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Curtain Call

What Three Decades In Baltimore Theater Has Taught Donald and Tana Hicken

Michael Northrup

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/17/2006

Walk a Mile in My Drawers

Theatre Project May 18-21

The Belle of Amherst is technically a one-woman show: 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson is the only person ever seen onstage. But William Luce’s play is full of invisible characters, both members of Dickinson’s family and visitors to her home, and when Baltimore actress Tana Hicken performed the show you could sense each disembodied presence. Wrapped in a New England shawl and scarf at Artscape or Everyman Theatre, at the Rep Stage or the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Hicken became Dickinson so vividly that you could see the other characters in her reactions, her shy self-protectiveness, her avid ambition, her amused tolerance.

One reason you felt those other people was that Donald Hicken, Tana’s husband, directed the show with an acute sense of where those unseen characters were at all times. He draws on that experience when he directs Joyce Scott in another one-woman show, Walk a Mile in My Drawers, at the Theatre Project this weekend. Scott, the Baltimore performance artist, wrote the show about her complicated relationships with her family, her hometown, her weight, her art, and her race (“Women’s Movement,” No Cover, Sept. 11, 2002; “Great Scott, Jan. 19, 2000). She even incorporates her fabric sculptures into the production.

“In some ways blocking a one-person show is more difficult than a regular show,” Donald says. “It’s a challenge when you only have one body to move around. In Belle of Amherst, all these invisible people arrive and you have to keep track of them, even though you can’t see them. In Joyce’s show, she plays everybody, so you have to be clear about who she is at any given moment. She’s examining some very serious stuff in this show, but it’s also very funny.”

Tana and Donald Hicken, 61 and 60 respectively, have been major figures in the region’s theater scene since they first moved to Baltimore 32 years ago. She is one of the area’s best actresses, a tall, thin woman with knifelike features and a voice to match. She disappears into roles like Meryl Streep, and has performed often at Center Stage, Everyman, and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, and was a member of Arena Stage’s resident company for 14 seasons.

Donald heads up the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts and was the artistic director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts from 1988 to ’97. He directs two productions a year at the city public high school and still finds time to direct two outside productions a year at Everyman—most recently The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Some marriages can’t accommodate two artists, especially in the same field, but the Hickens thrive on it. They are always talking and arguing about theater, but they seldom get bruised feelings. They’re eager to have their minds changed by a better idea.

“If you want me to try a role another way, I’m all for that,” Tana says. “As an actor, I can do a role so many different ways. Then we can look at them all to see which is best. That’s what acting is—the dissection of every second of action. That’s why so many shy people like myself become actors. Once you’ve gotten control of every second of action, there’s no reason to be shy. The stage becomes the safest place in the world.”

“A good example is The Glass Menagerie,” Donald says. “I was asked to direct it as a co-production for the Round House Theatre and Everyman, but I didn’t know if anything new could be done with it. Tana said, ‘Well, let’s read it,’ and as she reads it, I’m hearing this Amanda I’ve never heard before. I asked, ‘What do you think of her?’ She said, ‘This is a woman who’s fighting to save her family.’ I thought, Here’s a reason to do another production of this play—here’s an approach that’s not just another version of the Southern bitch on wheels.

The spirited give-and-take that they value so much in rehearsal is evident in an interview in the octagonal gazebo in the backyard of their Sparks home in northern Baltimore County. Tana, with her short, salt-and-pepper hair and gray-and-white plaid shirt, tosses out barbed comments about the state of American theater. Donald, with his gray, sparse beard and green sweatshirt, makes the same critique but in the more reasoned tones of the teacher he is.

“Our rehearsals were an ongoing discussion of different possibilities,” Donald continues. “What if Amanda is not an emotional cripple? What if she’s finding a way to cope by deliberately retreating into an imaginary world? What if Laura is doing the same? The Washington Post said it was like seeing the play for the first time. Not because I had a concept as a director but because we went through that process of asking, ‘What if?’”

