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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 IV of Behind The Curtain: Designing KindHumanKind, Laurie Uprichard, CAC Director and Curator of Performing Arts, chats with Shannon Flaherty and Chris Kaminstein, Co-Artistic Directors of Goat in the Road Productons, to discuss the unique directatorial challenges that came from transforming Aurora Nealand's KindHumanKind album into a spellbinding multi-disciplinary performance.
About Shannon Flaherty
Shannon Flaherty is a performer, arts administrator, and educator originally from New Hampshire. She is co-Artistic Director of Goat in the Road, and is the project director, as well as a teaching artist, for GRP's young playwrights' program, Play/Write. Shannon has performed in and helped create many GRP productions including The Stranger Disease, Foreign to Myself, Numb, and Major Swelling's Salvation Salve Medicine Show. Shannon has also appeared on stage with Skin Horse Theater, Cripple Creek Theatre Co., and Dillard University. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006 and has been living in New Orleans since 2008.
About Chris Kaminstein
Chris Kaminstein is a writer, director, actor, and co-Artistic Director of Goat in the Road. He has been featured on the cover of American Theatre with company member Will Bowling for work on their original 2010 production, Our Man. He is the co-writer and creator of GRP’sInstant Misunderstanding (residencies at North American Cultural Laboratory and Ko Festival), Our Man, This Sweaty City (episodic podcast), and Numb. He is a frequent collaborator with members of the film company Court 13. Chris’ directing credits include Catch the Wall by Gabrielle Reisman (Dillard University), Major Swelling’s Salvation Salve Medicine Show by Andrew Vaught, and ee me and pollock thee (Big Easy Award nomination). Chris has appeared in plays at Southern Rep (New Orleans), Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble (Bloomsburg, PA), Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Chashama (NYC), and at Spoke the Hub (Brooklyn). Additionally, he is an improviser with the nationally touring group machine A. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University in theater studies, teaches part time with KID smART, and in the summers at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen MI.
Laurie Uprichard: Hi Shannon and Chris -- thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation! My first question is: did you stick tightly to the framework of Aurora's KindHumanKind album for your dramaturgy or use it as a starting point? How did the three of you weigh in to that conversation?
Shannon & Chris: For us, creating a stage version of a music album was not such a different experience than making a new play. The process we (Chris, Shannon, Aurora, the other members of our team – the musicians and the designers) used to create the show was very similar to they way we have created original, narrative theatre for the past twelve years, but rather than starting with research as we usually do, we had the album as our basis to build ideas and images on. The big difference, from a dramaturgy standpoint, lay in the fact that the music of The Monocle (the album) works on the subconscious or dream-conscious level. The lyrics point towards images, feelings, towards states of being, without necessarily naming them outright. So, from very early on, we knew that the music would be the basis for the show, but in a non-literal way.
In August of 2018 we gathered with the designers (Jeb Lewis = set design, Dylan Hunter = sound design, Josh Courtney = lighting design, Kiyoko McCrae = costume design, Kourtney Keller = projection design, Kit Sternberger = stage manager) to have our first workshop. While listening to the album, we created visual landscapes responding to various songs (with some very homemade Joseph Cornell boxes, trying to capture our responses to different tunes). Aurora also gave us some background on the sonic and lyrical elements she was playing with for each track. We emerged from this time with a few visual elements and key thematic words. This included the screens we eventually used in the piece.
In December 2018 the team came together again, along with the musicians, and used the themes and concrete objects deemed essential in August to improvise with the performers in a rehearsal room. Jeb made some draft screens we could use in the room, and we brought in a number of other elements (including a very large fern) that ended up in the final piece.
In between each of these two workshops, we would meet to refine ideas, with Chris and Aurora eventually putting together a visual outline of the whole show, a kind of storyboard, which we then ended up fully building out in our final rehearsal process in February/March (right before the premiere).
Each song of Aurora’s amazing album has its own story to tell. Part of the inspiring challenge of the work for KindHumanKind was finding a way to link together the various tunes into one stage vision. The choices about this, in the end, were inspired by the songs and the lyrics, but are not a literal interpretation. We wanted to create a dream of a dream; what would happen if the album itself were to fall asleep and dream – what images and visions would it have?
