Kristen Kosmas talks text-based performance, its formal implications, and the practice of dis- and reappearing. Her piece There There is a part of PS122's COIL Festival, and runs through January 12.
I spoke with Kristen Kosmas earlier in December, just as the first of two runs of her new show There There was opening. We talked about the solo form, about surviving the solo form; about populating the solo form; about how populating the solo form was easy when there were so many sides to a question, so many skepticisms and enthusiasms within a solitary train of thought; we talked about what it does to your mouth to have to say your own writing, and what it does to your writing when you know it has to occupy your mouth; about the simultaneous love of artifice and plainness; about the technical challenges of this show; about the way the fact of its simultaneous translation into Russian might introduce a new and strange feeling in her mouth; and about Kristen's return to performing solo and whether it was any different than writing for many people (her answer was mostly that it is not, which encouraged me).
People talking about Kristen's performances back in Seattle in the ’90s (before she moved to New York, where I met her, and before she moved away from New York and then back to New York and then again away from it) convey a sense of having really been there for something, maybe the way my Grandpa used to disappear into the recollected glow of LA in the ’30s, or the way people remember scenes of unfettered, free-ranging ’70s childhoods. I don't know exactly what she did in those performances but I feel like I can sense it somehow, because in a way, it is possible for me to imagine those events and float in the imagination long enough to get a little souvenir for myself. I think this is because Kristen, in person, both in conversation and in the performances she constructs, always sounds like she is in a looping, tumbling, gently forward-moving part of a very long thought, one that started before you saw her enter, and will continue after she rounds the bend. Even, as in This From Cloudland, when things get very still, they do go on:
meanwhile, it has begun
everywhere and all at once to snow
it has begun to snow
on everything and it continues to snow
on everyone & everything
for a long time
it snows and snows for a long time
and everyone falls asleep
everyone falls asleep by the fire
while it snows and snows for a long time
and everyone is quiet for a long time
everyone is quiet because everyone is sleeping
while it snows and snows for a long time
and they sleep quietly by the fire
and everyone lies curled by the fire
sleeping in soft clothes and is ok
everyone is ok for a long time
while it snows and snows
and they lie curled
quietly by the fire for a long time
in soft clothes and are ok
everyone is ok for a long time
while everyone is ok
By chance our first conversation didn't record, a fitting outcome for a discussion of process and ephemerality and keeping on. Since Kristen was then in the middle of performing, I thought I would try to recollect it and rewrite it as a semi-fictional playlet, but even though I could remember the ideas we talked about, I found that without the cadence of Kristen's speech it was just not the same thing. Happily, there was a break in her performance schedule and we were able to talk again.
It's possible that you are reading this interview having seen Kristen perform There There, and if you have, I am jealous, since I live in California for the moment and so have not seen it. But if not, maybe you can pick up a few of the little comet's tails and unfinished thoughts and imagine it. Bonded into the commitment to this ephemeral form is, I think, a license to imagine the rooms of its happening. If our first conversation was a little more about making things, this one seems to be tipped a little more toward how to survive the long process of living through the making it, and finding our slow way in and out of those rooms.
Karinne Keithley Syers Since our first conversation appeared to happen and then disappeared, I thought we could begin this conversation by talking about disappearing and reappearing, because I feel like that's something that you do a lot. You came and went from Mac Wellman's program [at Brooklyn College] many times over before finally completing it; you have come and gone from New York several times. It seems like there's something positive inside of that, a kind of mandate to claim mobility for yourself, that also animates your writing.
Kristen Kosmas I was recently trying to write an artist statement, and the idea that all of my plays are about coming and going was something I considered. And I guess that's one of the things that's in them all, and I guess that's in them because I do that.
The first place I left was Seattle, where I did have a pretty solid and fairly deep creative community that I was part of, and when I was first leaving I thought, This is crazy, nobody who wanted a career in the theater would leave this place that's embracing them, to go somewhere totally unknown. I'm just following my instincts almost all the time in practically everything: feeling the need for space, and for new information, and also maybe to go to places where I have to start conversations from the beginning, make new conversations with new people, both to receive new information, and also to articulate anew where I am, with everything, not just writing and theater but with my life. It's a way of checking in with myself if I have to start over somehow, to see where I'm at.
