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How Tony nominee Kristin Hanggi helped a friend turn personal trauma into a no-holds-barred solo show
On the New York theatre scene, Kristin Hanggi is best known for helming playful jukebox musicals. She earned a Tony nomination for developing and directing the long-running '80s lovefest Rock of Ages. Earlier this season, she oversaw the screen-to-stage adaptation of Clueless the Musical, which was filled with '90s hits. And just this month she was announced as the director of the Broadway-aimed Once Upon a One More Time, a funny feminist take on fairy tale princesses set to Britney Spears songs.
Given her résumé, theatregoers may be surprised by the modest scale and difficult subject of Hanggi's current project: Accidentally Brave, which is running at Off-Broadway's DR2 Theatre. A harrowing autobiographical solo show by character actress Maddie Corman, the one-act explores the trauma her family experienced when her husband, TV and film director Jace Alexander, was arrested in 2015 for possessing and sharing child pornography.
If the topic makes you cringe, imagine Corman's own pain, which is palpable and ongoing. The 48-year-old performer is unusually comfortable in the spotlight, having lived under one since adolescence. At age 16, she was cast in her first major film role, in John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful. She received the news two weeks before her mother died of cancer, and had to do her grieving -- among new friends -- on set.
Twenty-seven movies and myriad TV episodes later, Maddie is "famousish," as she describes herself in this confessional tour de force. When the crisis hit, condolences -- sensitive and not so -- poured in from friends, neighbors, acquaintances and every corner of the acting world, where Corman is very much beloved. (Former costars packed the play's first preview.) The most outrageous reactions to her husband's crime make for a devastating montage toward the play's end.
Hanggi actually knows Corman and Alexander, who remain married to this day. She met the couple a decade ago, when Hanggi cast their daughter in a reading. Corman and her husband took turns accompanying the child to rehearsals, so Hanggi became friendly with both. She grew particularly close to Corman, and ended up casting and directing her in two movies: Dear Dumb Diary and Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List. "Maddie felt like a sister from the first time I met her," Hanggi recalls.
So when the news about Alexander broke, Hanggi was moved to reach out: years earlier, she'd gone through a similar experience with a partner who was a sex addict. Unsure whether Corman would be up for hearing directly from anyone at this juncture, Hanggi tendered an offer of help through a mutual friend, saying: "If you ever want to go to an S-Anon meeting, I'll go with you." The two remained in touch and one day Hanggi had an intriguing vision: "I was in yoga and I saw Maddie onstage telling her story," she says. "A few weeks later Maddie called me and said, 'I think I want to write about it.' And I was like, 'I know.'"
The two met every week for several months in Hanggi's New York apartment. Using note cards, they cobbled together a script from text messages, improv and the occasional homework assignment. "We would flesh these pieces out," Hanggi says. "We found out how to activate scenes, so it wasn't, 'I'm telling you a story from the past,' but, 'This is happening in the moment.'"
While Hanggi's accomplishments as a director are widely acknowledged, she has a lesser-known sideline as a "story midwife." As she explains, "I love to help people get their story out. I love to provide them with tools to say, 'Don't listen to the inner critic. Turn the volume off a bit.' We need each other's stories. Part of how we heal is through our art."
Hanggi plans to keep acting as a doula for Accidentally Brave right up to opening night. Then it's off to Virginia to direct Atlantis, a new musical about the lost city ("There's a female heroine at the core of that story, which is a recurring theme in all my work"). After that, she'll be in Chicago preparing the out-of-town tryout of the Spears extravaganza, which features a book by Jon Hartmere, Hanggi's fresh-out-of-college collaborator on the 2000 cult popera Bare.
Explaining her ease with productions both intimate and over-the-top, Hanggi jokes, "I'm a Gemini -- twin personalities. I do love a pageant, a big, bad spectacle! There's also a part of me that is deeply interested in the human condition: going into the depths, and being fearless and unflinching in our ability to look at things that are uncomfortable. Everyone has had something come into their life that has knocked them out. It could be divorce, bankruptcy, disease, anything that feels like, 'I don't know how I could possibly live through this.'"
Corman is still figuring out how to live through hers, and she feels fortunate to have Hanggi's assistance. Asked to comment on their collaboration, she texted the following: "I cannot imagine a better director for this play. Kristin is extremely spiritual but solidly grounded and a master at her craft. This has been a deeply personal and incredibly scary process, and having Kristin beside me has been invaluable. Some nights I look at her and say, 'I'm not sure I can do this...' And she looks at me with eyes full of love and compassion and wisdom and sparkly eye shadow, and says, 'Oh, you can. Someone needs to hear the story tonight."
To read about a student's experience at Accidentally Brave, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Maddie Corman and Kristin Hanggi.