All of these traits have served Hamingson well since he took over the administrative and financial reins of the Public last October—just in time for the worst economic downturn in recent memory. Despite the financial gloom, he and Eustis have announced a grand vision for revitalizing the venerable theater company, including a renovation of its 19th-century home on Lafayette Street and an initiative to bring a professional, mobile Shakespeare troupe to New York’s other four boroughs. “My goal has always been to help a theater develop new work,” Hamingson explains, “and the Public allows me to do that on a much larger scale.”
Founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp to make theater more accessible, the Public is one of the nation’s foremost producers of Shakespeare and new works. The current plans will further its mission by updating the venue to be both greener and more hospitable, with a new lobby, easier street access, and an overhauled heating and ventilation system. Hamingson’s challenge will be to reconcile these aspirations, as well as the mobile troupe, with a weakening economy. “[It] has made us take a little bit of a harder look at our plans and reevaluate them,” he admits. “But we’re not at the moment feeling that we want to run away from any of our goals.”
Even before joining the Public, Hamingson was the engine behind some of off-Broadway’s most ambitious recent shows. He produced two notably adventurous works back-to-back during his tenure as managing director at the Atlantic Theater Company. The first, Martin McDonagh’s comically violent The Lieutenant of Inishmore, was nearly deemed “unproducible” due to its Tarantino-esque special effects requirements, including gallons of fake blood as well as scattered, severed limbs. The second, Spring Awakening, was the provocative musical adaptation of a 19th-century German play about teenagers realizing their sexuality. “We thought we were going to be arrested for promoting child pornography,” Hamingson says about the latter. Instead Spring Awakening transferred to Broadway and won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical.
Although Hamingson has always concerned himself with the offstage side of theater, he says, “Every first preview is a rush of adrenaline.” He first felt this when he observed his classmates rehearsing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while a high school student in Rochester, New York. But he did not immediately see how he could makeit his career. Instead, he studied accounting at the State University of New York at Geneseo and went on to run several businesses, including a Domino’s Pizza franchise. But, he says, “It didn’t feed my soul.”
In 1992, Hamingson moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies in performing-arts administration at NYU and, before he could complete the degree, landed a job as an intern at the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club. Though he initially made only $75 a week, over the next dozen years he rose to the post of development director and, finally, in 2004, moved to the Atlantic. “I don’t think you could call it overnight success,” Hamingson says wryly. But success did come, and last year he finally finished his graduate thesis—an academic paper on Spring Awakening.
photos from top: © Andrew Henderson; © Michal Daniel
Hamingson’s grand vision for the Public Theater includes an initiative to bring a mobile Shakespeare troupe to New York’s other four boroughs.