BWW Interview: A Chat with HEDWIG's Yitzhak, Hannah Corneau
I moved to New York in 1999 and my first week there, I made it a mission to find out where the hell the Jane Street Theatre was, and to get myself a ticket to see HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. As I recall, I saw most of the original cast and ended up going back two more times.
For a young gay kid living on his own for the first time, I found a sense of comfort and belonging seeing something so unapologetically queer with a message that seemed so universal. After the show made it onto the big screen and finally to Broadway a few years back, I was excited, but also nervous about how a larger audience might respond to a show like this one. That's why it was fun to have a chat with Hannah Corneau, currently playing Yitzhak in the National Tour of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, coming to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next week.
JM: I'm really interested in hearing about audience reactions in different cities to Hedwig. How has the response been generally?
HC: Generally speaking it's been an extremely interesting experience touring the country, presenting this material and telling this story. The audience reaction has varied from Seattle to Atlanta, to Durham, NC. Specifically our coastal cities have been pretty open minded. Although I must say, we're in Boston right now and it's pretty reserved. You get surprised. Your assumptions aren't always correct. For instance, in Atlanta at the Fox Theatre, we didn't know what it would be like - and we arrived and we had some of the loudest, most exhilerating crowds we've ever had. It's been so interesting and fulfilling telling the story and seeing how it affects people, how different demographics respond. I mean, we get people walking out in every city. And that comes down to a person's humanity. Some people are going through things that allow them to take part in this journey, and others are going through things that don't allow them to have that same kind of experience.
JM: Tell me more about Boston, I'm from there and as a gay person who grew up there, I experienced a lot more homophobia than one would think in such a deeply blue state.
HC: Wow, yeah, it is pretty interesting. The coastal cities like New York and DC, and Seattle and California - were all places we were really looking forward to, but Boston has been a little surprising - it's a blue state, but it's also very blue collar. The response has been very reserved. I feel like people don't quite know if they can express themselves in a really open way. It's interesting. At the same time though, there's also a real intellect, an intelligence. Although reserved, they're definitely with us and appreciative of the story.
JM: In a very important time for the rights of transgender people in this country and abroad. What kind of conversations did you have about gender during your preparation for this role?
HC: I want to say that I think HEDWIG transcends gender and it's really just about humanity. People ask about Hedwig as a transgender individual, but John Cameron Mitchell [the author] refers to her as genderqueer. because it's not that young Hansel who was Hedwig's former self, woke up one day and realized she was a woman. It's that she became a different human being through a botched operation. So we focus on the humanity of these two individuals - Hedwig and Yitzhak, how these two souls transcend the labels they're given by peers or others who interact with them. In the "Wicked Little Town Reprise", the lyric is "more than a woman, more than a man." We look at them through their experiences, their fear and loss and pain and happiness and joy. I'm so happy that the transgender community can see this and feel connected. And I'm also happy the Catholic community in Durham, NC can find something in this to open their eyes and hearts. Because really we're all just humans going through life, experiencing all these different emotions.
JM: Yitzhak, a sort of love interest, sort of super fan colleague of Hedwig, seems quite complicated and I'm sure really exciting to play. What were your biggest challenges in tackling Yitzhak?
HC: The physicality of the character was definitely something I had to investigate. And the bigger challenge that keeps on coming is the psychological and emotional journey of this character. Yitzhak is Hedwig's husband, and also stage manager, wig manager, costume manager, roadie - it's such a co-dependent relationship. So in preparation for the role, the physicality was a challenge - making myself believable as a man. But as we've continued, it's been the psychological challenge because it's hard to be abused every night. It's a really abusive relationship between the two. And it's also co-dependent, so as Yitzhak, I feel trapped, because he deeply loves Hedwig, but there's just such abuse happening.
JM: So what kind of prep work and self care do you have afterwards to deal with it?The abuse piece can probably be fairly difficult, even just playing a role.
HC: Well, I really try to be kind of quiet with myself and really value alone time after the show. I can't be around a lot of people because I feel like my soul has been kind of rocked in a pretty negative way. Euan Morton (Hedwig) and I have a nice, fun ritual every night where he comes to my dressing room and we take off our makeup together. it's such a good experience to decompress and talk about what happened, and just be colleagues.
JM: Representation of the LGBT community is obviously really important - especially now with so many young people coming out so much earlier than my generation did. What's the message young people perhaps in a place of discovery about gender and sexuality should take away from the show?
HC: It's actually in the lyric from "Midnight Radio" and it's "Know that you are whole." And I think that's truly the story of HEDWIG. It's in finding your other half. Hedwig thinks it's in Tommy Gnosis, but ultimately finds that it's in herself. Euan said in a talkback once, We wake up every morning and hate ourselves, but at the end of the day, we have to remind ourselves that we're just human, that we're whole, we'll make mistakes and hit bumps along the way, but it doesn't make you any less a whole person.
JM: And have you had any folks talk to you after the show to share any stories of inspiration?
HC: I met someone who was 14 the other say who said "This has always been my favorite show!" and I was like, you weren't born when this show started. I always just say I'm so honored to be the actor to portray this role and execute this message and this lesson. It touches people on a daily basis and evokes things out of people they sometimes haven't had a chance to experience in a while. I'm really proud to be a person telling this story and helping people access this part of them.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH plays Tuesday, June 13th through Sunday, July 2nd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.Kennedy-Center.org for tickets and more information.