The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens on June 30th! We sat down with J. Ethan Henry, director of this production and Managing Artistic Director here at SART to find out more about what directing this show has been like and why inclusivity is such a big part of our mission here at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre.
Tell us about your process of directing this show!
This is a very hard question. This experience is something that directors just do not get to do. This show reaches a level of humanity that is sometimes rare in musical theatre, but adding the way we are interpreting this production elevates the humanity of the piece that much further. You have to be selfless to be able to tackle this piece, I do not mean just myself, but the entire team. We have assembled an incredible group of artists, but also humans to bring this show to life. My process starts with research before I even open the script. It is my job to tell the most honest story possible and that requires me to understand the historical world of the show.
"We have assembled an incredible group of artists, but also humans to bring this show to life."
Tell us about the actors playing Quasimodo and Esmerelda!
We have two actors playing the role of Quasimodo. We have Rey, a deaf actor playing Quasimodo, and Richie Barrella that plays Quasimodo's Voice. Together they tell this story in a way that incorporates ASL and helps bring audiences into this beautiful story. As we move through this process they become an extension of each other, and honestly, I can not imagine directing this show any other way! We all have an ethical and moral conscience and it is really neat to see this as a visual representation. This interpretation not only elevates the material and text but also allows a whole other community to experience musical theatre.
"Together they tell this story in a way that incorporates ASL and helps bring audiences into this beautiful story."
Esmerelda is the talented Anna Ashburn. She is a dear friend of mine, but also just an incredible actress and human. Actually….. Everyone involved with this production is an incredible human. Anna is of Romani descent which is incredible. Personally, I have never seen a production of Hunchback where it was cast authentically. We have had so many talks about what this story means and how to work through this material. It is really a surreal experience as a director.
My family does DNA testing and I have found out that a part of my history is from the Romani culture, and of Portugal Descent. While I do not feel it appropriate to represent or claim this culture at this point, it is something that I am excited to explore in the future and something that makes this experience all the more special to me.
What goal are we as a theatre company moving toward when we make casting decisions like those made for this production?
Ultimate inclusion in storytelling. Now, that is a broad spectrum of casting. We need to realize that we are no longer in the 1960s in the theatre industry. If you lean into type casting at this point, you are antiquated and hindering the industry as a whole. So often we like to say that this “is the way it is” and there is nothing to be done. Not expanding the way we look at casting and characters not only blocks incredible actors from performing but also cheapens your production. We must cast authentically to humanity and not with antiquated stereotypes. If you are in support of this old way of producing theatre or perpetuating toxicity in the industry, then it may be time to get out of the way and let this generation of artists take over.
"We must cast authentically to humanity and not with antiquated stereotypes."
Tell us about yourself!
I am from Asheville originally and I am happy to be here at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. If I am being honest, this isn’t about me. I am honored to produce this work and this important message. My soul goes to the centuries of suffering people endure as a negative side of humanity. I would have thought that we have learned lessons of humanity just as they were written in the Victor Hugo novel in 1831. I hope one day we live in a kinder country… Someday soon.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is showing at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre June 30 - July 10, 2022. Grab your tickets here: https://www.sartplays.com/hunchback