Noises on: Live Arts’ Julie Hamberg throws the switch on The Vibrator Play

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Live Arts' Julie Hamberg takes on modern problems in Victorian time with In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, her directorial debut. Photo: John Robinson Live Arts' Julie Hamberg takes on modern problems in Victorian time with In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, her directorial debut. Photo: John Robinson

Early February. Three and a half weeks before the opening of Live Arts’ new main stage production, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), and a major scenic element for the climax of the play was not coming together well at all. The design called for the climactic sequence to be played in front of a backdrop, but the lighting was all wrong and the sight lines wouldn’t work. What was intended to be a magical coup started to look more like a major distraction. “I was not happy,” said Julie Hamberg, who is not only director of the piece but also Live Arts’ newest artistic director.

Well, newish. Hamberg was hired in mid 2011 and started the job in September of that year, taking the reins just as a new season, put together by the Live Arts programming committee, was being launched. One of her first tasks was to begin the long process of talking to volunteers, talking to staff, talking to the board, and to start building the first Live Arts season that would bear her stamp. That season opened one year later, in October 2012, with a slate that included the first ever amateur production of Pulitzer Prize winner Clybourne Park and one of the most lauded musicals of all time, A Chorus Line.

Now it’s Hamberg’s turn to step to the plate, taking on the first play she’s chosen to direct in her new artistic home. She comes to Live Arts with a 25 year history in the theater. She trained at the legendary Circle Rep in New York. The LAB program there was a veritable boot camp for bringing new work to the stage, and her career has borne that out. She’s been involved in over 75 productions of new work in one form or another—producing, directing, or assistant directing—in significant venues from New York to New Orleans to Ann Arbor, Michigan, 15 miles from the small town where she grew up.

The Vibrator Play, which opens on March 1, fits her M.O. It’s written by Sarah Ruhl, one of the current favorites of daring theater companies everywhere. Live Arts has produced two of her plays in recent years—The Clean House in 2007 and Eurydice in 2009. The Vibrator Play is a rich, poetic, funny, humane, and moderately shocking meditation on desire, propriety, and the barriers that separate us from what we want, and from the people to whom we are closest. It takes place in the home and office of Dr. Givings, a physician in the late 1800s, who uses the new convenience of electricity not only to illuminate his home but to treat his patients. He has invented an electrical device to stimulate “a paroxysm” in his female patients, to release “the pent-up emotion inside the womb that causes [their] hysterical symptoms.” As a doctor, he’s compassionate but aloof. But as a husband, he is completely insensitive to the emotional needs of his wife, Catherine, who is condemned to hear and wonder about the tantalizingly intimate sounds coming from her husband’s office.

Ruhl is a canny playwright. She uses the layout of the stage to help dramatize her story. On one side of the stage we have the doctor’s office, on the other, the Givings’ drawing room—one the most private, the other the most public—space in the house. Each room is served by a door, which becomes the focus of the action. One leads into the husband’s inner sanctum, a world where the clinical and the passionate are all mixed up. The other leads out to the wide world of freedom. Which one will they take? Will they choose together, or alone?

With the themes of the play inscribed so starkly in the stagecraft, the setting for the climax (no pun intended) needs to be just as clear. So here is Julie Hamberg, 17 months into her tenure as artistic director, in the throes of directing her first piece at Live Arts, and the damned backdrop for one of the critical moments of the play is just not going to work. “This fits my general philosophy of theater,” she said, with a shake of her abundant dark hair and an easy laugh. “Expect the unexpected. How do you embrace it?”

How? Acceptance is the key, according to her colleague and counterpart, executive director Matt Joslyn. The two are equals at the head of the organization, each answering directly to the board. He is tasked with the business side, she with the creative. Joslyn has had a chance to see up close that Hamberg has what it takes to embrace the unexpected. “Julie is an absolutely excellent artistic director,” he says “She has an incredible sense of craft, an incredible sense of theatricality. She knows how to solve problems, she knows how to talk to people, and she knows when to push and when to accept—and I say ‘accept’ and not ‘settle’—the knowledge that ‘this is where it’s going to get, and I can accept that.’”

So the decision is made. The backdrop is cut from the final scene. Another direction provides another, better, opportunity to serve the play, to serve the characters, and to serve the audience. The final scene, she says, “will be as simple as we can make it. I would rather have simplicity and beauty and clear focus on the actors than some distracting scenic element.” Virtue, meet necessity. Charlottesville, meet Julie Hamberg.

The Vibrator Play is a rich, poetic, funny, humane, and moderately shocking meditation on desire, propriety, and the barriers that separate us from what we want, and from the people to whom we are closest.

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)/March 1-23/Live Arts

  • Bill

    there is a lot of “buzz” about this

  • amigo 1

    Think I might rather read this one, than see it!

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