PRISCILLA's Jessica Hanna Making Outsized Theatre Magic Within Intimate L.A. Parameters

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

The Celebration Theatre will be presenting the Los Angeles intimate theatre premiere of PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL as their second show of their 2017-2018 season, beginning February 10, 2018. We had the opportunity to chat with a die-hard, creative contributor to the Los Angeles Theatre community, Jessica Hanna, who just happens to be directing this huge extravaganza in the tiny, but always efficient Lex Theatre.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Jessica!

You have worked with a number of Los Angeles theatres, especially Bootleg Theatre which you co-founded. What magnetic forces drew you to The Celebration and PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL?

I’ve been a fan of Celebration Theatre for some time, but hadn’t had the chance to work with them. So when Michael Shepperd asked me to direct PRISCILLA… well, it’s PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL at Celebration Theatre, how would that not be a fantastic project? I was honored they brought me on and I’m having a fantastic time making it. PRISCILLA is about transformation. All of the characters, even the bus, go through some sort of transformation on the outside and in. We are living in a time of transformation, which isn’t easy, but it can be glorious. And in this case, sparkly. The stage version is lavish with a very large cast and, well, the titular character is a bus, so the puzzle of how to make this epic journey story in an intimate theater also excited me. Working within parameters seems to be something I thrive on. We have to find ways to tell the story that work on the scale of the space without losing the surprise and delight built in to the show. We have a great team of collaborators in the room and I’m very excited about what we’ve found so far and can’t wait to see what we have on February 16.

I scored an early screener of the 1994 film, and I must have watched it with friends at least twenty times within the first three months I had it. Were you first familiar with the film? Or the stage musical that began in 2006?

I never saw the stage version, but the movie was striking when it came out. The images and story were fierce and groundbreaking. It helped to create change in Western culture’s perception and feelings about gender. Plus, it had amazing costumes, super fun music, and at the time, was a window into another country and culture that I didn’t know much about and found totally exciting.

As a multi-creative, did you want to just sink your teeth into PRISCILLA then? Which creative aspect of PRISCILLA did you want to tackle? Or did you simply enjoy it as a ‘civilian’?

Well, when I saw it, I was a just a child (ahem). So it never occurred to me that it would be something I could work on. When I heard it was a musical, all I could think was, it has to be a giant show because it has to have a bus in it, right? How do they do that? A lot of the theater work I’ve made or been part of making, has a flare or spectacle aspect involved. So the challenge of making a giant show in an intimate setting means figuring out how theater magic can create spectacle in a small space. My theater tastes run the gamut from simple and small to giant costume shows. This one lands more on the giant costume side. Yet, at its heart is a simple story of being true to yourself, facing your fears, and finding support and acceptance with friends and family.

The movie is iconic for many artistic reasons, but also, because it was groundbreaking. We wouldn’t have RuPaul’s Drag Race today without it. PRISCILLA is set in the 90s and we are working hard to pay homage, but not make it a copy or a dated period piece. We’re reflecting where we are now within a period piece. For instance, the three Queens (Tick, Bernadette and Adam) all represent different eras of drag to me. Bernadette is the earlier Les Girls style – more in the style of burlesque. Tick is the late 70s/80s avant-garde drag of early RuPaul, and Adam is closer to us now as gender becomes more fluid. I think, or I hope, by following these ideas, we’ll end up with a very relevant show that reminds us where we came from and encourages us to keep progressing forward.

Any particular moments really register with/touched you?

Tick’s relationship with his son or his finding a relationship with his son always moved me. Remember this was 27 years ago, so the idea that a gay drag queen would or could be married and have a child was still very taboo. To watch Tick fear that his son would reject him, and then see that who he is, is exactly who his son wants and needs, was deeply moving. And, of course, watching Bernadette kick ass against bigots was fantastic to watch. Still is.

The movie itself was such a convergence of magical talents – songs, costumes, performances, sweeping fabric atop a giant high heel atop a pink bus, ping pong balls. What can the Celebration Theatre audiences expect to see in their tiny, but so-efficiently-used space?

They’re going to get all that and, oh, so much more. The space is going to be packed with joy. And sparkles. And heart. I hope that audiences will be jumping in their seats, overcome with the creativity on the stage, fighting the urge to sing along, and in the next moment find themselves moved by the beautiful relationships and the friendship and acceptance the Queens find. Celebration always makes the most of their space and this show will carry on that tradition. We have a spectacular team of theater magic makers and they are employing all their tools. I hope that there will be a lot of surprise at what we have created.

Aside from the aforementioned tiny space of the Celebration, what challenges did you have to deal with and overcome in mounting PRISCILLA there?

Working within parameters causes creative choices that would never have been thought of if the space were giant and the budget unlimited. We must be creative in order to figure out how to tell the story the way we want within the parameters. There have been challenges in figuring out how to scale the cast size down to something workable for the space. How to then schedule rehearsals with a large cast of working actors is also a bit of a dance, always is. I love ensemble theater work and I strive to make space for the ensemble to find each other, which is difficult when you have a very limited rehearsal time and a LOT of material to learn quickly. But we were able to take a little time to do some ensemble work that really helped the group gel and grew their excitement about working with each other. And when working in a small space, cultivating excitement and awareness of each other makes a huge difference in focus that permeates the stage and effects the audience in beautiful ways.

Have you worked with any of this cast and crew before?

I’ve worked with a few of these artists, but most are new to me, which I love. I’m always excited to meet talented strangers! Los Angeles is teeming with amazing artists. I feel privileged to have opportunities to get to know and work with more of them.

