Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jenny Koons: I feel like the thing that's so magical about theater is that it continually reminds us at its best that we are just people in a room all agreeing to imagine the same thing for a set amount of time. That's when it's the most delightful!
Jo Reed: That is director Jenny Koons and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Jenny Koons is a director is on the cutting edge of immersive theater. She specializes in bringing diverse artists together to create original cross-disciplinary work through a collaborative process. Central to her ideas is work that’s both site-specific and in a reciprocal relationship with its audience. Her range is pretty astonishing—from musical theater that literally takes place in a club with the audience standing as the actions unfolds around them to the beat of synth K-Pop to Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” re-visioned as a New York City block party to a recent vision residency at Ars Nova where Jenny curated and participated in four on-line pieces of work that invited the audience to join in. It’s of a piece that Jenny Koons has been a facilitator and educator in creating anti-racist spaces for over a decade. One of her primary interests as a director or as an educator is making and reaffirming community. Here’s how she describes the theater she wants to create….
Jenny Koons: I'm working primarily in theater, live performance gathering people. I think the thing I'm most attracted to now in making art experiences that bring people together for something that could not be experienced any other way. Whether that is in play form, or concert form, or party form. But kind of creating containers for moments. That are unexpected and also beyond things that we would experience in our normal day
Jo Reed: I thought we could perhaps begin by talking about your work with The Odyssey, which was this year long project, and I think that might be a good way to get into talking about the way you do theater.
Jenny Koons: Yeah! The Odyssey Project. It's so funny you bring that up, because I was just thinking this weekend that next year will be the ten-year anniversary, and I'd always had this dream that it would come back in 2022, like Odysseus in this ten-year marker. The Odyssey Project was a year-long, site-specific piece that took place in different Boroughs across New York City, and over 30 artists came in and out of that process. So, we were two weeks on, two weeks off for an entire year through literal snow and sleet and everything in between. And it was kind of an examination of the epic in the ordinary. And we performed on the Staten Island Ferry during the morning commute, and in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in a bilingual performance for kids there waiting for their dad to play soccer. But kind of this both celebration of story and also the very vast number of communities that live in this one place.
Jo Reed: You know, work that is site specific is really a central tenant to what you do, and I wonder why this is so important to your work?
Jenny Koons: Yeah, I feel like we are in constant conversation with the spaces that we're in. And when you say that I just think-- you know, I just finished a residency at Ars Nova, and so much of what we talked about in the projects were actually would be rooted in the fact that we've all been in our homes for over a year. And our homes have taken on a different relationship than they did before this moment we're in. So, I feel like we're in conversation with and supported and challenged and frustrated by the spaces that we occupy, both individually and communally. And so, there's something about the site specific and the idea of public gathering spaces that continues to feel really compelling, even if that gathering space is in your own home.
Jo Reed: Well, I know you directed "Midsummer Night's Dream" for the mobile unit of the public theater, which I think is a completely cool program, and that means that you go out to various communities. And present your work, and I wonder how you married your idea of site specificity with something that you knew you were going to present at various spots around the City.
Jenny Koons: Right, it's such a great question, because it was really the first question in starting to talk with Stephanie Ybarra when she was running the mobile unit at the public. One of the pieces was it strikes me that that play feels so New York. It's about these different storylines that kind of all collide unexpectedly and different cultures of that story that all continue to collide in the woods. So, that piece was structured as a New York City block party. And we had a preshow that started about 20 minutes before the show began, where the cast members would put a boom box in the middle and we had laminated set of requests. You could request the song, and we decorated the space with the audience members. So, the whole beginning of that was setting the scene for this to be a space that we're creating and were co-creating in this moment. And Kimea, our set designer made this street sign that really became integral that had chalkboard signs. So, wherever we were, we would write the streets that we were located on in the City, really marking it as like, "We're here. We're in this exact place, and let's make this thing. Let's make this dream together!"
Jo Reed: In your approach to directing, you really seemed to come at the work collectively. It's a participatory process for the artists and the creators, but for the audience as well.
