Interview with Liane Hansen, Former NPR Host and Current Theatre Actress
In May 2011 Liane Hansen, 61, retired from National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” after 22 years as host, then moved to Bethany Beach. Now involved with the Bethany Area Repertory Theatre, she also performs with Clear Space Theatre Company. See
Liane Hansen rests between rehearsals at the Dickens Parlour Theatre in Millville.
Photo by Maria DeForrest
DT: Why Bethany Beach?
LH: In 1989, when I was working for Performance Today, a good friend of mine whose parents came to Bethany in the ’50s. And they had always recommended it as a place for vacation. And I kind of knew about it because I had lived in Wilmington for a brief period in the mid-’70s, but never really had visited here. So that year I rented a house for the summer—we co-rented it with a guy that we worked with. And I just fell in love with the place and started coming down every summer for a week or two, renting various places in Bethany Beach. I loved it because it reminded me of the beaches I would go to on Cape Cod as a kid. Only warmer. When my kids were in college and out of the house—I’ll just say my husband and I have been divorced for a little over a year now, so when I say “we,” I mean my ex-husband—we decided to sell our place in Bethesda and put a 50 percent down payment on a place down here because I knew this is where I wanted to live in my old age. I took an early retirement from NPR. I had been doing the same job for more than 20 years. Getting up early in the morning. My husband and I were going through a divorce. We worked together. I just decided it was time for me to reinvent myself. So I moved down here not having a clue what I was going to be doing. I was able to access my retirement account, which sort of made the decision for me that it was time. I wanted to be able to enjoy myself here before I was too old to do so.
DT: Do Bethany and Fenwick still live up to the name “Quiet Resorts?”
LH: Absolutely. It’s really a family oriented resort. When we first got here, the only place you could have a drink with dinner was what was then the Holiday House and you had to bring your own. Of course, now there are a lot of nice, new restaurants and so forth. So the town has really come of age a little bit, but it is still a family town. I used to say that parents come down here with their kids up until the time they turn 18. So you have these 11, 12-year-olds, as a matter of fact, you could smell the hormones in the air. But I like it because it is quiet. Like in the winter, when it’s quiet. Of course, there’s a lot more to do now. And of course with Rehoboth so close by, and Lewes, I don’t feel like I’m being deprived of a social life or anything. I just love the quiet. I love the beach. I love the fact that the town is small. And I wanted to move to Delaware because of the tax situation and, well, it’s Slower Lower Delaware, right?
DT: Not a bad thing.
LH: Not a bad thing, except, how do you know when you live in a rural area? Your mailbox gets decapitated. Which is what happened to me last night, actually. Rowdies with baseball bats decided to take it out on my mailbox and my two neighbors’ mailboxes. So it’s kinda strange. But that still doesn’t deter me from living here. I’ve been meeting a lot of people. People here are very welcoming and very kind. It’s just been a lot of fun to meet everybody and also to fulfill my lifelong dream, which was to act again.
DT: You say ‘again.” Can you tell me where you started?
LH: Sure. The last show that I had done was close to 40 years ago. I did a few productions in Binghamton, N.Y. Did some dinner theater before I got the job in radio. And that was what I always wanted to do, was to act. But I ended up getting a job as an administrative assistant at a public television station in Binghamton. And it happened to be the year that they were putting their radio station on the air and I was asked, because I had a good voice, would I like to be part of the team on the radio station. And I thought, well, what, I’m going to give up typing? I don’t think so. And I took the job and I didn’t look back. I’ve been doing radio ever since. But it was always in the back of my mind. And I couldn’t do it when I was doing “Weekend Edition Sunday” because you couldn’t do Sunday matinees. I couldn’t do a Saturday night show. I had to get up at 2:30 in the morning.
DT: So you’re starting a second career in community theater?
LH: As soon as I got down here, I saw a small notice in the local paper that a new theater company was starting up that would perform at the Dickens Parlour Theatre. I auditioned and they cast me. And it was like, Whoa. And then I saw an audition for Clear Space. So I went up and did—I called it a hot mess of an audition because I had to sing—and I was cast in “A Christmas Carol.” And I was doing both shows, because the Bethany Area Repertory Theatre (BART) shows were on Wednesdays and “a Christmas Carol” was on the weekends and there was some overlap in rehearsals. But I ended up doing two shows, and the first show at Dickens and that first night that I was back on stage and doing a part in front of an audience, I could not sleep that night. I was so excited. Now I’m working backstage as an assistant director of the new show at Dickens, which will be running Wednesdays through April. It’s a BART production called “Rudy or Ruby” and it was written by a local playwright, Bob Davis. And I’ve been cast in “A Little Night Music” at Clear Space (runs through April 14), playing Madame Armfeldt. If you had asked me in 1972, when I was performing in a dinner theater production of “Company,” which is a Sondheim show, what my dream in life would be, it would be to perform in a Sondheim musical. And now I’m going to get to do it. I am over the moon at the opportunity to be able to do this.
