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Aurora Nealand and Goat in the Road's KindHumanKind premiered at the CAC in March 2019, running for three sold-out, unforgettable performances. In April 2020, the work was scheduled to return to the CAC before COVID-19 cancelled our spring performing arts season. In lieu of bringing you the live performances, we are excited to present Behind The Curtain: Designing KindHumanKind, an interview series featuring chats between CAC staff members and the designers and directors of KindHumanKind to provide behind-the-scenes insight into their exciting creative processes.
Explore Behind the Curtain: Designing KindHumanKind:
This series is part of ArtOrbit, your online guide to art and artists from the CAC and around the world.
In Part one of Behind The Curtain: Desinging KindHumanKind, CAC Technical Director Jo Nazro sits down with KindHumanKind set designer Jebney Lewis about his vital role in the creation of the piece and the inter-weavings of various designs as the artists worked to create the visual magic behind KindHumanKind. Jebney served as Technical Director at the CAC from 2013-2016 and is both a multi-talented designer and musician.
JN: Hi Jebney, Thanks for taking the time to chat with me and answer some questions about design process. You ready to get into things?
JL: Okay. Alright! So fire away!
JN: Ok, great, let's see, the first thing is how did you come into this project?
JL: Well, I actually got approached--Aurora (Nealand, Artist) called me up right when the CAC had first asked her about doing a theatricalized version of KindHumanKind. She was just figuring out, trying to figure out what made sense to propose. And I told her that this was probably one of the few chances she would have to really, kind of, shoot for the moon, so she should try to propose something really big and grand. And then she asked me who I thought might be a good team, and I definitely mentioned Chris (Kaminstein, GITR Co-Artistic Director) straight off the bat, and they’re old friends so I was kind of an advisor to her on the project at its earliest stages. And also, Aurora had produced a series of a large band performing the material with Shannon Stewart choreographing an ensemble for dancers, and I ran sound for those shows.
JN: Yeah, I remember that.
JL: So that was how I came on initially. And then I was approached by Goat in the Road to do set design. So that was how I got brought in.
JN: When was the decision made to reveal certain parts of the stage, and who made those decisions?
JL: You’re talking about the curtain drops?
JL: So, that devising process actually started, interestingly enough, with Aurora and the designers with Chris and Shannon. It didn’t start with the performers initially. We spent a lot of time with the songs, and we did a lot of playing. A lot of jamming in the space, a lot of talking about tropes that we saw that were really common in rock shows, and how we could mess with them. Aurora looked at the lyrics of the songs and listened to the songs and then did visualization exercises where we drew things, where we assembled things out of materials that were brought in.
And two of the things that kept coming up: Aurora, Chris and Shannon (Flaherty, GITR Co-Artistic Director) all were interested in this idea of layers, of a kind of obfuscation and also revealing. They were just really interested in how the songs were a little bit elusive and complicated and dense, and how we could have things evolve in a way where things could be covered or blocked or revealed. So that was one thing.
The other thing that we talked a lot about was how we could mess with the conventions of a rock show in ways that could be humorous and fun. Because there's this whole thing that happens in rock and roll shows where the audience has this expectation that they’ll have an intimate connection with the performers, and the performers kind of fulfill that by performing something that makes it feel like it's an intimate connection, but it's very much a performance. And so we wanted to mess with that, too.
We were really excited about doing a show in the warehouse, and there was a consensus pretty early on that we wanted to figure out how we could just use every last bit of space that we possibly could, just because it was really an opportunity to go big, So, the reveals, the arc of the show in terms of distance was about an arc of performativity.
The show started as close as we could get to the audience with this idea that it was, I mean, it was very intimate. Even the way the show began was with Aurora addressing the audience, and then this kind of weird technical thing happens. The idea was that they were really performing full stop for the audience. The music is really performative, but it's also really illusory. The idea was that at the end, the performers were in (the) same configuration, but they were waiting, they weren’t performing. They were maybe in a green room or a waiting room or some sort of liminal space.
Those reveals were designed to be theatrical, but also to remove the audience more and more and more from the intimacy with the performers as they were submerged into the spectacle, but it was supposed to end up being as anti-monumental as possible. You're looking at a bunch of people reading magazines in an ugly waiting room as far away from you as possible. I don't know how much any of that landed, but hopefully it was kind of uncanny, you know. That was what we were shooting for.
JN: You had mentioned these rock and roll tropes? What are some examples of those?
JL: We talked a lot about how we could involve stagehands, and how stagehands were such a part of the show -- people running on stage and doing something, and running off like they're invisible, and they’re not. We talked a lot about road cases. We talked about this idea of all these road cases coming on stage, but then what comes out of them is, like, super unexpected. That was one. You know, we talked a lot about the direct address. There are all those moments in the story where Aurora starts to tell a story, like “oh, this song is inspired by blah blah blah” and then it keeps getting interrupted. So that's this other idea that she's about to share this intimate moment with the audience, where she's going to give them a window into her process, but it just keeps getting interrupted. There were a lot of things that got ditched. We talked a lot about cables, like the cabling, and about, trying to be really intentional about not necessarily hiding things, which was kind of ironic, since then later everything had to be wireless.
