The making of an artist: inside Colleen Hammond’s one-woman show

Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor. Surrounded by a swarm of otherworldly figures, M grapples with a reality that feels significantly alien, even to her.

by Zoe Stratos & Capri Scarcelli | opinions editor and a&e editor

March 31, 2022

On the Genesius Theater stage, a flood of bright blue, flashing red and TV static pulses as a singular woman stands center stage in baby blue shoes. It’s quiet, until a rumbling sound crescendos through the crowd in a nightmarish duple meter. Surrounded by hexagon towers, she cowers, screaming that it sounds like “1000 airplanes are on the roof.”

Swapping her reporter’s notebook for riveting monologues is none other than Duke Editor-in-Chief Colleen Hammond, who will be starring as “M” in the one woman show 1000 Airplanes on the Roof.

Unlike many of the Red Masquers productions this year, David Henry Hwang’s one-act melodrama takes on a more dystopian, surrealistic nature. The performance, opening on March 31, follows M, who supposedly encounters extraterrestrial life, and must navigate her way through the unbelievable experience.

Wanting to create his own rendition of Hwang’s bare-bones script and Phillip Glass’s minimalistic score for nearly two decades, John Lane, the Director of Theater Arts at Duquesne, knew the part would fit Hammond perfectly.

“Colleen approached me with directing a play, but I had already wanted to do [1000 Airplanes on the Roof],” Lane said. “I thought she would be perfect for it. This wasn’t really picked with her in mind, but it just presented itself as a really great project for her. Thank God she chose it, because she’s fabulous.”

Hammond, a self-proclaimed “overachiever,” had another idea.

“He told me I could direct the production of The Elephant Man, which is a fabulous play, or, he told me, I could star in a one-woman show. I said, ‘Why can’t I do both?’ and he laughed at me and told me no. I said ‘No, but really, can I do both?’”

After much deliberation, she decided on 1000 Airplanes on the Roof because of the challenge it presented.

“I wanted that because this is bigger than anything I’ve ever been a part of before,” she said. “I’ve had leading roles before, but nothing really compares to a one-woman show. It’s just this glorious behemoth that you just have to figure out how to saddle and how to bring to life every night.”

Hammond has been working toward her role as M all her life. As a child in Ann Arbor, Mich., her mother took her to a community children’s theater to see a play, and after it was over, she said “I think you could do something like that.”

Soon enough, Hammond starred at 9 years old as the Pied Piper in Pied Piper — she admitted it was because she was the only kid in the theater company who knew how to play the flute. 

But the role only continued to pique Hammond’s interest, and soon after, she was going to summer camps and taking classes to hone her skills. Two summers during her teenage years, she auditioned for and attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Even when she wasn’t performing, she was always learning and going to see shows.

Now starring in her biggest role, Hammond and Lane got right to work — all the way back in September. Preparing for the production, the two said the show started in an unorthodox way: rehearsals began before auditions.

“It’s been quite a commitment for her to do this, and I wanted to make sure she was going to be all on board,” Lane said. “We needed to give her enough time to memorize this really big project so that she’s to the point where it’s just kind of second nature coming out of her. Plus, there’s so many moving parts: It’s got to be timed with the music, the lights, and the sounds — there’s so many distractions.”

After months of arranging (and rearranging) the score, creating original stage directions, lighting and set, and casting the alien ensemble, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof was almost ready for an audience. Each sentence uttered from Hammond was a piece in a mosaic, and had to be precisely executed with each background element in order to stick the landing. 

The show tackles the Earth-shattering reality of something we all face, but choose to ignore: finding a sense of belonging. M finds herself shunning society, and welcoming, even accepting, the unconventional intrusive thoughts that seem to whir through her head at the speed of sound. As M becomes more frantic throughout the show, a voiceover plays over her dialogue, mimicking her conscious insecurities as the aliens creep in. Projected in the cyc with symbolic imagery, we can see into M’s spiral and are left to watch in bewilderment and awe. 

Each movement felt purposeful, raw and full of genuine emotion — an impressive display from Hammond’s impeccable interpretation of the role as well as the constant, uncanny presence of the movement actors. 

 During the rehearsal process, Hammond’s biggest obstacle became herself.

“Believing in myself was probably the hardest part. It’s a very peculiar sensation, when everyone around you is so confident that you can do something so seemingly impossible,” she said. “And it’s terrifying. The memorization hasn’t been as difficult as anyone would think. It has been finding the character process, and having the certainty that I can do it every single night.”

Michael Kirk, a member of the alien ensemble and a “dear” friend of Hammond’s, has believed in her since day one, as many have. 

Kirk and Hammond met each other their freshman year during the Red Masquers production of A Little Night Music, where they played the roles of Carl and Charlotte Malcolm, the husband and wife. Since then, they have worked together on and off the stage.

“Colleen is the most opinionated person I’ve ever met, and I think we’re all grateful for it, because she brings such an intelligent and courageous force to the stage that it’s impossible to not follow in what she says,” Kirk said. “Seeing her [grow] into herself during this show and really gain the confidence necessary to do a one-woman show has just been inspiring to me.”

Hammond’s acting coach and main inspiration, Nancy Bach, also believed in her abilities, and felt surprised when she doubted herself. According to Bach, “she’s a natural.”

“A script, when you take it apart, it’s these little lines on a page. There’s nothing there: how a person carries themselves; how they look when they say something; what’s the tone,” Bach said. “In a play, it’s about hidden things. Even in this absurd surrealist world, this character is still fighting with her own insecurities. And Colleen just gets it.”

Others involved, including alien ensemble members Anita Parrott, Matt Dudley, Ryan Graves and Susan Betten; and stage and production crew members Justin Sines, Peter Brucker, Nora Nee, Molly Cate Olson and Rachel Lewandowski have all contributed to the collaborative process, and believed in Hammond’s ability to nail the role.

M’s character is full of intricacies, finding solace in her senses but jolted by reality in seconds’ notice, leaving behind an intensity that felt like whiplash. Hammond’s ability to dominate the stage and make each moment impactful was a true testament to her self-actualization as an actress and as a person. 

“There’s something really beautifully universal about this character, and about her experiences. You and I may not have been abducted by aliens, but I feel like every person knows what it’s like to love someone and lose someone; what it’s like to not feel at home anywhere you go; what it feels like to be lost,” Hammond said.

The crew’s riveting projections and Hammond’s chilling monologue, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof is a must-see sensory overload. 

Audiences should come curious and leave more curious than before. Tackling these darker thematic elements, it is up to the viewer whether the show is commentary on society, mental health, the extraterrestrial or all of the above. 

After this Sci-Fi story comes to an end, Hammond will begin the next story: graduating from Duquesne. Lane, Bach and Kirk all believe she’s prepared for it.

“If anything, first and foremost, Colleen is a storyteller,” Kirk said. “That’s why she loves theater so much, it’s because of her ability to convey a good story. I’m sure in some way, shape or form, that’s what she’ll end up doing, and I think that’s just awesome.”

With her theater experience in the back of her mind, she, too, agrees that she’s ready for that next step.

“The future’s still uncertain, but no matter what career path I end up taking or what job offers I end up accepting, I’m quite confident that I will always be a storyteller,” Hammond said. “It means that your little set of ears know how to listen. It’s about being brave enough to feel human experience in its entirety, to not shy away from the pain or discomfort that often arises in everyday life. It’s about acknowledging your own humanity and respecting the dignity of others: That’s what makes an artist an artist.”