April 13th, 2012

Spotlight: Rachel Kerry, Stage Director and LAMP Facilitator

Rachel Kerry

As a stage director and multimedia designer, Rachel Kerry brings a unique perspective of media and communications to her work with The LAMP as a workshop facilitator. Read on to learn about the intersection of theatre and media, her upcoming trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, choreographing a 175-person dance in Times Square and working with LAMP students to talk back to intolerance and prejudice.

We first learned about you from your work with the Institute of Media Literacy at the University of Southern California, but you also got your B.A. in theatre from USC. How did you come to media literacy from a theatre background? My initial participation in USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy program began on a lark. I was drawn to new ways of interpreting media bombardment and it spoke to my love of fancy technology. But I didn’t initially see a connection to theatre, they were separate in my mind. As I worked more with them though, I noticed that media literacy began affecting how I saw theatre pieces. I was far more conscious of the different means through which people speak with images and the nuances of different modes of storytelling. Suddenly a lot of theatre seemed archaic because here was a venue where many different mediums could mingle and coexist. So during my final year at USC, I chose to direct and design a theatre piece that merged ideas of media literacy with my own artistic vision. Media literacy empowered me to create and stage performance in a way I hadn’t considered before: I was able to interweave text, original music, dance, and projected animation. And I wanted to see if projected images in rehearsal could affect an actor’s performance the same a way a Laban movement verb could. And it did! What I took from my experience was, why aren’t all theatre artists engaging in dialogues about media literacy? It is so vital.

One of your early notable projects was a 175-person dance you directed in Times Square—which is not only a mecca for oversized ads and media, but also for Broadway theatre. How did the multimedia and live performance aspects of the site inform your final piece? To be honest, the largest consideration with performing in Times Square was making sure no one accidentally danced into on-coming traffic. I also had to take into account that Cirque Du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberté’s non-profit organization, One Drop (whom we were performing on behalf of), had rented a dozen Times Square billboards for us; the dance was directly commented on by the screens. These massive LCD monoliths were connecting the physical dancers to the context of the event. It was fitting because Times Square has its own unique energy and culture — there is a distinctly frenetic quality that all of those flashing lights and images create. The performers had to match that same energy. After all, the dance was happening in the grandest, flashiest landmark in the world. But because the dance was also being filmed, every dance move had to work for a single dancer as well as en masse. My choreographer (the immensely talented Sean Roschman) and I kept saying in rehearsal, “this has to look as good on an iPod as on a 30 foot screen.” This attitude was most rewarding when we saw just how many tourist-shot videos were posted on YouTube. Some of them looked better than the professional footage. In fact, during one take of the dance, I looked up and saw a double-decker tour bus waiting at a stoplight. The top level was filled with tourists snapping photos and video. It was a very human reflection of Times Square.

Your current project, Daughters of Lot, is on its way to Edinburgh, and focuses a lot on gender and sexual stereotypes. In developing the play, did you talk at all about where these stereotypes come from, or why they endure so strongly? Going into Daughters of Lot, my playwright (Alexis Roblan) and I had lengthy conversations about how to compose these rather grotesque gender stereotypes and their affect on the audience. The fascinating thing about the script is that it features a comprehensive spectrum of competing and contradictory gender stereotypes, almost all of which are pulled directly from mainstream media. In fact, much of the thrust of the piece was inspired by a particularly exploitative Dr. Phil episode about pedophilia. In staging the work, I chose to focus less on having an opinion about the underlying message and instead focus primarily on stylization and spectacle, making these malicious archetypes as sexy and glamorous and palatable as possible. Gender stereotypes in the media boil down to simply making money on sexual fantasies. I think that is why so many hyper-sexualized depictions of gender roles  endure so heavily – they’re titillating. So I’ve sought to make the audience disturbed by their own excitement.

With The LAMP, you’ve been working with students in Queens on using media literacy to combat intolerance and prejudice. What has surprised you the most about the experience? The students in Queens have really impressed me, primarily because they’re just so gung-ho about everything. After watching a few PSA examples they were very quick to come up with really thoughtful and creative approaches to the topic. On a visual and intellectual level, they have been very advanced. I was both surprised and pleased by how many times I had to say, “That’s a really amazing idea! The technology to make that doesn’t quite exist yet, but maybe you’ll be the first to use it.”

What is one of your favorite ‘light bulb’ stories from working with The LAMP? Just this past week I was working with three 5th Graders to make a short documentary on something. They originally wanted their topic be narwhals, but quickly changed their minds when they learned that narwhals are not an endangered species. We decided to focus on a local animal shelter instead. On one hand, it was very fulfilling to work with 10-year-olds who are so determined to create something that raises social awareness about a topic. But it was also interesting to see them quickly understand what topics may or may not resonate with a viewer. It was probably more of a light bulb moment for me than for them. I’m that much more excited to see what they come up with.

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