Jenny Koons: Right! I feel like the thing that's so magical about theater is that it continually reminds us at its best that we are just people in a room all agreeing to imagine the same thing for a set amount of time. That's when it's the most delightful! When you never escape that you're in a library or a gym or on the ferry, but you are all making an agreement to go on a ride together. And I feel like, you know, I've said for a while that I feel that directing is community organizing in this. Because it's guiding a group of strangers towards something that doesn't exist. Something that's invisible. And that, to me, feels like such an important exercise in this moment where we're all kind of careening towards something we don't really know what it is. So, to be in the practice of participating and collectively imagining feels powerful in this moment, in small ways and in large ways. Politics to performance in a park.
Jo Reed: Well, that actually preempted my next question, because I was going to say you're an organizer. You're an educator. You were an educator for years. You're a director. And how these different roles inform one another and how you can use what you learn in one arena in another, because obviously, I would think they're in constant dialogue.
Jenny Koons: Yeah, they feel so-- I love that you say that because they feel more than ever so connected, and all part of the same thing, which is, "What are all the ways we can experience and create a process for people to move towards something? Whether it's a certain lesson plan or an understanding or getting a group of teachers to arrive at an idea about teaching. Or getting an audience to experience the exact same thing." And I guess that kind of newness and the risk of, "Will this thing work? Will what I've planned work? Will the nature of this particular group be excited about the experiment?" All of those pieces feel really connected and provocative and kind of like hot! You know? They don't fill safe. They feel unpredictable.
Jo Reed: A little risky. And as you were speaking, I was thinking, and they require trust in order to be successful.
Jenny Koons: Right! They require trust and I feel like that is the piece that is so slippery in a way. Like what are the parameters that we put around an experience that provides enough trust and safety that people will be able to show up as themselves in the truest sense of that word. And also, how do we not over-guide them, or over-direct them or over-coddle them, so that there's still enough room for it to be fully alive in whatever that moment will be?
Jo Reed: That's hard. I mean, that's an ongoing process, no? I mean, I don't think there's one answer.
Jenny Koons: It's so hard and invisible and also, as you said, ever-changing. So, through one event, I can have moments that I deeply trust where this is going, and moments where I feel so distrustful that it bumps me off the ride that I'm trying to go on. And I feel like that's also has so much to do with where humans are in this moment. And I think it's a big question for the art of the next six to eight months, or eight months to eight years of having experienced everything we've experienced. What does it mean to hold space and to hold people through things that are challenging or unknown or risky?
Jo Reed: Well, you've worked for years in organizing for change in theater doing antiracism work, working for equity. And your Asian-American. And I'm curious about your sense of Asian-American representation in theater, both on the stage, behind the curtain, as well as in popular culture.
Jenny Koons: Yeah, I think, you know, there's no doubt that we are vastly underrepresented in all of the ways that you just named. Making stories, behind the scenes of stories. I think there have been moments in time where there's a zeitgeist moment like "Crazy Rich Asians" and people suddenly wake up to the fact that there's a market and a hunger for things in a community that's not often highlighted. And that said, I feel like even in the last three to five years, we've seen a pretty massive change, while we remain underrepresented, we've seen a massive change in both the need and the necessity, and also just the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islander theater-makers who are running theaters, or very actively working for change at service organizations like TCG. So, it feels like there is an urgency and an excitement toward expansion and it's about time. And I hope that this last year remains an inspiration point for, and a reflection point, for this path that we're now carving out together.
Jo Reed: Well, it's, again, when we think of equity-- when I think of equity, I think of many things, but one thing I think about is who participates? Who has that opportunity to participate? And I think the pandemic has certainly been devastating for the performing arts, but I think it also in this odd way exposed some of the exclusionary aspects of theater.
Jenny Koons: Mm hm. Very, very, very much so. I mean, I think it's really interesting because this moment, as you said, has been deeply devastating for this community, for our community, and I was speaking to a producer today who was just saying she really is mourning the number of artists who have said, "I just can't go back! I can't come back," for financial reasons, for family reasons, for many reasons. And I think the exposure of that, the deep inequities and also the untenable way we've made work for years on the backs of people, not making enough money, working way too hard. This is a moment of, I hope, pivotal change and I think this question of rubber meets the road is the moment we're in now.