Tana grew up in a bohemian household outside Boston, the daughter of painter Philip Hicken, who taught with Walter Gropius at Harvard University and showed in galleries from New York to Scottsdale, Ariz. She went straight from college to the original 1968 production of The Great White Hope at Arena Stage. She was out leafleting against the Vietnam War when riots engulfed Washington. The actors holed up at the theater for four days and then fled to New York. Tana spent a season at the Hartford Stage Company, a season at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and then returned to Hartford, Conn.

She met Donald Bell there. He had grown up in a very religious, very conservative family outside Buffalo, N.Y., and was ostracized by his fellow high-school jocks when he started helping out with the school musicals. After attending MacMurray College in Illinois and graduate school at Catholic University in Washington, he co-founded an alternative theater company in the Berkshires and wound up living in the house that Tana’s mother had grown up in. But he didn’t meet Tana until his company went belly-up after a year and he landed a job as props master at the Hartford Stage Company.

When one play required that the actors eat salads onstage, Donald was told that one of the actresses refused to eat nonunion lettuce. So he made sure he stuck the union label from the package in Tana’s salad. And when he saw her preparing for the role of Ophelia in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he couldn’t understand why she was working so hard to prepare for such a minimal role. When her Ophelia made her brief appearance onstage, she commanded the attention of every person in the audience. That’s when he fell in love.

When he had to join the actors union he discovered there was already a “Donald Bell,” so he signed up as Donald Hicken and held onto the name when the new couple moved to Baltimore in 1975 to work at Center Stage. Donald had been hired to head up the Young People’s Theater program, and Tana had been promised steady work by artistic director Stan Wojewodski, who hoped to form a resident company around Tana, Christine Baranski, and Terry O’Quinn. The latter two went on to become movie and television stars as Tana stuck to the regional stage.

“I loved Baltimore,” Tana says. “We lived in a carriage house in Bolton Hill with Christine and walked to the theater every day. Our lives revolved strictly around the theater, and I was thrilled that there was going to be a company here. But the company never materialized. Someone from Arena Stage saw me in Hedda Gabler at Center Stage and said, ‘Let’s get this woman down here.’ So I joined the resident company at Arena Stage in 1984 and stayed there till the company disbanded in 1998.”

Meanwhile, Donald was invited to head up the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts when it first opened in 1979. “I had always been skeptical about schools for the arts,” Donald says. “I was afraid a big city system like Baltimore would insist on certified teachers, but they promised me the school would be staffed by working artists. So I decided to try it for a few years.”

He was cynical at first. “I thought it would be like panning for gold in the Hudson to find acting talent here,” he says. “But it wasn’t like that at all. Every year since I’ve been there, we’ve found 18 terrific kids [for the acting program]. There’s been very little bureaucratic bullshit, and we’ve proved without a doubt that integration works. A lot of these kids have never been around kids of a different race, but within weeks you can see all that small-mindedness evaporate in the face of the work. It’s those amazing kids that keep me coming back every year.”

For most of the ’80s and ’90s, the couple lived in the Evergreen neighborhood near Alonso’s restaurant. That house is now occupied by their 33-year-old daughter Caitlin, who teaches English and drama at Southwestern High School. For years Tana commuted to Washington, and now she’s doing it again so she can work at the Shakespeare Theatre.

“The only place an actor can make a living in Baltimore is at Center Stage, and they have no interest in building a company,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to keep working at Everyman and turning down work that paid three times as much at the Shakespeare Theatre. But I think of Washington as a place to work—and to demonstrate—not as a place to live.”

“Everyman Theatre is moving in the right direction,” Donald counters. “They’ve already proven that you can make theater with Baltimore actors as good as you can with actors from New York and beyond. They just have to figure out how to pay the actors more and build a company.

“I want a place for my students to work in Baltimore,” he continues. “They want to go off to college or New York, but they also want to be able to come home and work here, too. We have to get away from the notion that there’s only one cultural center in America and it’s called New York. That’s a ludicrous notion. Any place can create great art if they nurture and develop their artists.”

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