This article originally appeared in Westword.
The voice on the phone is unmistakable — gravelly, grounded, thoughtful, and perhaps just a touch menacing. I have reached Bill Hahn, one of Denver’s most compelling actors and a member of the three-person cast of The Lifespan of a Fact, which opens Curious Theatre Company’s 24th season — the troupe’s first show following the difficult pandemic year.
Hahn is not the only draw. His fellow actors are John Hauser, who among other things wowed Denver audiences as a sweet, shy teenage boy who becomes possessed by the devil through a malignant puppet in Hand to God five years ago, and the always impressive Sheryl McCallum. The play is directed by Christy Montour-Larson, a multi-award winner whose résumé includes the Arvada Center’s 2019 production of Diary of Anne Frank, a show that transformed a somewhat flawed script into an evening of rich and revelatory humanity.
Chip Walton, Curious Theatre’s artistic director, has been committed to producing The Lifespan of a Fact for a long time — “throughout and even preceding the pandemic shutdown,” he says. “So we are all truly excited to be able to finally bring it to life in a regional premiere. It is smart, thought-provoking, and deeply entertaining. It is also an amazing vehicle for three of our most talented actors.”
The Lifespan of a Fact premiered on Broadway in 2018. Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, it is based on an essay written by John D’Agata for Harper’s Magazine that explored the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. According to Bill Hahn, D’Agata got into an argument with the fact-checker, Jim Fingal, who drove his colleagues crazy by asking questions about, for example, “what kind of Triscuits a person’s family was eating and the minutiae of one second versus another.” Eventually, the two men collaborated on a book on the topic, which came out in 2012 and on which the play is based.
This might seem like a lot of attention for something as slight as a single essay. It might also seem obvious that when you’re chronicling a teenager’s real-life tragedy, you shouldn’t play fast and loose with the facts. But Walton points out that the play is timely. “I think over the last four or five years, we’ve all been struggling to understand the nature of truth and the relationship between truth and fact,” he says. “Under the Trump administration, people were twisting reality in different ways to suit their own agendas. And it’s not just limited to Trump. Election results continue to be questioned. Vaccines. It seems to me we live in a moment when truth and facts are more valuable than ever before.”
Hahn agrees that the play is timely, but says it isn’t “some ideological political diatribe. At its heart is the question of whether we can be storytellers anymore, or are we just detail listers? And what is the truth?” And The Lifespan of a Fact is also very funny, he insists. “It’s a pretty fast-moving hour and a half or so, and there are some sparks in it.”
I first saw Bill Hahn on stage some sixteen years ago in Martin Sherman’s Bent, a play about the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany in which his character, Max, ends up in Auschwitz. It’s a difficult, brutal play. It’s also difficult to portray a concentration camp inmate with any verisimilitude in a culture where the Holocaust is often sentimentalized, politicized or ignored, and sometimes flat-out denied. Hahn, however, turned in a performance that not only convinced, but was powerful enough to rake the skin from your body.
He was younger then, says Hahn, remembering, and “at that point you’re going ankle-deep into the water and much deeper. I did a lot of research into the Holocaust.” Tall and already slender, he dropped 25 pounds to play the role. “I’d do one or two hundred pushups so I could look a little more healthy in the beginning,” he explains, adding, “I ended up catching pneumonia in the last week of production.”
Despite all this, Hahn says he’s not a method actor. “I’m a little obsessive about getting the words into me, and will use my own emotions however they correspond. But I would not go into a role so fully that you lose your sense of self.”
Tragedy isn’t Hahn’s only talent. He can also be uproariously funny. And, playing a vicious, unrepentant killer in Frozen at Curious some years back, a man who sports a tattoo for each of the seven children he’s killed, Hahn chilled the blood.
“He can be gentle, fiery, sweet, scary, bombastic and nuanced — which is perfect for the character he’s playing,” Montour-Larson says, adding that working with Hahn “is like driving a Porsche on the Autobahn. It has been fun to press down on the gas and see what he can do.”
Bill Hahn’s interest in theater began in high school, and afterward, he enrolled in the School of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Northern Colorado. He was then accepted to the British American Drama Academy in London, where the teaching staff included such luminaries as Prunella Scales and Glenda Jackson. Students were assigned personal tutors, and Hahn’s tutor was the venerable Shakespearean actor Paul Rogers. At their first meeting, he asked Hahn, who at the time “thought I was a hot shot like Marlon Brando,” what he would like to work on. Hahn said he was interested in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Unbeknownst to him, Rogers had worked in the original production with Ian Holm, a production that won numerous awards and was later made into a film. “He wanted to do the scene just as they had done in 1965,” says Hahn. “Wanted me to spit on him and all the stuff the scene called for.”
As for Hahn’s work in Denver, “Every production has not been stellar, but I’ve always met amazing people,” he says. “Acting is kind of a scary thing to do. It’s like surfing, so to speak, and it’s very easy to go down at any moment. The only way you stay afloat in a production is relying on your brothers and sisters to keep you afloat.”
Like most people, Hahn found the pandemic year tough, but he was able to keep his job and work from home. He is grateful to the managers who “made it work.” Many people don’t understand, he comments, that while movie and television stars make a living, “out in the rest of the world, those of us working on a semi-regular basis in the theater have to find other sources of income and puzzle-piece things together.”
During that year, “My life was not about acting. It was about trying to stay healthy and reasonably fit when there’s nothing to do. How am I going to keep it together? No gyms open. I did workouts in the bedroom, a lot of hiking. The trails and the mountains provided the rest of my stuff, some semblance of peace and harmony in the world.” In spring, Hahn was able to work on Luke Sorge’s Zen and the Art of Profit, which was filmed at Miners Alley Playhouse in front of a small live audience and then streamed. “I felt very fortunate to do that.
“I’ll be honest. I admire the tenacity of my theater family out there who have held on so strongly. It’s a very quicksand-y thing, people assembling to watch our work. … A very valuable thing in our world to see things live — music, theater, dance — and to not just fall into a space where we never leave our houses, get food delivered, stream everything. It’s integral to our well-being. I’ve no idea where we’ll go or whatever variants are arising. I’m trying to appreciate day to day and be grateful there’s an opportunity today.”
The Lifespan of a Fact runs from September 18 to October 16 at Curious Theatre, 1080 Acoma Street. For tickets and more information, visit Curious Theatre online.