12 Apr 15 Anniversary Artist Interviews: We Happy Few
We Happy Few have a knack for boiling down classics of theatre and literature to an engaging essence that has delighted audiences for the past eight years. Recently, the company has tackled works including Treasure Island and Frankenstein – and it was on the verge of opening a reimagining of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when the coronavirus pandemic swept into DC in mid-March.
Capital Fringe has played a foundational role in the DC-based company’s trajectory. Two of We Happy Few’s first three shows (Hamlet in 2012 and Romeo and Juliet in 2013) played at the annual festival – and a production of The Tempest debuted in The Shop at Fort Fringe in 2013.
Kerry McGee – co-artistic director and marketing director – observes that by the time 2014 rolled around, We Happy Few knew that it wanted to expand its range of personnel and its aesthetic horizons.
“We were at a point where we wanted to try something new,” she recalls. “We’d done three Shakespeare plays, and we wanted to see what else was out there. What else was of interest to us?”
The company didn’t stray too far from the Early Modern Era for its 2014 Fringe production: John Webster’s revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. It’s a play teeming with tangles of gender, class, madness and power – washed down with poison and blood.
McGee says that Paul Reisman – currently the producing artistic director at Faction of Fools – approached We Happy Few about tackling Malfi.
“He came to us with a proposal for it,” she says. “We’d worked with Paul in Romeo and Juliet. He played Friar Lawrence. We had a good relationship with Paul. He knew our style and we knew his. So it was a really good fit.”
Full productions of classical theatre don’t slide easily into the Capital Fringe schedule. But We Happy Few’s “boil it down and play it at pace” approach was deployed to make the five act Jacobean drama fit neatly into its festival slot.
“Usually what we try to do is ask ourselves: what is it about the story that speaks to us? Knowing that you can’t tell the whole story is kind of freeing in the creative process,” McGee says. “You get to ask yourself: ‘What do I like and what really resonates?”
We Happy Few’s Malfi played in the now-vanished and much-mourned Flashpoint Black Box. “It was one of our favorite spaces of all time,” says McGee. “It was very centrally located to the [Baldacchino] Fringe tent, but also it’s a really intimate black box with a flexible configuration. We could keep the audience close, and that was a big part of the storytelling.”
Malfi was a 2014 Fringe hit, garnering rave reviews and selling loads of tickets. “It was the first time that one of our shows at Fringe was regularly selling out,” she recalls. “That was really cool and exciting.”
McGee says that We Happy Few as a company has a “very strong Fringe connection.” But she adds that her own connection with Capital Fringe is even more personal.
“Fringe was my first job in D.C.,” says McGee. “I was a bartender. I was hired the first summer I moved up here and bartended in the tent. So a lot of the people that I know in the D.C. theater community were people I met through working as a Fringe bartender. For me, it really was such a kickoff.”
– Richard Byrne