Slow Down, Regroup : Katheryn Hamilton on Fostering Tortoises and “Maps of a War Tourist”

Alex Chester

Dixon Place is known for fostering artists. They have even won an Obie Award for their cool and weird work. Among such shows include the upcoming, world premiere of Maps For a War Tourist. Opening this week on June 2nd.

Kathryn Hamilton is the director and creator of this show. I love getting the chance to interview women directors and playwrights. There are so few of them in the entertainment industry because let’s be honest the struggle is real and it is a man’s world. I feel, as a fellow woman, it is my duty to make people aware of their presence whenever I get the chance. Because diversity isn’t just about showcasing art that happens to have a diverse cast. Diversity means bringing attention to the people behind the table and in the creative process. Diversity includes women. #GirlPower #GirlBoss #PussyBitesBack

Alex - Why did you feel this show was necessary to create?

Kathryn - ‘Maps For A War Tourist’ started as research into the story of a young woman in Turkey who was arrested during the Gezi protests and sentenced to 90+ years in prison, accused of being the member of a militant organization, based on the color of the scarf she was wearing - red. She then fled across the border to Rojava and onto Qandil, to fight for a feminist anarchist revolutionary force. I’d been researching this story through her family and people who knew her and had files and files of documentation, research. I didn’t know how to tell the story - partly because the story is ongoing - and changing every day. And partly because to tell this story in America, to an American audience, well, the audience won’t know the context of it - it became overwhelming trying to explain all of the political and social contexts of this story to an audience who I started to think might not even care. I was also tired. I felt very burnt out from the last year, personally, professionally, and politically. We’d chosen a story to work on that I felt conflicted about - how to tell it, whether to tell it, if it was even our place or our right or within our ability to tell it.

Everything felt overwhelming, and I just wanted to find some sense of quiet and centered-ness. I started obsessing over tortoises. I saw a documentary about Meredith Monk and she has one in her apartment, crawling about and eating lettuce. I thought, what a great creature. In my dream world, I’d just spend the next two months in a studio with a tortoise. And then I thought, why not? If that’s what I’m craving so intensely, probably other people will feel the same. So we fostered two 3-year-old red-foots from an animal rescue center on the Lower East Side and set about creating a piece around them. Jeremy M. Barker, who is the dramaturg for the company and my main collaborator in the early stages of researching and writing the piece, was at first totally perplexed by the inclusion of tortoises.

But he came up with some great research into fables and mythologies around tortoises that allowed them to become a kind of methodology for this piece. And the other collaborators on the piece - Kelsea Martin, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, and Cyrus Moshrefi, (who are all working as designers, rather than performers), used the tortoises very concretely as the basis for their designs, and as a way to approach this story. It started off as intuition, that we needed these calm, slow, ancient creatures to help us tell a story right now, but that intuition has come to make a logical sense, too.

Alex - Do you think this show speaks to the current state of affairs in the United States?

Kathryn - The story we are working with talks about the connections between the Lower East Side, where we sit in the theater at Dixon Place, and events happening 5000 miles away in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, and in Rojava, Syria. It tracks the connections between those places and the things that travel between them, whether that is ideas, people, bombs, or art. It doesn’t make sense to think of the current state of affairs in the U.S. as isolated from the current state of affairs anywhere else. So we found the connections between this story and the place where the audience will be sitting and tried to think about these connections from the point of view of the tortoise.

Photo: Maria Baranova

Photo: Maria Baranova

Alex - What do you hope the New York City audience member will walk away with after seeing this show?

Kathryn - New questions and thoughts about the relationship of where you are right now to other places. Hope. Slowness. Quiet and determination.

Alex - How did the theatre company Sister Sylvester form? What type of theatre do you wish to create with them as the artistic director?

Kathryn - We formed as a group of friends making weirdo art and parties in an old empty convent in Brooklyn. The company has gone through a lot of changes over the years; people leave the city, change jobs and change their focus. From the beginning, we’ve been telling stories about who we are and where we are, but who we are and where we are has changed too. We make work that is unabashedly political but dealing with the ideas behind political events or movements rather than with a particular political message. We end up using a lot of technology - but on a human scale - technology that becomes emotional - using the kinds of quotidian tech that we take for granted in daily life - Skype, webcams, etc. and using it to play with what distance and liveness mean in the context of theater.

Alex - Have you found it difficult being a woman director and playwright? What are some the obstacles you have faced due to your sex?

Kathryn - I’m a white, cis-female from the bourgeois, so less difficult that most. That said, I did for a while invent a producer with a male name and send out invites and emails as him. It was, unsurprisingly, a huge difference in terms of the way people in the field engage. Even if they didn’t make it to the show my fictional dude had invited them too, they’d reply to him, and ask him to keep in touch, and offer encouragement. Whereas, under my name it was just radio silence. It got to the point where I’d kind of forget he was actually me, and think - if only I was as good with people as him things would be a lot easier. In the end I had to kill him off because people he emailed actually started showing up to things and asking where he was. I retired him to a career in real estate.

Alex - Any words of advice for women wanting to pursue directing as a career?

Kathryn - Invent a man to do your emails.

Alex - What future projects do you have up and coming?

Kathryn - I’m working on a new project called Three Rooms with two fantastic artists and friends, Hatem Hadawe, who is a playwright and performer, and Amal Omran, who is a director and performer. We were all living in Istanbul and got the opportunity to work together and make something new through a festival in Amsterdam called Dancing On The Edge. But Hatem’s visa was refused, and then later in the process, it became impossible for Amal - who had moved to Paris - to travel too. So we devised a way to work around these obstacles and ended up making a life-film that takes place in three cities simultaneously. I’ll be in the theater, Amal will be in Paris, and Hatem in Istanbul. And we’ll work with Skype to make a film from their bedrooms. We’re premiering Three Rooms in London this July as part of Shubbak festival, and then will be touring to other festivals in Europe this fall.

Be sure to check out Maps of a War Tourist. Six performances only between June 2nd - 17th at Maps of a War Tourist

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