PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 14, The Loneliness Project

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Chris:

Hello and welcome to episode 14 of the PMA podcast. Today we are discussing an upcoming play in the Schwartz Center's Black Box Theatre titled "The Loneliness Project." I'm your host Christopher Christensen.

Lindsey:

And I'm Lindsey White, the communications manager for the department.

Chris:

Thanks for being here once again, Lindsey.

Lindsey:

Happy to be here, Chris.

Chris:

Yeah. Uh, today we are hiding out in the Reading Room of the Schwartz Center and with us we have Caitlin Kane, our very own Caitlin Kane, who's been here for…

Caitlin:

Three years.

Chris:

Three years now. It goes by fast.

Caitlin:

It does.

Chris:

Reed Motz.

Reed:

How's it going?

Chris:

Good. Thanks for joining us.

Reed:

Thanks for having me.

Chris:

And Kelli Simpkins.

Kelli:

Simpkins. That's correct.

Chris:

Yes.

Kelli:

A pleasure to be here.

Chris:

Thanks for joining us. Um, where should we start? How are things going? Play opens when?

Caitlin:

The play opens April 19th and things are going great. We are very much in the midst of the process, so that's exciting. I don't know. Kelli?

Kelli:

It feels strange to say the play opens because it's in such a developmental phase and this is the first time we've ever been in a room with actors in a true sense of the kind of process driven word. We've had a few days hither and thither with some people, but this is the first extended period of time we've had any developmental collaboration with performers and other people in the room. So it feels like it's still very, very much in the initial phases and doesn't feel like a play is going to open, but rather, yeah, I don't know. I think things will be shown and maybe reading, we'll do some reading.

Chris:

Okay.

Kelli:

But it is a, it will be a performance of sorts, just not a fully functioning, fully designed, fully off—I mean, actors will be carrying scripts, we know that much so far. So it's definitely in the process. In a lovely way. In a beautiful way.

Caitlin:

There's not an official script yet and we're two weeks out.

Chris:

So what I read last night was not the official script?

Caitlin:

No, that's the version from 2015 which we are not sticking to.

Chris:

Okay.

Lindsey:

So can you take us back to the beginning and what's the genesis of this play? How did, how did this come about?

Caitlin:

Sure. So in 2012, Mary Morten and the Morten Group did a needs assessment of the Chicago LGBTQIA communities, and that assessment showed that seniors and youth and Chicago's LGBTQIA communities are experiencing similar safety, health, and housing needs, but are also feeling particularly isolated from the resources that they need in the communities that they would like to have access to. So a group of artists at About Face Theatre came together and decided that they wanted to create a play in response to that. I'll let Kelli take over cause she was leading that process.

Kelli:

Yeah. So I'm a member of About Face, which is a nationally recognized LGBTQ theatre in Chicago. I think we just celebrated 20 years in the last year or two years ago. I can't remember. Last year?

Caitlin:

Last year, I think.

Kelli:

Last year.

Chris:

And have you been there the whole time?

Kelli:

I have been there probably seven years maybe. Something like that. There was a member of the company, SK Kerastas, who pitched a project that was about loneliness and intergenerational loneliness and then this report came out and we got an NEA grant, so that's how it started. It started in 2014, and then we had to do a public performance. I was part of the grant. So Caitlin and Reed came on at a certain point pretty early on in the process. There's another collaborator, Al Evangelista, who had just got his master’s in choreography at Michigan, so he'll be here on Friday. So the four of us have, have been kind of slogging through this material and working after that 2015 reading for the past when we, when our schedules aligned, which is frankly quite rarely. Yes, we've been collecting interviews. I think I have like 60 interviews thus far, and that is the source material for this piece.

Chris:

That's a lot of material.

Kelli:

Yeah. It's a lot of material.

Chris:

Speaking of 20 years, did I read something about you've been doing interviews for—

Kelli:

About 17 years. I've been with a theater company in New York where I lived for 15 years called Tectonic Theater Project who is famous for the Laramie Project, most famous for the Laramie project, and had been working with different people in those capacities for 17 years doing interview dramaturgy and performing primarily on those types of place interview collection and found material, not theatrical source material. Yeah.

Chris:

What do we know about ticket sales at this point?

Lindsey:

Ticket sales are going really well for it. So we've got three performances at the Schwartz Center as Caitlin mentioned, it opens on the 19th and there's a show on the 20th and 21st as well. So ticket sales for those Schwartz Center performances are going really well. There will probably be a wait list at the door, so definitely come on out for those. And then there's going to be another performance at the History Center in Tompkins County, and I'll let Caitlin talk a little bit more about that. That's going to be on the 21st and that will be a pay-what-you-can at the door performance. So that one especially will be very accessible to the community.

