For five years, Rick Hammerly had been searching for the perfect script.
Hammerly is the producing artistic director for Factory 449, a collective of Washington area actors who twice a year pull together resources to put on shows of their own. That coterie of friends — who met for the first time on April 4, 2009 — includes Nanna Ingvarsson, a Washington actress who has ably played supporting roles from sweet ingenues to bitter mothers-in-law since the late 1980s.
Hammerly wanted to make her a star, which by small-D.C.-theater standards meant finding a role for her that would fill a black-box theater and really make audiences think. It took five years, but he finally found the play he was looking for and sent Ingvarsson the script to a show called “The Amish Project.”
“I read the play and thought, ‘This scares the s--- out of me,” Ingvarsson said, sitting down for coffee after a recent rehearsal. “And my husband said, ‘Well, do it. That’s a good thing.’ ”
“The Amish Project” is a one-woman show about a tragic shooting in a one-room Amish schoolhouse 15 miles southeast of Lancaster, Pa. On Oct. 2, 2006, a troubled truck driver barricaded himself inside the school and shot 10 girls, killing five, before turning the gun on himself. Playwright Jessica Dickey, who considers the play a “fictional exploration” based on fact, debuted the show at New York’s Fringe Festival in 2008. The critically hailed premiere came a year later at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, a small New York company where Hammerly has acted in the past. Neither he nor Ingvarsson had any knowledge of the school shooting, which would seem to indicate that D.C. actors are not Washington Post readers or CNN watchers, but they were both captivated by the story.
“It was all so shocking,” Ingvarsson said. “I went online and started doing research, but I didn’t want to get too familiar with all the names and faces and facts. . . . I have very limited experience with the Amish. I go to the Amish market in Laurel once in a while. It’s like [the character] says in the play, ‘They’re freaks.’ . . . But I watched some of the BBC series and a CNN panel and tried to learn more about their history and how they live.”
“The Amish Project” assumes that audiences will come into the theater with some questions, and perhaps even a these-people-are-freaks perspective. Some of the characters in the play take that position, too. For example, there’s Sherry, a skeptical Southerner who relocates to Lancaster County. But there’s also a Hispanic American teenager who aligns herself with the Amish in a county with more than half a million people, 9 percent of whom are of Latino descent and 6 percent of whom are Amish.
The play becomes a story not so much about “the plain people,” but of a complicated community coping after a terrible tragedy, and with one actor telling the story from seven perspectives. Other characters include the shooter; his widow; two Amish girls; and a professor modeled on Anabaptist scholar Donald Kraybill, who provides some explanation and exposition.
Based on appearances, none of these characters is a logical fit for a 52-year-old Scandinavian American woman. “I mean, hello,” Ingvarrson’s says, waving a had over her pale face and ice-blue eyes. Yet in rehearsal, it’s the professor who she has found the easiest to portray. “I have a picture of my father right in my head,” she said.
Ingvarsson’s father, an Icelandic engineer, taught at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. She grew up the daughter of immigrants and spent most of her summers in Denmark, where her mother was raised. She began dancing at age 3 and credits her ballet training and early exposure to the Royal Danish Ballet, one of Europe’s most storied and theatrical dance companies, as a continual influence on her career.
“I was supposed to be a ballerina,” she said. “But I realized as a teenager that I didn’t have a ballet body.” Through a friend’s mom, she started getting cast in community theater. She came to George Washington University hoping to continue doing musicals, but ended up double-majoring in theater and psychology. One day in acting class she did a reading from a Neil Simon play. “I discovered that I could make the whole class laugh,” she said. “And that was a pretty wonderful feeling.”
There is nothing comic about “The Amish Project,” however, and Ingvarsson has found herself relying on a dancer’s sense of body awareness as she changes posture to portray each character. To this day, it’s difficult for her to memorize scripts until a director assigns her blocking, which gives her choreographic clues. “I’m literally a kinetic line-learner; I have a hard time learning lines if I don’t know what my body is doing,” she said. “That comes from the dance training.”
Directing her in her first one-woman show is Holly Twyford, a Washington actress who is a veteran at standing alone on stage, both in one-woman shows and as a protagonist. In 2011 she made her directing debut and has since been juggling stage directing, acting and a role on the television drama “House of Cards.”
Given the range of characters that Ingvarsson has played on D.C. stages, it doesn’t seem as much of a stretch to have her play seven roles on one stage. She won her Helen Hayes Award way back in 1991 for playing Janet in “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but claims that she was glad to “age out of playing the ingenue.” Except for the first 41 / 2 years after her son, Sebastian, was born, she’s worked steadily for nearly three decades. Most recently, she played the horrified Duchess of York, mother of Richard III, at the Folger. “You want me to cry, I can cry,” she says. And yet she’d also love for a director to cast her in a comedy once she’s finished this play about a school shooting.
“She is so versatile, and I don’t think anyone around here has properly exploited that,” Hammerly said. “She always finds time to do lighter stuff, but she is able to go 360 and do the high-stakes drama, too.”
The Amish Project Thursday through May 11 at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE, 202-355-9449
Ritzel is a freelance writer.