Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Feature: Yana Kesala on I Think My Heart Needs Glasses (Fringe: Montreal, Winnipeg)

Listening to the Nag Inside my Soul
by Yana Kesala

I Think My Heart Needs Glasses is my second solo play—my sophomore effort at writing, directing, producing, and performing. If you've heard anything about sophomore efforts, you know that oftentimes they... well... slump. Especially when the freshman effort rocked. Which mine did.

The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter is an awesome solo show. It's charming and sweet, so sweet that you might even get a toothache and need a dentist (Get it? Get it?). That show, which I call TUDD in my head and amongst good friends, is based on my mother's life. I was inspired to write about her after making the decision that I was going to create a solo show for myself to star in and tour around the world. It seemed logical: one person to feed, house, pay—scheduling rehearsal was a breeze and golly, wasn't I just the ideal actress for the role! I had bounced around a lot of ideas in a little notebook about what I wanted my play to be about (An American gal's adventures in Australia? An actress's life on the road?) but settled on the stories that I always ended up telling people once they asked about my ethnic name, my peasant physique, and my uncanny ability to speak with a Slavic accent. Plus it didn't hurt that my parents' love story is so awesome that it almost seems made up.

But deep down, I didn't need the notebook. I knew what I had to write about.

And that decision was good. It was (and is!) a great show (you can see it at the Orlando Fringe this year if you're in that neck of the woods). It surprised me how similar my mother's story and my story are—a woman trying to make her place in a world in which she doesn't easily fit. That story also seemed to resonate with many audience members. Not only did I receive heartfelt, loving messages from individuals, but I also won an award in each Festival in which I performed last year: Spirit of the Fringe in Montreal, Outstanding Female Performance in Winnipeg, and Audience Pick of Fringe in Seattle. Clearly I was doing something right.

The prize for the Spirit of the Fringe award in Montreal is a guaranteed spot in the next year's festival. So in June 2012 I knew that I would again be performing in June 2013. I had no intention of returning with TUDD, nor did I have any repertoire to pull from—so—it was back to the notebook of ideas for plays.

But deep down, I didn't need the notebook. I knew what I had to write about.

Nine months before my tour last year, the ground disappeared. The Earth continued to rotate normally while I was thrust into a stomach-turning spiral of sorrow where my good friend died and I questioned everything about how the world works—and whether it actually did work or just haphazardly went along, indiscriminately screwing good people along the way. Those events prompted me to edit and expand TUDD and tour it last year. Those events were the only thing in my mind about which I could write next.

My family and friends were supportive, but not thrilled. They were concerned it was too soon: did I really want to visit this pain again so quickly? One friend pointed out that writing about that time was asking everyone who was there to relive it: was that something I wanted to do to all of them? I asked myself: was I being completely selfish in even considering that this was appropriate material for a show? Would jumping back into the memories rip open the (slowly) healing wound? I didn't have answers to these questions. All I knew was that I needed a new show on its feet and ready to perform in the next 10 months, that my previous show had taken two years, and there was something nagging inside my soul that said this was the next story to tell whether I liked it or not.

So I started writing. I thought about how I could keep myself safely distant from the material while still doing it justice. I wrote some more. In November 2012, eight months before the next Montreal Fringe, I had a rough draft. It told the story. I wrote it in the past tense so that I wouldn't be too close, so that I would be out of harm's way when I performed. I figured that was a logical compromise to all the concerns raised.

But the script refused to go into my mouth and my brain. I had the worst time trying to memorize it, which was new since TUDD seemed to come out of me as if I'd, well, written it. Why was I having such a hard time learning this new piece since I'd written it as well?

Because I hadn't written it. My fear had.

Late March 2013, I showed the piece to a respected colleague of mine. It went badly. Really badly. I knew right away, like all performers know, when the audience isn't into it. It was just me up there. Performing my words. Sharing my story. And it was not being well received. I had the feeling that if I performed the script as it existed that day, I would not do justice to my subject matter, to my friend. 

That was unacceptable to me.

So I rewrote it. Two and a half weeks before the world premiere in Seattle, I took my detached, past-tense, story-telling piece and removed the distance. I stuck myself back into the thick of it. I made it present tense. I took the vignettes and I went back to Acting 101: show, don't tell. The trepidation that my friends, family, and I had about me going back to my pain—I looked it straight in the eye and said, "I am telling this story. Not you."

I surprised myself. The woman who confronted her fear (and 15 pages of rewrites) that day in March was not the woman of the summer before, too terrified to turn around and face the past. The summer before it was all I could do to tell my mother's story: close to me, but never really mine. Today I am strong enough (because of a path I elaborate upon in my show) to command my personal story—and to share it with an audience with nothing but the sincerest desire to connect with them over their own encounters with love, grief, and the search for peace.

So now, dear readers, I present my sophomore effort: I Think My Heart Needs Glasses. I look forward to sharing this tale with you.

I Think My Heart Needs Glasses performs in Chicago May 11th, 2013 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and has its Canadian premiere at the Montreal Fringe June 13-23, 2013. It also plays at the Winnipeg Fringe June 18-28, 2013. 

The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter performs at the Orlando Fringe May 17-26, 2013.

Yana Kesala studied Drama at Stanford University, Harvard University/ Moscow Art Theater School (MXAT), the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). She has toured shows across the United States, Canada, and Australia. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Yana's solo performance company, Radiant Moxie, distills theater into essentials and inspires hope with courageous, spirited storytelling that embraces the radiance of each individual's journey.

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