Karinne Keithley Syers

karinne-300x163Can you tell us a little bit about My Address is Still Walton, to give us a sense of what we might expect from the piece?

The subtitle is “A play for the set of Charlie Rose.” It’s a series of interviews in four parts, constrained by a few simple parameters: the interviews take place seated at Charlie’s round table, and everything that is said is either a question or an answer, except for one interview that also includes a translator. (Charlie Rose is not a character, just his set.) Within those parameters it ranges all over the place. I tend to write by collecting scraps of language during a season of writing, both language from myself, which I generate in free writes or small assignments, or language overheard and snatched at. Then I take what I have collected and begin to assemble. So topically the interviews don’t focus on a body of work or an emerging storyline. But in writing each one, I tried to sift until there was a sense of someone at least momentarily there, someone with commitments and curiosities. And then the shape of the whole piece is determined as a kind of musical, more than narrative sequence. That said, the interview constraint keeps it from feeling abstract.

What is the function of the interview in getting someone to reveal her or himself?

I came to appreciate the interview form within the arts and ideas part of the news cycle for the way people try to distill and transmit the meaning of years of work within the brief duration of the interview. But none of the eureka moments are happening in real time, so all this exciting or frustrating stuff comes through in a patient or reflective key. When I wrote this play I was living alone and spent a lot of time listening to the radio for company. I was also in the first year of graduate school, and so my world was really all conversation, much of it slow and considered. I would go from seminar to scholar’s talks or conversations, and so question-based conversation, interrogation of ideas, really felt like a living, vital context for thinking about and structuring speech. Because I rarely work from character as a starting point, I don’t really thinking of the interview as a tool for revelation. It was more an interest in the interview as a cultural form that works so well as a container for person. I became interested in whether person could emerge just from the positions of the you and I of questioner and answerer, absent the things that theater usually does to underwrite and give coherence to a character.

The description of My Address is Still Walton suggests that reporting or journalism is as dramatic as narrative storytelling. What do you mean by that?

I think we generated that description because when you’re talking to theater producers, they tend to get worried about where the drama is. I don’t write traditional plays so I always have to find a way to translate the structure of the script in terms of the things that makes theater people feel comfortable – drama, narrative, crisis, etc. I think in a poet’s place like First Person Plural we don’t have to rationalize so much. Poets understand that words are doing something when they’re doing something. But the earnest part of the description is that interview is, as much as storytelling or dramatization, a major cultural form for the transmission of experience, and so can be considered a valid theatrical form.

One of the things that happens when you put it on stage is that the ideas part recedes a bit and you tune in more to the surface tension produced by the two interlocutors, and to the feeling of being the person answering questions.

Do you think My Address is Still Walton illustrates, at least a little bit, how conversation reveals the dynamics of living, of how we spend our energy  engaging with others?

Sure. I haven’t thought about it that way, but I do think that energetic question comes up in an occasional resistance to behaving properly as the interviewee,
including abandoning the obligation to explain yourself. Other interviews really feel to me like places where conversation allows us to come very close to other people, to respectfully trespass within the feeling of another person’s way of thinking.

Conversation also provides us with the opportunity for moments of recognition. We recognize ourselves or moments of history that are important to us. We recognize similarities between people we have encountered. This recognition can serve as an affirmation of our presence or point of view. It also gives us the chance to experience unity. But unity represents a temporary state—so we wonder, and this might seem like an odd question, but—how do you view the space between a question and its answer? What is that space, that dynamic?

I love the space between question and answer, as well as between one question/answer and the next. To me it feels like a question of facing, in a dance sense. One of the things that I geek out on as a dancer is the amazing shift of experience that can happen when you alter your facing in the room. It’s a very subtle way of giving attention to orientation. The answer has to face the question, and hand over something precise in return, although how that precise thing is an answer isn’t always apparent. I like taking on faith that the answer is an answer, and then playing with the feeling of the interval between the q and the a. In creating Walton I often wrote fabricated clear transitions and explanations between randomly collected details, and then erased and elided until they made an interesting relation, at which point I put them into a question/answer form. I like the way the question/answer is so familiar and so grounding that it can span weird intervals and still hold onto a degree of sense.

How would you describe your relationship to theater, dance and performance?

Historically, I started out as a dancer and choreographer, then started to make work that needed more than movement, so started writing and making sound and videos. Around that time I took a few years to study playwriting (and philosophy of language and poetry) with Mac Wellman, and then began a Ph.D. in English which ended up circulating around poetics, feminism, and ordinary language philosophy, and which I am bringing now full circle to link Emerson’s body of literary thought (taken as a key body of thought in American lit) with choreographic and somatic resources. I think of myself as a choreographic thinker but I don’t make that many dances. I love writing, and sometimes feel I am a better choreographer while writing than I am while making dances, I think partially because I just have never figured out how to live enough hours in the studio to maintain a feeling of fluency there.