Jo Reed: Well, you, as you mentioned, you had a vision residency at Ars Nova. And you curated four online pieces. And I'd like you, if you don't mind, just to describe the pieces and what you were wanting to put your arms around in doing these.
Jenny Koons: Yeah, so the first question that was on my mind was, "If we're in May, and the weather is nice, and it's warm enough to be outside, and more people have been vaccinated, what is so unique and interesting that would get me to go back on the screen right now? Especially at the end of the days when we're on our screens for just hours at a time?" So, the real big kind of umbrella idea was around participation in virtual spaces. What does it mean to participate? Who gets to participate or has access to participate in an online platform? And how do we start making things that can only happen online, where the online is not a substitute for but actually embraces the idea itself? So, the first piece was an air guitar celebration exhibition that was curated by two-time World Champion, Matt Aristotle Burns. It featured air guitarists from across the country including every National Champion for the past, I think seven years. And we commissioned 60-second air guitar performances by artists made for their homes. And it was a celebration, then we had a lesson with Aristotle and then it ended in a community jam with all of us air-guitaring in our homes together! So, it really was a celebration of community, that even in this moment where people are separated, that we are still and will remain finding ways to come back together. And a number of air guitarists on that show said. You know, "I've just been longing to see y'all, and I haven't seen you in a year!"
Jo Reed: And the other thing I liked, one of the things Aristotle said with air guitar, "It's free! Anybody can do it!"
Jenny Koons: Right, right! And something that they talked about so much in their interviews with him was about community. You know, I learned-- I found people that were like me in this community, and it was fun and it accepted me as I was. Which just felt important to hear again as we start to move from this place together.
Jo Reed: I agree. Tell us about a couple of the others.
Jenny Koons: Yeah, so the second one was a piece called "Place Trace," which was a collaboration with myself and Filmmaker Christopher Ash, and Lighting Designer, Stacy Derosier, and it was an examination of our homes. And kind of the journeys that we've been on through childhood home into the homes that we're in now. And it ended with a collaborative film that the audience members made together. So, they were guided on a tour in their headphones with Zoom on their phone and had to go to different places in their homes and we filmed that, and then replayed that as a scored kind of short movie that the audience members had made together. And this residency was in partnership and collaboration with ViDCo, which is Virtual Design Collective, started by Jared Mezzocchi about a year ago, as a collective really interrogating what it means to be making things live and online.
Jenny Koons: Yeah. And I wanted to just pause there for a second, because the audience participation was so central to that piece and I thought that you were such a gentle guide. You and the other artists had shared your childhood homes, for example, in photos and maps. And then when you invited the audience, it was both very comfortable, but you were also very specific about what you were asking the audience to do, which I really appreciated.
Jenny Koons: Right, right. It's funny, because the specificity and watching multiple people go through their homes, it did something so weird, which is both like very intimate, that you're seeing through the homes of strangers that didn't know they were going to be showing strangers their homes. And also, there is something so unifying about that. That regardless of where you are and where you've been the last year, we've all been kind of in a similar world where our kitchen is our office, and our bedroom is our partner's office, and it's like all has kind of mushed into one. And so, the specificity of that was so joyful to watch, actually.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and it led me to want to ask you, what do you think you owe the audience when you involve them in such a participatory way? When you want them to participate? That's a two-way relationship. What do you feel like you have to give forth in order to elicit?
Jenny Koons: Such a great question! <laughter> Such a great question, and one that I feel like a lot of people don't ask or consider. And I think that example, you know, I guess I think if I'm asking or inviting you to participate in a certain way, I want to make sure that the payoff or the outcome is either framing something of your own in a new way or inviting you to see something of your world in a new way. Or for that example, kind of the delight of seeing your living room alongside the living rooms of ten strangers. And kind of the beauty of that. And it's funny, because that show, a number of people who participated are not super big participators, and they emailed me and Ars Nova after and just said, "I found that so moving! Like it made me quite emotional to acknowledge and mark, in a way, the reality of being in my home for so long. And that we were all kind of in it together.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and I thought there was also something when the three of you were showing your childhood homes and little maps that you had made of them, or maps that you might-- that you, in your case, had of your house-- there was something that was very vulnerable about that, I thought. That, you know, sort of encouraged-- or put us at ease. I don't know. It felt very comfortable. And very moving and very authentic!