Caitlin:

Absolutely, and so it's going to be much like the other performances, but because it's not a theater space and so much of the work that we've done is really focused on theatricality and these lights and costumes and exploring what the theatrical language of this play is, that performance will probably look quite different. It'll be probably more reading based and more discussion based rather than as sort of as theatrical realized the performances at the Schwartz Center.

Chris:

One of the things I encountered in the reading was something about this play being an impossible play, wanting to do an impossible play. Tell us about why it's an impossible play. Everybody's pointing at Reed.

Reed:

I think it's an impossible play because it's such a massive and diverse community, even just in Chicago, and there are so many people who comprise the LGBTQIA communities. One of our interviews refers to being queer as a vertical minority in that being queer in whatever that means sort of cuts through all other minorities and all other identities. So trying to encompass that diverse of a group of people feels a little impossible, but it's also really an exciting challenge to try and do justice to the many different stories and to try and put everyone's voice on stage sort of equally, I guess, and really show how diverse a community it really is.

Kelli:

Yeah. And I would say, you know, with this kind of work, it's also, you know, you have so many interviews and so many people that are incredible, like it truly is such an inspiring thing to sit down with somebody and really hear their story in a, you know, deep, multifaceted, two-hour sort of way, like where you're really giving time and asking a lot of detailed questions. So part of the impossibility I think for us is wanting to put everybody on stage—

Chris:

Okay.

Kelli:

And not being able to, that there's only so many people you can hold. So many kind of prime people that you can follow. Also I think our communities do not have, I mean, I think it's changing over time, slowly over time, but do not have a lot of representation and do not get a lot of stage time, screen time, media time in the ways that other people do. So I think that also feels like an impossible task to, as Reed said, to do justice to our communities in Chicago. And I think, you know, so many different people that encompass those letters of the acronym, as it were, have a lot of deep feelings about what that kind of work should look like and what we should focus on and, what their kind of primary necessities are. So I think that's also a thing that is a constant kind of grappling with this work. Like how do you focus it? What is the organization, how do you organize this work and around what and whom and who gets left out, et cetera, et cetera. So that's also, you know, difficult and complicated.

Chris:

I think I read also that documentary drama is like the process of falling in love.

Kelli:

Yeah. It really is. I think it is. I mean we talk about this a lot in this work. Like how do you create the work that you love? I mean everyone who's sitting at this table did these interviews. It's really hard not to fall in love with the subjects. And at some point, you know, what was that thing that Carolyn said? Which is like, you know, create with passion and edit in cold blood. And somebody, I think Lee Brewer said that, and I had never heard that before, but it's so true with this kind of work. Like you do, you have this kind of love affair and then you have to really put your creative hat on and really edit the material and structure the material. And that means that things are going to get left out that you absolutely all deem important and necessary and relevant and crucial to the work. And yet it just doesn't fall in line with the structural spine that you're creating. So things have to fall away. And that's, you know, part of the grieving process and mourning process of work like this, that not everybody or every story that you love is going to make it into the piece.

Lindsey:

So this production is co-produced with Ithaca's Civic Ensemble theatre group. So Caitlin, tell us a little bit about the process of bringing this play now to Ithaca and to Cornell and getting those communities involved.

Caitlin:

Sure. So I think Civic Ensemble is really interested in building work about a variety of topics. One of the things that we talked about when we decided to bring this play here was that there hasn't been a lot of work done at Civic that relates to LGBTQIA communities here in Ithaca, and this play allowed for that sort of intersection between the work that we were doing in Chicago and this community that while Ithaca is wildly accepting of LGBTQIA folks, doesn't actually get the type of representation that you would expect onstage here and doesn't have sort of the resources that you would expect here. So part of the appeal was bringing those stories here and beginning to build those connections for Civic Ensemble and also be able to have those conversations within a community that has a very different lived experience of what it means to be LGBTQIA. I think it's been really interesting to see the cast respond to the stories that we're sharing that have many deep resonances with them but also are quite different from life here in Ithaca. I don't know if that answers it.

Lindsey:

Yeah, and it's interesting too that this is a play that at its core looks at these two facets of the community, the youth and some of the older generation. That's what you're getting with this cast as well. You've got, you know, the Cornell students that you would expect to see in a typical PMA production, but you also have this great outreach into the community and bringing a lot of those members here and giving them a voice as well.

Caitlin:

Yeah, which we are all very excited about. It's been great to have such a range of people and identities in the room, yeah.

