D.C. based dramaturg, Hannah J. Hessel has long been one of my favorite people. She's smart, talented, funny, courageous and ambitious. In 2012, when she became the Founder and Creative Trainer at Project Gym, my respect and admiration for her soared. Her entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to the artists in this community provided me with such hope. It is a true comfort to know that there is an affordable space in my community where I can go to for creative inspiration, support and encouragement.
Recently, she launched a Strengthen the Project Gym 2013 kickstarter campaign to support a new year of programming. What's truly wonderful about this is that a large part of the funds raised will go to support scholarships for member artists ensuring that everyone who wants to participate can regardless of income. If you're able to contribute or can share this information with others, your investment will go far to support local artists in the D.C. area community.
Now, I've been keeping track of Hannah's progress and have been aching to hear about how everything is going. Earlier this week, she gave me a bit of insight into the growth and development of Project Gym, and also shared what she's learned in this first year and her ambitions for all that's ahead. Please enjoy!
JACQUELINE LAWTON: What inspired you to establish Project Gym?
HANNAH J. HESSEL: Some variation of the Project Gym has lived in the back of my mind for years. It was the time I had in graduate school that allowed me to focus my ideas into a plan. My instructors and fellow classmates at Columbia University School of the Arts were fantastic at listening and challenging my ideas. The time to think about it and write my thesis that explored the possibility made me feel secure in my ideas. When I returned to DC I decided there was no reason not to give it a try. Forum Theatre, where I am the Senior Dramaturg, helped me to put the first beta sessions together. The wonderful artists in DC have been incredibly supportive as I’ve taken steps to turn the Project Gym into a business.
JL: What is the guiding philosophy or pedagogy behind the work you do at Project Gym?
HH: My MFA thesis title was “Project Gym: Working Out American Theatre.” In it I explored the current state of new work in American theatre and how most of the paths we have for creation aren’t constructed to inspire professional sustainability or experimentation and growth of form. I used a number of ideas from creativity theorists to put together the idea of an environment where artists had the ability to experiment freely without fear of failure, create new points of connection by learning new skills and create a community of artists invested in each others work.
What I discovered quickly in my beta sessions was that the reward of these interactions was not exclusive to theatre artists. All artists, and really, all creative people have something to share with each other and can benefit by having a place and time in their life to work on their creativity.
JL: Who are your typical participants? How much professional experience or training should they have prior to applying?
HH: Part of my discovery is that Project Gym can work for almost everyone. There are three questions I ask in the Project Gym application one is about projects, one about what someone can teach and one about collaboration.
The projects give me an idea of the person as a creator – what they are interested in and how they see their work. The teaching is about how they see themselves in a room of other artists, do they see that they can be a valuable member of the community? And the last is the most important. Project Gym members spend most of their time working on other people’s projects, rather than their own, I need to know that they are open to being a collaborator.
The majority of the Project Gym members have been professional artists working in a performance related field (playwright, actor, director, dramaturg, performance artist) but I really think that any type of creator (professional or amateur) would have something to add and something to gain.
JL: How often do you meet? What is typical session like for the theatre and performance artists?
HH: Project Gym meets twice a week. Full-time members aren’t required to attend every session but are encouraged to attend at least once a week. Each three-hour session is structured in the same way:
JL: What is the benefit of working with interdisciplinary artists?
HH: I believe that ideas are strengthened when confronted with new thoughts. It is important for artists to see their work through the eyes of someone with a completely different tool set, and it is important for artists to expand their own capabilities. Everything we learn gives us new options for creation. The more we can interact with people who create in a multitude of mediums, the more we are able to expand our own capabilities to create.
JL: Project Gym has two levels of membership: Full-time and Drop-in. How are the artists needs met by each format?
HH: This is the first year of the two memberships and I’m really excited to see how they work. The biggest difference from the two levels is the amount of attention to the artists’ own projects. Full-time members have the opportunity to teach and lead project time. Part-time members only act as participants and will not have the opportunity to lead.
Gym member Jessica Lefkow wrote up descriptions for the Project Gym website about how to choose which level of membership would be right for an artist. I think it’s worth sharing them:
JL: What what the most challenging part of the process in your first year? What did you learn from these experiences?
HH: There have been a number of challenges over the past year. The biggest two have been structure and time. I realized half-way through the year that it wasn’t enough to meet once a week, that it is important for the artists to have conversations to develop structure for their sessions within the week. Holding a time-consuming full time job (Audience Enrichment Manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company) while balancing the conversations and schedule was difficult.
I am thrilled though that I’ve hired a second Creative Trainer, the amazing director Jessica Jung, and with her help I think we’ll be able to find a balance that will allow the artists to feel supported – and allow me to focus on my job at work and Project Gym in my off hours.
JL: What was the most rewarding part of the process in your first year?
HH: The artists! I’ve had 20 amazing artists participate in the past year. Some I knew before they applied and some were completely new to me. It’s been wonderful discovering them as creators and collaborators. The biggest reward for me I think has been one of the biggest rewards for the participants. Talking and playing every week with smart creative people leaves me feeling energized and enthusiastic for the week ahead.
JL: What excites you most about this new year ahead? Will any first-year Project Gym members be returning?
HH: I am very excited about the steps we are taking forward. As I mentioned, I have hired another Creative Trainer, I am doubling the number of sessions and creating two membership options. I’m a little nervous and very eager to take the Project Gym to this next level. Every session thus far has been a learning experience. I’ve been taking baby steps to keep moving the Gym forward and this year will be no different. This summer we’ll be doing our first weekend intensive and next fall I’m hoping to announce some additional additions. I hope in the following year, I’ll be able to add in some public programming as well so artists can grow their work with audiences.
Membership applications for the new semester have just started rolling in and I’ve been happy to see that most of the members from last year will be returning. Some are transferring over to part-time memberships, which makes me happy since I know that even with busy schedules they want to make the Gym part of their lives. I’ve also been really excited to see some folks I don’t know apply! There are plenty of spaces still available so I hope that we will end up with a really diverse group of artists.
JL: If folks want to contribute to your fundraiser in order to support and sustain the great work that you're doing, how can we help?
HH: Thank you for asking! I am currently running a Strengthen the Project Gym 2013 kickstarter campaign to support the new year of programming. The money I raise mainly goes into scholarships for member artists to ensure that everyone who wants to participate can regardless of income. It’s been five days since the Kickstarter went live and we’ve already made almost 70% of the goal. It’s really exciting to see because everything we make over the goal will be going back to the artists in the form of scholarships and stipends. I hope that people will help the Project Gym keep growing both by giving what they can and, if it sounds like it would be something they’d benefit from, join as members.
Hannah J. Hessel is the Founder and a Creative Trainer at the Project Gym, a space for creative development. She spends her days as the Audience Enrichment Manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. At STC, she runs the Creative Conversations discussion series which includes a range of discussion formats including the innovative Twitter Night providing an online conversation before and after a performance. She also oversees the free weekly performance series Happenings at the Harman. Outside of STC, she serves as the Senior Dramaturg at Forum Theatre. She was the Literary Director, Outreach and Education Associate at Theater J. She serves on the board of the Association of Jewish Theater. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she holds an MFA in dramaturgy from Columbia University.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!