Theater: Playing in the park

The co-screenwriter of "We the Animals" talks about making magic and confronting toxic masculinity in his family-friendly play "Hannah + the Healing Stone" at Laurelhurst Park

Dan Kitrosser knows that kids can be ruthless audience members. “I did cut my teeth in theater as a children’s performer—and I learned very quickly that I loved performing for audiences of all ages because kids will literally just stand up and walk away,” Kitrosser says. “You really have to be quick.”

Kitrosser has written several plays for family audiences, including the ecologically conscious Blizzard the Wizard and the Sleepy Hollow musical The Legend of Ichabod Crane. Hannah + the Healing Stone, which will be performed at Portland’s Laurelhurst Park this weekend, is his latest play for all ages—and it might be one of his strangest and most heartfelt creations. Performances will be at 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 19-20.

Kayla Hanson stars as Hannah, an aquarium employee trying to save a town literally drowning in the anguish of a coworker (Heath Hyun Houghton) who is clinging to a grudge. That plotline is just the beginning of a series of stories involving divorced screenwriters (Josie Seid and Jordan Siegel, who is Kitrosser’s husband), a woman who turns into a goldfish (Nicole Accuardi) and a possible romance between Hannah and Maddie (Barbie Wu).

Dan Kitrosser, author of “Hannah + the Healing Stone.”

I spoke to Kitrosser (who also co-wrote the film We the Animals) over the phone about writing Hannah + the Healing Stone. As he talked, he adjusted a magazine and threw away some orange peels, yet remained intensely focused on communicating what matters most to him: the play’s portrayal of trauma and toxic masculinity.

With Hannah + the Healing Stone, was there a core, universal idea that you either built the story around or that you found as you were writing?

It’s a bunch of interlocking magical fables, and the first one is about a random guy who is dropping off a goldfish for a lady who lives in a yellow house and always kills her goldfish, so she keeps ordering a new goldfish from Marvin’s Aquarium. And she has a stone in her house that somebody had given her.

If you squeeze the stone really hard, it will help you let go of all of your pain, and so she offers it to this sad guy who’s delivering a goldfish. After you squeeze out all your pain, you’re supposed to let the stone go. This delivery guy doesn’t—and in fact, what happens is that water starts pouring out of the stone and begins to flood the town.

At the core, what I realized through the writing of [Hannah + the Healing Stone] is that it’s about, how do we let go of our pain and our trauma? How do we grow from letting go? And also, how do we do that in relation to others?

Did you start writing it during the pandemic?

I wrote the first draft of this play pre-pandemic for Fertile Ground 2020. I’m actually kind of amazed at the clay that was inside of this play. Because now I get to mold it with such amazing actors and Kisha Jarrett, the director. And everybody is helping me find the deeper meanings that resonate, especially out of the trauma of this last year.

What are those conversations like between you and Kisha and the cast and everyone else involved?

I think the painful, sad stuff is definitely part of the storytelling, because you can’t have magic if you don’t also have pain. I’ve gotten to know Barbie Wu as a friend and as a colleague. Her character is a Taiwanese American who everyone just thinks is Chinese. I am a gay Jew from the Northeast, and so getting that collaboration with Barbie and her openness about that experience and how that can find its way into the play … I just feel so much gratitude, so much love.

I always say to my students, “Writing plays is an invitation.” You hope that you’re going to have the fingerprints of actors and designers and directors—and ultimately, audience members.

The cast of “Hannah + the Healing Stone,” clockwise from top left: Josie Seid, Barbie Wu, Heath Hyun Houghton, Kayla Hanson, Nicole Accuardi, and Jordan Siegel.

I’m really fascinated by the idea of someone squeezing the stone and their inability to let go drowning everyone else in their pain. Was that something you were interested in exploring—whose pain is valued?

[We] don’t in this country and in this society really give permission for vulnerability to so many populations, specifically cis men. And so instead what we’re left with is a lot of men who feel pain, who feel hurt, who feel like their vulnerability is something that they have to wall up. And instead of addressing it through therapy, they just run around and cause tempests and torrents of floods—when really, the work that they should be doing is letting go.

And I will say, I’m referring to cis men as if I am not one of them. I certainly struggle as well with letting go.

Is it a very different experience for you writing for a family audience versus an older audience?

Writing explicitly for younger audiences or family audiences, you want to be really precise about what each scene is about. And that precision then propels the story, I think—being precise about [what a character’s] fear is, what their fantasy is, what they want in a scene, what they want in life and what they want from their scene partner. It’s about being the precision of the want—and then how far that want will go.

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Hannah + the Healing Stone will be performed outdoors at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 19, and 5 p.m. Sunday, June 20 at Laurelhurst Park in Southeast Portland. Ticket and scheduling information here.

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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