I’ve never directed Tad Coughenour (Bernadette), but he has been in a couple shows I’ve produced. And I’ve been a fan of Gina Torrecilla (Marion) and her work at Celebration, so that’s been a treat to work with her. Becca Kessin sound designed a show I produced at Bootleg years ago, but we hadn’t found another project to work on until this. And Brandon Baruch, the lighting designer, and I have a long and fructiferous history of collaboration and we’re having a ball on this one.

You have contributed to the theatre community using many of your various talents. Which gives you the most satisfaction – hearing the audience direct responses to your own performance onstage? Or sitting in the back of the house listening to the audience respond to the combination extension of your talents?

Sitting at the back of the house – or if a space has a vom, I love to watch & listen from a vom.

Wait, Jessica! Sorry to interrupt your train of thought, but what’s a ‘vom’?

The ‘vom’ is an entrance or aisle into a theater – comes from Ancient Rome, I think, when that aisle or hall out of the theater led to the vomitorium. You can stand in the vom and not be seen by the audience.

My new word of the week – ‘vom.’ Can’t wait to use it. “I was standing in the vom on my way to the vomitorium and…” I digress, back to you, Lovely Lady.

I actually have a hard time sitting in an audience during a show I’ve directed. The energy I get from bearing witness to an audience’s reactions to my collaborators performances and ideas is moving. Literally. I love hearing/feeling an audience say, “Yes!” and take the ride with the company. That’s the exciting part when I’m onstage or off. Nothing like an audience saying, “Yes! I’m in. What happens next?!”

Since co-founding Bootleg Theatre in 2006, what growth have you noticed in the Los Angeles theatre scene?

You got another few pages of space? The growth has been astounding really. In the artists and the levels and variations of storytelling. L.A. is vast, and there is space for all different kinds of theater artists and their interests. And, one could argue, more importantly the audiences have grown. There is an interest in live performance in the city that feels different. Maybe it’s because of the times we live in, and the technology that isolates us; but more and more I see ALL kinds of people out seeing art. Wanting to have a group experience that illuminates their humanity. Audiences all walks of life with different interests. Angelenos are craving experience. We are adventurous by nature, that’s how many of us ended up here in the first place. We followed our interest, our dreams. Dared ourselves. And you can see it in the cultural landscape of the town. So much new work being incubated. Retelling of old stories in fantastic ways. Artists seem to feel a safety here to express, to attempt their wildest dreams. We encourage each other to reach because that’s why we’re here too. I’m gonna really start waxing poetic here soon. I can talk about theater and art for hours. It’s my favorite subject.

One more thing on this topic, there has been an energizing in the L.A. theater community in the last few years, as many of us were forced to more clearly define what our theater scene has been, what it is and what we want it to become. It is a difficult and sometimes infuriating process, but it has caused conversation, collaboration and creative solutions. And I hear more pride in what we create and how we create it than ever before. It’s an exciting time to be an artist anywhere, but especially in Los Angeles.

As one who’s been in and around the Los Angeles theatre community, what do you see as its status in the next five years?

I think it will continue to grow. The theater that’s made here will be exported more with tours of L.A.- based productions and scripts developed here in L.A. being picked up by regional theaters. Busting the myth that L.A. isn’t a theater town. New plays will continue to be developed here, as I don’t see the small screen giving up on all the amazing playwrights they’re hiring lately. And those playwrights are based here and want to make plays. And the plays they are writing and will write will reflect the diversity of L.A., and make them more accessible in more places outside of L.A. National New Play Network rolling premieres will become more prevalent. What’s really going to be key, I think, to the continued growth of the L.A. theater community is support, not just financial (though that’s always welcome), from the city and state. I would love to see the city put more effort into promoting the theater and live performance scene as an asset, a glorious facet of an exciting city. Finding ways to get more young people interested in theater and art early. Helping artists make spaces that encourage collaboration and conversation that will energize all Angelenos.

Next ten years?

Ten years from now, L.A. will all be gearing up for the Arts Festival that I hope will be happening in tandem with the Olympics that summer. The city will find exciting ways to highlight and celebrate local artists, as well as, bring in some international artists, hopefully from Latin and South America. And by that time, I hope we have at least two new midsize theaters that will be supporting the growth of shows year-round by local artists. The larger houses will be casting and hiring a majority of local artists. Work will highlight diversity and give voice to those without equality more and more, because that’s what audiences want to see. And since we’re dreaming about the future, the city will have at least ten well-appointed spaces around town that they rent for theater and live performance for $1 a year.

What do you see for Jessica Hanna in the next five, next ten years?

Lots and lots of theater making. Continuing to allow my interest to dictate what I work on. I have a couple stories I’d like to tell in the television format as well. I will be touring theater pieces that I’ve directed, outside of L.A. and outside of the country. Being hired to direct outside of L.A. Working with artists all over the world, yet always being based in L.A., ’cause I mean, the weather’s pretty damn amazing. And as stated above, I love this L.A. scene. I will have created an incubator space for artists of all mediums to collaborate, develop and present their work – including my own. And I will be a part of whatever arts component is happening with the Olympics. Working to highlight local artists and raising the profile of Los Angeles theater.

Thank you again, Jessica! I do so look forward to reliving my Australian road trip on the pink bus through your eyes!

You’re so welcome, Gil!

To check ticket availability for Celebration Theatre’s PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL running through March 25, 2018; log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.