Two of Georgia’s best-known artists, Howard Finster, the architect of Paradise Garden, REM/Talking Heads album covers and “Picasso of folk artists,” and nihilistic punk painter Robert Sherer, also internationally acclaimed but known for his depictions of the male nude, seem like they would be unlikely friends. This unusual relationship between two of Georgia’s arguably greatest artists is the subject of THE HIDDEN MAN, the latest play performed by the always intriguing 7 Stages company, which opens Thursday March 8 (opening night celebration on Sat. March 10; details at story end) and runs through March 25. The play, which is a joint University of Georgia production and premiered a couple of weeks ago in Athens, drew criticism from Finster’s daughter, Beverly Finster-Guinn, who disputes that her devout Southern Baptist preacher father would be friends with a producer of “porn.”
ATLRetro recently caught up with Del Hamilton, 7 Stages’ Artistic Director, to find out more about the play, the controversy and a special sneak preview of more music from the rescheduled DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA.
ATLRetro: How did THE HIDDEN MAN come about?
Del Hamilton: Russell Blackman, one of the co-authors, approached me several years ago with his rock and roll play about Finster. I told him I did not think it was ready for a production process and introduced him to Pamela Turner, and they decided to make this new play based on the partly fictional account of when Howard Finster and Robert Sherer met in the early ’80s. They are each arguably among Georgia’s most important visual artists, so this is an important story for that alone.
What drew you to it as a 7 Stages production and made you decide you wanted to direct it?
Even in these so-called enlightened times we live in, it’s still an incredible mystery to me that some people find fault with others based simply on what may be perceived as sexual inclination. This play directly addresses that significant cultural issue. How does a rabid anti-gay preacher look at a young, possibly atheist student? What do they see when they are with one another? How does Howard learn to forgive Robert for not being the person he wants him to be? When a person “hears” the call to be an artist, is it God? Is it an internal voice urging personal freedom?
Don’t know how they met, although I heard stories, but can’t confirm. I believe they spent two summers together, more or less. Robert would travel to Paradise Gardens and stay over there for weeks at a time, helping Howard work on his art, being an apprentice.
What about your favorite aspect/scene?
I was hoping to create something beautiful – to look at, and to think about. I think there are many gorgeous scenes, even given our limited space and resources. I love the way scenes can be surprising and unexpected. I love the scene in the tub when the guys wash off the words SIN and LUST with Ivory Snow. And I love the shock of shooting the Tower of Sodomy.
Paradise Gardens is a really unique location. What have you done at 7 Stages to recreate it?
Nothing.Paradise Gardens is a kind of sacred space, and we would not wish to do anything to disturb that, or to even try to recreate it. It’s truly unique, and dedicated to the full glory of God, something I don’t embrace intellectually. But I do respect that others hold this location with such high respect that it would be wrong to make it somehow secular by diminishing its beauty and stature. On the other hand, our scene designer has come up with a design that combines naive and sophisticated art concepts. The play is like a dream; in fact, it is a dream, alternating between the punk scene of Atlanta and Howard’s spiritual retreat in Summerville. As in dreams, locations, events, people get conflated, so we’re not sure if we are in dreams or reality from scene to scene. Sometimes the city and country locations are simultaneous.Was Robert Sherer involved in the production, and what does he think about it?
It’s partly his story, partly made up. He had nothing to do with the production, although he did lend early support to the writers, agreeing to interviews, and this formed the basis of the play. And he has stood up for 7 Stages as we were attacked by the religious folk who disagree that we should be allowed to do this play. In addition to being a great artist, Robert is one of the kindest, most sincere persons I have ever met.
Were you surprised at the derogatory response of Beverly Finster-Guinn?
Sure, especially the things she is saying that defame Robert. His reputation is on the line. He had nothing to do with the play, yet she is attacking him. She ought to go after 7 Stages and UGA, and in fact she tried this. But I guess she feels Robert is more vulnerable and an easier target. But my theatre has been marched on by the Klan, so it takes quite a lot to surprise me.
What was the reaction to the performances at UGA?
Well-received. I would say very positive reactions.
What do you hope audiences will walk away from THE HIDDEN MAN with?
That artists have to fight for a place in their culture. The fight involves personal goal assessment and a zest for life, including discovering ways to open doors to the imagination. Sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s how two artists interact that causes inspiration. If two distinct people such as Robert and Howard can be together, can’t others do it also? Can’t countries? Why can’t we all get along? How do artists find themselves, and the spark of inspiration? How are artists nurtured, and who does that in our society?
Finally, many of our readers were disappointed to hear of the postponement of Rob Thompson‘s DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. How is the fundraising campaign for it going and when do you anticipate it will be ready to perform?
I am revealing here – you are first to know – that we will present songs from the second part of the show at the end of this month in a special concert-style presentation [date and time TBA] . The composers have now finished writing all the songs, and we have made a good cd of all songs from act 1. I love this music, and the second act is even better than the first act. And we are starting to organize the auditions and designs for a September Opening. So, lots of activity. WE ARE ALSO SEEKING PRODUCERS WHO WANT TO HELP US BY CONTRIBUTING MONEY; AND THEN THEY GET TO ATTEND REHEARSALS, SPECIAL EVENTS AND OPENING NIGHT. PLEASE TELL YOUR READERS.
I also add that we postponed DRACULA so we could do some needed facility renovation— a new roof, HVAC system and new bathrooms. It all came together and we decided to delay so we could do it better given more time, and raise enough money to pay people better than we often do. And we hope it won’t rain inside anymore.
Join 7 Stages for their Opening Night celebration of THE HIDDEN MAN Saturday, March 10. The festivities start at 7 p.m., and the evening will include food, wine and music by The Lamantations. Mix and mingle with the cast, playwright and Robert Sherer.