Chris:

Can you get into that a little bit more? Looking at the difference between the youth and the elders within the community.

Caitlin:

In terms of the Chicago community? In terms of our cast?

Chris:

The Chicago community specifically to the play itself.

Caitlin:

Sure. So I think one of the things that we really found was that youth and seniors are both feeling isolated from the resources that they need access to but also are dealing with a very different set of concerns and a different set of approaches to dealing with those concerns. So a lot of the conversation is about how do you access resources, how do you find information about your identity when you're first sort of figuring that out. So we have very different stories about people who are using the internet and using sort of digital resources as a way to access that information versus elders who were really focused on going to the library or sort of one of our interviewees talks about finding his way via Braille, like trying to feel your way into the community. A lot of it has been about looking at those differences, but also the shared needs of both of these groups. I don't know if Kelly and Reed have things. Do you want to go?

Reed:

And I think it's also interesting that a lot of the elders that we interviewed were part of sort of the initial gay liberation movement and were really politically active and now we have this young generation of young queer people trying to find their way into activism. So it feels like there's a lot of sort of shared knowledge that could be passed back and forth, but there is this divide that feels like it's keeping the two groups apart. There's been a lot of, in a lot of our interviews we've heard both from the seniors and the youth that they would love to talk to one another because they feel that they can learn a lot about what the youth are trying to achieve right now. And the elders are saying "we learned so much and by doing so many different types of activism and we wish we could pass that on." So it's been really interesting and kind of looking at the arc of activism in the arc of history in Chicago's queer communities and how you help to bridge that gap a little bit by bringing the youth and the seniors together.

Chris:

Okay. What's the age range of the cast?

Caitlin:

Sixteen to mid-seventies would be my guess.

Chris:

And how many members in the cast are there?

Caitlin:

There are 11.

Chris:

11. Okay.

Kelli:

Yeah, it's been so lovely to have all these different age ranges and creative minds and hearts in the room. We're incredibly blessed to have the people in the room that we've had in the room because they're, you know, they're helping us create. They're helping us find this world and discover the theatrical landscape of this piece in really huge kind of heavy lifting sort of ways. It's lovely to engage this community in the ways, you know, in different kinds of collaborative ways that we engage the communities in Chicago. But to have, you know, a lot of people who encompass the LGBTQ communities here in Ithaca be a part of this process, because we understand these stories and not that straight identified or allied people cannot understand stories obviously, but there's something deeply kind of penetrating about, you know, having those experiences and really, um, being able to both portray those characters but also have an emotional resonance and response to those interviews.

Chris:

Has it been challenging for the cast? Are there challenges that have sort of arisen?

Caitlin:

I mean, I think it's a very unfamiliar process for many people. There are very few people in the room outside of the three of us who have done much devised work. And so learning to be part of that process has been a challenge, but I also think there's been a lot of excitement about the content and seeing their lives reflected in these interviews and finding ways to theatricalize that. It's sort of been both of those things at once.

Chris:

What about the production itself? I know you and I have worked together in terms of using the GoPro and the iPad and integrating that into the play itself. What does the production look like? What sort of things do you want to share with listeners? From any perspective.

Caitlin:

Well, I feel like we should talk about moment work at some point and sort of what that methodology is and how we've been using it because it helps make sense of the ways in which we're using design elements. I'll let Kelly actually explain moment work, but a lot of what we're thinking about in terms of the GoPro and projections and lights is about how do those theatrical elements help us tell this story, and I'll let you take it from there.

Kelli:

Yeah. So we use in Tectonic Theater Project, which is based in New York City, we use a technique that has been codified and refined by everybody in that company to varying degrees. It's a process of writing performance on its feet using the theatrical elements at this stage. I mean, we talk about how do we make theatrical work, how do we continue to move this medium, the medium of theater forward, and it has lagged behind many other art forms. So how do we engage this medium in a way that is actually using what the theater does best? So we do a technique, or we employ a technique, that is kind of a living, breathing, sketching artist in the room sort of technique that uses the theatrical elements of the stage. Inherently, that is using the theatrical elements to find the inherent poetry and narrative potential of those elements so that the text is not the only thing that's driving the work. And part of that is to create this dialectical conversation and relationship between content and form so that it's not just writing text or having every artist in the room make the text believable, which is typically what our roles are as artists and designers and people who were brought into a process, but that we are in charge of designing and directing moments and really creating collaboratively this theatrical work because it employs the elements and their narrative potential so that light can tell a story, sound can tell a story that's not driven by a sound designer. Projection can tell a story, that these things are intersecting in really beautiful theatrical and structurally relevant, necessary, interesting ways. So they're helping us. They're helping inform the writing decisions, and they're helping us kind of birth this world in the architecture of this particular space, which would be different in, if we created the play in this room, for example. So that the architecture is also an element, and that that is, you know, we're having a conversation with that room and that room is speaking to us and kind of telling us something. So all of this stuff. At the end of the day, you do all of these moments who do all of this moment work and then you have to sit down and really craft this piece with an analytical mind using these structural ideas, but also employing the moments and writing from that place.

