INTERVIEW: KT SHORB, KATHERINE WILKINSON, AND RAE FRENCH
kt shorb and Katherine Wilkinson are queer directors who reckon with how we self-actualize, or get to know our true selves, despite social structures that tell us who we "should be," through performance. kt & Katherine believe the act of making and witnessing theatre, moves us closer to each other and ourselves. kt is currently pursuing their Ph.D. in Performance as Public Practice at the University of Texas at Austin, and is the founder and Artistic Director of the Generic Ensemble Company. Katherine is working as a director and producer in Brooklyn, NY. In an interview with Fusebox Curatorial Intern, Rae French, kt and Katherine discuss the evolution of their collaboration as artists, their paths to self-reconciliation, and what they have planned for Fusebox Festival 2020.
Rae French: So first, I wanted to ask a bit about the Generic Ensemble and how that got started.
kt shorb: In 2009, I trained with The SITI Company—that’s where I met Katherine. Anne Bogart suggested that I needed to start my own company. So I came back to Austin with that idea. When I go to auditions, everyone gets confused by me and has problems with me? So I thought “well, I just want to make a company where I cast the people that confuse other people,” and “I just want to make shows that showcase queer people of color.”
Katherine Wilkinson: Yeah, and it’s grown a lot. You do multiple productions a year.
kt: Yeah, I mean it’s tough. You can’t get people to quit their day jobs in light of the economic infrastructure, but that’s just about anywhere.
K: I feel like there are always core tenets and mission statements within all the Generic Ensemble’s productions—what do you think those generally are?
kt: I wanted to show people not dying.
K:..tell us more.
kt: I wanted to show people who I think are normal people. Most of my friends at the time were queer women of color who had a lot of hustles, were explosively creative, but generally had little infrastructure to support them. In my training, I’m very experimental but also strangely attracted to old shit. This was accidental, but I always grounded things in one connected, well-known story, and then would ask “well, what would happen if people who were my friends took that story and ran with it?”
R: Absolutely. I think, looking at your work, the company does an excellent job of subverting the traditional lens on those well-known narratives. It sounds like you didn’t necessarily have trouble finding these voices in Austin. How has building your company, GenEnCo, played out here?
K: I think you have found those people, right, kt? It’s hard to pay artists the way you want to pay them—which is what you’re saying—but also it can grow burdensome to feel like you’re the center of this narrative that needs to be changed, and so I think what I’ve seen is an incredible cycle of artists come through your company, and sometimes people need some space to decompress, to sort out what it means to put themselves in the center of something within the “canon” that was created in opposition to them.
kt: I wouldn’t say it’s a stable of artists. If you look at who I work with now and who I worked with about ten years ago when I started the company, there’s only one person who has been consistently working with GenEnCo besides me. Others come in and out. Austin is a very transient city. People come and stay here for two to five years and then leave.
R: You were talking about your exploration of different theatrical methods—I read a bit about your interest in Suzuki  and The Theatre of The Oppressed —what roles have those played in your work?
kt: I love Suzuki and I love to slip it in, but I think Katherine has done it more than me.
K: Yeah, I think the desire to use a lot of different methods, for me, comes out of the idea that performers and artists are holistic beings. I think we often feel that “one size should fit all” and wonder, “Why isn’t this actor responding to this singular method?” I grew up in a very “do the old school” system, and when I discovered the Suzuki methods, it woke up this other central part of my brain around creation and got my whole body invested in the work in a way that I never had been before. And it also opened up a conversation about the possibility of creating something outside of the format of A, B, and C.
An experience, a performance can be anything, and we’re using our bodies in time and space to discover what is possible I use the Suzuki less in my work now because it is very high stress and can wreak a lot of havoc in the body as it draws both from ballet and martial arts. When I was younger I used it a lot because I didn’t know what else to do, and then I discovered there are so many other methods. So I think I’ve discovered it’s really just about staying flexible and figuring out what people respond to. My job as a director is to be there and to be awake and be flexible. My job is more about responding than it is shoving something down people’s throats.
kt: Yeah I think that the Suzuki methods and Theatre of the Oppressed, for my company, were very important at the beginning. I still use them, but I don’t necessarily name them when I’m using them. Or I’ll draw an idea from any one of them and condense it to the application that is required in whatever is happening. For the first three or four years, whenever I did a show, the first several weeks were about actor training. That was good, and there’s a part of me that wants to do that again, and then there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel that I have the time for that anymore. I don’t and the actors don’t, in terms of pay.
