Keep The Fire Burning: Developing Hannah Cremation + The Ash

Hannah FB Banner copyThis post is by guest blogger Rebekah Suellau, creator of Hannah Cremation + The Ash and a selected participant in Synchronicity’s Stripped Bare arts incubator project.  You can catch the workshop of Hannah at Synchronicity May 16-17 and learn more about the project here.

In August 2015, I headed a team of actors as a writer and director for The Seedling Project’s Serial Killers. Our mission: to create and stage a ten-minute episode of a new play, every week, for a month. The catch: each week, a live audience voted on their favorite shows and “cancelled” two of them. The cancelled team would have to return with a new pilot the following week.

In the beginning, we tried to work smart, to plot out our arcs and know just where we were heading. We tried to get the jump on things. But there was no way to predict the tastes of the crowd from week to week, and no way to know what wonderful stories the other teams were cooking up. And sure enough, at the end of the second week, our serial got killed.

I gathered up the team, including Sarah Beth Moseley, Mary Ruth Ralston, and Kevin Roost. “So for next week,” I started, choosing my words very carefully, “I have this idea for a musical.”

A musical. Not one note written. Not one word. And not one of them blinked an eye.

Awesome,” came the unanimous response.

That was Monday. I hammered out a script on Tuesday, wrote an original song with Sarah Beth on Wednesday, and we developed two more by Friday. We added Chelcy Cutwright to the cast and staged it all over a single weekend. The following Monday, Hannah Cremation + The Ash was born.

Awesome, indeed.

We never got cancelled again. We performed our second episode on the final evening of the monthlong event. But our story wasn’t finished. We knew that. And even as we all moved on from Serial Killers, we carried the spark of Hannah Cremation with us.

I’d love to say we tended that fire diligently over the next year and a half, working slowly and carefully and taking pains with this story that had lit us all up. But the reality for us, as for so many early-career artists, is that we had to turn our hustle toward the next deadline, the next project, the next paycheck. Still, we couldn’t run into each other at a show or on the street without saying it: When are we gonna finish Hannah Cremation?

Enter The Stripped Bare Project, in a moment of synchronicity worthy of its producing company’s name.

Hannah Cremation + The Ash is a story all about turning anger into action. Hannah Creem is a dreamer, a musician who gave up under the guise of growing up. Ash Swanson is a drifter, a street drummer who spends her days shouting without saying anything. Without each other, Hannah is a slave to structure and the expectations of others, and Ash is at the mercy of her own defiant anger. But together, they become two-woman punk piece Hannah Cremation + The Ash. Their friendship teaches them to unite order and chaos, rage and love, through the creative channel of music.

When I got the application for Stripped Bare early in 2017, I knew immediately that we had the answer to our question. We needed to finish Hannah Cremation now. In the wake of a deeply divisive election, I was seeing so many strong, passionate people around me fall into the patterns that our characters embody. Some were desperate to make nice, to shut down the fear and loathing that was rising up from their guts. Many more were desperate to make noise, giving voice to their rage without giving much thought to speaking up in a way that could actually be heard. Everywhere I looked, I saw Hannahs and Ashes, dampening down their emotional fires because they felt powerless, or giving them free rein and sometimes burning the people around them. As I felt myself veering between the two extremes, I did what I tend to do when I need answers most: I started writing.

I called Sarah Beth the day I received the application and asked her to join me as music director. I sent an email to the rest of the original Serial Killers team with the subject line “Getting The Band Back Together!” And just like that Monday night in 2015 when we’d been cancelled, the unanimous response was: awesome. The team came back together, and a story that had been left to simmer for sixteen months came back to life in an instant.

We had just a few short weeks to turn two ten-minute episodes into a full-length musical, but we work well under pressure. Our rehearsal rooms are much like our story, a dance between structure and chaos. I bring in new scenes for us to tackle all together. Then, we split off, with Sarah Beth teaching music while I take other actors off to talk through their characters’ arcs and develop next steps for them. You might walk in and find three people strumming three ukuleles, building three separate brand-new songs, while I scribble lyrics or new scenes on the back of the script pages we replaced earlier that day.

Stripped Bare has given us the perfect structure in which to release this creative chaos. Different stages of new play development have different needs. A few months ago, all we had was the spark of a story that wouldn’t go out. And all we needed was the framework to develop it: the deadline, the theatre, the aim of an audience to share with and learn from. This new arts incubator has helped us keep our fire alive, and we can’t wait to share it with you.