Chris:

Thank you.

Kelli:

Yeah, and I don't know if that makes sense, but it makes more sense in the room, certainly in a three dimensional way on your feet than it does talking about it.

Chris:

As you're working through all of this, is there a plan for the future of this project outside of Ithaca? Don't know?

Kelli:

It remains to be seen. Yeah, I mean, I think we're continuing to engage. I mean I'm an artistic associate at About Face and I'm certainly going to talk to them. I mean, it's hard when you don't have a script. So this process will hopefully give us some of that and at least give us, you know, some theatrical forms and this landscape as I keep saying that we're really finding here in a way that we haven't found before and that's super exciting. So hopefully once we get a bigger version of a script and people can have some idea of how we're going to stage that, I think those things will reveal themselves and grants and all of that stuff. You know, hopefully we will get into a room in a similar way with people in Chicago when we get back at some point.

Chris:

Who do you hope your audience to be? We know that the seats are almost filled at this point, but you know, who do you hope to see in the audience? What do you want the audience to take away?

Caitlin:

Sure. I mean I think I'm really excited by the range of people who oftentimes show up for Schwartz shows, that's weirdly hard to say. I think there will obviously be the Cornell students and Cornell faculty, who I'm excited to see there in terms of this is a very different project than what actually usually happens in a space like this. So being able to say, here's what it means to do a work in progress showing and have a conversation about it is really exciting to me. I'm also very hopeful that we have a pretty large turnout from Ithaca and Tompkins County that's not based in Cornell, partially through having this cast and partially through the content of the play. When we did our community auditions, it was so clear that so many people wanted to hear these stories and in Ithaca and wanting to be part of telling them. So I'm hopeful that we'll get some of that audience too.

Chris:

Reed, you've been very quiet. Reed and Caitlin have to share a mic today. We only have four.

Reed:

We're sharing so well. Yeah, and I think sort of pointing to what Kelli said earlier, representation among LGBTQ people in sort of all art forms is often really limited. So I'm excited for sort of the different reaches of the Ithaca LGBTQ community to see this work, just to hear some of these stories from Chicago but also just to be able to sort of share in that and to hear people's stories here. I know when we did the presentation back in 2015, a lot of people sort of after the presentation had their own stories that they wanted to share. I I think it sort of prompts people to want to talk and to share their own experiences, and that's really exciting for me. So I think I'm excited to see sort of the queer community of Ithaca and the surrounding areas see the show and sort of be a part of this work in this experience.

Kelli:

So I think it's really important for the listening public to know what they're walking—well, we don't even really know what you're going to be walking into, but I do know that it is going to be a process driven, developmental showing. I think that's, you know, for this kind of thing, I think it's incredibly exciting for the community, both for the academic community, the theater community, and the LGBTQ community to walk into a space and to feel a sense of kind of live energy. So this is not going to be actors fully in costume with full design elements employed off book performing, you know, at the height of what this play hopefully will be in the future. I just think that's really imperative that you're walking into something that is a work in progress and something that we've all collaborated on, and you know, there will be some read things, some written things, and some performed things and hopefully some moments that we all found together as a group will be shown maybe with some introduction maybe with text, hopefully with text. So I'm just super excited to see how those things land with the community here.

Lindsey:

So this is an opportunity to see a work that's evolving, and you mentioned even the title is kind of just a placeholder for now.

Caitlin:

Yeah, I mean, I think it started very clearly to be about this question of intergenerational loneliness, but as we've spent time on it it's become very clear that there are range of stories here and a range of things that we're interested in. One of sort of the principles of this work is that you let the material lead what the play becomes. So we're still sort of searching for what is the organizing principle of this? How are we going to help unify all of this material into something that's theatrically and dramatically interesting to watch? In the long term, there's a very good chance that the title changes and the focus changes just because of the interviews we have in the room.

Chris:

How is this influencing your graduate work? You're going to be departing from Ithaca for a period of time and are going to be working on your dissertation in Chicago.