In the beginning it was a big leap of faith to leave Seattle, to trust that I would be able to maintain those relationships across geographical distance and across time. It was, and I did. I think that worked out. Things and people keep kind of circling back and forth: you come into contact with someone and then you go away from them for a while, and then you come into contact with them again three or four years later. And now after all this time, learning that those relationships do stay reliable, and the conversations are reliable. I think it's also because Erik Ehn is such a big part of my life—he's not a person I'm in regular contact with, but I have kind of touched back in with him since 1996, and his generosity and hospitality—I really believe in those things. So I feel free to come and go and I am always welcome to come back to the places that I've left, which I'm incredibly grateful for. So that's the literal time/space part.
I write really slowly, so I just submerge, and re-emerge when I have made something. It takes me a really long time to make something, so I can't produce at the rate that other artists are able to produce. So I just disappear a bit for a while, and then I come back with a new piece. So that seems to work for me. I don't know if we're more welcome and free to do that in the margin that we’re working, than people who are trying to work in the mainstream, or in the conventional theater. Maybe they have to produce more often. But I don't feel that pressure. So I feel lucky, to do that.
KKS I think it's part of the project-based nature of theater. It's not confusing to have a periodic appearance instead of a continual one. Very few of us are doing regular shows every month or every week.
KK I feel like even once a year is hard for me.
KKS It used to seem that that was what one was supposed to do, but now that feels pretty relentless. Also just the process of finding the imaginative space, opening into a new window, is really slow.
KK The nicest thing was when I was living in New York in the last stretch, from 2008-2011, and I started meeting so many poets through Ugly Duckling Presse and going to listen to poetry, and being invited to read in those venues where I could make smaller things that were complete but weren't production based. It was just text and the reading out loud of the text. That sustained me a lot. I felt that I was doing my work even though I wasn't producing in theaters. So that was really happy for me, and to be inspired by those writers also, who I feel like we and some of our friends and colleagues maybe have more in common—in terms of what we're doing with language, or asking about language—than we do with playwrights in the more traditional sense of the word.
KKS When Joyce Cho [a six-person playwrights posse] was first forming, part of our manifesto was that the play wanted to activate in the minds of the listener/viewer/audience, and not be photographically demonstrated in front of them, which was definitely a function of the license derived from declaring an affinity with poetics over theater, even while we were still committed to the live context.
KK Right, right, me too. And what was your—did you guys ever have a discussion about why? Where was that impulse coming from, for you?
KKS I think it came from a variety of places. One was that we'd all met in Mac's workshop, and in workshop you read the text and hear it at the same time, and you become really fluent at that form of imagining, that that becomes full enough. It becomes enough in itself. The other thing is just a response to the terrible things that would happen when people would apply theater formulas of production to these texts that were growing out of this context of group listening and group reading, or simultaneous listening and reading, where the only visible object was the page, and the sound of people's voices, and all of the goofy stuff on the walls of the Barker Room.
KK Right, right.
KKS So it was also a protective impulse: this has more richness if you engage the picturing that goes on in your mind than it does when the picture is rendered. Now the question is how do you engage staging in a way that doesn't go back, but does go forward. So it's not just a reading, but an event, which for me has always had to do with bringing sound and movement and text together, and not having them illustrate each other. Accompany and amplify.
KK My hope is that that's what Paul Willis and Peter Ksander, and I, and everyone involved in the making of this show—Matvei with the translation and Larisa also performing in it—particularly what Paul has done and what Peter has done as a way to hold the text—I feel like it moves toward what you're talking about. How do we now bring staging in interesting ways to hold these words? I love what Paul has done. There are some very extreme compositions that stay more or less still, or like body shapes that stay more or less still while you listen, while the text is spoken, and also you're hearing English and Russian, so there's a double density of language, or hearing experience, and to me it seems really elegant and beautiful, what he's done, because you can then look away from the composition on stage, of the actors, the physical composition, and just listen. And then also Peter, the environmental design that he's made is I think really beautiful and really funny. Jeff Jones said, “It's the only time I've seen a set that actually has information in it.” He's made spaces that have images from constructivist art and architecture. And he built a proscenium in the space that we work with in a wrongheaded way, or in a way that one wouldn't normally work with a proscenium. So that all of the things are bouncing off of each other all the time, or holding each other in space, or giving each other a reason to be there, or creating tension between the language and the images. So I feel really happy about it. I wish I could see it.
KKS I do too!
