Interview with Hello Earth Productions

Cameron Salisbury

[0.1] Abstract—Interview with Joy DeLyria and Kris Hambrick, cofounders of Hello Earth Productions, a grassroots, community-based theater company in Seattle, Washington.

[0.2] Keywords—Star Trek; Theater

Salisbury, Cameron. 2015. "Interview with Hello Earth Productions." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Joy DeLyria and Kris Hambrick are the cofounders of Hello Earth Productions (figure 1), a grassroots, community-based theater company in Seattle, Washington, that interprets pop culture in free, outdoor plays. They both produce Outdoor Trek, live adaptations of episodes from the original series of Star Trek (1966–69). They make the majority of sets, props, and costumes themselves; Kris stars as Captain Kirk, and Joy directs. Outdoor Trek has produced four plays so far ("Naked Time," "This Side of Paradise," "The Devil in the Dark," and "Mirror Mirror" [figure 2]). The plays usually run in July and August for three weekends with audiences of up to 300. In 2014, a total of 1,300 people saw "Mirror, Mirror."

Square yellow block with all-caps OUTDOOR TREK in the Star Trek font, with the T of 'outdoor' being a drawing of the Seattle Space Needle.

Figure 1. Outdoor Trek logo featuring the Seattle Space Needle. [View larger image.]

Color poster with cartoon figures of cast figures dressed as Trek characters. Titled 'OUTDOOR TREK MIRROR MIRROR.' Lines at the bottom give dates, times, and directions.

Figure 2. Outdoor Trek's poster for "Mirror Mirror." [View larger image.]

[1.2] Outside of Hello Earth Productions, both Kris and Joy work at Pacific Science Center. Kris interprets science on the exhibit floor, which includes delivering live planetarium shows and sometimes laser shows. Joy develops interpretive and educational activities and shows; she sometimes gets to throw fireballs.

[1.3] This interview was conducted via e-mail and has been rearranged and edited for clarity.

2. Origin story

[2.1] Q: How did Hello Earth get started?

[2.2] Hambrick: We started in 2010, after we saw Atomic Arts' production of "Amok Time" in Portland in 2009. On the drive back home, we thought, "Hey, this should exist in every city. I wish we had it in Seattle." And we realized that we could be the ones to bring it there. We have an amazing group of people we've worked with over the years, and it has become a truly communal experience that runs entirely on donations from audience members.

[2.3] Q: Did you have any prior experience with theater?

[2.4] DeLyria: Wow. No one's ever asked me that before. When I was very young, Theatre was that cool older dude who was only rarely available and somewhat expensive on dates. I went all the way in high school and college, if you know what I mean, but after that, Theatre just kind of dropped off my map. I saw Theatre occasionally and lusted from afar, but dates were just too expensive and difficult to schedule.

[2.5] Eventually I learned that Theatre had this mad, bad, dangerous-to-know mirror!twin, Community Theatre, and I got very interested in becoming involved. I didn't know how, though. It wasn't until I saw Atomic Arts' production, Trek in the Park, that I realized I could do Theatre. I could do Theatre anytime and anywhere. I could do Theatre in the back of my car; I could do Theatre in my house, in my bed; I could do Theatre in public parks; I could do Theatre in hotels. I could even do Theatre in church (Fremont Baptist, to be specific).

[2.6] I could do Theatre and I did. Now I have had four bastard children by Theatre, and I'm looking to have more. I want to move in with Theatre; I want to shack up more than once a year; I want to get more people involved and have orgies with Theatre (we're not exclusive).

[2.7] Theatre, I don't know how to quit you.

3. Recasting cultural icons

[3.1] Q: Theater is by nature an exhibitionist, whereas Television, Star Trek's original medium, prefers a quiet night at home. Why adapt Star Trek for a live audience?

