Sarah Maxfield Talks to Karinne Keithley

This discussion with Karinne Keithley, about her piece Montgomery Park, or Opulence, was originally published on Sarah Maxfield’s blog where she regularly investigates contemporary performance through practice, discussion, and critical theory. In addition to writing, Sarah curates THROW, the next installment of which will be at the Chocolate Factory on November 9, 2010. Montgomery Park premiered at HERE in September, 2009 and included performances by Keithley, Katy Pyle, and David Brooks; video by Heidi Schreck and Amber Reed (respectively); choreography by Sara Smith; lighting by Zack Brown; and stage management by Lacy Post. Montgomery Park will be presented again November 4-13 at Incubator Arts Project.

SM: As you think back on Montgomery Park, and as you prepare to re-stage it, what still intrigues you?

KK: I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a room and making events in a room, which has been really encouraging and opening to me. It’s allowed me to re-think form. Instead of thinking, “This is a work in this medium or a product in this medium,” I’m thinking of the actual space as the medium.

SM: That was my experience of the piece: being in a place, in a room, in a building.

KK: It’s an articulation that’s evolving. As I’m going back to Montgomery Park, I’m trying to think of it more purposefully. The play doesn’t take place by us modeling it for you. It’s not a thing to be observed. It’s a thing that happens in your head. Language is a three-part thing: something that I articulate that somehow travels, that you receive and potentially respond to. The actual work that we’re trying to do in this theatrical space is fundamentally receptive rather than performative. The performance is a way to give something and hopefully be in a conversation. That idea of the room has been a way to disassemble the hierarchy or the standard relation between doing and watching – even if the situation is still that one of us agrees to be more active and one of us agrees to listen.

SM: I’m interested in that too, particularly as so much of our social experience becomes virtual and mediated through technology.

KK: I think it’s so obvious that we still need to be in a room with each other. I think of my work as having a ceremonial function, at best. In an ideal sense it would be the kind of thing that you participate in as you would a Sunday drive. Performance is an occasion. It’s a special thing, but it is also ordinary.

SM: There’s something very intimate about that, and it also conjures up images of a time when there seemed to be more time – when you could just go for a drive on Sunday, and that was an event. I felt a quality of nostalgia in Montgomery Park. Is that something that you were working with specifically in that piece?

KK: In that piece I was working purposefully with anachronisms. I wouldn’t necessarily say nostalgia was on my mind. In my studies I’ve gravitated towards American intellectual history that I haven’t quite taken up to the 20th Century yet. I’ve been very invested in the sound of sentences that come from the mid-19th Century. I was going to do a creature revolution play, and then I decided to take it one step more radical and make the buildings conscious. Then I ended up reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and the language and feel of that was very much the license to begin. I read a lot of case studies about the conversion experiences that James documents. They’re all in this beautiful, old, historic tone. I think that the pleasure of language, the patience of language, the investment in communicating something elaborate and thinking about grammar in complex ways is inherently old-fashioned, but that was the frame that I was thinking of. I was also taking a lot of pleasure in anachronism and just making it impossible to quite figure out when anything happened, even though it was hard to resist making a timeline in my mind. That’s the “oldness” that’s in it, I think: 19th Century language.

SM: You seem to use language in a way that emphasizes its aural and structural nature equally to its communicative nature. What is your focus, relative to the language?

KK: I guess in naturalistic theater the text is all supposed to serve psychological reality: “How would someone speak if they were feeling that or motivated by this?” So, in the food chain, language a little bit lower than feeling as reality. One way in which I think about plays made of sentences is that the experience of thinking in language is the experience of thinking and feeling in the world. So, language is the medium instead of the construction of plot or the construction of character. For me that comes out of coming to writing from choreography, especially coming out of the Judson foundation: the idea that found stuff is compose-able. It’s not about sound or non-sense, so much as it’s not language that’s made to imply a subtext.

SM: Did you start writing because you wanted to add an exploration of language to the movement exploration in your performance work, or did your writing indicate a shift in focus from movement to language?

