farm to his last remaining relative who he discovers is a Mexican and he doesn’t feel so great about that. And he drives all the way down to Mexico to meet him and bring him back to the farm to try to convince him to take over the farm before he passes away. And it’s a beautiful journey in the opposite direction going back to Oklahoma, to give them an opportunity to get to know each other and kind of mend these…these… I don’t even know what to say to bridge these.

Dan:                 Well, it sounds like for two people like that, there would be massive cultural divide between them, and it sounds like they’re trying to bridge that divide.

Hannah:           Yeah. And to overcome cultural by stereotypes, stereotypes and so it’s a beautiful story and that’s happening right now. There will be a scene from that play in the tribute, but the festival itself is a four day festival. It’s going to kick off with a movie that many people have probably seen, which is Disney/Pixar’s “Coco.” And our honoree Octavio was a cultural consultant for that movie and he also voiced the arrivals agent in the film. The arrivals agent was the one who welcomed them to the underworld and whose jaw drops off. So that’s our honoree Octavio. And then on Thursday night he will be reading from his new book, which was just published a few months ago. It’s called “Retablos” and it is lots of short stories about his life growing up on the Mexico and Texas border. It tracks his life from very early childhood into adulthood, and it is beautiful. So city lights publisher has put that out and it’s a great read. If you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend it. And then we also give an award called our new voices in playwriting award and that will go to Kara Lee Corthron and she will be reading from her new young adult novel on Thursday night with Octavio called “The Truth of Right Now.” That novel has won a bunch of awards including the parent’s choice gold award. Then Saturday afternoon, we will have attribute to Octavio and the tribute is always this really beautiful celebration. It is a mix of interviews with people who have known Octavio throughout his career talking about him and his work. And Octavio will be also be screened talking about his life’s work. And then it is interspersed with live performances of scenes from many of his plays. So it’s really beautiful celebration and a great way to get to know the honoree and then his work. And then during the day there are theater workshops and panels and discussions and opportunities for both students and adults to interact with theater in class sessions, seminars and conversations. And then in the afternoons there will be this new play, “Loud Place.” So lots going on and we’re really looking forward to it.

Dan:                 If people, by the way, want to attend this festival, I believe you have a website.

Hannah:           We do have a website. So the website is ingecenter.org and there’s a tickets link. You can see the guest artists who are coming in. You can see the new play labs, playwrights in their plays. Lots of, lots of great information on our website and read more about our honorees as well.

Dan:                 I’m delighted you’re here with me. I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you. I asked her to interview for this podcast, it was, it had to be at least a month or two ago and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since because I think you’ve just done amazing work here. I feel like I’m talking to somebody, this sounds completely corny, I feel like I’m talking to somebody who actually was part of what made my family like living in Kansas because we moved here from New York, and one of the most amazing parts of being in Independence was this theater presence that my two young daughters were particularly captivated by. So I just feel like I owe Hannah this debt. So I’m so delighted you’re here and I appreciate it tremendously. Good luck with the festival this year.

Hannah:           Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

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