In the meeting of the world

Schaal head shotThe experimental artist Kaneza Schaal encourages young artists to find their stories and their language through theater. She will join OFA for an ArtsBites on Nov. 4, and TDM for workshops Nov. 4 and 8. 

By Vicki Xu '23

Kaneza Schaal, an experimental theater artist based in New York City, derives inspiration from the cultures, objects and intermingling ideas around her. She will visit Harvard on Monday, November 4, for a noon-1 p.m. ArtsBites luncheon (which is free and open to undergrads and requires registration) and also for her first Theater, Dance, and Media master class focusing on translating texts into performance. Her second master class, which will take place Monday, November 8, will focus on the interaction between creativity and political space. In the spring, Schaal will work with Harvard students as a visiting lecturer and guest artist. I sat down with her recently to discuss her work, inspiration and roots.

What drew you to experimental theater and how did you get started?
I’m interested in how different media can integrate in the arts, and the theater was the place that I learned it. I’m always looking to feature as many languages as possible as an artist — formal and aesthetic and historical languages, and cultural and experiential languages. I grew up in Northern California, and my father was in the East Village. I have family in Rwanda, and I think that more and more, so many of us around the world live in these very hybrid cultural spaces. So much of our meaning-making and our existence is in the meeting of the world. And the theater is such a rich place to allow more than one thing to be true at the same time. I’m often looking for a kind of linguistic, sonic and visual multiplicity, and making a landscape. There’s an invitation for everyone who comes to the work to view that work from where they stand.

Kaneza Schaal
Kaneza Schaal

What are some of your formative experiences in theater?
As a kid, I did a lot of people watching. Some of my earliest memories are observational, the kind of sitting and watching people interact in private spaces, in public spaces. I think that performance is such a core part of our daily lives. So I would say that that is the place from which I’ve always moved in relation to the theater. For me there was a turning point where I’d been working as the performer for quite some time, and I got to a point where there was work I wanted to be seeing in the world that I wasn’t seeing. I was feeling like I spoke more languages than I was being asked to use in the context in which I was working. And so I shifted to making my own work. That impulse really came out of wanting to see a kind of conversation happening on our stages that I didn’t see happening.

What were your experiences with theater as an undergrad at Wesleyan?
It was thrilling and disappointing and frustrating and a very rich landscape to gather tools. I would say that that gathering of tools came from my work in the theater department but also came from my work in the anthropology department, and in the psych department, and in the English department. One of the most satisfying parts of my experience with the Wesleyan undergraduate theater department was how international the faculty was. We had a professor from Brazil, a professor from Russia, we had many visiting professors from other places, from Argentina. Having scholars, makers, whose practices were anchored outside of Western practice was so valuable to me as a young artist.

What or who are your influences?
My strongest tool as an artist is the breadth of my lexicon. Each piece anchors in different ways. [JACK&] thought about mass incarceration; it was a collaboration with an artist who I’ve worked in for a while, who spent 33 years in the New York prison system. There’s a kind of aesthetic assumption about what a piece about rehabilitation or about mass incarceration might look like. For us, that library drew from 1950s sitcoms, feminist minimalist painters like Agnes Martin, and rituals and traditions thinking about re-entrance into society, such as traditions throughout the African disapora of welcoming ancestors back into communities. In each piece there’s almost a building of a library, of inspiration, of vocabulary. For Go Forth, I was always interested in how texts translate through media. Specifically, there were several films that we were looking at — everything from Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy to training videos of Muhammad Ali, and part of the [first] master class actually will be thinking about how we translate text to movement. We also worked with images of the Wailing Wall, images of the Evangelical preacher Benny Hinn. All of these were considerations of performing the presence of the absence, thinking about how we process and perform death, how we take care of the presence of the absence. The movement vocabularies developed for the piece drew everything from those films, to still images, to the text itself, to looking at some of the mourning images that you find painted on the temples and tombs in Egypt. A big part of making this was spending time in Egypt, cities such as Cairo, Aswan, doing research. It was wonderful. It really got back to the ritual and tension that was the center of that text, being in that architecture and really understanding that all that was built for very specific functions.

Where do you see yourself going in the future?
Theater is an inherently collaborative form. And one of those things that are really important to me are investing in my art, practice. So the young artists who are working with me and making work, I feel very committed to investing in what questions they want to ask in the world and what work they want to make. A big part of my practice is thinking about the ecosystem of makers that I want to support. A lot of that has been thinking about young women of color, and creating platforms for them to think together, create together. Platforms ranging from contexts to collaborate within, like residency structures, to informal social gatherings. So often the conversation that really gets at something core in your practice happens in an exchange that is off the clock — walking between the subway and the cafe where you’re meeting someone else, over a meal. Tending to those kinds of social spaces or off the clock spaces is part of supporting an exchange that is essential to artists.

What is your advice for young artists?
Figure out what you desire more than what you fear. It’s terrifying to make work, to expose yourself, to take risks, and to share yourself. And whatever you want to make, figure out what excites you, turns you on, and what you desire more than your fear and follow that. So you have something to hold onto when it gets hard or scary.