15 Anniversary Artist Interviews: Derek Hills

Derek Hills’ theatrical journey has blossomed from being a storyteller to a playwright with two Capital Fringe productions of his work for the stage. But his Fringe story as a writer began with No Sex Please — a one-man show he developed and performed at the 2013 festival.

Hills had featured in Joseph Price’s 2011 Fringe production E-Geaux Beta in 2011, as well as developing and performing in a 2012 sketch comedy review by Orbit Chef called Apocalypse Picnic. (He also dabbled in Fringe reviewing.) Yet Hills’ primary focus in that era was storytelling. And he thought he might have a one-man show in him.

“I had [been doing it] since 2009,” he recalls. “Short-form storytelling. Seven to ten-minute stories…From pretty early on, I had the ambition to do like a one-hour show.”

No Sex Please took shape when Hills’ examined his repertoire of stories and discovered a through-line: “Holy shit! I have all these sex-related stories. So, obviously, all I have to do is get the right segues, and bang! I got a show. I knew how [Capital Fringe] worked, and I thought I had a lot of material that I could easily repurpose, and, you know, I was off to the races.”

Hills admits that it didn’t quite turn out that way.” As he started to put together the show, he called on friends, including Price and two DC storytellers who have sadly passed away – John Kevin Boggs and Anne Thomas – to help him shape it.

“In those initial meetings,” Hills continues, “all four of us together, they really helped me understand that I couldn’t just repurpose my prior work.  Was I going to try to create a wholly original work that had its own arc within the span of an hour? Those guys really challenged me to do the harder thing, and make it worthwhile, by going to places that I may have felt ashamed of, or had always kept inside.”

Thomas continues to play a role throughout the process. “She was my confidante,” he says. “And accountability person. I saw her regularly through the writing process.”

No Sex Please went up in Fringe’s Gearbox space. The Capital Fringe program that year proclaimed it as “Orgiastic Self-Recrimination.”

Hills recalls the performances as sweaty. “I had to sweat my way through multiple performances,” he says. “I’m a natural sweater.” He also penned a story for Washington City Paper on developing a show with such personal material. Audiences ate it up.

“I think it was pretty well received,” remembers Hills. “I definitely felt like there was genuine support in the house. And it helped that, you know, I knew a lot of the people in the house.”

Hills recalls the response he treasures most for No Sex Please came not at Fringe, but long after. “One of the best compliments I received for that work came,” he says, “maybe two years later. I was at a bar, and I was with some friends, and one of their friends showed up. And this guy goes, ‘Oh my God, I saw your show. You don’t know me, but I was a late bloomer too.” I’ll never forget that… just to know that one person felt affected enough by a piece that I created that it stuck with them enough for them to stop me and say it.”

No Sex Please was a final chapter in one part of Hills’ journey, and the opening pages of another part of it. “By the time I had done No Sex Please,” he says, “I felt I had pretty much exhausted all the stories that I know….  I found myself wanting to make things up. And if you are an expert storyteller, you can probably get away with that. But I’m not clever enough to hide my falsity. It always shows.”

The answer was to make up his own stories as a playwright. Hills has produced two plays at Fringe in subsequent years, Prison Break, Incorporated (2016) and the acclaimed Shopworn (2018). “I wanted to see if I could create a proper play,” says Hills, “and Fringe is still one of the cheapest places to experiment with that. Even if I never make any money, it’s fine. It’s a proving ground for you my art and for my growth as an artist.”

Hill believes that the community that Julianne Brienza and everyone involved in Capital Fringe has created over the space of two decades has a very special quality attached to it.

“She created a space where I felt it was okay to fail,” Hills concludes. “I strive not to, you know. But Fringe is a community of triers. A community of dreamers. It allows people a space to share their voices. I felt comfortable. I felt it was a comfortable place to take that chance.”

– Richard Byrne