Mz. Fest

WEB-NPL268A few years ago, in an attempt to think consciously about how to make work that supports us as individuals and as an ensemble, I asked the ensemble to think about why theatre was important to each of us at that time. Some of us said that gives us a chance to see, and thus, honor, reflections of ourselves. Some said that it lets us refocus on the world to see it as it is, but with fresh eyes. Some said it lets us imagine the world as it could be. Some said that it allows us to test theories about the world and explore new ways of interacting with it. Some said that it gives us the chance to encounter experiences and perspectives that we may not otherwise.

WEB-GL231We all had different reasons then, and we probably have different, ever evolving reasons now. That said, in each case, theatre’s ability to reflect and represent a multifaceted world – a world full of different experiences and identities – is essential. To see our world reflected, we need to see the different components that make up our world on stage. To see ourselves reflected, we need to produce work that explores the different experiences and identities that those around us inhabit, since different experiences resonate with different people.

Which brings me to Mz. Fest, a festival that is designed specifically to honor the art and stories of women by giving them the chance to develop their work and everyone the chance to hear it.

Women’s voices are important to theatre because we make theatre stronger. A theatrical landscape that includes our voices is one that can better examine and re-imagine the world. Creating opportunities for women to develop work is creating opportunities for all of us to hear women’s perspectives and develop a more multifaceted and, thus, more honest understanding of each other and our world. Women’s voices are important to theatre because they are important to the world.

WEB-EME0653At Kaleid, we didn’t set out to create a woman’s ensemble. Though we work with men, they have often lived outside of the state, if not outside of the country, and were, thus, not able to be part of the rehearsal process and core of our ensemble in the same way. That said, getting to spend the last years creating pieces with an ensemble that has women at its core has been one of the best things to have happened to me. With each other, we have explored the possibility (and lack of possibility) of a female narrative in a world that aggressively markets a woman’s identity, the changing world of modern technology and what it shows us about human nature, and what it means to come of age and define home for ourselves.

WEB-GL2482In each case, we have depended on our unique and shared experiences as women to support each other and the work, and that lens has been essential and inescapable to the pieces we have created. Being part of Mz. Fest has helped me realize how true this is.

Glow2We’ve become more intentional lately. We have been thinking about what an inclusive theatre looks like and how we want to fit into such a landscape. We have been having conversations about how we want to promote inclusiveness from within the company and advocate for it within our communities. To me, participating Mz. Fest feels like one of the first concrete steps that we have taken to doing just that.

I have a lot of figuring out to do still. I have a lot more thinking to do about what an inclusive process looks like to me as an individual, to our ensemble, and to the Philadelphia theatre community. I still have a lot of my own biases to ponder and unpack. I have to figure out how to follow this thinking up with decisions that bring me closer to becoming the next version of my artistic self. I am honored to be surrounded by such thoughtful, visionary, intelligent, and inspiring female artists as I take these steps in this process.

-Sarah

*The men that we have worked with have also been essential to our development as artists and as an ensemble, creating multifaceted perspectives from within our female-centric process. Thank you.

Photos by Valerie Giacobbe

About Mz. Fest

Mz. Fest is a festival of new works-in-progress created by women to tell their stories through art hosted by Plays and Players. Mz. Fest 2015 will feature the work of Kaleid Theatre, TS Hawkins, and ReVamp Collective.

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Dinner (and rehearsal) with Friends

NfaceWhen Sarah told me I needed to write the next blog I responded with, “Okay!” and then, “Shoot wait what do I write about?” Then my eyes fell onto the large piece of marble cake I had in my hand. Sarah had just pulled it out of the oven and it smelled like heaven and tasted like- like all the glorious things on earth. The cocoa swirl was the perfect level of chocolatey goodness, while the vanilla swirl was just sweet enough to balance it without being overbearing. It was, simply put, delicious.

