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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, a three part interview featuring chats between CAC Technical Director Jo Nazro and the designers of KindHumanKind to provide insight into their process.
Explore Behind the Curtain:
This series is part of ArtOrbit, your online guide to art and artists from the CAC and around the world during COVID-19.
In Part II of Behind The Curtain: Designing KindHumanKind, CAC Technical Director Jo Nazro chats with Kourtney Keller, Projection Designer on KindHumanKind. Kourtney is a mother, daughter, comrade, artist, teacher, karaoke singer, wife and human (most of the time). Over the years her sketchbooks have turned into hard drives and her paintings have become MP4’s. She builds things out of Legos and cardboard with her son to keep her fingers and brain on the same page. Kourtney is thrilled and proud to be part of the KindHumanKind team.
Jo Nazro: Hi Kourtney, thanks for joining us! How did you get involved with the project? Do you recall?
Kourtney Keller: I do. But it was a little bit informal. Aurora and I have known each other for a long time. I guess we probably met through my husband, Alex McMurray, ages ago. I can’t even remember when, but I've worked with her on several things. Most recently, I worked with her to make a music video for her that, oddly enough, should be released in the next week or so. We did it a couple of years ago for her song The Chair.
JN: Oh, okay.
KK: I've been teaching at NOCCA for six years now, and a couple of years ago, Aurora asked if I wanted to do a music video for her. I said yeah, that'd be awesome. And then I started thinking that I had one particular cinematographer student at NOCCA, in my media arts department, and she's just such a badass, her name is Reyna Rivas (https://www.reynahope.com/)
She needed a thesis to showcase some of her cinematography work, and it just turned out that Aurora was totally into the idea of us making it at NOCCA and it was amazing. It's gorgeous, though the finished product was not exactly what we had initially thought. It turned out to be a little more, sort of punishingly beautiful.
JN: As those projects go.
KK: Well, every shot is gorgeous, and it's all Aurora. I don't think she really likes that, you know what I mean. It's her face over and over looking amazing, and so beautifully lit. It was hard to edit. There have been two edits rolling around for two years now. But I essentially produced the video and we workshopped it. We co-directed it, but Raina did all of the cinematography.
JN: Very cool.
KK: And so we definitely knew how to work together. And we have, I think, similar aesthetics. What's so great about working with Aurora is that she knows what she wants. She has ideas and she'll say, I was thinking about this for this, this for that, so you kind of just interpret that, and then she lets you roll with it or throw in some of your own ideas. So that's how I got involved. I think when this project came up, she asked if I wanted to do the projections, and I was like, What!?! Yeah. I guess she's always kind of cautious with her asks, because she knows that I'm busy, or she's busy, and so she's always a bit hesitant.
JN: Since you brought up the fact that Aurora had some ideas and you riffed with those ideas, in coming up with the content…
JN: …for KindHumanKind, what were some of your inspirations or sources or, I don't know, some of the really cool stuff that happened in that show, with for example, the car.
KK: Ha ha ha ha!
JN: Would you talk about the process of coming up with those ideas and also creating some of them?
KK: Great. Okay. There, there were a lot of them. I love her album, the whole album is so beautiful, and she asked if I wanted to be involved. Then I listened to the album, over and over, whenever I had the chance. So I had tons of ideas, but then we started workshopping as a whole group, and that’s something that I'm not really used to. I went to tons of rehearsals when they were doing total actor stuff that I was like, what? They’re just improvising what might happen in a scene. I was watching all of their bizarre creation, and it was all awesome, and I almost wanted to jump up there and dance and freak out too. But I was thinking about the projections and wondering, if there's so much great stuff happening, then there's no point. You know, sometimes projection obviously can take over everything, and that sucks. Cause you’ve got these amazing live musicians who are funny and they’re skilled dancers and performers. So, that was part of it, I was watching and I took a bunch of notes on every song, and I'd have ideas, week after week, but they would mutate because their improv would mutate as well.
JN: Yeah, the devising process.
KK: There were a couple of songs that I had some pretty strong ideas about, and I was really excited and then they were shot out into the air right away, not by anyone in particular, it just wasn’t what anyone else was thinking. That was awesome, though, because then we just went with something else. But, for "Thistle," and it was kind of obvious, that one is such a dark song but it's the only one that's really about plants. And so, for that one, we talked about projecting on top of the performers. And we also talked about the logistics of real specific mapping in the show. Dan (Pruksarnukul, Projection Mapping), you know, dealt with all of that, including the crappy way I gave him files. I was very naive, very inexperienced really. So that one I saved til the end, cause it was more about editing. I think there were beautiful things, and I did a lot of stop motion. I remember for "Look, look," that one we kept waiting on, because I wasn’t sure. We know that they were probably going to go with the car sequence, but I didn’t know what the dance would look like.. Alex drove me around, and I was in the back of our Volvo station wagon, trying to keep a slightly steady hand with my camera, and we just drove all over freaking town. And I remember my arms would hurt, but I didn’t care, I was like, let's just get the shot. We've gotta go back under the bridge. And so, I had all this raw footage, but I didn’t know how I'd edit it until we saw how they put the dance together. And then the sort of glitchy stuff came in, when they go into that weird dance break, and I already had a bunch of cloud tank footage that I had shot, which is basically dripping different inks and stuff into a saltwater tank to create different effects.