My performance work involves language, movement, sound, projections, singing, and light. Writing is a really important part of it. For a while I thought I had abandoned dancing and was only writing, but over time I found I couldn’t feel at home in the world without some dancing in it. From project to project I like to range freely across medium or presentation context, though. Theater is very hard to produce, resource-wise, so it is part, but not all, of the venues I seek out for making things. I also make things (in sound and video) that can stream or sit on websites.

Tell us a little about the significance of the banal, and why an exploration of it makes such interesting theater?

There is this enshrined idea that theater is about crisis, which I don’t think is wrong, but it became tied to fixed ideas about how crisis sits in the arc of a narrative and durational event, and how big it is and what constitutes a crisis in the first place. I love what Merce Cunningham says in response to this: “Now I can’t see that crisis any longer means a climax, unless we are willing to grant that every breath of wind has a climax (which I am), but then that obliterates climax, being a surfeit of such.” Emerson too talks a lot about crisis, turning, and the necessity of undergoing both the suffering and unforeseen growth of a transformation that is always ongoing except where we block it out (and even there). We don’t need grand narratives to discover it; the transformation, which could also be described as a transition through a turn or crisis, is everywhere.

We are better, he says, looking at low, the familiar, the near, than thinking that transformation only comes about through romantically wild excursions. The wild and the changing are always here. So the exploration or the attention to the banal is just a gesture toward that idea: that we can find life everywhere, and life is dramatic, moving, exciting. I think that in the dance tradition that I come out of, which makes a lot of patience, pedestrianism, and attention to ordinary movement, theater-going is understood as a chance to become attuned to the beauty or crisis in these small or near things.

Does the idea of “first person plural” mean anything specific to you? Do you believe in a “we” or any sort of collective self?

Certainly. I’m really interested in the first person as a position available to us, as readers, writers, thinkers, dreamers, maybe even workers. I think of this position as not necessarily linked to biography, but as a way of taking seriously or taking personally a moving point in the world – think of it as taking a kind of bathysphere into a collective ocean. So I think a lot about performance as an opportunity for this kind of imaginative experience.

When I say I don’t write from character, what I mean is that I don’t try to recreate the coherent, back-storied identity that drama considers a person, but rather try to write a mutable set of positions from which to speak and mean sentences. I like to write these sentences in the first person because it demands that the performer choose to take it personally, and find a way to do that absent all the usual biographical grounding. I think because I come from a dance background, and from an approach to dancing that is very task-based instead of one that says dancing is a function of personal expression, this seems like an obvious approach to acting. (Actors tend not to find it so obvious, but it’s a productive tension.)

I do believe in a we, but not necessarily as a unified collective self but in the sense that it’s impossible to say where one thing ends and another begins, and also in the sense that I experience energy, intelligence, and direction from so many different structures – the one I call Karinne, the group appetite of my posse, but also my skeletal structure, which shares an intelligence and a functionality across a vertebrate world, or the cellular… No one of these things strikes me as the “real” first person; rather there is a we or a vastness that we all have some degree of access to and that offers a range of minds and appetites that we can entertain. I say this from a position of safety and I know that violence can cripple this access. But I think that exercising that movement imaginatively is critical, as imagination and its production of empathy enables us to live in a pluralistic universe. My dissertation explores Emerson’s dismantling of individualism as “first person strangeness,” which is also my experience of creative process: identifying (in the sense of feeling at home with) with something I couldn’t have predicted and can’t say I possess.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of your current projects?

I just finished a solo show called Another Tree Dance that I think of, in a phrase from Anne Carson, as the “sleep side” of the dissertation on Emerson and first person strangeness that I am in the final stages of writing. It was supposed to be a lyric lec-dem but turned into something very strange and private. As soon as my dissertation is turned in, in a few months, I’ll turn to writing the narration for and editing a documentary that I shot with my friend Jenny Mary Tai Liu, about The Wooden Floor, a dance-based poverty-intervention program in Santa Ana, California. So that’s very exciting, an effort to advocate for dancing and creative process in this video essay form. Writing-wise, I am embarking on a libretto of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers with the composer Brendan Connelly. And I’m the early imaginings of new dance and singing based work I plan to make when I move back to New York next fall. I’ve always wanted to make a performance that takes place inside a tent, the internal landscape of which is entirely embroidered. I think this new piece might be the one. So I’m starting on embroidery panels now, of communicating plant life.

What are you carrying around these days?

Lots of stuff for my son Harvey, who is 2. Cars, crayons, books, snacks. Also a torch I wave high in the air for dancing, for being in dance studios, for physical intelligence and the little beautiful subcultures that choose to experience their lives there.

What are you letting go of?

I’m always trying to let go of difficulty, to find the strange and the wild without having to be somewhat defensive in getting there. Always trying to let go of my idea of my career, with its periodic decisions to claim the freedom of exile, and then the periodic freak-out over where I belong.