It was interesting when I moved down here that I had heard about the startup of a new public radio station in Dover. And I thought, Wow, this is why I am supposed to be here—to help that along, as well. I’ve sort of been dividing my time between my acting duties and helping WDDE with its outreach. It’s great. I’m not getting paid for any of it, but I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for love. The BART Repertory Company and Rich Block, who runs the Dickens Parlour Theatre, he’s a magician, he loves the idea of having a permanent repertory company in his theater because it means he can do something mid-week. It’s a gorgeous little theater. When I first moved down here, I said, I don’t know what this is, but I know I want to be part of it. Luckily enough, they thought I was talented enough to be cast.
DT: So it all came together just as you had planned it.
LH: There’s an old saying: Leap and the net will appear. Yeah, well that seems to be what happened. I had no idea what was going to happen coming down here and now all of a sudden, all of my dreams are coming true.
DT: It’s really inspirational.
LH: That’s what a lot of my friends tell me. They say, I can’t believe you’re doing this. Why are you doing this? And I try to explain, Look, I turned 61 in September. I think living down here at the beach, a lot of people come here and reinvent themselves. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to reinvent myself. My hairdresser asked why I’m letting my hair turn gray and I said I’m doing it for a role, meaning Madame Armfeldt, even though I’ll probably have to wear a wig anyway. And he said, Oh, are you going to be famous? And I said, No, I already am famous. I’m doing this for love.
DT: Do people stop you on the street or in restaurants there? Are you recognized?
LH: Not physically. But I am when I open my mouth. I open my mouth and it’s like Whac-A-Mole in a restaurant sometimes. You know, like prairie dogs peeping up over the booth. You can hear people turning around. That would happen too in Washington, but not to the extend that it does here. I’ve made a couple of appearances. I did the Women in Business for Delaware Today, but I’ve also spoken at Rotary clubs and League of Women Voters—a lot to talk about WDDE—and I gave a lecture with Osher on insider’s guide to public radio. People are coming up and saying I listened to you all the time and I miss you. And there are others who say, I honestly don’t know anything about you. And that’s kinda nice, too. So my voice gets recognized. The first time it happened, I was at the UPS store and a woman said, Are you Liane Hansen? And I said, Yes, how do you know that? She said, I know your voice. And later I was at Harris Teeter. And a checker looked up and said, It’s you. I know you. It’s kinda strange. Usually I’ll sort of make light of it and say, Wow, that’s what you look like. (she laughs) People always say, Oh, that’s what you look like. And I never know whether they’re disappointed or they had this whole other idea. That’s what radio does. And I had developed a really intimate relationship with three million people I didn’t know. But you know what? You don’t get applause when you’re on the radio. It goes out. You get maybe a letter or two telling you what you did wrong. Although every show and interview in many ways is a performance of sorts, when you go out on that stage and people laugh at a line that you’ve been given, or they applaud, it’s so wonderful to get that immediate human feedback.
DT: So you’re a ham.
LH: Uh, yeah. I always have been. Since the time I was five years old I wanted to be an actress. My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on. So I took typing.
DT: Can you compare having three million fans on radio and being on a stage in a community theater? Do you get nervous?
LH: I do with both. It has always been my feeling that if you’re not nervous, something is wrong. Because that just leads to hubris—you know, I can do this in my sleep. You’re going to screw up. My palms would get sweaty before every broadcast. I’d be nervous before every interview. And it was because I wanted the broadcast to be good. You do get a little bit of stage fright. You run through your lines. You hope you’re not going to screw up. But I have always found that if I’m nervous, then I know I’m doing something right.
DT: Were you nervous before our interview today? (laugh)
LH: A little. I just never know what people want to know. I’m a private person in many respects. I live alone. That’s just who I am. Although I can get up in front of a room full of people and speak extemporaneously as if it’s no problem at all. But I gear myself up for that. Because whatever I’m doing, I want the people I’m doing it for to have a good time, no matter what. I get more nervous when I get my picture taken because that’s 22 years in radio, you know. I don’t know how to put on makeup. (she laughs) Now that I’m back in the theater, I’m learning how to wear makeup again.
DT: Do you miss being on-air?
LH: I still keep in touch with the news. I still listen to the news. But there are times when I’m awfully glad that I don’t have to cover it. But I look forward to working with the reporters at WDDE. Particularly the young generation. There’s a new political reporter there, Jimmy Dawson, who moved here from Idaho. He’s 22. I just love being able to mentor him a little bit. I mean he’s good on his own, but I just love interacting with him and being part of the newsroom up there sometimes, and being on the air up there. In the future, if there’s growth enough, there may be more radio in my future, but I’m taking it a day at a time.
DT: What are some of those times when you’re glad you don’t have to cover the news?
