An Interview with Kay Kron, author of The Stranger and the Shadow
By Carlos Murillo, Mellon Resident Playwright at Adventure Stage
Recently I caught up with Kay Kron, author of The Stranger and the Shadow, our next show at Adventure Stage. The piece is a co-production with Rough House Theatre, an acclaimed Chicago puppet theatre that “connects individuals and communities through art that celebrates the weird things that makes us unique, and the weirder things that bring us together.” Opening in January, the show will be part of the Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival.
I talked to Kay about the piece, the process of making it and what messages she hopes the play will convey to our audience.
Carlos: How would you describe Stranger and The Shadow to a teacher thinking about bringing their class to ASC to see the piece? Why do they need to see it?
Kay: The Stranger and The Shadow provides an opportunity for youth to identify with a young hero as she takes on the fear of an entire city.
Chicago students grapple with identity, acceptance, and the social traumas associated with youth, but are additionally faced with systemic racism, unequal access to resources, and geographic segregation. The hero in our play is rejected as a “stranger,” not only because she is committed to finding and expressing herself as an individual, but because she represents an outside world her new city refuses to accept. We believe these circumstances will resonate with many Chicago youth.
The production features a large scale puppet that physically embodies the fear and silence of an entire city. Our heroes must speak with bravery to ultimately defeat their opponent, a toxic culture that mimics aspects of our own here in Chicago.
The play celebrates individual identity, and seeks to bolster confident self expression.
This play was developed through workshops with Chicago middle schoolers, and our creative team is committed to honoring the experiences of students, right now, in our city. Our goal is for youth to recognize something of themselves on stage, whether they identify with the young hero as she takes on the fear of an entire city; or with her newly discovered friend, who is able to blend in, but feels different; or with the privileged junior council member, who ultimately stops his bullying when he sees the humanity in his victims. Witnessing identifiable experiences surrounded by an audience of peers on the same journey is a singularly affirming experience.
Carlos: Since this project is a co-presentation between Adventure Stage and Rough House Theatre, can you tell us a little bit about Rough House?
Kay: The founders of Rough House were initially drawn together by a mutual desire to create art that is “strange,” which we define the following way.
Strange: The internal specifics of individuals, especially relating to dreams, thoughts, and fixations. How individual minds process living. The parts of us that must be reached to make authentic connection possible.
We believe the strangeness that distinguishes us as individuals should be celebrated and explored rather than feared. We want to relate to audiences through the essential strangeness we all share, and erase the negative connotations associated strangeness. This underlying commitment is at the root of all our work, but specifically fueled our development of The Stranger and The Shadow.
We believe rich theatrical storytelling can be created anywhere, with any materials, from anyone’s imagination. We aim to empower young audiences to pursue their own artistic aspirations, by presenting an aesthetic that is is artistically rigorous, but also “rough” and accessible to young artists.
Carlos: Tell us about what inspired you to write the piece? How did the ASC Discovery Sessions process influence your writing?
Kay: Our Discovery Session process was critical to shaping the content of the play, and allowed our creative team to identify significant subject matter relevant to youth in our community. We chose to use Jewish Golem mythology to spark these conversations. Golem are human made heroes created to protect oppressed communities, but can grow out of control as they grow more powerful.
We asked student groups to create a Golem, and then asked what goal their Golem could accomplish. The students responded by talking about issues of the day that affect them deeply – immigration, fear of deportation and family separation were common themes.
We did not expect the discussion to “go there,” we had anticipated Golems who did homework, or Golems who fought social anxiety, or Golems who made pizza on demand. What we did not realize, is that middle school students clearly see themselves in the context of larger national and global dialogs that they can readily identify.
The Discovery Sessions challenged the creative team invent an entire city to approach the large-scale concerns of our audience members, whose contemplation extends far past themselves to their communities and their nation.
Carlos: ASC is devoting this season to the theme of "Hunger." How does Stranger and the Shadow fit into this theme?
Kay: The central character of The Stranger and The Shadow, Wren, is driven by her hunger to win acceptance in her new home, and help people outside the city denied access to resources. Here is a speech she delivers to the people of Colfax, who hear her from behind closed doors.
Wren: I see you in there, peeping through your blinds. My name is Wren. You have refused to listen to me, you have shut me out, and shut out many people just outside your city. I did not understand why at first, but then I learned it is because you are afraid of me, of us, not because we hurt you, but because you have decided our differences are threatening. It is not my choice that you feel this way, and I cannot and will not stop being who I am, or quiet myself to make you feel comfortable. I mean you no harm. This thing that has come out of me is not a weapon to hurt you, it is a shield I use to protect myself from you. We will walk with this shield through the city towards your capital, where we will ask The Council to acknowledge our exclusion, accept those in need outside the shadow, and end this silence which hurts us all.
Carlos: What conversations do you hope to start with this play vis a vis the largely middle school audience that sees shows at ASC?
Kay: The importance of community and the power of individuals within a community are essential to the piece, and I hope the basis for conversation following the play. Here are some specific questions I hope audiences explore.
- Who is your community? What groups to you feel connected to? What are your feelings about them?
- What monsters do you face? What monsters does your community face? What are the origins of these monsters?
- What qualities would a hero need to confront these monsters? Which of these qualities to you possess?
- What is compassion? When do people lose compassion? How can they regain it?
- What would you do if you were a citizen of Colfax? If you were an outsider entering the city?
- Can you think of a time when the actions of an individual impacted many other people? Positively? Negatively? Both?
Carlos: You've worked with Rough House, the company that's co-producing the piece, for some time. Why do you like working with puppetry?
Kay: Rough House believes puppets have a magnetic and uncanny appeal for audiences. In addition to the “magical” quality of allowing audiences attribute life to an inanimate object, puppets have a certain universality that allows them to be extraordinarily relatable to audiences. A puppet's simplicity engages the audience's creative mind. When a facial expression cannot change, the audience still perceives emotional shifts, allowing their own imagination to author the puppets inner life. This creates a deeply personal, almost collaborative relationship between audience and puppet.
As a playwright, I really enjoy the impossible things puppets can do. The stage directions for The Stranger and The Shadow read like narrative in a fantasy adventure novel, impossible to create external to the imagination except as an action movie with a massive production budget. Mike Oleon, Rough House co-artistic director and puppet designer for the show, is calmly convinced all my epic visions can be accomplished with paper mache and hot glue.
Rough House shows in general, and this piece in particular, are handmade with materials that are recognizable and available to as many people as possible. We use “exposed mechanisms” whereby audiences can easily see the mechanics of puppets and objects moving on stage, with nothing hidden. The purpose of this is partially aesthetic, and partially critical to how we want our audiences to experience a show. We want people to leave the theatre and make their own puppet shows, regardless of any previous arts experience or financial resource.
Carlos: When you were in middle school, what books and stories inspired you?
Kay: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Shakespeare were my favorite authors in middle school. I spent recess memorizing monologues that are still locked in my mind from Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Third, As You Like It, Measure for Measure...Thinking back, I know I often did not understand the overall meaning of the text, I just loved the individual lines and images. The forest was less interesting than the individual trees. Same with Ms. Millay, whose words I wrote across my bedroom walls in sharpie.
“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand;
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!.” - A Few Figs from Thistles, Millay, 1920
Carlos: I imagine there might be some young writers in our audience who will see your show - what advice would you give to them?
Kay: Believe that your work has value, even when that seems completely implausible. And read a lot.