A native and resident of Washington who left the area only to attend Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s MFA program, Hannah Hessel Ratner thrives on the city’s diversity and its blend of green, commercial and residential spaces. She also loves its vibrant theater scene, of which she is a professional part. In fact, she never considered any other career path. Post-college, she interned and then worked for Theater J at the DCJCC. For the past four years, she has been the full-time audience enrichment manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company — but also freelances as a dramaturg. Although the 33-year-old has officially left the world of specifically Jewish theater, she believes that whatever Jewish artists like herself create and produce is “Jewish theater.” She considers the Jewish community fortunate to have so much Jewish theater because “many other cultures are not heard on the American stage.”
What influenced you to go into theater?
I’ve thought about it a lot: What was it about my parents that gave my sister and me a belief this was something we could do as a profession? My sister is an early childhood educator but also an actor in the area. I auditioned once in college, but it was too terrifying. My parents are both very culturally oriented and took us to theater, movies and operas. Plus, my father was a cousin of Al Jolson. It was part of the mythology of our lives that some people considered someone in our family the greatest entertainer in the world.
What is your role at STC—and what are its challenges and rewards?
I do adult education around our productions and connect audiences to the works and our community. We do talkbacks and other kinds of Creative Conversations [programs] in lots of venues, including Twitter. I teach daytime classes about some of our shows, in which participants go into depth about the text and get to talk to the artists. We offer arts programs related to some of our plays—for example, a Baroque ensemble playing period music when we did Metromaniacs, an adaptation of a classic French 1738 farce. I also write a guide to every season— commissioning articles from scholars all over the world to discuss the plays, and I work with high-school kids in a yearlong teen-critic program. They see every production at STC that season and hone their skills in critical writing. The most challenging part of my job is that I have a lot of work, especially when multiple shows are running at once. The thing I love is that there are always new plays to discover. I love to validate people’s opinions about them. A huge joy is watching District Shakespeare, which brings hundreds of students to see a play. I came to STC as a kid. The majority of kids have no real idea what they’re about to see even if they’ve read the text. They’re excited.
How are you Jewishly involved?
For more than five years, I was on the board of the Association for Jewish Theatre, which is open to all artists exploring aspects of Jewish culture whether they’re Jewish themselves or not. I’ve always had an interest in Jewish history and culture. I visited Israel when I was 18 with my Hebrew school class and have close friends there. My husband, Andrew Ratner—a high-school English teacher and poet—has family there. We’re part of Jews United for Justice, which sponsors Tikkun Layl Shabbat [study] programs, including a potluck dinner and a speaker from the D.C. area who works in social action. We also participate in Fabrengen D.C., a fellowship, on holidays such as Simchat Torah. I grew up in Adas Israel and got married there. We’re considering membership, now that we’re expecting a baby. The challenge is how to raise a child in Jewish life while still being secular.
What do you see as the power of theater?
There’s a ton of terrible things and inequities in the world. Art, and particularly theater, creates empathy. Artistic diversity is a huge thing; it allows people to be able to see people who look like them and they can relate to on stage. This leads to people feeling valued, being heard, having a deeper understanding of issues. There are plays that deal with poverty, inequity, the Holocaust, about idealism and survival. They take you to an emotional place you may not be able to get to otherwise. Art is also a symbol of freedom. Even plays that are just entertainment are like the movie Sullivan’s Travels—which shows that even in the midst of the Great Depression, it’s comedy that people need.