LU: Did you develop the staging of different scenes and the gradual reveal of the full depth of the space in consultation with Aurora and the cast? With the designers? How long a process was that? Was it a matter of trial and error or sudden “aha” moments, or both?
S&C: The idea for gradually revealing the space was circled upon slowly, over time. Throughout the process, one of the questions we kept coming back to with Jeb Lewis was “what binds the songs together?”. There was a thought that Aurora had used early on when describing the album to us: that the album went from ‘interior’ worlds to ‘exterior’ worlds over the course of its journey (what you keep inside vs. what you show the world). This exterior/interior division seemed to be showing up in our workshops, with the performers, and in our design discussions as well. Some songs felt more intimate and personal, and others felt like they were more expansive; the singer/artist trying to connect to the world around them. We wanted some way to mirror this with the set and other visual elements of the show.
In addition to the interior/exterior concept, we also discussed using ‘concert tropes’ in the show, but messing with them in some ways, i.e., using the elements of a traditional concert, but to very different purposes (as a rule, we find it helps us to build a new piece when we have a few physical elements in place early on, even before we’ve decided what the work is ‘about’). These two ideas combined to create some of the broad visual language for the world. The performance starts very intimately, close to the audience, and looks like a traditional music concert set up. Over time we subvert those expectations. We wanted the audience to keep wondering if the next ‘reveal’ would be the last – hopefully giving them a feeling of ‘weightlessness’ as we pull back the layers of the music. The CAC were great collaborators and open to us being in the warehouse, and it became apparent early on that one of the best tools at our disposal, one of the most profound ways to make the audience really stand up and take notice, would be to use the sheer size of the warehouse to our benefit. Framed correctly, the size of the warehouse could become an ‘ah-ha’ moment for viewers.
In general in our work we’re always aiming to surprise our audience. When audiences know what to expect next they zone out. In order to keep them mentally engaged, in order to keep them imagining and working along with the performance it’s imperative to continually subvert their expectations. Our general rule is that something needs to change or shift every few minutes in order to continually re-engage viewers. The space reveals in KindHumanKind allowed us this engagement.
LU: The majority of Goat in the Road's shows are created through a collective devising process with members of your ensemble, some of whom are musicians in addition, but largely a group of theatre makers. How did working specifically with musicians change the devising process?
S&C: Mainly we were lucky. Or rather, we are lucky that Aurora knows such amazing performer/musicians, and that these performers were so interested in being part of this process. Alexis Marceaux, Tiff Lamson, and free feral are each remarkable performers and creators in their own right, with their own projects. Bringing them together felt a little like being gifted an all-star team.
In addition to their musical ability, the thing that made the collaboration possible at all was their willingness, and Aurora’s leadership, in working like theatre makers as we built the show. We’ve known Aurora a long time (10+ years!), and know that she has a background in physical performance and theatre. So we knew that she would want to improvise, try out things physically in the space, and work apart from an instrument for part of the show. The gift was that Alexis, Tiff, and free were all equally game, equally skilled at stepping away from their instruments and building images, physical sequences, and worlds as performer/actors.
This meant that as a company we were able to enter into the workshop phase and utilize a lot of the same tools from our other work. We improvised physically, used imagery from the songs to create worlds and images, and the performers built physical sequences to be used in the final show. A big challenge, from our end, was thinking about when to deploy the musicians as musicians, and figure out when they should be singer/movers. We wanted to make sure to have a mix of both elements. Watching this group of people play their instruments is a fabulous show in itself – so we didn’t want to jettison the ‘concert’ part of the show all together. But we also wanted to break up some more traditional ‘concert’ moments with pieces that worked viewers’ brains in slightly different ways.
LU: Any final notes that you would like to share with our community?
S&C: It was a pleasure to turn our process towards developing a concert. We strive to ensure that each new project does something very different than our last project; gives us new challenges, or new areas of thematic exploration. The challenge with KindHumanKind was figuring out how to generate something that brought audiences on a journey through the songs, without being heavy-handed. It was also a real gift to work with Aurora, the other musicians and our entire tech/design team. We are grateful to the CAC (especially Laurie Uprichard, Jen Davis, and Jo Nazro. Jo really helped us solve a million design quandaries we brought into the space) and hope we can bring this unique show back one day!
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.