KK This From Cloudland, which was inspired so much by all of the poetry I was reading at the time—I love it as a text, but I don't know how it would or could or should be staged. It's never been fully produced, it's so far only be read, with a very minimal gesture vocabulary between the speakers. I'm interested in this moment when playwrights are writing these texts, but it's not obvious how to stage them. How does everyone bring the fullness of their artistry—their directing or design—to be in harmony, or in opposition to the text, or whatever. I'm trying to think of people who make that kind of work, and unfortunately a lot of them aren't coming to mind. Maybe [Big Dance Theater's] Ich, KurbisGeist —where the imaginative space of the audience is invited and engaged to see beyond what they're seeing in the theater, where what's there to be seen in the theater is also there to be seen, but it's not so overwhelming or so prescriptive that it's interfering with the possibility of the audience member or the audience collective to have another whole imaginative or cinematic thing going on in their minds, which I think is what's happening in a lot of the writing that I love so much. Your imagination does need to be able to be free.
KKS That makes me think about Merce Cunningham and John Cage declaring the independence of the music and the dance, so that you end up creating a space where they meet each other, instead of a relationship where one is tied to the meter of the other (whether that's a score composed to match the dance, or a dance composed to visualize the music), and that idea of these disciplinary meetings which join on equal footing somehow, instead of working to either demonstrate or illustrate or amplify something that's primary. I think that's what Big Dance Theater does: they really use all of their disciplines, and all of their sources, or resources for image and movement vocabulary and sound, without making them subservient to anything but: does the moment work or does it not? And the moment working is a function of that, your theatrical judgment.
KK One thing I saw that was so exciting to me was Daniel Fish's play that Peter also designed, that was based on the Nicolas Ray film. It was the entire text of the Nicolas Ray film just performed by two actors, and the set was this diagonal wall. And there were very few props and the props were ridiculous and strange. I'm not super familiar with Daniel Fish's work, but when I saw this I was like, Yes! This is amazing. Everything is there making an equally strong statement and having an equally strong presence on the stage. But not literal or reiterative.
KKS Right. The second thing that came to mind before was something that Erik Ehn said in a 'Pataphysics workshop, which is that character is a negative and not a positive thing, and that it was the empty space between a constellation of images. This is a way approach to drawing characters instead of inventing back story, context, and all the knots of information we think of as biographical character. Approach by trying to create empty space; notice what different relationships of images do to suggest a space that a first-person-ness could emerge from.
It's interesting to be a writer who wants to work that way in performance, but writing the text before you get to develop the performance. In a way it's an old relationship of playwright to performance: the play pre-exists the rehearsal period which pre-exists the performance. But the rehearsal period is an unknown proposition. Many people who are trying to figure out new staging are also writing as they direct, as writer-directors, or working with an ensemble that's developing a performance vocabulary as they go, so that's feeding back into the writing. But, this wager of writing a text and hoping you will figure it out is . . . crazy! But it works. It's working.
KK It does seem to be working, it's true. But I think there's a funny thing with my plays, I think. I'm not a director. I'm a theater artist so I can conceive of a theater event. I think my plays are not obvious when you read them on the page, and they are asking for something to be done with them. But I can't send them around. No one will do them. They don't explain themselves, so . . .
KKS Yeah, I'm in the same boat.
KK I think a bunch of us are.
KKS Yeah, when Antje Oegel became my agent, I thought, now people will do my plays! And then Antje sent them around and people were like, "What? That's not a play." And that was the end of that.
KK Well I haven't even gotten an agent yet who's willing to send my plays around. I send my plays to agents and they're like, "What?" I don't know if it's a curse or a blessing, to have to be so connected to all of my projects. That also probably has to do with the appearance or disappearance of my work, that I have to take responsibility for it, or I get to take responsibility for it, depending on what mood I'm in.
I was talking with Paul Lazar and Annie-B yesterday about KurbisGeist, and they were saying that at the beginning it was super helpful to have Sibyl there to talk about the text, but at a certain point they just needed to do their own thing with it. I would love to have that experience, to just give something I wrote over to someone, answer some questions at the beginning, and then let them do their thing with it.
To some degree I tried to do that with Paul [Willis]. That was my goal. I’m going to do whatever he asks me to do, without influencing the direction in rehearsal, or the staging in rehearsal. That was the intention of mine as the actor/writer.
KKS And do you think that played out?
