You are star

The creator of the "mini series" play U R ★ talks about the origins of art, audiences and creative influences. 

By Jake Stepansky '17

Kenny Finkle’s show U R (pronounced “You are star”) melds together graphic novels, immersive theater, indie rock music and wine to create an experience that is truly unlike any other. At least any other I’ve experienced. Here’s a brief, if inadequate, description: Audiences of five are led to a cozy apartment, where they chat with Finkle, sip wine and flip through an enormous graphic novel in time with a pulsing, electronic score. Lights dim and swirl in time with the music. Sometimes the room is plunged into darkness or an eerie ocean blue.

It’s lots of fun, but the real accomplishment of U R ★, part of a year-long “mini series” for small audiences at American Repertory Theater, is that it creates a new way of experiencing story and theater. Though casual conversation and debriefing are built into U R ★, I knew immediately that I wanted to unpack the experience with Finkle. We met to talk at a restaurant near the apartment building that will house U R ★ until November 6. I wanted to know how Finkle captured, constructed and composed this intimate masterpiece. An edited version of our exchange follows.                   

How did education influenced you as an artist?
I grew up in Miami and went to a performing-arts high school. I went to NYU to be an actor – to the Experimental Theatre Wing – but I had always made my own stuff outside of auditioning for and being in plays. I wanted to make shows that my friends and I could be in, so we stopped auditioning for the mainstage shows and just made our own stuff. I thought I might want to be a director, so I spent some time assisting Moises Kaufman. Later while I was at a theater in Philadelphia, I met a set designer who was older than me, and I fell in love with him. He convinced me that I should follow my heart and do what I wanted to do – and that was writing. I went to Columbia for graduate work, and studied with Romulus Linney, who changed my life as a writer. And then I started to make plays.

How did you get from there to creating U R ★?
I started to realize that I wasn’t enjoying working in big spaces, so I stopped for a while and wondered why I was making theater, and out of that came U R ★. When I was at the Experimental Theatre Wing, my mentor there – Stephen Wangh – had a theory about theater and creating that was based in daring to fail and having opportunities to have a great failure. I realized that I wasn’t taking big enough risks, which is also why I made U R ★. I

A sketch by Kenny Finkle.
thought: Screw it all. I’m going to do whatever the hell I want. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could fall flat on my butt, but I’ve already fallen flat on my butt several times before, so I knew what that felt like and that I could get back up.

One of the most exciting things about U R ★ is that you basically created a new medium for understanding theater. Where did that come from?
During the show, there’s a part where I close all the curtains, and last night one of the curtains fell – literally crashed down – but everyone was so immersed in the books that they didn’t notice it. I love doing this. It’s so much fun because it feels like you’ve all come to my childhood bedroom and I’m just playacting with you guys. That’s honestly where it came from. I used to record songs on a little Casio tape recorder. I don’t know where the songs came from. I wasn’t a trained musician at all. Afterward I would draw pictures to try to describe the world of the song. Then I would share them with my family or my next-door neighbor, to varying degrees of success and interest. But it was sort of just this thing that I did. When I was in an artistic crisis, I was watching a lot of documentaries about visual artists and became interested in the idea of taking two things and putting them together to make a third thing that is new. U R ★ is the third thing. I wanted to have something that was a kinesthetic experience for the audience: You had to touch it, smell it (if you wanted to), get residue of the pages on your hands, work and move forward. It all just came together.

The books used in the performance are imperfect. For example, drawings from earlier iterations of the book are still visible on back pages. Why is this?
I had been making these “well-made” plays. While I was developing them, they were completely joyous experiences and beautiful, and anyone I would share them with would walk away enchanted and thrilled by the work I was making. That was usually when it was rough and messy, and I hadn’t put everything into its box in the way that I thought a well-made play should look. Then we’d get into rehearsal and all the magic would disappear, and by the time it got to the stage, it was just a play. I thought: How can I capture the magic of the process and retain it for the audience, so they can feel closer to what I feel while I’m making it, which is total joy and excitement and possibility, and, in doing so, let go of the idea of perfect or clean or smooth? The best and most beautiful parts of me are my flaws. The more that I can embrace those and embrace those in the work, the more beautiful it is.

What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in the arts?         
Always trust your instincts even if your instincts are opposite to everything else around you. At the end of the day, you have to live with the choices you make in your art and your life, and if you do the thing that somebody else tells you is right, and it doesn’t work out (or even if it does), you won’t have full ownership over it, and you’ll always have someone else to blame. If you follow your heart and make a mistake, then it’s your mistake and you can own it and usually it’s fairly easy to correct or to accept. Also, I tell my writers, figure out what you need to say and how you can say it in a way that no one else can say it. And then be really nice to people.