KK: It was a slow shift. I was thinking about these ideas that were very based in the kind of prompts that you might get when you’re improvising, or thinking about dance from a particular body system, and I felt a limitation to what dance is when you start wanting to treat history, let’s say. It was just a necessity. I needed to be able to communicate certain things. It just grew naturally out of that. I also think that at a certain point, I discovered that I have a really strong choreographic mind, but I don’t think I’m a choreographer. I’ve only been good at manipulating other people’s vocabularies. Writing was a fresh place, but all of the rules of composing: “What does this thing look like next to that, and what happens if you repeat it and turn it on its head?” All of those kinds of things carried into writing for me, so the logic of how things fit together and the pleasure of choreographic or musical composition was the first way that I started to write. Only very slowly did I start to write things that actually had any kind of stories. In Montgomery Park, there are stories, but they are only vaguely emerging from the larger mass of the piece.

SM: There is something kind of choreographic about that structure.

KK: It’s about what is necessary to put two things next to each other.

SM: What do you think that is?

KK: I think that you can read the relation between anything, or experience the relation between anything. Most times when people are writing they are writing a cause and effect, or writing a description – writing in linear ways. We don’t really suffer from linearism in choreography. What happens when you start writing plays but have no relationship to linear composition? That’s where my own judgment and intuition come out of making dances for so long.

SM: What are some things that you’re addressing in your current re-staging of Montgomery Park?

KK: Originally, I wanted it to be a building tour. I wanted the audience to go into different rooms and there would be different walls talking. There were a ton of talking walls in the first draft. Some rooms would be archival. There was going to be this luminous opera at the heart of it. Then, logistically, I was like, “Well, let me just try to put a show together.” I’ve gone back to that building tour idea, so you’ll have all this time in this history of this place.

SM: To wander through at your own discretion?

KK: I think there will be some order to it, so there will be moments where you can switch rooms, but you might see them in different order. And then, there’s a lot more dancing. I wanted it to be circular, a circular experience – really luminous and spatial, with more energy, so that you’re not just listening, listening, listening all the time. I felt like not everybody was able to find their way in to such a dense listening experience.

SM: I’m very drawn to installation as an audience person, but ultimately, I have to admit that I make my work in time and I can’t ignore time. How are you exploring that balance?

KK: I feel like my experience of installation is that not enough is ever demanded of me. The protocol of the whole group of viewers or participants is too loose. So, you don’t experience it. I like the idea of a theatrical installation where we get to open up the space and let things happen but it’s still serious. This is what you’re going to do in the space. I don’t want you to chit-chat in the middle. For the very ending of Montgomery Park at HERE, we wanted the audience to take a picture, and then they had to leave. We got better at communicating it over the course of the weekend that people were supposed to take pictures. The first night we just sat there forever, and it was really unclear. I was like, “Oh it’s taking too long; it’s really boring; it’s awful.” I was wrong. That was actually the best version of it. I would be sitting there every night thinking, “What is going wrong?” It’s not what I wanted but I didn’t know what it was. Now I think we’re going to take pictures of people.

SM: So everyone gets their portrait taken before they leave?

KK: If they want, but then they will have to leave. Maybe they’ll be allowed to take a picture of us too right after we take theirs, but it will be this extremely rule-bound situation. The idea is that you can receive this thing but then you’re obligated to leave.

SM: That will change it quite a bit. What you’re describing now reminds me of when you go a national monument and they make you get your picture taken and then they try to sell it to you at the end, but you don’t really want the picture.

KK: That’s a great idea.

SM: There is something interesting about that, but there was also something fascinating about the way it was before – that the performance just dissolved into the audience.

KK: The one thing that I really liked about it was sitting there as a performer as the show leaves you.

SM: I really liked that, and it’s something that normally annoys me as audience person because it can seem like a betrayal of roles. But in that piece, because of what you had set up as our level of involvement, it didn’t feel that way. It seemed like we were simply in another part of the building and the guided portion of the tour had ended. I can also see where it would be terrifying as a maker – to wait and not be able to control the audience. What do you think about participation from the audience?

KK; There’s actually a line in Montgomery Park, when Katie, as the doctor, explains what research is going on, and she talks about it being a place where people have to participate, but we don’t mean the kind of participation where we make you come up and do a dance with us, so you don’t have to worry about being humiliated. I always resist participation as an audience member, but I like to be present, and I really like performances that happen in the round – performances that I can be near to. I almost always sit in the front row when I go to shows. I wanted to ask the question of: “What is an interesting way to be less passive that doesn’t require you to breach your silence that is your right as the receiver?”

