I identify as a performing artist. Director/choreographer are words that make sense to other people for what I do. But I would like to be performing more. I direct plays and collaborate with playwrights, but the work that I generate myself tends to be dance-theater. Which to me means performers using all elements of their system- their bodies, physical movement including their voices and text, and sound and design. Using all of the elements of a theatrical space to tell a narrative that’s often not linear or straight forward. I'm also trying to get into some film work.

How does film differentiate from performance for you?

What you can do with film is you can control where your audiences’ eye is going. Whereas in a stage setting every single audience member will see something different just based on what they’re interested in, what attracts their attention, where they’re sitting. In film I can be like look at her hand, see what her hand is doing. As a performer it’s very different because the form is different, you don’t have the practical restrictions of a live performance space.

What drives you to create?

What draws me to be a director is that I really like people. What I'm about to say is going to objectify humans a little bit and I realize that. Sometimes as a director and choreographer it feels like I'm a painter but my medium is people. I get to do the same process of figuring out how this material reacts and responds and moves, what colors it has. But with living humans who have their own personalities and motivations. Collaborating with people helps me learn about myself. Just being with someone in a room three hours a day is going to give you a lot of information you didn’t have before. Especially when you’re both looking at the same thing with your different perspectives. I think that gives me a lot of information I crave.

Do you typically have a laid out idea of what you want to see?

That’s something I'm figuring out as the leader of the room- how much do you give people so they don’t feel like they’re swimming in a sea of nothingness, while still leaving room for them to really rise to the occasion and bring their own stuff and feel agency? You’ll find directors all along that spectrum. You’ll have people who come in and it’s all about getting the dancers to do what their vision is. Then there will be people who will be like so what do you guys want to make, and it’s performer-designer led. I'm interested in somewhere in the middle. I think most performers want somebody to have a vision, somewhere where we are heading, somebody who is able to say yes or no. But I also love when people bring in stuff I never thought of.

You work with a lot of visionary people, how do you maneuver ego moments? 

I’m lucky because a lot of people that I work with are friends of mine that I have chosen very closely, so we are already sort of on the same basic page about stuff. I guess a lot of people would say it’s really hard to work with friends, but I'm lucky to have friends who get that that’s my job. There are times when people think you’re wrong and you have to rise to the occasion and be like no, this is what we’re doing. I'm not a great disciplinarian. There’s the artistic vision and then practically you need somebody to lead the room. That leadership role in the performing arts I'm still working on. Calling people out when they’re taking advantage, I'm not that good at that yet. I'm realizing that you can split those responsibilities some. Knowing that I'm not very good at that I will look for a stage manager that will bring the hammer down.

Do you think about impermanence a lot in your work?

I don’t think about it that much but it is a fact of what I do. Live performance happens and then it’s gone. And we do a lot of work for that thing to happen and then it’s gone. It’s impermanent but because it’s impermanent it’s more special. There’s a trade off there that I can’t articulate very well but that’s what I love about performances. You come and you get something special because it only existed that way that night.

How do you think about your audience?

Other people seeing your thing is a given in performance but I think sometimes because it’s a given we don’t really think through the audience’s participation because it’s so expected. It’s a question that American theater is having in many ways because there are so many immersive performances and things like that that are challenging the audience in a different way. I was listening to a Chinese playwright/director talk about how it is different working in China vs. the US. He was like in China, audiences are loud. If they’re sad, people cry and if people are happy, they laugh-people really respond, that’s within their theater going culture, you’re allowed to be audible. In the US we’ve sort of created a very tense theatrical space. We’ve created the culture where if you’re going to see dramatic theater you’re quiet, you’re well-behaved, you’re meant to take in the intellectual weight of the thing. 

I’m curious about clowns and how comedy loosens up an audience to respond more freely to the work. If you’re being asked to laugh people feel like they’re allowed to laugh. And then if there’s more “dramatic” things after that, they might experience those things with less of a wall because the laughter has sort of freed them up. I have friends who do kids theater and they love it because kids will respond. I feel like sometimes that’s my role in the audience is to be like it’s okay to laugh, ha ha, ha ha. I guess that’s sort of a subconscious mantle I've taken on for myself.

What do you think the role of creating art in the world is?

It’s a way to get outside of our collective head, in order to examine society and check in about how we’re doing.  If we didn’t have art in all of it’s forms we’d be trapped inside of our day to day survival and wouldn’t be able to step out and look at what we’re doing in a critical way.

Do you think that humans are innate story tellers?

If we were cave women sitting around a fire I would probably say today I ran away from a boar. Which is a story. It’s a very basic story right? Because it happened in the past, it’s not happening right now, this story about how I ran away from a boar is good for your survival because you’re like oh boars are dangerous, I should probably run away from boars too. Stories help us learn ways to be, basically. They also shape our conceptions of the world. The stories we tell play a big role in how we view things. 

That’s also the scary thing about story telling. At the amazing playwriting center The Lark, where I worked, one of their newer initiatives with The Apothetae is intended to support and advocate for disabled artists in generating new works with the power to revolutionize the cultural conversation around disability. Until working there, I never realized that when you look at any disabled person's experience as it's represented in our popular culture (painting, TV, theater, etc.), they don't exist.  So people don't even realize that there are people in this world with these experiences and my question becomes how does that impact the public's willingness or ability to not isolate or ignore disabled people further?  

Speaking to that, do you think there’s a social responsibility that artists have?

I think there is. Particularly because of the way that art is consumed in the US. We don’t have a culture of consuming the arts that gives the average audience member the ability to say on their own, that’s just one artist’s opinion. I’ve been learning about the theater field as a whole and trying to evaluate what’s missing. I don’t want to make another Nutcracker because it already exists and somebody out there is doing it better than me. Why put your time into something that has had enough time put into it? I'm interested in putting time into things that I think are even remotely new, somehow. Why rehash the same question? Unless it needs to be rehashed, in which case, let’s do it. One of the groups I've worked with is called Theater Reconstruction Ensemble and their mission is to take canonical texts and reconstruct them. You have to ask, why did this become a part of the “canon”, where did this come from, and why is this something we come back to as a culture and what has it done to us as part of that canon.

What I'm dealing with right now is being responsible but also still making things. You can get so wrapped up in whether what you’re doing is as woke as it can possible be, but also it’s about your mission as an artist and if your mission is just to make beautiful paintings, that’s allowed too. In theater, dealing with people, we have to be particularly careful because people are people. It’s something else if you’re dong abstract painting. You could be a white supremacist making an abstract painting and nobody would ever know. But if you make a film people are probably going to fucking know and it’s probably going to hurt a lot.

What is beauty to you?

Oh man that’s a really good question. Sometimes I feel like I find a lot of beauty in struggle. One thing that I love about dance and what I often find so beautiful about dance is that people are doing something that’s really hard. If it was easy along the way, it doesn’t seem as weighty.

Anything else?

I, like everybody, am in practice. And that’s what I love about art in my life, it’s never going to end, I'm never going to feel successful. Sometimes it’s exhausting. But generally this is something that helps me figure life out. What does success even look like? I don’t think I would ever say to myself I'm a successful artist. You can read books about art but you can’t learn anything without getting up on your feet and doing it, or without talking to someone who actually does it and I love that. I love that you’re part of this person to person to person lineage through history of how we tell stories. 

Emma Kimball