LH: Well, the Newtown shooting. When the hostages were held at the power plant in Algeria, or that poor little boy in Alabama. Obviously for someone to go and shoot up a room full of first-graders is devastating. I had to cover when Gabrielle Giffords was shot, because that happened on a Saturday. And so that would be our main story the next day. And it’s awful because there are people who are involved. And I’m not that dispassionate. I hear about a missile strike in Syria. I watch what’s going on in Syria and the Middle East. And I didn’t have to cover a Presidential election, which is very difficult during those times because everything gets so heated and you never know what’s true and what’s not. And news has never really been my beat, even though I was doing a news program. It’s a news magazine. I got my happiness, I guess you could call it, from interviewing real people, people who had done something in theater, art, music, movies, history. All of those things that are not breaking news or politics. People ask me if I miss Washington and I say, No. They say, Why, it’s such a nice city. I say, it’s a company town and the company just happens to be the government. Like Hollywood is a movie town. And the populations change. And people blow whatever way the wind is blowing. I describe Washington as the kind of town where people put the bumper sticker of the winning candidate on their car the day after the election. If I was to say what town was mine, I love New York. I lived there for a while. And I lived in London for a while and I loved it there, too.
DT: It seems like you’ve been famous in radio and now you’re going to turn around and do it again in theater.
LH: (laughs) I don’t know. I have to audition. I don’t get cast unless somebody thinks I can do the show. I’m hedging my bets. I’m taking a class up at Clear Space called “Legends,” which is for people over the age of 55. And we do a concert version of a musical and this time it will be “Anything Goes.” I feel like I’m learning how to sing. It’s like I’m learning something new. I have a voice. I don’t know how to read music because I don’t know really what the note sounds like although I can tell where I’m supposed to go by reading it. But I feel like I’m gaining all of this new information. In fact, David Button, the company manager at Clear Space said, “It’s really great to meet somebody who wants to learn something new.” I said, Oh, yeah, I really want to learn how to sing well. I adore it. It’s a way for me to meet people. And my daughter is in Philly and she’s involved in theater, too, so I got to see some of the productions that she’s stage managed. And my son’s in L.A. working at a casting studio, so he’s kinda in the business too. What can I say? I guess I’ve always been theatrical.
DT: Do you rub elbows with anybody who is well-known? We hear there are some Hollywood types who have places at the beach.
LH: I’ve heard that. I went down to Rhodes Five and Dime a couple years ago and the woman who works there was saying so and so was just here. But when I was still in Washington, I went to the White House correspondents dinner and managed to get my picture taken with George Clooney. And when I brought the film down here to be developed, I thought the ladies at Happy Harry’s were going to have a heart attack. But I haven’t seen any celebs here. I met Linda Hamilton’s uncle. That’s as close as I’ve gotten to meeting a celebrity. Or having Beau Biden tell me, Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting Liane Hansen. And I’m looking at him going, you’re Beau Biden. We talked about his father’s appearance on “Parks and Recreation” because of Aubrey Plaza being on the cast.
DT: What else are you up to at WDDE?
LH: I’m a member of the board. Mainly I do appearances to try and create awareness for them. For example, I’ll be giving a speech to the American Association of University Women in March. I’ve got dinner at Cadbury Lewes in April. And I’m going to be the host of Poetry Out Loud at the Smyrna Opera House. It lets people know that WDDE is there. And then it allows people to ask whatever they want to know about public radio, it’s history and so forth. I am a member of Delmarva Public Radio, but I don’t know what’s going to be happening with that. I think if public radio goes away, it’s just sad for everybody. So, I’m arm candy for (WDDE). They know I say that. I say that all the time. And rightly so. Why not use the reputation that I have. We hope to bring Will Shorts here to do some events. He and I are still good friends. I had to break it to him, though, that I couldn’t do the crossword puzzle tournament with him this year in March because I’ll be opening in “A Little Night Music,” but as we’re both fans of Stephen Sondheim, he said that’s a good enough reason.
DT: How far does WDDE’s signal reach these days?
LH: Not far enough yet. We’ve only been on the air since August. There’s a sweet spot, for some reason, in my bedroom if I angle my portable radio a certain way, I can pull in 91.1. But it really only comes down between Lewes and Rehoboth, depending on the weather. I know it gets to Georgetown. And it probably gets as far north as Odessa. We’re hoping to eventually get further into Sussex County, as well as further into New Castle County. But our transmitter is in Felton and our offices are on the campus of Delaware State University because we’re in partnership with DSU as well as the University of Delaware.
DT: How are things going?
LH: We have people saying they didn’t know there was a new station. People in Kent County catch it as they’re driving. But what has happened since we went on the air. We had a hurricane. And you had not only our news crew doing the news for the folks in Delaware to tell people what’s going on, but the BBC interviewed one of our news people to find out about the hurricane and one of our news people, James, as a matter of fact, was doing news spots for NPR. Ideally, not only do we want to tell Delaware’s stories to people that live here in Delaware, but get some of those stories on the network, as well. To make Delaware seem more than just what Stephen Colbert calls the “drive-through” state. I love Delaware. It’s a very well-kept secret, frankly.