SM: It’s still a participation of observation. It’s just active observation.

KK: I think there are clear roles, but that doesn’t mean that one role has to be 100% in the dark. You can think about what it means to be the observer/receiver without having to make people speak or put people on the spot.

SM: You recognize that the audience’s witness of the piece is equally important to what’s being presented, and that the performance doesn’t happen without both sides.

KK: I get really frustrated with traditions that I consider phony in some way, but I really appreciate the kind of old sense of what this thing is that we do. I’m guided by that idea of what it means to be an audience.

SM: If there’s respect for the role of the audience, if it’s not seen as secondary, then there isn’t this idea that in order to “elevate” them you have to make them perform. Actually what they do is very important and it should be allowed to happen.

KK: In my dancing days, I got into thinking about presence and performance meditations and I got really influenced by reading Deborah Hay’s writing. How do we actually feel each other as co-present? It’s not the same thing to dance alone as it is to dance for somebody.

SM: How do you think about the audience when you’re creating work?

KK: When I’m writing, my basic understanding is that everything is an address. That’s built into how I hear what it is that I’m writing. I read it back to myself. I will talk through what I write out loud to try to keep it in my mouth as much as possible.

SM: Direct address is very prominent in Montgomery Park. Is that part of your emphasis on sincerity? Does direct address feel most sincere for you? Would you ever think about writing some 30-page conversation between two people?

KK: I have. I wrote a play for the set of Charlie Rose, which is all interviews. It doesn’t have anything written into it that’s direct to the audience at all, but it still feels like the same space. I’ve a couple times dramatized scenes between people, but really I think all of my plays turn outwards because that’s my understanding of what the space is. It’s a space where one side faces the other. Even if the performance does momentarily turn away, it is always aware of the audience. Maybe that does have something to do with the idea of sincerity.

SM: If you had to distill the piece down to its most concentrated, how would you describe it?

KK: One of the most important experiences of thinking to me is that rare space of being alert in a place that you newly don’t understand – a place you have understood that begins to shift. If there’s anything that Montgomery Park is about, it’s about the possibility of considering that your sense of yourself is only habitually isolated to your own body. I’m really interested in this possibility of finding a very luminous thought-space, creating this environment, which is a rare, quieted, and alert, which I think is the experience of dancing. What I prize most about my memories of the best times I’ve had dancing is a kind of an amazing alertness and alignment – just ease. Then you leave class and you’re back slumped over and on your cell phone, but it’s this thing you know you can find. That’s the Sunday drive, but as a mind experience.

SM: Since so much of this piece is focused on the audience’s “thought-space,” do you think at all about what their expectation might be coming in? Do you think about how to get them to a place where they can begin with you?

KK: I’ve always tried to have an “arrival section” and do something to get us into the same place. It’s one of the reasons why I perform the opening monologue in Montgomery Park so forcefully. Also it’s fun to perform with force. It’s something I learned by imitating a friend who is very different from me. It was a new possibility. I’ve always been so quiet. I think I’m not comfortable with the patience mode of facilitating it anymore. I was in a mode for a while where I was extremely patient. You know when you’re in the studio and you’re like, “It’s so beautiful to look at my friend sitting there for four minutes … and then she turns.” It’s not beautiful to everyone. That’s a really important question for performance: “How do you set people at ease and let them know what the demand is?” I think direct address is the most helpful in that context because you can literally take charge of the room.

SM: It’s actually very similar to the old theatrical construct of the prologue – when someone would come onstage before the play and let you know exactly what you were in for.

KK: The benefit of having been a drifter for me is that I’ve learned different ways of being. I think about Greek performance or opera, these times when “disciplinarity” wasn’t such a set way of thinking because no one was coming out of a college department as an “X.”

SM: Or trying to get funding for “Y,” or reviewed for “Z.”

KK: It does require asking, “What is the occasion of doing this?” rather than, “What is the tradition I come out of?” If you ask the question in that way, you have license to use whatever tools you can find.


You can read another interview of Karinne in conversation with Aynsley Vandenbroucke here at Critical Correspondence.

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