KK: I had my little sketch book of files that I like to use for certain things, and I did a couple for this one, but I used some stuff from the "Chair" video, cause I did a bunch of cloud tank work for that video too that we edited with the Raina footage. “Mortal passions," that one with the baseball game, is just such a different vibe. It sounded scatter shot, like, the striations from scatter bombs or something. So I pulled a lot of footage from online, I just stole it and manipulated it, cause it’s all weird, spray gun lights in the horizon that kinda looked beautiful, kinda looked like fireworks. And I know Aurora always had the idea for, I’m forgetting the name of it right now, but the song with all the buildings.
JN: Yeah, yeah. I forget the name of it, too, but with all the moving screens and stuff.
KK: Aurora had always talked about having a cityscape that changes into something or becomes a cityscape. And that actually came together at the last minute, too. That was one of the last ones, because I knew I just needed to design some buildings. But I wasn’t sure at first if it was going to be a full, beautiful layered cityscape or if each building would be literally projected onto a specific screen. I would talk about these questions with Aurora, and she'd say love that, go with that. Or I'd send her a color scheme. I sent her a bunch of color palettes early on, asking is this the kind of mood you’re thinking? Some ideas came from the Goat in the Road workshopping – like the waiting room. Little things like that came from everywhere. I can't really claim any super credit that anything was really my idea. But it's all filtered through me I guess.
JN: Yeah, and that's part of working on devised theater -- listening to everybody in the room and pulling your ideas from what people are doing and from what people say. I think it's really cool to hear about some of your process and that you have a hip pocket full of things that you pull from. I do a lot of,qLab mapping and projection work but I don't do a lot of graphic design or anything like that, so it's interesting to hear about your hanging out of your car trying to video stuff.
KK: Yeah, totally. [laughs]
I took footage of the things that I knew I could change or manipulate later too. So, for "Thistle," I did a lot of stop motion. I went to Michael’s and bought up weird things that I knew in silhouette would look like a thistle. And I went through a couple phases of South Park style -- cut out paper animation of thistles.
JN: Well, that's cool.
KK: But then once I did it and I looked at it, and I didn’t like it, and I showed Aurora and we talked about it, and she said, "I could see it working." I've done video work for very small theater productions before with, I don’t know if you know Megan McCracken.
KK: She is an amazing playwright but she's kind of under-known. She did a piece, maybe five--seven years ago called Girls who Drew Horses. And she's my pal, so I did a bunch of video at work for her, but it was really small, it played at the Allways and then it played at Siberia. And I don’t know if you know Rebecca Frank? She directed it.
KK: Becca Chapman was in it and a couple of other people whose names I'm forgetting. You know, it was really--it was great, and that was fun. I did my own quote unquote mapping, but there was no real mapping at all. I would just, cue this now, and I stressed because I ran it live, and I'm a luddite in my true heart. But then I worked on a piece called Grace and Igor that was written by Jessie Strauss, again, directed by Rebecca Frank. This piece was really beautiful but then, again, there was no real mapping, it was more about timing and I gave the cues to someone, to whomever was running Qlab, and that wasn’t a shaped map. And so, with Dan, I just knew, I had talked to him a little bit at NOCCA, and I knew he had worked with Miwa Matreyek (a director, animator, designer, and performer working in Los Angeles, California)
KK: I remember him saying, “I don’t do content. I do the mapping.” And I thought, yay! You’re my pal! Cause I hate doing the mapping. I learned a bit about how to do it, but it just bores me.
JN: He loves it.
KK: I know!
JN: He really seems to love it, and he's learned all these tricks.
KK: No, he’s great. We were going to work together again at NOCCA for their production of Jasper in Deadland, that got kiboshed of course. Some of the last pictures on my phone are texts that we threw up into the Lupin (theater at the Tulane University) and Dan's showing our theater tech guys and the musical theater people what he can do, and they were like, whoaaaaaa. And I was thinking, oh man, you have no idea. This guy can do all this shit, it's so awesome.
JN: Your background is more based in film, and I wanted to get your perspective on what it's like working in live theater and working in the devising process. I know you touched on that a little bit already about coming up with ideas by what people were doing, but if you wanted to elaborate a little more about working in live theater as opposed to working in film and how the devised process sort of molds it or keeps it on track.