ScakeIn that moment it struck me that food- especially dessert- was a huge part of our rehearsal process and of Kaleid in general. We always bring in food to share with each other- sometimes a new recipe we’ve been wanting to try, or maybe leftovers from a family party. One company member got us hooked on kettle-cooked jalapeno chips. More than once I’ve brought an offering of Munchkins to apologize for being late. Or, like last Thursday, one of us will declare that “It’s just a chocolate kind of day” as we pull out our stash of pretzels and off-brand Nutella. Food has always been, and always will be, something that brings us together.

fruitYou might have guessed it already, but food has been a huge part of my upbringing. One could often find me in the kitchen helping my mom cook, especially on major holidays. Some of my earliest memories are of begging my mom to let me help her; eventually she’d relent and let me snap peas or pour sugar once she had measured it. As I got older, she trusted me with more important roles in the kitchen until eventually I could pull off the Great Giacobbe Christmas Baking Marathon Extravaganza almost single-handedly. I’m convinced she’s the reason why I didn’t starve to death in college- and why I constantly had people chasing me down for my snicker-doodle recipe (you’re a fool if you’re not using cream of tartar). Food became something that linked me to others, and mealtimes became bonding experiences, whether with my mom, my family, or with friends. It seems oddly fitting that I would grow up and fall in love with a man who had worked as a professional chef for fifteen years. In him, I found all the best parts of home- the comfort, the love, and the passion for food in all forms (and more cooking lessons!).

Food was what made me take a liking to Sarah when we met three years ago. That’s a lie- it was her ideas about what theatre could be that make me like her; food was just the (literal) icing on the cake. I had recently graduated college and was working on campus for the summer when a friend of mine sent me an audition notice. The attached note simply read “DO IT”.

tomchpieThe notice was for a show slated to be performed in that year’s Fringe Festival in Philadelphia. The piece would use physical contortion (specifically circus arts) to explore the depths of emotional contortion. “Cool,” I thought, “I dance! I do physical things!” It was an unpaid gig, but that’s fine, I was just starting my career and was more concerned with getting experience than I was with getting paid. I was already set on responding when I reached the bottom of the notice. “I hope that it will be fun and that we can all learn a lot. And add something to our resumes,” it read. “And I will make cookies.”

That sealed the deal right there.

NEMEFast forward three years, Sarah and I are still working together. She’s formed her own theatre company and let me tag along. I know the reason we continue to create together is that we found something good- a like-mindedness- in each other. Somehow, among all the fuss that is life, we found a group of people who all have the very similar ideas about theatre, yet we all express those ideas in very different ways. We are dancers, singers, linguists, playwrights, and without that diversity we couldn’t do what we do.

cupFor me, art is a way to constantly question the world around us. Through art, we can look at the way the world is and ask “why?” While food provides sustenance for the body, art provides sustenance for the soul. It makes sense to me that our rehearsals would be the perfect mix of that- a little bit of food, a little bit of art, and a whole lot of love. Among Kaleid, yes, we are all theatre artists and are here to create art, but we are also good friends with a tremendous amount of love and respect for each other. It’s funny to think that it all started with something as simple as a cookie.

-Nina

Performance photos by Valerie Giacobbe. Food photos by Nina Giacobbe and Sarah Mitteldorf
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Why I Believe

Introduction

Over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, group of girls, who had been adopted from China met with me to share experiences and then turn those experiences into a pice of theatre. The girls performed the piece in May of 2013 for their families and communities. After the show, they fielded questions from the audience, and so began a conversation about the experience of Chinese adoptees. Below are some of my thoughts after completing this project.

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The Girls

On May 11, at 6:30 in the evening, a group of girls took their places to begin their show. All of them were nervous. All of them were checking their notes and making sure they remembered the different parts of the play. All of them had been adopted from China as babies.

