Wendy Hammers in "Ripe" at the Greenway Court Theater in L.A. (Pawel Litwinski / Courtesy…)
Actress and stand-up comedian Wendy Hammers has, for years, shepherded other people onto the stage. As a teacher, she coaches writers in private classes; as host of the long-running Tasty Words series, one of L.A.’s preeminent spoken word salons, she’s become something of a Pied Piper of one-man/one-woman performers. Now the time is ripe for Hammers to tell her own story – again.
Hammers’ third one-woman show, “Ripe,” debuted at L.A.’s Greenway Court Theater last month (and is running through Nov 11). Directed by Karen Aschenbach, it’s a visually sparse, verbally powerful romp through the peaks and potholes of middle-age, touching on divorce, dating, artistic and comedic angst, body image and the loss of a loved one.
The show is a poignant, humorous dance (literally; Hammers bends, twists and twirls her way through her tale onstage) that she calls “part stand-up confessional, part booty shakin’ biography.” It’s fiercely, unapologetically personal and broadly universal at once, a quick, careening hour that ultimately is about the fleeting, precarious nature of life itself.
Culture Monster caught up with Hammers, who will be touring the country with “Ripe” beginning in January.
Why did you choose the one-woman format for your story, and why now?
My standard answer is: easier to get along with the cast. The simple truth is: solo performance is a very natural language for me that I have been speaking for over 30 years. “Ripe” is my third solo play. The first, “sweat/pants,” I developed under Spalding Gray. The second, “undressing new jersey (and other states of mind)” was created with Mark W. Travis (who directed “A Bronx Tale” with Chazz Palminteri). All my solo shows are personal in their roots and deal with the themes of food and sex. And at this juncture in my life, I had more to say about those two loaded topics.
I had the title “Ripe” for well over a decade. It kept haunting me. As I began to evolve as a woman, to ripen, if you will, the themes of the play -- celebrating our short, sweet lives while we can; honoring our bodies and selves as we age; allowing ourselves to be fully and properly loved with a healthy partner -- emerged. Then they started calling to me to be written. Loudly.
The play deals with the issue of the wisdom that comes with age. Do you think you could have written this play in your 20s?
No. Definitely not. Not even in my 30s or 40s, for that matter. I really started to develop this material and find the story in my 49th year. I had to walk through the fires of my life and emerge whole before I could write this play. Together with my director, the wonderful Karen Aschenbach, we found these stories through dance and movement. Or, as I like to put it, my butt had to write a monologue.
The storytelling scene in L.A., and around the country, is exploding. What do you attribute it to?
People are starving for authentic stories. If theater is a platform for expressing new ideas, live storytelling -- particularly one writer/performer onstage talking directly to the audience -- is an excuse for a conversation between that performer and the audience. Audiences are not going to find authenticity in reality TV, which often contains little or no reality; and, as fantastic as the online community is (I think the success of Facebook, Twitter, etc. are proof positive that people are jonesing for connection), there is simply no substitute for being in the same room as people telling their truths. It's the difference between a live rock concert and listening to that same artist on your Ipod.
How did the late Spalding Gray, a storytelling performance pioneer, influence you?
Spalding was my teacher at NYU back in the '80s. He taught an amazing class called Fictionalizing the Self. He was all about stealing from your life and putting it in your work but with a cautious eye so it wouldn't be indulgent. It wouldn't be a solo show of the "I have a hangnail let's write a show about it” variety. It would have teeth; something of value to say in an entertaining way. I certainly strive for that in my work. Regarding the woman show, my idol is Eve Ensler. I dream of reaching women the way she has.
What do you hope to leave the audience with?
“Ripe” is, at the end of the day, a celebration piece; a play about taking stock in who we are and what we truly have. I hope this play to be a wake-up call, a rallying cry against self loathing and a preoccupation with body image that runs rampant in our culture, surely in L.A., and is an emotional and psychological time suck. I'd like to see folks leave my play and give themselves permission to love themselves more deeply or even, at all, for the first time.
My dear friend Judy Toll, who passed away at 46 from cancer, was the inspiration for "Ripe." She reminds me on an almost daily basis how fortunate I am to have a life. It is my job to fully live it. For all of us, who are lucky enough to be here, never take a day for granted.
For more info: www.ripetheplay.com
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