[3.2] Hambrick: While it's true that the mediums elicit or even require different behavior from an audience, they are both performative. There's an argument to be made, for sure, that some things should not make the jump between the screen (of whatever size) and the stage. The best play can fall flat on screen, and vice versa. One of the fun things you can do with the translation, however, is experiment with how the audience responds and what it adds, or takes away, from the experience. Watching Star Trek on Netflix can be very solitary. But what happens when you take the same material and put it in front of people who can respond, both to what they're seeing and to the other audience members around them? It's not exactly the same, but it's one of the reasons I like seeing classic movies in theaters. I pick up something new every time, even from a beloved classic, because of the response and energy of the crowd around me. Outdoor Trek goes even a step farther toward making Trek a communal experience. It's broadening the conversation.

[3.3] Q: You cast your shows without regard for sex, gender, race, or ability (figure 3). Kirk and Spock, arguably two of the most influential masculine icons in science fiction, are played by Kris Hambrick and Helen Parson. Why did you decide to do it this way?

Color photograph of four black-clad people sitting outside in wheeled office chairs, representing the bridge of the Enterprise. Kris Hambrick, as the captain, gives some classic Shatner.

Figure 3. Sierra McWilliams, Kris Hambrick, Helen Tang, and Aleksandr Robbins on the bridge of the Enterprise in "Mirror Mirror." [View larger image.]

[3.4] DeLyria: I cast blind for several reasons. First of all, there are still a disproportionately higher number of parts in Western theater for thin, able-bodied, cisgender white males than any other group out there, yet many of those parts are not about being thin, able-bodied, cisgender, white, or male. They are roles that explore what it is to be human, and in most cases virtually any human could play them—yet in theater (as well as TV and cinema) there is a casting bias. I do not want to have that bias, and I want to make parts available to great actors who can play them, rather than actors who look the part.

[3.5] Secondly, we are not trying to re-create the original series TV show. Luckily, media outlets such as Netflix have made the show widely available, and I would far prefer people to watch the episode on TV if they want to watch a version of the show that looks exactly like the original. The point of adapting an episode of TV for theater is to reinterpret it, which means exploring the text for different meanings, changing the context such that people ask new questions.

[3.6] Star Trek's original series aired in the 1960s; it is now 2014. While the show was progressive for its time—far more than other Star Treks are for their times—some elements of the show are deeply offensive. Some people looking back at Star Trek choose to poke fun or condemn the ways in which it was prejudiced, but I feel that it is possible to respect the effort and impact the show made, while at the same time encouraging fans to question and reevaluate it. Starfleet was a dream for our future; it makes sense to me that as we learn more and understand more about each other, we will have to continue to edit and tinker with that dream so that it allows for infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

[3.7] Q: Has this way of casting taken any unexpected turns?

[3.8] DeLyria: For the first play we did, "Naked Time," I had no preconceived ideas about whom I would cast. Depending on who showed up at auditions, Kirk could have been a man, a woman, white, a person of color, cisgender, transgender, able, differently abled, short, tall, old, young, petite, plus-size. I cast Kris and Helen because I thought they were best for the parts, and doing so has proven (as Spock would say) fascinating.

[3.9] Sometimes when they are playing their roles, aspects of that person's appearance and identity fall away as he or she becomes the character. I don't claim to be blind to color or size or age or sex or whatever else—at times, that is impossible. Yet when I cast an African American man as Doctor McCoy or a woman as Doctor McCoy, they are not "the black Doctor McCoy" and "the female Doctor McCoy." Each of them is just Doctor McCoy.

[3.10] This is what acting is about—if I cast Chris Evans as Captain America, if Chris Evans is a decent actor, then Chris Evans should fall away until what you see is Captain America. Now imagine Kerry Washington as Captain America. You wouldn't forget that she's a woman and she's African American, but it wouldn't really matter, would it? She's a great enough actress that she could still be Captain America.

[3.11] Kerry Washington could play Captain America, but her body would affect how people read certain scenes and choices—just as Nick Fury's chase scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), in which a lone black man is pursued and shot at by white cops, would feel very different had he been played by George Clooney instead of Samuel L. Jackson. In a vacuum (of space?), casting doesn't matter, but we're stuck on Earth.

[3.12] Q: Did Hello Earth's scripts yield any moments—as a result of casting or staging or even musical choices (you perform the shows with a live bluegrass band!)—that made you or your audiences go, "Whoa, that reads a little differently now"?