These girls and I had spent the last year learning how to trust each other. We didn’t start talking about adoption until the second or third session. We didn’t start writing until after that. When we did start writing, we made things ups. We made up stories about bears who like to do plumbing and kids sitting around campfires. We passed around a book of baby names to help us make up names for our characters. We drew a lot of pictures.

Before we would write, though, we would try to talk. At first it was slow. I asked everyone what kinds of “dumb” questions they had been asked while growing up. It was easy to answer. Everyone had some story about being asked about our “real moms.” Most of us had run into someone who expected us to be able to speak Chinese from the age of zero, without any effort. I rushed to jot them all down.

When we wrote, we found ways to write about those things. We wrote about the teasing, but we made it about someone else. We wrote about the annoyance, even the occasional wish for vengeance, complete with cartoonish caricatures. The people we made up juggled expectations that they could not meet, faced stereotypes, and sometimes did not know what to say. Some characters knew exactly what to say and had a lot to share. We drew pictures of them, crumpled them, and drew new pictures.

Learning how to talk to each other was hard. Some of the students bubbled over with things to say. Others spent more time looking at the floor. We all needed time to sort out what it was we were really talking about.

We learned, though. At first, what got us excited as a group was talking about different high school cafeterias. As we kept coming back to our questions and writing and then re-writing our scenes, we started to have more to say to each other. Sometimes the students would pair off with people who shared an opinion to write a scene, knowing that the others were writing a scene about the same topics from a different perspective.

To re-write our scenes, we had to describe more precisely what was going on in our characters heads – what was bothering them or what they really wanted. As our characters became more clearly defined, our thoughts in the room became more clearly articulated. And we discovered what it was we really wanted to say. WE wrote about how they felt talking about adoption. We wrote about race and how it did or did not affect them. No one was looking at the floor anymore.

When asked, “is your perspective in this piece,” the students could and would tell me if it was. And if it was not, they would immediately write up something – the something that was missing that they wanted to say – and read it to everyone so we could all write it down and add it to our scripts. We were making things up, true, but we were also finding a way to speak to each other and, through theatre, to our families, friends, and advocates.

When the girls took their places at 6:30 in the evening, they were ready to share their thoughts with the world.

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The Project

My parents were never shy about my adoption from China. Given that they are Caucasian, it wasn’t something we could have hidden, but they raised me not only to know that I was adopted, but to proud of it. They worked hard to give me a sense of China and to help me integrate that into my sense of self. They enrolled me in schools that valued diverse models of family, where people would honor my family as much as any other.

There was never any question that they were my parents, that we were a family (and all the growing and fighting that that entails), and that we loved each other very much. My sister arrived when I was five, also from China, and we dove into being a slightly larger family.

Even so, there were a lot of things that did not get said in my family. My parents’ experience of growing up in a multiracial family was decidedly different than mine. They knew that my sister and I might have to face people who treated us differently because of how we looked, but there was no way that they could fully understand the experience. They didn’t know what to talk about with me, and I did not have the experience or understanding to be able to bring it up without their help.

My parents and I spent years learning how to talk about these things. Most the conversations did not start until I returned to Philadelphia after college. The conversations were hard, especially since they reached back into all of our pasts, but they ultimately helped us validate each other’s experiences. It has been a tough, but amazing process.

I wanted to continue this conversation with other young people who had been adopted from China, to give us the chance to validate each other’s experiences and then to share those experiences with our families and communities. I wanted to invite other families and communities to have the same kinds of conversations that I had had with my parents in the hopes that we could all grow from the dialogue.

A group of 5 girls and I started meeting every Saturday to do just that. We met with the goal of sharing experience, and then turning that experience into a piece of theatre. We called the piece Many Ways and shared it with our community last month.

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Theatre and Community

When I was developing the idea for this project, I had to write about why I wanted to present these thoughts through theatre. Yes, part of it is because I am a theatre artist, but this felt like a good project to take on because theatre is such a good medium for promoting a voice that may not always be heard. There is an agreement in theatre: you promise to prepare something to say and to try to make it as expressive as possible, and the audience agrees to be there with you and each other and listen. To the whole thing. It is a really special kind of agreement, if you think about it.