JN: Right, but you did still have some of that, like the rolling light tree that moved back and forth that everybody could see.
JL: Right. The thing that I think is really interesting about theatrical design is it's this marriage between necessity and creativity. And so the roving boom came from Josh Courtney (KHK Lighting Designer) basically saying that he knew that there weren’t enough booms to create side light all the way down the length of an 80 foot playing space. And then he said, “Oh it would be really great to have a boom that moves.” He said that we could just put a boom on a couple of furniture dollies and roll it down the way. I wasn’t sure that was going to work but thought we could come up with an idea that would be sort of, you know, Brechtian, aesthetically functional, and that was to build this kind of train track.
And, it was actually pretty inexpensive to build, because the steel's inexpensive and I already had a bunch of pipe. We decided to go with the roving boom when we built a model for the space. We had a bunch of little screens that we built in the model, and we just took a flashlight and ran it down the side of the space in the model, and as we ran it down the space we saw how the light caught and created, like, this kind of strobe-o-scopic effect when it hit the screens and that actually was that final part where Aurora walks all the way upstage like that. We had that in our hip pocket from really early on because of what we knew, how we knew that light would behave in the model.
JN: That's really great, because you don't usually have the ending of a piece in your hip pocket from the time you start.
JL: Well, I don’t know if it was the end, but we knew that that would happen, that that had to be a moment. I had all kinds of crazy wingnut ideas early on that I sent those guys, like about this big central pivot with this other thing that would move around in the space. There was another design concept that was a bunch of c-stands that had screens that could be manually moved. The idea was that they would be smaller and they would be put in front of performers' faces, but the logistics of that got pretty complicated. So the screens really, really came from Chris and Aurora. They asked, “well how do we do it really simply where we could just have manually operable screens?” A lot of the design was driven by a really, really close collaboration between Aurora, Josh, Kourtney (Keller, KHK Projection Designer), Dan (Pruksarnukul, KHK Asst. Projection Designer), Chris and Shannon and me, and Kiyoko (McCrae, Costume Designer), too. We talked a ton, way more than any other process I’ve ever been in as a designer. Which was cool.
Oh and then, you know, when they (the cast) were devising the movement, we also were in the room, and we were asked to participate. So, it was really interesting to be on the stage, generating material with the performers, and just sort of seeing what would work and what would stick. There was a whole other iteration of the piece that was really fun. We were at UNO in their theater space and we had a bunch of weird stuff, like a couple of screens, a chair and a typewriter and some potted plants, and we would just pile stuff up. Chris would basically say, Jebney go down there and make a set. And so I would tip stuff and tilt stuff, and it was--it was actually great. There are elements of that that didn’t make it into the piece that I really enjoyed.
JN: Yeah, as a designer, especially working in devised theater, there are always little beautiful moments that you create in the devising process that somehow get lost.
JL: Right, yeah.
JN: Whether it's due to necessity or it looks really cool for this moment but really doesn't work for the rest of the show.
JL: Yeah, I just save those for later. I'm like--mmm, I’m gonna use that. I'm gonna keep that in the hopper. you know.
JN: Well, you answered some of my other questions about process and screens, while talking about other things.
JL: Oh -- just to say something else about the screens, I think the thing that's really interesting about theater design, I mean, the whole process is so strange because frequently, if you’re doing a piece that's worth its salt, or working with people who are worth their salt, they're gonna push the outer edge of what you can do. And very early in the process you have to commit to being able to deliver an unknown product at a very, usually very firm price. And so, we started talking about projection screens. I said, well, projection screens are really expensive, and you guys want to do projection everywhere, and so I thought I would be able to make this shower curtain material work, and I don’t think I would have figured out how to make it work without your (Jo’s) help. I think I would have failed. Or it would've just looked a lot crappier.
I always think about how there are all of these moments in theater and event production that are so hyper-collaborative, that it almost feels disingenuous to ascribe any one thing to any one person, because so many people have an intimate hand in how all the little details get pieced together, usually under extreme duress. I just worked with you, Jo, on Leyla's piece, (https://www.breakingthethermometer.com) and the dollar amount for design for that piece was almost, it was a little bit less than KindHumanKind, but not a ton, and the vast majority of the expense was for two large projection surfaces, and we would have never gotten away with that had we not used the cheapest most low rent materials in the most labor intensive way. Cause that's the sum cost--the sum cost becomes the labor.
JN: And to look at the size of those two shows next to each other and think that you have close to the same dollar amount and one is to produce something with twenty some odd projection surfaces and the other one is to produce three.