[3.13] DeLyria: Yes, of course. There was a part in the first episode we did where McCoy grabs Kirk, rips his shirt, and hyposprays him to give him a cure. In that episode, McCoy was played by a black man and Kirk was played by a white woman, so we had to work to make it look friendly and not violent.

[3.14] This year I cast a tall cisgender male actor as Marlena Moreau, who is Captain Kirk's love interest in this year's play, "Mirror, Mirror." There is a part where Kirk grabs Marlena, kisses her, and says, "You're the captain's woman until he says you're not" (figure 4). This was an extremely difficult part to direct because it was important for Kris to look powerful and in control without—as a petite woman—looking silly. Kris is playing a man's part, but this isn't drag—we don't try to hide the fact that she is a woman physically, and she doesn't lower her voice.

Color photograph of a taller man and a shorter woman, both wearing black, standing outside in a semiembrace, with the woman looking away and down. The woman is wearing a yellow sash to indicate the rank of captain.

Figure 4. Captain Kirk (Kris Hambrick) embraces Marlena Moreau (James Lyle). [View larger image.]

[3.15] So directing that kiss was difficult, because I ended up telling Kris not to do anything typically regarded as feminine—don't raise up on tiptoe, don't stroke his chest, put your arms outside of his, pull him down to you. That was hard for Kris, as a small woman—but it was also interesting, because I, as a tall and largish woman, never really do any of those things to kiss or embrace anyone. While these behaviors are much more about size than they are about gender performance, whenever Kris played to her size, it made her read as vulnerable, and she had to overcompensate because of it.

[3.16] But no matter how much she compensates, Kris is fairly recognizably a woman, and a small one at that. Having a much larger man say to her, "Am I your woman?" would, I think, for some audience members highlight the sexism inherent in the script and invite an empowered and/or feminist reading. For other audience members, hearing it from a man would excise the sexism and show what the writers perhaps intended: that Marlena was ambitious and wants to be assured of her position in the ranks. Either way, hearing a man say that line makes you think about it, whereas hearing a woman say it, you could easily dismiss it as sexist or think it perfectly legitimate.

4. Community and transformative fandom

[4.1] Q: Star Trek has always been a show with a community-minded fan base. Did you see this community in evidence during your production?

[4.2] Hambrick: Since we both come from fannish backgrounds, and since Trek has such a strong foothold in that tradition, it's hard not to see evidence of it at work both behind and in front of the curtain. Outdoor Trek is a transformative work, and I think we draw on that mind-set as much as that of traditional theater—or at the very least, we are mindful of how little can separate the two. We weren't part of that first wave of Trek fandom, but we have definitely heard feedback from those who have been in the Trek fan community a lot longer than we have, and it's been overwhelmingly positive. No one has come up and said, "You can't do that to Star Trek." They all believe in the spirit of what we're doing, because, I think, it follows the spirit of both fandom and Trek itself. In some ways, too, our audience and our production team represent a merging of the old and new fan experience.

[4.3] Q: Both of you have written fan fiction for Star Trek as well as other media. How do your fannish backgrounds affect your approach to theater, and this enterprise in particular?

[4.4] Hambrick: I've always felt a kinship between my acting and my fan writings, both in fic and in role-play. I like acting because I get to inhabit a character and work through what they'd do. Sometimes that means inventing out of whole cloth. Sometimes that means I've got the plot and the lines all laid out in front of me, and I have to figure out how to get from here to there in a way that makes sense for myself. While using the original script means we're not transforming the actual words, it does require us to interpret what they mean. I feel like if we were trying to do not just a word-for-word but a literal copy of the original, it might feel less like a fan work. As it is, I think it's somewhere in between. All theater requires the company to take a work that's on paper and translate it to another medium. What we do translates a performed work onto paper and then into another performance, and the result is often fairly different from the original, despite our use of a transcript.

[4.5] For me, all theater feels like a fannish endeavor, because whether I'm writing new words for Kirk to say or acting out his words on stage, the question is still, "What is he doing, thinking, or feeling, and why?" So for me, Outdoor Trek is both Shakespeare in the Park and a fandom remix of a beloved story.