When I began this project, I wanted to find a way to begin a conversation. While there has been more and more work done on the lives of children who were adopted from China, the voice of the children themselves has often been absent. As long as this voice is absent, though, it will be impossible to truly understand or validate the reality and depth of this experience.

I knew that theatre’s ability to present truth through a fictionalized lens would be an important part of giving all of us ways to say things that we might be afraid or not quite ready yet to say ourselves. It was possible to make up characters who could experience things that we had experienced, but in made-up contexts that did not feel so private. For the non-fictionalized parts of the play, we made a deal that no one would tell who had contributed each piece – not even answer yes or no – even with our own parents, so that no one could try to piece it together. This way, we were able to share things that we were thinking about and things that mattered to us without telling strangers our life stories.

What was more of a surprise was how writing these fictional characters helped us understand the issues the characters were facing better and opened us to each other’s differing opinions. We could ask what the characters were thinking or feeling, and not be bound to what the person who wrote it had thought when she was in that particular situation. Instead, we could brainstorm what someone might think and hear how each of us thought about the situation. When one writer got stuck, we would talk about the character and the moment and help her get unstuck.

Another thing theatre does is to validate experience. When that audience agrees to listen to a group of girls, the audience inherently tells that group that what they say matters. And it did matter. I think the girls said amazing things and did amazingly well that night, but even without that, the way they carried themselves that evening as they ran around and giggled is something I hope I never forget.

Theatre not only gives us a way to process the world and then a way to talk about what we have discovered, it also validates the expression of those thoughts. I tell people that one of the things I love about theatre is its ability to bring us closer to perspectives, thoughts, and experiences that we may not encounter in our day-to-day lives. My guess is that this validation of expression has a lot to do with that.

Theatre brings people together. We know that, but let’s say it again. Anyone who has done some kind of theatre, be it in school or professionally or with a volunteer community group, knows that there is a special kind of closeness that comes from the intensity of the project, if nothing else. Add a personal commitment to the material and it will only get more intense. Then you physically bring an audience together and ask them to experience something with you.

What better way to start a conversation?

First we brought together a group of girls with a common experience. We used theatre to explore that experience. Then we brought people together again to share that experience. No matter what the topic, no matter whose voice it is time to share, after all of this, I will firmly believe in theatre’s essential place in validating and bringing together our communities.

-Sarah

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The development and production of Many Ways received support from a Leeway Foundation 2012 Art and Change Grant, the Ascension United Church of Christ of Jeffersonville, and the Asian Arts Initiative.

Photos by Ashley W. Mills.

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Double Life: Art and Science

plantWplantSallplantSky

This should have been ready for posting yesterday, but last night, after a day in the New Jersey Pinelands, learning how to prepare wood frog tadpoles to be tested for Ranavirus for a government study, all the while dodging the voracious ticks that seemed to be falling from the sky, I was too exhausted to compose a blog post for my theatre company’s website…. which brings me to this week’s topic: my “double” life in both science and theatre.

plantSOThroughout my childhood, and up until the end of high school, I unabashedly declared my hate of bugs and nature and anything outdoors, and my lack of interest in anything science. I was a weird, artsy kid, always writing and singing and performing whenever possible, and especially whenever impossible.

plantYwhatThen, the summer after my freshman year of undergrad, I realized I was wonderfully intrigued by nature and wanted to be an ecologist. It has been a slow and scary process to shift my perspective of the natural world from one of fear to one of fascination; everything looks so different under another lens. I decided I wanted to continue my major in Theatre, and just add in a Biology major to keep the Theatre major company. The deans and advisers at school thought this a ridiculous venture, so I made sure to pull it off in style. For my senior thesis, I wrote a play inspired by my semester in Kenya, exploring the tragic human-wildlife conflicts I had learned so much about. Years later, I am simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Ecology and Evolution, and creating and performing with Kaleid Theatre.

