Friday, October 12, 2012

Q-and-A with Yana Kesala

Yana Kesala                  [Photo credit: Charlie Ainslie]

I recently met Yana Kesala at the Seattle Fringe Festival. I was super-pleased she agreed to do a brief Q-and-A with TSP.

Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started in theatre/performance?

A: Growing up in Chicago, my parents took me to a lot of theater. They had subscriptions to the Steppenwolf, the Goodman, and the Opera. I'm not sure why, but something about seeing Evelyn and the Polka King at the Steppenwolf in fourth grade just stuck with me--that show solidified my decision to be a performer. I can't remember the specifics but I do remember the feeling of watching it and knowing in my heart of hearts that I wanted to be on stage, doing what those performers were doing.

My first big play was A Midsummer Night's Dream my freshman year of high school. I continued to act and ended up studying Drama at Stanford University. In the summers I studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London and at American Repertory Theater (ART) and Moscow Art Theater School (MXRT) in Cambridge, MA. After college I completed the Classical Acting Course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and then moved to Seattle, which has served as the home base for my professional performing career.

Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: I scored a 9 week touring gig to Australia in February 2010 with a Seattle company called theater simple. When it came time to go home, I knew that I couldn't leave Oz without knowing that I was someday going to come back. We were touring with a cast of 7 people--a logistical and financial challenge, to say the least. I knew it was more practical to have a smaller cast and most practical to have a cast of one: one person to accommodate, feed, and transport. So I thought, "I'll write and tour my own show." So I did! (And I'm heading back to Australia in February 2013--not to perform, but to be an audience member at the Adelaide Fringe. The money I made touring my show this summer made my trip back a reality!)

Q: Could you tell us about some of your solo work?
A: The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter, the solo show I toured to the Montreal, Winnipeg, and Seattle Fringes this year, is a romantic comedy based on my mother's life. She once said, "I'm not interesting enough that anyone would ever write a book about me." That stuck in my mind for a long time. When I was in Australia and batting around ideas for a solo show, her story rose to the top of the list. My mother has seen so much in her 69 years. It was a bit surreal to write the show and realize: her story is my story. Change the clothes and hair and names and you still have a young woman hopeful for love and recognition in a world that glorifies a different ideal.

I'm currently working on my sophomore piece, I Think My Heart Needs Glasses. It's about love and my relationship with my vision, both physical and perceptive. It's very much in a zygote state right now...but on track to begin touring in Spring 2013.

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

A: My solo performance is based in story. I'm not a huge fan of elaborate props, costume, or set--in The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter I don't even have water for myself on stage. I have a theory that props always want to play themselves, just like an actor who may only have one line so they do something odd with it to make it stand out. I've had too many fans drop or glasses break or hats go akilter to trust props. :)

I strive to make shows that I would personally want to see and I usually gauge a show by how much I care about the characters. If the character dies, the audience should have a reaction. If the character gets super close to getting their heart's desire and it eludes them at the last minute, I want the audience to feel that goal slipping through their own fingers.

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?
A: By far my favorite thing is the feeling of having the audience in the palm of my hand, safely transporting them to a different world and back again, leaving them wondering where the past 50 minutes have gone. When you're the only performer on stage, the audience becomes your scene partner; each audience in their unique way is going to ebb and flow as the story progresses. It is terrifyingly thrilling to be at the reins for the ride.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?
A: Never before in my training or career have I felt so connected to a piece or received such positive feedback from audiences as I have performing my own work. Knowing that I am successfully reaching individuals who see my show keeps me on track to continue to create. It can be lonely at times, especially during the rehearsal process. But the joy of putting the piece up in front of excited people--that's the prize.

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting together a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper? Tape or video record? Hold readings? Go to a mountain top?
A: I brainstorm and write a lot before I get up on my feet. I don't necessarily know where I'm going to end up when I begin my development process, but I have a rough idea of what I want to achieve with the work. With The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter I interviewed my mother and transcribed the interviews. It turned out to be 68 pages. I read and re-read and re-read the pages until I got an idea as to what could serve as the anchor for the play--in this case it turned out to be my mother's wedding day. There are a lot of ideas that swim through my head seemingly for ages before something tells me to write. It comes in bursts--I'll write 5 pages in one sitting and then I won't write for a week. When I have a rough script I push the dining room furniture to the side and start playing with it on my feet, editing as I rehearse. Once the play has a nice shape, I perform it for a select number of colleagues. I ask them to tell me what they see--as a solo performer who self-directs, it's invaluable to get someone in there to tell me if what I think I'm doing is actually what I'm doing! More edits and rehearsal follow until the show is ready for an audience.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?
A: I'm endlessly inspired by the women in my life. Obviously my mother, but also my friends--they are the most wonderful, talented, driven, gorgeous, intelligent, and fun people on the planet. Sometimes I get overwhelmed at my fortune to be surrounded by such grace and love. My family and friends listen to every new idea and potential project with open hearts and have no doubt that I'll do whatever I set my mind to. It's wonderful to strike out boldly into the world knowing that you have this army of supporters rallying behind you.

Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?
A: Creating that bridge is one of my big projects this year. I'm launching my production company, Radiant Moxie. It's been quite a learning experience this past summer, taking my show on the road and paying for it essentially out of pocket. I'm seeking out help in the business side of things and ultimately hope to make my living creating and performing my own theatrical work.

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo performance?
A: Henry Ford said it best: "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Solo work distills the performance experience down to essentials--there is nowhere to hide. Embrace that bravely. For me, once I did that, it was the best time ever.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.
A: At the end of my Canadian tour this summer, I flew into Vancouver from Winnipeg and LaChrista, my friend from Seattle, came to pick me up. We hadn't seen each other in months and painted Vancouver red our first night out. There is a giant buffalo sculpture downtown (at least I think it's a buffalo!) and we decided it was a brilliant idea to climb it. It was hard to get a good grip and a lovely lady passing by gave me the foothold I needed to shimmy up in my strapless dress. It was a moment of triumph after many hysterical and loud attempts to mount the sculpture (my sweaty hands kept squeaking down its metal side.) Moral of the story: I owe much of my success to the kindness of strangers. And... short skirts and riding buffalos don't mix.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist?
A: I think solo performance is going to continue to grow in popularity. Overhead costs are low, which makes it very appealing to producers. And audiences never tire of hearing a deeply personal story, which is at the heart of much solo performance. For myself I see more work in the vein of The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter: a woman's story told frankly and openly. If I touch the hearts of audience members and remind them of the beauty and hope in all of our stories, then I consider myself successful.


Yana's Website:

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