You should see her in a crown: Katy Hahn leads Riverside Theatre’s ‘Henry IV, Part I’

Riverside Theatre Presents: ‘Henry IV, Part I’

Lower City Park, Iowa City — June 14-23, Free

Katy Hahn — courtesy of Riverside Theatre

In Iowa, there is a small, but growing, community of artists who have no “day job.” That inescapable hallmark of 21st-century economics, the side hustle, has reached a point in its evolution that a variety of hustles — simultaneous, in sequence or often both — can be stitched together into a seemingly untenable but surprisingly strong quilt of a career. It’s into this mad amalgam of a gig economy that theater artist Katy Hahn found herself thrust several years ago.

“A question that people ask me a lot is, how do I do it? I say, don’t try to take the same path!” Hahn said. “When I was in college, I did not anticipate my path … I think a lot of us assumed that we’d go to L.A. or New York or maybe to Chicago, and work as a starving artist for a while. I couldn’t have planned this … You can’t try to copy somebody else’s journey. It has to be your own.”

Hahn’s journey has brought her most recently to a role she didn’t anticipate, either: Prince Hal in Riverside Theatre’s free summer production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. The play marks Riverside’s second year of free theater on their Lower City Park Festival Stage, part of a nationwide tradition of free summer Shakespeare that improves accessibility right at a time when theater as a whole is finally starting to shed the incongruous elitist image it’s been burdened with for the past century or so.

Henry IV, Part I is only the second of Shakespeare’s histories that Riverside has produced. The first, Richard III, was a decade ago. Adam Knight, who directs the play, said in an email that it was his very first programming choice as artistic director at the theater.

“I was drawn to this play for it’s combination of action and comedy (c’mon: Falsaff) and also because as a country we’re going through incredible upheaval,” Knight said. “Both sides of our political system are dug in, and there’s a desire among many not only for political change but also generational change How do we break the cycle? It’s also a story I’ve always been personally drawn to. As a teenager I wasn’t exactly upstanding. I remember reading this play back then and thinking, ‘there’s a way out.’ That what I appear to be does not need to define who I actually am. That’s Hal. She is born to something greater, but she’s biding her time. Her mask is both a truth and something that can be cast off. I love that.”

As an actor, Hahn had never considered looking at roles in Shakespeare’s histories, she said. “I’m much more experienced with the comedies, the tragedies, the romances. When Adam said he wanted to read me for Hal, I was like, ‘OK? Why?’ … Obviously, Hal was written to be a prince, and if we were setting it in the time period in which Shakespeare originally intended it to take place, it would’ve presented more challenges. But we’re going to be setting it World War I-ish, and we’re gonna create this world in which a woman can be a prince, a woman can be a king.”

Knight said he never saw it any other way. “The play is so overladen with machismo between the King and Hotspur,” he wrote, “it begs a different kind of energy to release England from the political infighting that has led to chaos. Hal represents a new start.”

And it’s in fascinating conversation with the other show on Riverside’s summer schedule, Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats — also a history of sorts (with great liberties taken), exploring the story of the men who set out in 1869 to chart the Colorado River, all (as intended by the playwright) cast as women.

“This cross-gender casting allows us to look at history from a new lens,” Knight said. “History belongs to all of us whether we like it or not, and representation matters. Theater wants to be a living thing for the now, whether it’s telling the story of male explorers in the 1800s or of a king and a prince in the 1400s.”

That incredibly present, incredibly human truth of history comes through clearly in Hal.

“At its core,” Hahn said of her role, “this is a play about a person who is torn between the life that they enjoy and the life that they feel pressured to lead. It’s that struggle that a lot of us — maybe all of us — [feel] between our duty and what gives us pleasure.

Working artists like Hahn put a Herculean effort into surfing the wave of that tension. By creating a life for herself that allows her to center her art, she can often collapse duty and pleasure into each other. But it’s a continual process of acknowledging, calculating and asserting worth and value. When Hahn made the decision to get her MFA in acting, she said, she knew that came with an obligation.

“There’s so many wonderful opportunities around here; all the time I want to audition for free stuff. But I owe it to my debt, and I owe it to my family — I’m married, I have a kid, I have a mortgage — to reserve my time for the projects that pay. And so it has become a business; it has become a duty.”

“I’m fortunate that I really enjoy my work,” she continued. “But it doesn’t make it any less work. I think that a lot of professionals in the arts fall into that murky area where sometimes it’s hard to put a price on it. It’s hard to quantify it; it’s hard to say, ‘This is what my time is worth.’ And it changes from project to project. [But] whether I’m acting, I’m dialect coaching, I’m directing — I try to stick to projects that pay.”

That’s made possible, Hahn said, by learning to “diversify” and “say yes to things.” Having both shared a stage with her and reviewed her multiple times, it’s clear that those two edicts undergird her performance style as well. Hahn is an engaged and engaging actor, generous with both scene partners and audiences; that and her gamboling physicality are the living embodiment of saying “yes” onstage. And she has amassed an unusually eclectic array of roles in eastern Iowa. Prince Hal makes for an exciting addition to the roster.

Genevieve Trainor’s dream Shakespeare role is Oberon, if anyone’s reading this. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 265.

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