KK We'd have to ask him if I was successful at that. I feel like I did a pretty good job of mostly just saying yes. I did have a couple of breakdowns where I was like, I can't. I can't do that today, what you're asking me to do, but I will definitely try to do it tomorrow. I love the idea, the execution might take me a couple of days.
KKS I think that's the best we can try for. I have my limitations but I promise to try tomorrow.
KK Yeah. But This From Cloudland is a play I would love to give, if I could get anyone interested in it, I would love to see what they made out of it.
KKS Maybe it should be a radio play. Maybe the limitation it's so far had, as just a reading play, could become a positive limitation. I feel like radio plays and graphic novels and animations are logical companion places for all of these types of plays, which are visually open. I feel like those are places for us all to move into.
KK I totally agree. I think it's why I was asking about the Joyce Cho impulse, about making theater of the mind, or a mental theater, but without going all the way to closet drama, where they're not just meant to be read on the page, but they are meant to be heard, and just thinking about the world we live in with the technology and tv, and we're so overstimulated with visuals. There are images everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. There's some kind of resting space that I'm seeking. Theater has an opportunity to be an antidote to that overstimulating visual culture.
KKS With Joyce Cho, I think we're all aware of the theatrical event itself as an energetic occasion, and very much attached to that. It's just the way of building that occasion is always in question. And renewing it. Renewing the method.
I remember Mac had me read this book called The Antitheatrical Prejudice, and it was basically about theater-hating through the ages. And how not only the historical cultural distrust of theatricality as artifice, but also theater's distrust of itself as artificial, or hackneyed, or whatever variant of artificial you want to label it. The movement in theater is made by moving away from theater and towards “reality.” But there's this love of it, love of being in a room together that you can't quite shake. And have no reason to shake. I for one believe in it.
KK I believe in it, too! But I always feel shy about saying it because it just seems so geeky or something. But also, again I feel stupid even saying this, but with so much so-called connection between people—or genuine connection happening between people—through the internet or whatever, I feel like now it becomes for me personally even more important to be in the room with people.
I had this conversation with my intro to theater class at Whitman. We started a conversation we didn't finish. These students are all in their late teens, early twenties, so they've grown up with internet culture and they do everything online. And I was talking about one of the definitions of theater being that there are people in the same space together and they were like, "Well, is it possible to have a play where the audience is not in the room with the performance, and is it still a play? Is it theater?" And I was like, "I don't know!" But I have a personal preference for being there. I do think we can ask the question: Is it important, and if so why and how is it important, and is it preferable or better than not being there, or being there through technology, or in some other way? I don't quite know how to articulate why that's important to me, that we're all there in the same room.
I also think, I think it's mind-bending, the thing about artifice too. Because I fully embrace the artifice of theater. I like to acknowledge the constructedness of the event, in all of the plays and performances that I make. In this play, the very last thing that I say in the play is acknowledging the writing of the text. It says the text was performed in 12-point Baskerville, and the paper it was printed on was nothing special, so it goes back to the fact of it having been written down. But there is this other thing about theater, which is that it is also real, it is really happening. You're actually watching it happen. And again the coming and going, appearing and disappearing theme—it really happened, and it's really gone. It really can't be reconstructed, and there's something important to me about that. And profound even, though I feel stupid again saying that it's profound.
KKS I had one thought about being in the room. Maybe the performer could be elsewhere. Maybe the stuff of the theater could be question, but my sense of theater is that the medium of its effect is group experience, and that there are transmissions of attention, and excitement, between the members of the audience that can't be replicated technologically at least, by yourself. I say that and then I think about how intimate it is to listen to something on headphones. There are technologically forms of intimacy, but to the youngsters of today, I still think we should be in a room together! I think it's good. To smell each other and respond together.
KK I think so too. And I don't think it's the only thing that people should be doing, and I don't think it's the only kind of theater people should be making. I'm in favor of theater that's really dense with technology and all kinds of experiences belong on the landscape, but I guess that this is the particular part of the garden that I'm trying to tend.
Karinne Keithley Syers has made dances, stop-motion animations, things that resemble plays from a distance, stories, sound for headphones, songs for very small rooms, documentary video essays, a beautiful baby boy, and a half-finished dissertation in English. She is also the founder and co-editor of 53rd State Press, publisher of Kristen Kosmas's The Mayor of Baltimore.
*??There There?? runs through January 12th at The Chocolate Factory as a part of PS122's COIL Festival. To buy tickets click here