Although science and theatre seem completely dichotomous at first, they really have so much in common, and maybe it’s not so strange that I went from nerdy theatre kid to nerdy theatre kid ecologist. In both disciplines: creativity and collaboration are paramount; sometimes you just have to try something and then see how it went; money is scarce; grants and jobs and everything is competitive; you’re constantly being critiqued and judged; to really do well, you have to think innovatively; and I could go on.

plantCactplantSbounceI am never just an ecologist, or just a theatre maker. For me, the two disciplines are intertwined; I am drawn to the theatre of biology (and the biology of theatre? what does that mean? comment below!). My experiences as an actor and playwright and theatre creator have trained me to seek to understand every angle of a story/phenomenon/question, so I find that I ask questions in ecology that others may not have considered, or put ideas together in a new way. My work in science causes me to try to keep my theatre work grounded (even if I’m up in the air!). Sometimes (usually…?) my science-y anecdotes during Kaleid rehearsals are artistically useless, but sometimes they are just the thing that a piece needs to give it universality.For instance, the wetlands/Hurricane Katrina rant by my character in Bounce started as an example that I gave in early rehearsals of when something did not bounce, and became a synopsis of my character’s life story, symbolizing her struggles to be recognized, and her fragility in the face of disaster (or perturbation, as ecologists say), using an analogy that plucks everyone’s heartstrings.

This is not to say that I am already an amazing ecologist or theatre maker. I show up to most Kaleid rehearsals and meetings completely drained of my confidence in myself and in humanity, but I always leave rejuvenated by the possibilities of collaborative creation.

So, to spoof on the title of that old Facebook group: I can’t, I’m in the field, and then I have rehearsal.

-Samantha

Performance photos by Valerie Giacobbe. Nature photos by Ashley W. Mills and Sarah Mitteldorf.
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Bouncing to “Bounce” – Creation and Discovery

bounce

When Sarah first proposed creating a piece exploring the idea of “bounce,” I thought “yes!!” Instantaneously images of childhood games, jump ropes, and sunshine came to mind. As we began developing the piece, I realized that “bounce” is so much more than childhood nostalgia- there’s depth, strength, and resistance.

KC2013WEB3We began developing the language for the piece by sharing stories inspired by questions about the act of bouncing in our own lives. In the sharing of these stories, I realized that we bounce throughout our lives everyday. That we need to bounce, in a way, in order to survive. In tough times we use the expression “we’ll bounce back.” Every day we bounce back from stress, upsetting situations, and other obstacles. It amazed me that we do this without really thinking about it.

bounce3Bouncing makes us flexible and resilient. It takes force and a surrendering. I was inspired by all the stories we shared and surprised by how many ideas we all had! We began swapping and telling each other’s stories and I was surprised at how hard it was to try and tell someone else’s story at first and again how easy it became our script.

Translating words, emotions, or the essence of something into movement is one of my favorite things to do as a performer. So layering movement into the stories and the framework of the piece was so much fun. Every time I work with Kaleid I enjoy the freedom and generosity that we find in the act of creation. This generosity lets us take something simple like “bounce” and find a deep resonance of it in our every day lives.

-Rachel

 

All photos in this post were taken by Valerie Giacobbe at the 2013 KaleidoCabaret. Lighting Design by Ashley W Mills. People in the images are: Rachel, Samantha, and Nina (first image); Nina and Rachel (second image); and Samantha, Rachel, and Nina (third image).
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First Post and Video

Thank you for your interest in Kaleid Theatre and in our blog. We are very excited to be sharing this journey with you.

As you can see, we are at the very beginnings of this journey. But we are excited to be able to keep you up to date as we move forward. We will be sure to update you when we have news.

In the meantime, here is a video of our work on Eurydice in Market East:

See you around!

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