R: Do you feel like this is more of a trend in the performance world in general right now? To place less of an emphasis on certain theories in training and moving towards just figuring out what works best for the individuals within the performances?
K: I think one of the wonderful things that has happened post #MeToo and Time’s Up is that there’s been a deeper analysis of these theatre methodologies, which often entail having someone as “the central head,” in a creation process particularly a man dropping knowledge for everyone to soak up. There’s a person who’s come up with a method, and you love them, and you worship them even if it’s not in your best interest.
R: It’s very authoritative.
K: Exactly. I think there has been a shift away from it and towards having more conversations about what people need and trusting that they know what their own needs are and what their own limitations are. There’s a very modernist view of directing where the director says “do this, move here, do that!” and it’s often extremely oppressive. It also ruins the potential of an actor as a decision making artist in the process. But I think there is a trend towards greater transparency and trust in the artists. Which is really exciting because I think, historically, actors feel very pushed around.
Image Credit: Lauren Bryant
R: So, could you talk about your premier at Fusebox Festival 2020?
K: We’re calling the piece Inappropriate: A Queer Reconciliation Ritual. kt and I have known each other since 2009. Before I left Austin, we began a series of projects about kt and their relationship to the world as a queer person. I am also queer, but was not leaning as deeply into that identity at the time.The question was “How do you approach the world when you feel as if your body isn’t meant to exist there? And we were also dealing with the textures, both musically and physically, of desire and unrequited love, and what it is to want the things you’re not allowed to haveI left Austin after that, mainly because I got into grad school, but also because I was ready to empower myself and leave a series of toxic relationships, and I think, in this moment, kt also had a series of relationships that were toxic, and what happened was that we ended up having very similar trajectories in isolated locations, and we didn’t know about it because we were apart from one another.
But slowly the idea of this show came back into our lives, and we realized that we’d been conversing with one another for years without knowing it. So, we began the process of trying to both reconcile our creative relationship and reconcile our lives because they had changed so much and the plays that we’d created that felt like foundations of our identity didn’t make sense to us anymore. We looked at all the old material we had and said “Who are these people? This isn’t us. This isn’t who we want to be” This piece is us figuring out how to tell both the journey of losing someone you love and also the journey back to yourself after reconciling who you once were, and allowing yourself to forgive that person as well as allowing yourself to connect to the people who were a part of your life during that time, which can be really difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to just close the fucking door, but this play is about finding a way to reopen that door in a way that speaks to where we are now, and lot of that has to do with both of our queer identities in the world.
One of the titles we were using for a while is “Gay Gulliver’s Travels” in the sense that it’s really small about these two people, but one of the things we’re both really fascinated in is the multiplicity and extravagant creativity inside of everybody, and that for us often is represented through physical work and through dance. So it’s us having these conversations—although I don’t know if I’m actually going to be in it yet— but we also have a chorus of dancers creating another level of what’s going on underneath all of that. They are not as easily distracted as we are. So it’s both really small and really big, which feels like what friendship is.
kt: And I’ve been really interested in time travel. Not in a Back to the Future sort of way, but just how different people live in different temporalities. José Muñoz talks about how queer people live in a future that is not yet here and that there are these “traces,” which is a way that the past manifests itself in the present, maybe in gestures or in a ticket stub. Things that would be considered ephemeral become important because they signify something that was either actively suppressed or lost through neglect. Katherine’s been asking me lots of questions about being in conversation with our past, which is really interesting, and I also imagine my past self being in conversation with a future-me, and I’m really curious about reconciling the different times of us as friends. I do believe that in a way queer people are half a second ahead of everybody else, and if I actually believed the physics of that, how would that look and feel?