JL: Right. That's a consequence of coming up through the ranks, doing very low budget experimental theater; you just have to be really smart about how you use money, and you have to come up with solutions that people who aren't put in those positions don’t think of. I actually used to work for a production designer in film, and he came up in the theatre world, and he said he would always, if somebody was green, he would rather hire somebody from the independent theater world, rather than somebody who'd come up making films, because their budgets were so much more substantial and robust, and they never have to think on their feet in quite the same way.
JN: It's so true. If somebody were to come from outside and look at the set and the elements that went into KindHumankind, and put a number on the cost, their thinking would be three to four times the actual cost. Probably more than that, to be honest. It is kind of amazing to be able to create these things out of random bits that you can find in the store.
JL: Right. I worked on this show years ago called Chicken, and it was for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, and the piece took place in a submarine, it was like the cutaway of a submarine. We had 800 bucks or something, and I was working with a designer named Michael Matsushima, we were co-designing it, and we knew there was no time to build a model, and we really had to design-build this thing. We had to just start working and get it done. The thing about these shows is that what you build the first time should be the prototype for the real thing that should cost ten times as much. I have a few experiences -- not personal experiences -- but I have a couple of friends who have made shows in a really low rent way and then have had them super resourced, and it's just really interesting to see what happens with the super resourced shows, sometimes they lose their charm.
JN: In definite ways. I've built a lot of sets in that same way, where this is the big idea, and this is our tiny, little dollar budget. With the set for Sea of Common Catastrophe (Jeff Becker and ArtSpot Productions, 2016), the director wanted three massive towers, and two of them needed to spin around and become four different sets, and things needed to open and close and come out of boxes on a tight budget. And I could imagine if that show had been built in a more resourced way with a larger budget I think a lot of its charm would have been totally gone.
JL: it’s an interesting kind of dilemma. The thing that’s nice -- that would be nice about KindHumanKind if anybody ever were to pick it up -- is that the audio portion of it is pretty daunting, but it's a show that I think could fill a proscenium house that fits into 1/16 a box truck. There’s something kind of nice about that. And I also do think about that a lot when I design. I try to figure out a way to make something be able to tour easily.
JN: That's interesting to talk about, though, because, as you said before, KindHumanKind currently is using 80 feet of depth.
JL: Right. Yeah.
JN: There’s not a whole lot of theater spaces that are gonna give you anything more than 40 feet of depth.
JL: Yeah. We talked about that a lot from the very beginning, we talked a lot about, well, do you want to try to make this show be the show that you can tour. I think that so few companies in New Orleans develop work that way. They have the approach that they’re filling the space that's available. I was encouraging everybody pretty early on to not do the 80 foot thing. And also figure out a way to make the audio reproducible in other venues that wouldn’t break the bank, but it just wasn’t what people wanted to do. It wasn’t the direction that people wanted to go. I don't know if that show will have a life beyond now. You know--it’s really, really hard to say. It's an expensive show to produce. So, maybe it's good that we did, like, the biggest damn version of it that we possibly could do the first time. You know?
JL: I always think about this quote by Laurie Anderson that's one of my favorite quotes about art and technology, where the interviewer was saying to her, “well you’re obviously someone who is constantly thinking about how to work at the vanguard of technology.” And she said, “no, no, I'm not. I'm not just interested in technology, I think technology’s fascinating, but the thing that really blows me away is when I see somebody do something I've never seen before with a pencil.”
JL: And, and I feel like, actually, in some ways, for all of its technical sophistication, KindHumankind is really someone doing something cool with a pencil. It's bedsheets and shower curtains, you know…
JN: --eye hooks with c clamps and nails.
JL: It's old time-y, DIY, backyard theater-making on a really big scale. I mean, the lighting not so much, right, and the audio not so much. But the set? That couch was the couch from our house, and the lamp was the lamp from our house, and it was definitely a pretty homespun show in spite of looking different.
It's fun. I hope we get a chance to put the show up again at some point. It would be really lovely. It's a lovely show.
JN: It is definitely a lovely show, and it's really sad that we weren’t able to do it again this year, hopefully we will find a way to present it in the future.
Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Jebney, and for your incredible work on KindHumanKind!
KindHumanKind was created by composer Aurora Nealand in collaboration with Chris Kamenstein and Shannon Flaherty, co-Artistic Directors of Goat in the Road Productions. The work was also created in collaboration with fellow cast members free feral, Tiffany Lampson, and Alexis Marceaux. The work featured projections by Kourtney Keller, lighting by Josh Courtney, costumes by Kiyoko McCrae, projection mapping by Dan Pruksarnukul, and an ingenious set that absorbed and refracted all these designs by set designer Jebney Lewis. Learn more about KindHumanKind at goatintheroadproductions.org.