“Pop!”-Up Theater Extends Venues and Audience Experiences

A Scandal at the Table, September 24, 2016 at Hell Phone. Photo: Edward Morris.

“I wanted people to just be able to happen upon it and see something weird and go: what was that?” Dramaturg Kelly Kerwin reflected recently on her temporary “pop up” performance festival. POP! comes at a pivotal career stage, and was funded by the Bly Creative Capacity Grant, a two-year-old initiative hosted by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

Kerwin bounced among Chicago, New York and New Haven over the past decade, picking up degrees in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from DePaul (BFA in 2008) and Yale (MFA in 2015), and spending time with theater companies in Chicago (House, Steppenwolf, and Court), New York (Atlantic Theater Company) and New Haven (Yale Cabaret) before landing in New York as a freelance dramaturg.

All of Kerwin’s skills, instincts and inspirations were used in her recently completed Bly Grant project, with roots that stretch back at least five years. In Chicago in 2011, Kerwin was one of the founding curators of the Monday night Salonathon performance series founded at the Beauty Bar in the West Loop. She was approached by the bar management to draw business on the otherwise dead night. They were given ten percent of the bar and assembled an hour-long set of five minute performances in a cabaret style. “Bars are down to let you use their space for free if you bring people there that will buy alcohol.”

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When she landed at Yale in 2012, she co-founded a collective called Guided Tour with classmates to make their own work when they weren’t accepted into the student-run theater. “We would do theatrical tours of Yale that were very wacky and very under the radar. We would go in places where we didn’t have permission, into rooms that we found unlocked.” The tours they gave were accompanied by scripts of their own devising; the settings were their inspiration.

“This was teaching me how to think about space in new ways and how to take audiences on journeys that didn’t involve buying a ticket and going into a theater. I was studying site-specific and participatory theater and I wanted to figure out how to make work that didn’t exist inside a specific piece of theater real estate. How do we test the waters with our weird ideas that don’t exist in the form of a new play?”

“I just thought the name pop was fun.”

Kerwin proposed POP! to the Bly committee in Fall 2015, envisioning, as she wrote in her proposal, “a series of pop-up performance events created by like-minded theater artists to experiment with the audience as participant” sometime in the following spring. The company she runs with Emily Zemba, Will Rucker and Whitney Dibo, called The Party Line, which ultimately presented the POP! events in September 2016, was founded in the months between submitting and receiving the Bly grant.

Each POP! Project, as outlined in the proposal, would occur in a business or public space in Bushwick, Brooklyn; play with the audience role as participant in the productions and would be free. (The only exception to this was a modest fee to cover the costs of food and gratuities that was charged for a puppet and dinner theater adventure called A Scandal at the Table at Hell Phone Speakeasy.) “It’s like a pop-up theater, things will pop up and pop down. I just thought the name pop was fun.”

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The matching of artist and space was replicated by Kerwin and co-producer Emily Zemba multiple times for the numerous POP! Events. “Artists would propose the right space for their project, or we proposed a space and artists considered the right project to do.” All the locations fell into place during the summer once a key site, the bar Three Diamond Door, was confirmed.

A Scandal at the Table September 24, 2016 at Hell Phone. Photo: Edward Morris.

A Scandal at the Table September 24, 2016 at Hell Phone. Photo: Edward Morris.

A Scandal at the Table was proposed to Kerwin by her costumer designer colleague Hunter Kaczorowski who has a passion for puppetry and shadow puppets. “He wanted to do a puppet dinner party, French and macabre. I knew a place that would support that design and we wouldn’t have to do much to it at all, a French speakeasy restaurant.” This was Hell Phone.

A Girl in a Bar. Paul Walsh and Celeste Arias. Image: provided by Kelly Kerwin.

A Girl in a Bar with audience member Paul Walsh and Celeste Arias. Photo: provided by Kelly Kerwin.

There was a one-to-one performance called A Girl in a Bar where the artist Celeste Arias worked with a single audience member approached by a producer, presented with an envelope with a picture of Arias to identify her in the crowd, and instructed to approach her. The audience member would read a script crafted by Emily Zemba, breaking up with Arias, while Arias delivered her memorized lines.

Another solo piece called A Classical Affair involved the pivotal location Three Diamond Door and the pianist Jack Ramsey. “He just wanted to experiment with just playing classical piano in a bar where you don’t often hear it. What is that like, to just be at your favorite bar on a Saturday afternoon drinking, and then there’s someone playing Beethoven?”

A Classical Affair. Jack Ramsey at Three Diamond Door. Image: Edward Morris.

A Classical Affair. Jack Ramsey playing at Three Diamond Door. Photo: Edward Morris.

Receiving the Bly Grant affected Kerwin’s process in several ways. First, she was compelled to make good on her commitment. “If I don’t do it, I’m contractually obligated to give the money back, and that would be embarrassing and it would embarrass the people that wrote my letters of recommendation,” she reflected with a laugh.

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There were practical and developmental effects too. Monthly calls with Liz Engelman, a prominent dramaturg and new play development expert from the Bly grant selection committee, began in January 2016 that helped Kerwin to break down the unwieldy project and develop contingency plans for performances if no venues came through, including U-Haul trucks, parking lots and cars. Editing to the essence was a lesson too. “Part of working on this was using your producing and editorial eye to know when your ideas are getting too big.”

Kerwin thanks the Bly grant for keeping her spirits up and keeping her on task. “I’m pretty gutsy, but I don’t know that we would have had the guts to put our neck on the line without the Bly Grant forcing us to do it.”

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