KK: Well, I think ten years ago I would have been terrified to think about working even with anybody else, really. Cause I'm from a more experimental film background, and I come from more of a fine art background. That's what I did growing up, I was a painter and drawer and I related to all of that. And then I moved down here. I left school, The University of Michigan, studying painting and I just had to get out of the Midwest, and I moved down here to New Orleans in '96, and then I just painted on my own. But then I was really into the Brothers Quay, these weird Eastern European animators, and so, five years later, I went back to school at Pratt for animation, and experimental film. I came at it from a tactile background. I never wrote scripts. I can make experimental films. I've made some pretty cool things, but it's more visually based. All my sketch books have turned into hard drives. I was kind of a one man band, I think I'm just shy -- I don’t have that alpha director mentality. Maybe when I'm fifty, I'll direct a fucking film. If I can finally learn how to tell people what to do, you know? I'm getting more of that confidence, but all of that just came from me doing everything. Even back then, as a filmmaker, I was kind of a solo flyer. Collaborating would terrify me. So fast forward to now. I’ve worked with a couple of people who have specifically asked me to work with them, not knowing that I don’t have a resume in this stuff,.That has been kind of amazing. I don’t think I'd want to do this for just anyone. I don’t think I could do this if I didn’t like the person who was running the show; if I didn’t dig Aurora's songs, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t fake this kind of shit. And so that's why I'll forever be teaching or bartending or something. God, you know, I did that for twenty years, like, fucking twenty years. I think it depends on the group of people. Every experience I've had has been pretty good. This one has by far been the most amazing, because of just the amount of talent on every level. And I felt like my own work is what it is, and I'll get to that when I get to that, but this was definitely something in service to work that I really respect. So, I feel like I was able to try to really give Aurora what she wanted, but also getting to know Jebney (Lewis, Set Designer)-- the caliber is so high for everybody. I've known Kiyoko (McCrae, Costume Designer) for a long time and it was wonderful hanging out and talking about the whole process with her. And just talking about colors, or even sharing paint stroke ideas that I could reincorporate some way that the makeup might look.
KK: So just to have those kinds of threads going through, that was something we talked about, I don’t know if that was something that really came through but I think that this process is wonderful. Because it's so collaborative, too. Aurora, even though she's obviously the musician, and she's the writer of the songs, she's also the vision. And then, it was cool to see her work with Chris and Shannon, and everyone at Goat in the Road. Their expertise and how they would collaborate and allow the pieces to get jostled and re-sculpted. But she always had a hand on it, which is cool, I felt pretty privileged. I liked the whole, big concept of this thing. And I also, I guess this maybe isn't what you’re asking, but I really, really love the fact -- it's the first item I felt really proud of the fact that the audience included people I know from the music community and people I know from the visual arts community, and fashion -- all of my worlds, everybody was fucking there. And they were all having a good time -- you never see that. Aurora brought that together in a really natural way; it's pretty awesome.
JN: Yeah. For sure. I mean, it's definitely a piece like no other piece that I have worked on before, in the way that you're watching a series of live music videos play out right in front of our eyes, you know? And this amazing design team that came together and pulled all this stuff off with Jebney creating the spaces--
KK: Oh my god, I know.
JN: And moving the screens in different ways.
KK: Like, ergonomic, like the accordion stand! Everything was designed -- it's like good editing, you know, it all disappears, no one knew it was there because it was good. And then I loved Josh's(Courtney, Lighting Designer) mouth effect, another way to look--. Loved that.
JN: I mean, and just the way that--. I think, you know, it's hard as a lighting designer when you’re lighting a show that has such amazing projection work in it, finding that balance between the two, and I felt that between you and Josh, there was really something that worked quite beautifully. The colors really worked well. The way that there was contrast, and sometimes the way that they complimented each other. It was definitely a very well, all around designed piece of work.
KK: Jebney made that amazing model. You know, did you see his model?
JN: No I didn't, he was telling me about it last week, when we had our chat.
KK: He made this beautiful scale wooden model, and he made all these little maquettes of people. They were like Candyland figurines, and the screens were to scale. Dan was able to show a small projection of what was possible on this model, and I just remember Jebney's face and my face -- oough! After we did that test, we knew it was possible, we knew it was gonna be okay. Even If little things were off, it was still gonna be able to happen. And that's when Dan figured out the throws and the possibility of moving it back that far and which projectors would do what. He was freaking invaluable. Ultimately, no one said no to anything. I don’t think there was really any true heartbreak.
JN: Right! Well, thank you so much Kourtney I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
KK: No problem, and good luck!
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 Lambson, 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.