Front and center

My conversation with Julie Hamberg starts with a diction lesson. “Am I reaching you in Louisville, Kentucky, today?” I ask.

“Yes, but Loo-wa-ville,” she says. “Loo-wa-ville. You have to swallow it a little bit more.”

Zombie Prom opens later this month at Live Arts, in the City Center for Contemporary Arts (pictured). It is one of many shows already planned through August 2012.

Lessons in diction are about to come in handy for Hamberg, who was hired last week as the artistic director at Live Arts. In that role, Hamberg will be responsible for guiding what has traditionally been a committee of staff and volunteers through the process of selecting the theater’s programming, setting the artistic pace at our most visible community theater—all while learning how to correctly pronounce names like Rio, Rivanna and Staunton.

“I don’t want to talk about plans yet,” she says. “I’m going to have lots of good ideas, but I’d rather wait to get to know the community before I start getting into it.” She has time: Hamberg starts work September 1, and Live Arts has its performance schedule planned through August 2012.

But her resumé, and our conversation, made clear that her interests lie mainly in new plays. (Her husband is a playwright.) A press release from Live Arts said that Hamberg has brought 75 new plays to the stage in her career, which has included stints at theaters in New Orleans, where she was most recently Interim Producing Director at Southern Rep. She has also worked in theater in New York and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Asked for her favorite playwrights, she chooses to talk about a new play she saw at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Hamberg also brings a healthy relationship to older works of theater, which can be reliable blockbusters—especially important for bringing fresh blood into theaters. “I will absolutely be doing classics,” she says, correcting herself: “We’ll be doing classics.”

“They’re classics for a reason. One of the things that I would do—and I’m pretty darn sure that the past artistic director did the same thing—is that you choose a classic because it’s resonating for you, and hopefully for the community at the specific time,” says Hamberg. “You don’t pull one out of your head. You do it because there’s something happening in the world right now that, you say, ‘We have to see this now because it means something right now.’”

In her work Hamberg says that she is drawn to the theatrical, strictly defined: “Basically, if it can’t be a movie.” To that end, Hamberg says she’d also like to help expand the theater’s offerings. “Live Arts was founded with the idea that there would be other kinds of performance—dance and comedy and parade,” she says.

When Live Arts’ executive director John Gibson left the theater in early 2009, the theater’s everyday leadership was split into an executive director position, currently filled by Matt Joslyn, and an artistic director position. Longtime volunteer and Live Arts presence Satch Huizenga was hired, resigning last December. The quiet circumstances of his resignation, for “personal reasons,” upset some members of the theater’s large community of volunteers. Hamberg was hired after a seven-month nationwide search, conducted by Live Arts’ Board of Directors.

The challenge for Hamberg—as it was for Huizenga and Gibson—will be to keep an audience in the chairs. “We’ve definitely been discussing how to start bringing in a larger audience, but that, too, I think I need to know the community better before I can start being very specific about how that’s going to happen,” she says.

But even in her short time, she has found Charlottesville to be enthusiastic about the stage. “Everyone was so passionate about the theater,” she says. “Even down in New Orleans, we did not find too many people who were not eager to talk about, argue about, and were knowledgeable about theater—and New Orleans is a much bigger town, and a pretty big theater town.”

Her impression of Charlottesville, after interviewing with Live Arts volunteers and staff, and walking the Downtown Mall, was that, “Everybody loves it so much,” she says. “I’m kind of concerned that perhaps Charlottesville is filled with vampires or something.”

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