Jenny Koons: Right, well, that's such a great question. It's like in the same way if I'm asking the audience members to give of themselves, what am I-- what is the world I'm inviting them into where I am going to do the same? Where the ask is not just going one way. And I think it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out as we start to move back into in-person gathering, but also more sophisticated online gatherings as well. Which is like, "What is the nature of that exchange?" Because for a while most theater-going experiences are quite passive for audience members. We don't ask a lot of them. We don't invite that much of them. And I wonder if that will change as we move into this next phase of gathering.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it's interesting. It's an interesting question to think about and in a lot of ways, Jenny, it's right up your alley because you've said you're always questioning that relationship between the performers and the audience, the performance and the audience. So, this is something you've been, you know, you've spent years thinking about that space.
Jenny Koons: Right, the space and also when that space becomes really blurred, and kind of what fun it is to be reminded that it's live and to be reminded that we affect one another. So, something that I found really interesting in even my own work of the past few years is we say theater is live and we're all in the room reading together, but often-- and I've made things that are tacked within like a tenth of a second, right? So, like even if they wanted to change, it is cued in a way that doesn't give them that much room to shift from night to night. It's live, but it's like pretty locked. And so, I've been trying to remind myself of building in moments and possibilities for a shift based on where everyone is that evening, or that afternoon.
Jo Reed: I think this is a conversation happening in many places. Heartbeat Opera, for example, posted a music video called Lady M which made virtually—each artist in his or her own home filming themselves with their phones. And the finished film included some of rehearsals so we saw the process and the interruptions to the process—like the dog barking. So, it’s presenting authentic moments in a virtual space.
Jenny Koons: Oh! I love it! I love that so much, and I can't wait to look them up after we speak, because I feel like it's clear to me, I think, that this online world, it's not going to go away. It-- I hope that it becomes some kind of hybrid, or mashup or combination of live and online. And I feel like what you're saying is just how we can continue to make those reminders present even when we're virtual, as a part of our practice, which feels so invigorating to me and full of possibilities just to say as well.
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, what first attracted you to theater and live performance? How did you get into the business?
Jenny Koons: Whoo! I started in, I think, like church choir and maybe church plays? And just loved performing and did plays in my basement when I was little in Montana at my grandparent's house, and just always loved performing, and for and with other people. And then when I went to college very quickly thought and discovered I'm not a performer. And maybe direction would be more up my alley, which was funny because my parents had said for years-- I played violin in a couple orchestras-- and they were like, "We really think you should be the conductor." Like, "Have you ever thought-- we really think you might like that!" <laughter> And they were absolutely right. <laughter>
Jo Reed: When have-- when were you able to be in theater full-time?
Jenny Koons: Oh, it took years. It took years.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I would think.
Jenny Koons: I mean, I went to NYU and in my senior year there switched to an all-academic path and graduated and did New York Teaching Fellows and really was in education nationally and internationally for years, until very recently. And was consulting and working with new teachers and new school leaders through The Odyssey Project, and only left consulting in the past maybe five years, four or five years.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it's not an easy business, that's for damn sure. Pre-pandemic, it wasn't easy, never mind during one!
Jenny Koons: I know. <laughs> I know, I mean it's funny because when I was in the midst of that education and consulting path, I remember vividly being at a dinner party with a bunch of people I didn't know, and I got talking to a man I had never met before and he was asking what I did, and I said, "Oh, theater. And I'm in education." And. He said very clearly, "It sounds like you do exactly the same thing, just the content is different." And no one had-- no one had pointed it out to me like that before! And it was so very true. It was exactly the same, it was just a different text.
Jo Reed: How do you choose what work you're going to do?
Jenny Koons: I feel like in some ways I'm not at a place…I have some choice. And that's not to say I don't have any choice. But I think right now I'm choosing things that feel authentic to my values of why I want to do this. And authentic to the values of why I'm inviting a form of participation. Is this really inviting a form of gathering or participation that feels authentic, rooted in joy, invites people in who may not have felt invited into the theater, or welcomes people back. And I'm really trying to think about what people are longing for in these next eight months to eight years. What are the containers that people will want and yearn to participate within?