Caitlin:

Yeah, so this is actually kind of fun. This project is one of a series of projects that actually inspired my dissertation, inspired my application to Cornell, really got me here in the first place because I was really interested in sort of the ethics of these processes and how we go about relating to the communities that we work with and write for. So this process is part of that ongoing exploration for me. Then when I'm back in Chicago, I will hopefully still be working on this while also conducting interviews and archival research for the dissertation proper. But the two things are very much intertwined in my head.

Chris:

Okay. Kelli and Reed, you've been in Ithaca for how long now? It's been a couple of weeks?

Kelli:

Yeah, two weeks.

Chris:

Two weeks. Okay. Well we'll sort of digress a little bit here, but I'm curious, what do you think of Ithaca and what have you found in terms of your experiences here?

Kelli:

Ithaca is gorges.

Chris:

Well done.

Kelli:

Thank you so much.

Lindsey:

Trademark that.

Kelli:

Trademark that? No, it's been really lovely. It has been, you know, it's a super charming town. We're still kind of getting to know it. We've been kind of hunkered down in this house together. Reed and I are housemates, pals, roommates. You know, these kinds of laboratories are pretty intensive, and so I think the opportunity to get out and really hobnob with the community at large and see everything is not, it's certainly, you know, something I'm interested in, but that's not the forefront of my mind and why we're here. So we've been thinking about the work and I had lunch with Carolyn who's on staff here and that was really lovely. Her and her partner had me out, so I got to see that kind of part of town in Enfield and see their gorgeous view. Reed ran into a waterfall. He can tell you all about that.

Chris:

You ran head on into a waterfall?

Kelli:

Not head on. Yeah, right into it.

Reed:

I was wandering the neighborhood

Kelli:

Cascaded down.

Reed:

and there was just Ithaca Falls right there and it's really tucked back there. They don't sell it very well, just sort of tucked off the road. So that was lovely. Yeah. I went to a drag show, which was lovely.

Chris:

Was that at the Range?

Reed:

It was at the Range.

Kelli:

You've gone to a couple now I think, haven't you?

Reed:

I've one to two. I'm becoming an Ithaca drag connoisseur.

Kelli:

How do you find it palate wise? I'm leading this now. See what happened.

Reed:

You've taken over.

Chris:

I'm leaving soon.

Reed:

No, it's lovely. I'm, I'm kind of always interested in seeing queer communities in different cities and towns. So that's sort of the one thing—like Kelly said, we haven't had a whole lot of opportunity to really explore and get to know the people of the town, but I try and ferret out sort of how queer communities take shape in different towns. I feel like the drag shows were a lovely introduction.

Chris:

Okay. Anything about Ithaca that says you're going to be back here to do collaborative work with other people in the future, or has that popped in your mind at all? Did I just put it in your mind?

Kelli:

So I was here before. Caitlin brought Leigh Fondakowski and I here to do a play, to do a reading about Charlotte Cushman.

Chris:

Okay.

Kelli:

And who knows what the future of that might be or if we'll ever be back. I mean, we have this lovely, you know, Reed and I are here because of Caitlin and Caitlin being here for her PhD in this department. And everyone here being so supportive and all the grants that have come in to make this work possible and we're incredibly grateful to the department and for everyone that has been incredibly supportive of everything that we've needed here. So we haven't said that yet, so I'll say thank you.

Reed:

Absolutely.

Kelli:

And I also just want to say, you know, kind of piggybacking on what Reed said, you know, part of this work that feels like, "Oh, this is, this is Chicago centric," but really what this work is, you know, when you really kind of hunker down, as I said before, and sit down with people and hear their stories like to see that there is very little divide in terms of these communities, like whether it's Chicago, whether it's Ithaca. I mean, yes, there are certain things that are kind of flavorful about Chicago politics and people's entry into the Chicago Queer scene at different moments in time. But I'm super excited to really see who's going to show up for this in terms of that community, the LGBTQIA community, and meeting them and just seeing the resonance of these stories regardless of geography, you know, how people respond to the work in this community and to see those people show up and to meet the community members of Ithaca because I think that's really powerful and important.

Chris:

All right, well thank you so much to all of you for being on the podcast today.

Kelli:

Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having us.

Chris:

Lovely chatting with you. Thanks for listening to the PMA podcast. Performances of "The Loneliness Project" are in the Schwartz Center's Black Box Theatre Thursday, April 19th at 7:30 PM; Friday, April 20th at 5:00 PM; and again on Saturday, April 21 at 7:30 PM. Tickets are available online at schwartztickets.com or in person at the Schwartz Center box office located at 430 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York.