K: I think the aesthetics of being one step ahead towards a future is very much a core principle we share together as artists. Everything I see or want to make has to have some sort of pointing towards “what could be,” because I think we get really caught up in the shock value of the terror that is.
R: It’s really ambitious as an idea because reconciliation with yourself is an incredibly difficult thing to contend with— is an ongoing process all of the time. How is that going for you guys? As you’re writing this,as you’re continuing to grow and reconcile these things about your past? Or even in terms of what your future self may be thinking about this?
kt: I think it’s really important that I’m doing this with her, specifically. As Katherine Wilkinson, both as a director and my friend. Because I like this person. I care about her. And in a way, I see a lot of mirrors between us. And reconciling with the self is a very personal act, and in a lot of ways you might not need to share with anyone else. But we’ve tacitly asked one another to be on a weird journey of this sort of “Hey, remember how we’re human beings?,” and “Have you had your water today?,” and “I’m feeling bad about my body right now,” or whatever. That makes it feel a little bit bigger than just the two of us. There’s something about how we keep bouncing back and forth that makes us both vulnerable in ways that we probably wouldn’t be to strangers, but that vulnerability also makes it so that what we’re talking about isn’t just about what Katherine goes through and what kt goes through, because who the fuck cares? There’s a weird centrifugal motion of always feeding back and forth that creates a weird magnetism.
K: I think a point at which I realized the play was working was when we were having a conversation about our own personal reconciliation with ourselves, and it also brought me closer to how I want to communicate with other people in the world. I think that that’s another part of it. It’s not just about “I have to forgive that person who did that bad thing,” it’s about transforming that into some sort of movement forward. Often that’s a physical conversation rather than a logical or cerebral one, and that feels like healing. I think that only thinking yourself through reconciliation is just walking down an empty hallway. If there’s something physical or collaborative, you’re tapping into energy. And if we believe that we’re energetically connected, then that desire to make amends with yourself is a much greater thing that’s happening for a lot of people.
kt: The challenge is not to make it a self-help play, but there is something about saying to Katherine, “Hey, maybe you need to be gentler on yourself” and her saying, “Yeah, what about you?” I feel like we’ve just spent the last four years in that kind of back and forth “Are you being nice to yourself? Are you feeling bad for wanting something that it’s okay to want?”
R: I think you both made the point that, in some ways, a lot of the influence for this is coming from your own experiences with one another, but it’s also not necessarily about you specifically and is a universal experience of being hard on yourself, reconciling, and looking to the future. Everyone has their own identity and complicated past, so how does that work in terms of translating this deeply personal process body to body with other performers?
K: I think that allowing someone else to take your story and treat it as an art object rather than a personal experience actually might uncover a thousand more things about the future rather than me doing it myself in releasing our stories, it is no longer about us but it’s a specific piece of art doing specific work. A story of self reconciliation connects to a lot of people and by putting it in the body of performers, we invite them to make a lot of choices we never would. We invite them to look for what’s above it and underneath it and create characters and actions that aren’t kt and Katherine. When it’s outside of us it can really start moving more, and we want this show and these queer ideas to have forward momentum.
1. The Suzuki method was developed by acclaimed director Tadashi Suzuki and the Suzuki Company of Toga. The training method works to build awareness of the human body - especially its core center with a focus on breath control, concentration and footwork in an effort to heighten the actor's natural expressiveness and emotional and physical commitment to the theatre. The physicality and discipline of the method is inspired by Japanese and Greek theatre, ballet and martial arts.
2. The Theatre of the Oppressed was devised by theatre director, writer and cultural activist Augusto Boal in his native Brazil in the 1960s and expanded further in Europe during his political exile. Influenced by educator and theorist Paulo Freire, Boal sought to transform audiences into active participants to analyze and transform their own reality. Audience members - as "spect-actors" develop a communal discourse with actors and use the theatre as a means of promoting social and political change.
Rae French is a writer based in Austin,TX. She is currently pursuing a BFA in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests span contemporary performance, public monument as social practice, and sonic activism.