features + interviews

dramaturg as producer | KELLY KERWIN

[article originally published in LMDA’s newsletter New & Noteworthy Issue 2.2 November 2016. A longer version of this interview appears in The Clyde Fitch Report.]

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A Scandal at the Table performance September 24, 2016 at Hell Phone. Actor working the crowd. Image: Edward Morris.

Over the past decade, Kelly Kerwin picked up degrees in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from DePaul and Yale, and spent time with Chicago theaters like House, Steppenwolf, and Court, New York theaters like Atlantic, and the Yale Cabaret. She also developed her own projects, creating performance in unusual spaces. Kerwin’s recently completed Bly Fellowship grant project seems to have used all of her skills, instincts, and inspirations for creating performance.

Kerwin proposed POP! to the Bly committee in Fall 2015, a “series of pop-up performance events created by like-minded theater artists to experiment with the audience as participant.” The company she runs with Emily Zemba and Will Rucker called The Party Line, ultimately presented the POP! events.

Each POP! project would occur in a Bushwick, Brooklyn business or public space, explore the audience role as participant. and be free. (The only performance with a fee was the puppet and dinner theater adventure called A Scandal at the Table at Hell Phone Speakeasy, with a modest charge to cover the costs of food and gratuities.) “It’s like a pop-up theater, things will pop up and pop down. I just thought the name ‘pop’ was fun,” Kerwin noted in a recently conversation. Original plans were for the project to happen in summer 2016, but due to artist schedules and other considerations the events finally transpired on September 23, 24, and 25, 2016.

The matching of artist and space was replicated by Kerwin and co-producer Emily Zemba multiple times for the multiple POP! events. Artists would propose the right space for their project, or we proposed a space and artists considered the right project to do.” All the locations fell into place during the summer once a key site, the bar Three Diamond Door, confirmed with some excitement.

A Scandal at the Table was proposed to Kerwin by her friend Hunter Kaczorowski, a costume designer who has a passion for puppetry. “He wanted to do a puppet dinner party, French and macabre. I knew a place that would support that design and we wouldn’t have to do much to it at all, a French speakeasy restaurant.”

In A Girl in a Bar, actor Celeste Arias worked with a single audience member (selected by a project associate) who was presented with Arias’s picture and a script, and instructed to approach Arias. The two would then perform a breakup scene, scripted by Emily Zemba.

Another solo piece called A Classical Affair involves the pivotal location Three Diamond Door and the pianist Jack Ramsey. “He wanted to experiment with just playing classical piano in a bar where you don’t often hear it. What is that like, to just be at your favorite bar on a Saturday afternoon drinking, and then there’s someone playing Beethoven?”

Receiving the Bly Grant affected Kerwin’s process in several ways. “If I don’t do it, I’m contractually obligated to give the money back, and that would be embarrassing and it would embarrass the people that wrote my letters of recommendation,” she reflected with a laugh.

There were practical and developmental effects too. She held valuable monthly phone calls with Liz Engelman from the selection committee, during which they discussed many issues, such as contingency plans if no venues came through, including U-Haul trucks, parking lots, and cars. Editing to the essence was a lesson too. “Part of working on this was using your producorial and editorial eye to know when your ideas are getting too big.”

The Bly Grant kept her spirits up and kept her on task. “I don’t know if this would have happened without the Bly Grant. It just seemed so big and too hard and too much. But when they say here’s the money, you have to figure it out, that’s the game. I’m pretty gutsy, but I don’t know that we would have had the guts to put our neck on the line without the Bly Grant forcing us to do it.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 16, 2016)

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