You Will Remember What it Looks Like: Karinne Keithley
Kentucky-Montana is characterized by several impossibilities, the number one impossibility being that the rivers have no banks.
The next impossibility is that it’s Kentucky and Montana, it’s the single possible moment of combination of two directions of travel wrapped around and momentarily on top of each other, like the confluence of possible worlds.
It does exist.
But if you end up there, you are in trouble.
The other impossibility is that it’s a kind of repair that can’t repair anything, because you only get to Kentucky-Montana when things are basically irreparable. But as you’re passing through, on that one journey, it’s very, very beautiful.
It’s very beautiful.
And you will remember what it looks like.
You can’t forget it.
—from Do Not Do This Ever Again
Soho Think Tank summarizes Karinne Keithley’s play Do Not Do This Ever Again, which opens the Ice Factory Festival at the Ohio Theatre from July 9-12, as follows:
In a landscape of lost love and modern loneliness, a company of strangers map a tentative journey towards just letting go.
Yet one of the surest ways to know you’re seeing a Karinne Keithley play is to ask yourself if what you’re encountering is irreducible: Does it occupy its patch of time in the way that a garden occupies its patch of space? (If yes, stay put.)
The horticultural metaphor could be extended further, to the organic, lateral profusion of activities that might typically be called a career. Karinne’s talents almost read like a parody of eighteenth-century polymathy: playwright, actor, publisher, dancer, scholar, choreographer, historian, collector. Over the last dozen-odd years, she has presented work at venues including P.S. 122, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and Soho Rep, performed for artists including Chris Yon, Young Jean Lee, and David Neumann, and choreographed for The Civilians, among others.
Her current proliferation came after deviation from a fairly traditional start. A gifted choreographer, Karinne came to New York straight from college as a kind of dance wunderkind; she now calls those years “the time in my life with the clearest relationship to ambition.”
“And then,” she says, “I had this demonic urge to start making dances about fruit, which just destroyed everything.”
Leaving dance for the Playwriting MFA program at Brooklyn College, Karinne also moved from the model of creation in which she had been working—the idea of the artist as a person who creates something out of nothing—to a new model of relation. She explains, “When you have a vision of what you want to make and then you work so hard to make it, it feels like proving yourself. Among many other things in there silently is the exercise of your own intellectual prowess. So I just recklessly and intuitively started working in another way. It was the first time I had relied on the world around me and acted as a conduit and a composer instead of a creator.”
Many plays are specific at the level of an event, character or speech. ASTRS, that first play, is specific at the level of the moment:
Prince Max’s second voyage takes him upriver of
capitalismusville. Nothing overheard is overhead anymore. All
is down below, down lower than low. Many of them are
shocked. Prince Max couldn’t think about anything else he
could be doing. His trusted advisor however:
I’m OUTTA HERE. aiight.
Prince Max: From now on I’m on my own. Prince Max: I’m not
qualified. Prince Max: I’m totally crazy. I was excessed. In
providence. Prince Max is totally depressed. From now on, I
will stay here. In the 53rd State of the Union. I will live in the
marshlands. I will cherish the green and pink city in the
distance. I will see the cosmoplane light itself up each night.
In ASTRS there is a clearing away of concepts to make room for things. Like all of Karinne’s work, the play requires attention—that one resists any impulse to look for the ending that will illuminate everything that has preceded it. To do so would be to exchange the work and integrity of each moment for a scurrilous approximation. With a few well-loved exceptions, directors and actors generally aren’t trained to think of “theatrical shape” in this way, or to make a performance that guides or educates the audience in what it is. Because of this, Karinne most often stages her performances herself, with frequent collaborators including Taryn Griggs, Andrew Dinwiddie, and Jeff Larson—people connected with dance and other disciplines who bring a particular kind of openness to performing text.
“If people aren’t encountering the regular signposts, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of constructing clues and anchors to the structure of an experience,” Karinne says. “You can establish a tone—you can be open. The way that presence works is so physical that I don’t think a text could actually determine that from the page.” The DIY development processes in which Karinne works toward establishing that kind of presence tend to be highly collaborative. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m responsible for this and you’re responsible for that,’ and divvying up the roles, whatever the people in the room can bring, they bring. But collaboration is incredibly hard in that not only do you have to like everyone’s ideas and aesthetics, but you need to create the right amount of space for each other. Everyone does need to have separate skill sets, to an extent, so that there are different voices involved and not a big mosh pit.”
Karinne decided quite purposefully not to be a professional artist. “It’s so naturalized in this city that ambition and success are completely normal ways to relate to the world. Our education is so much not about community, but about being a special and exceptional person who has something to give to other people. It just became untenable to me as a way of thinking about other people—the superiority that’s invested in that.” The gift economy in which she’s chosen to engage, however—making work with her friends, and working on her friends’ shows—often intersects and shares space with the career economy. Over the years, Karinne has accumulated many of “the markers that allow people to trust you enough to read your plays or listen to them, and feel comfortable approaching you as something that might be neat instead of something just retarded.”
One such marker was the 2006-07 Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, during which she wrote Do Not Do This Ever Again. The Lab facilitated exactly the kind of relationship it was founded to make in pairing Karinne with director Maria Goyanes, the force behind this July’s show at the Ice Factory. Maria and Karinne spent a year talking about the play during morning jogs, and the fact that the production grew out of friendship rather than a cold submission gives Karinne confidence in what for her is an unusually hierarchical process.
“When I choreograph for other people, I never have any idea of what the rest of the show is actually about or what the aesthetics are, so I was resistant to the idea of people being responsible for their areas and just hoping that they all mesh together. That’s the argument against it [the hierarchical model]. The argument for it is just to not go crazy trying to do everything,” she says. “We really are working hard to figure out whether the two models can go together. I trust Maria very deeply in terms of how we bring people into a more collaborative process even when these roles have been to a certain extent divided.”
Karinne recently finished her first year as a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. She hopes one day to help fill a gap in the scholarship on the performance communities in which she participates. I asked her to locate downtown theater in time and space.
“Obviously we have a very commercial arts culture, but it doesn’t pay off for theater. There are too many people involved and there’s not enough gain or replication. So it seems like if we have any kind of historical calling, it’s to give up that idea of what makes a show work. I think of Nature Theater, Elevator Repair Service, Sibyl Kempson—and it’s really energized and not antagonistic. I see the idea of creating special events more than long runs of things as one possible reorganization of performance toward a real consideration of liveness. In everything I see, the value is on actual bodies in the room. I think that’s a historical point we’re at—rethinking what a play is in terms of special events instead of cultural works.”
About her own future, Karinne says, “All I want to do is invest my time in a positive articulation of what I and my community are trying to do. I certainly don’t have a vision of myself bringing my bouquet of flowers and conquering everyone with kindness or whatever. There’s such an amazing, fertile, and active community around us that I don’t feel wanting for opportunities to experiment and make things.
“I think that when America has had lively arts, there’s been a lot of amateurism. I’d like to see more people do shows in their backyards.”
Do Not Do This Ever Again runs July 9 to 12, 7pm at the Ohio Theatre. For tickets ($15) or more information, visit sohothinktank.org.
Joyce Cho will present ASTRS from July 25 to 27 at Five Myles. For details,
visit joycecho.org or Karinne Keithley’s website, fancystitchmachine.org.
Amber Reed, a writer living in Brooklyn, has also written about playwrights Sibyl Kempson and Kelly Copper for the Rail.