Other Inland Empires at last year's rEvolver Festival.
Other Inland Empires at last year's rEvolver Festival.

Now in its seventh year, East Vancouver’s rEvolver Festival returns later this month, with 12-days of new interdisciplinary works from emerging to early mid-career artists.

Taking place largely at The Cultch for its nine mainstage productions, this year the festival has branched out to also include three site-specific shows. The festival’s popular reading series also returns with five plays-in-the-works by B.C. playwrights, alongside a new companion event featuring three new plays by emerging female and non-binary writers.

Among the mainstage shows this year is Julie Hammond’s Other Inland Empires, tracing er unlikely connection between California surf culture and the WWII-era Jewish diaspora.

In this Q&A with Hammond, who also directs her own piece, we find out more.

This interview has been edited.

Tell us what Other Inland Empires is about.

On one level, it’s the story of what happened when I traveled to Slovakia to learn to surf. On another, it’s a story of discovery: of family history, of cultural infiltration, of looking at things and people and ideas a second and third time because the first look is so rarely the whole story.

What was the impetus for creating the show?

In 2008 I read an article in Believer Magazine by Peter Lunenfeld called “Gidget on the Couch” which revealed that the wildly popular novel Gidget was based on the real life of Kathy Kohner, a Jewish teenager who started surfing in the mid-1950s. The novel, which inspired a movie and TV show of the same name, was pivotal in the popularization of surf culture specifically and California beach culture generally.

I grew up in southern California, visiting the beach, listening to Beach Boys and Dick Dale tapes in my Dad’s car, but also going to temple with my family and believing that being a Jew and being a “real” California girl didn’t go together.

So, this discovery that Gidget was a Jew was shocking and exhilarating. Suddenly there was a link between the surfing part of my family and the Jewish part. I sat on this until 2016 when I decided that maybe I should do this journey in reverse by trying to surf in Slovakia and see if a show came out of it.

What is the significance of the title?

The Inland Empire is the area of southern California where I was born. My maternal grandparents were born in what is now Slovakia but was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There was a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire reached the sea, but now, of course, Slovakia is most certainly landlocked and thus, ‘inland.’ The title is yet another link / trace between California and a country very far away from it.

Why was it important for you to tell this story now?

This story is highly personal. It’s about me and my family and my grandmother’s survival and losses in WWII, but it’s also the story of building a life in another country and what happens to the other country and the new one as time goes on.

It also feels important to touch on the impacts of assimilation, and how collective failure to see ways that culture is shaped by people from all parts of the world hurts more than just individuals.

The stories we are told profoundly influence the stories we tell ourselves. We need more stories of more sizes and shapes because there are so many possibilities for living.

You traveled to Central Europe with an audio recorder as part of your research. Who did you speak with, and what was the most surprising thing you learned?

I did a lot of audio recording, but I did almost no interviewing. Mostly I was recording the sounds of spaces: the town where my grandmother was born, kids playing on an indoor beach, street musicians. I still haven’t listened to all the audio I gathered. I might have done more interviewing of people, but (spoiler alert) I had an accident really early on in my trip and speaking was very difficult. Not to mention the language barrier. My Slovak is non-existent.

Why should someone come see Other Inland Empires?

It’s an autobiographical comedy about the Holocaust and a tragedy about surfing. How often do you see that? If not for the content, come for the beautiful music from guitarist Matthew Ariaratnam and performers Stephanie Wong, Dominique Hat, and Bana Biltaji. Or come for the palm trees.

If you could see only one show at this year’s rEvolver Festival, besides your own, what show would that be?

This is tough, so I’m going to cheat by saying that I have been really lucky to have already see two shows which will be at the Festival, my dear Lewis and Awkward Hug, and you should most definitely go see those. For shows I haven’t seen yet, I’m really excited about Robert Azevedo’s Contemporary Dance Solo. It’s a built from YouTube videos of teenage girls’ competitive dance routines, but performed by Robert who is most definitely not a teen girl.

Other Inland Empires plays as part of the 2019 rEvolver Festival. Visit revolverfestival.ca for showtimes and the complete line-up.