Jo Reed: When you think of theater and moving forward, as you said, the next eight months, eight years, between the pandemic, but also the real grappling with equity, talk about the challenges you see for theater.
Jenny Koons: I think one challenge is that we have been in a state of some pretty harmful habits for a long time. And in some ways those harmful habits are built into every aspect of the work as we made it before. So, when we were in process of racial reckoning last summer and George Floyd's murder and workshops, it kept kind of ringing in my mind that this is great! But/and we won't know until we put this into practice, because what we do is create invisible things. We make invisible things into something visible. And that's where all of our values get shown in the making of something. And so, I think one of the biggest challenges is awareness and rigor and support around how we really reimagine these processes that we have become very accustomed to. And what does-- and then once we start making changes, what other repercussions of those changes, both economic and in terms of our community, and this ongoing question of who is invited to participate.
Jo Reed: Well, your directing "Hurricane Diane" during this summer.
Jenny Koons: Yes!
Jo Reed: Can we get a brief synopsis of that, and I also want to know is this going to be your first in-person rehearsal and performance?
Jenny Koons: It is!
Jo Reed: Ah! That's so exciting!
Jenny Koons: I was just speaking with an intimacy choreographer just before we got on the phone, actually. So, yes! It is my first back in-person process, and I'm thrilled! I loved Madeleine's play and find it both hilarious and deeply questioning what it means to change.
Jo Reed: Just give us a synopsis, a quick synopsis.
Jenny Koons: Yes. Yeah, so "Hurricane Diane" is the story of four New Jersey housewives-- that's not true-- they do have jobs, but four New Jersey women who live in a cul-de-sac, who are visited by a reincarnation of the god Dionysus, inviting them to change their ways in order to save the planet and whether they will. And I feel like it is, in so many ways, the perfect play to come back with, because it is a rich comedy, with the heart-- at its heart, a very deep question, which feels more timely than it did when I saw it at the workshop four years ago.
Jo Reed: I think it's a wonderful way to come back actually. And where is it playing?
Jenny Koons: It's at The Huntington. We open on September 1st, right at the top of the season! And it's been just wonderful to talk through with them kind of-- to the earlier point about process and change, what are things if we want to do in our collaboration together that really reflect a change in values and a rootedness in values and what will that look like in our process? Which has been great and generous and challenging and all of the best things.
Jo Reed: Okay. Well, we're looking forward to it. Live theater coming back is so exciting! I can only imagine how excited you must be.
Jenny Koons: Yeah, thank you for saying that. And it's funny, we did a little interview, the directors next season, with The Huntington to kind of talk about the-- what we're most excited about returning to, and I just said, "I feel like that first preview when the first laugh goes through that audience, I will have chills, I hope all of us have chills, what that feels like, a reminder of what that feels like.
Jo Reed: <sighs> I just got chills thinking about it, so yes. <laughter> Jenny, thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving me your time.
Jenny Koons: Thank you so much for having me! It's been a thrill to talk about all of the things!
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That’s director Jenny Koons, “Hurricane Diane” runs in Boston’s Huntingdon Theater from August 27 to Sept 26. And you can keep up with Jenny and her work at jennykoons.com
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed stay safe and thanks for listening.
Jenny Koons is a director on the cutting edge of immersive theater. She specializes in bringing diverse artists together to create original cross-disciplinary work through a collaborative process. Central to her ideas is work that’s both site-specific and in a reciprocal relationship with its audience. It’s of a piece that Jenny Koons has been a facilitator and educator in creating anti-racist spaces and engaging in conversations around race and equity for over a decade. One of her primary interests in theater or as an educator is making and reaffirming community. As she says,” directing is community organizing… Because it's guiding a group of strangers towards something that doesn't exist. Something that's invisible. And that, to me, feels like such an important exercise in this moment where we're all kind of careening towards something we don't really know what it is.” In this podcast, we talk about making site-specific theater during a pandemic, immersive theater as we emerge from a pandemic, the ways organizing and theater intersect, AAPI representation both on stage and behind the curtain, and the magic of collectively making the imagined visible.