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You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet: An Interview with Kathleen Kennedy Tobin

Kathleen Kennedy Tobin (Lead Artist) is a paper theater designer, animator, and third-generation Eugene O’Neill fan. Her tabletop show The 2013 Puppet Re-enactment of the 1920 Bolshevik Re-enactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace October 1917, originated in 2012 for Target Margin Labs at the Bushwick Starr, and has been performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Her work was last seen in TMT’s Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man! at The Chocolate Factory.

TMT: In your work with TMT on Uriel Acosta and on the Last Futurist Lab, you’ve conquered the Russians and the Yiddies, now O’Neill…what’s exciting to you about this project?

KKT: Well, I come from a long line of Eugene O’Neill fans. My father loved Eugene O’Neill, and his father loved O’Neill, in fact was low-key obsessed with him – when he moved to New York as a young man in the 20s, he saw pretty much everything O’Neill wrote; he thought he was the most exciting new playwright around. I have his scrapbooks and his playbills from this lifelong fandom. He saw Dynamo in its extremely brief original run in 1929. So I really had to be part of this season. For me, O’Neill is our great 20th century playwright. I’ve never thought his work would be good for my work, but I hope I’m making something honorable.

TMT: You’ve done a ton of work as a puppet designer, and you’re bringing that expertise to Dynamo. What is unique about toy theatre that will address the text in a unique way?

KKT: One of my main philosophies in making work is, don’t do a show with puppets if you could do it with actors, or at least if there isn’t a good reason to do it with puppets and objects instead. Sometimes it’s about the large scale in the small: my recreation of a Soviet mass spectacle had dozens of silhouette characters on stage, my show about the Persian wars had whole armies played by thumbtacks. Or the small scale in the small: the three toy theaters of Uriel Acosta were miniature views into past performances of that drama. It was hard to choose a Eugene O’Neill play that shouldn’t be performed by humans! Dynamo begins as you might expect an O’Neill play to begin – unhappy, loving families, in living rooms, in Connecticut – but it gets very weird. Its structure is unusual; many of the characters slough off, while one gets operatic and beyond in a way that perhaps isn’t fully justified in the script. It is honestly not O’Neill’s greatest work and in my opinion, it’d be pretty hard to sell it onstage with actors. Few have tried, and according to the critics none succeeded.

Now, in my work, I’m always interested in very expansive stories told by very limited players. I’m moved by watching a small paper doll grappling with thoughts of heart-betrayal, or struggling to change the world by performing the only action its wiring allows it to. I like to use a bunraku-style puppet, the kind that could have an almost “real” movement and power if operated by three puppeteers, but give it only one puppeteer on the controls. These puppets are asked to have such love and tenderness in their hearts, and to botch things so terribly, and all while being considerably underpowered. I hope that the pathos of Reuben’s situation will be manifest, when we watch this hapless doll try to get through a story (of religion and science and rebellion and love) that is so far beyond his physical and emotional capabilities.

TMT: One of the major themes of Dynamo is the emergence of groundbreaking technology. How will your relatively low-tech approach to the text change your outlook on it?

KKT: When I first proposed the play I thought this production would be 95% low-tech – with a certain amount of super high-tech gleaming at its heart as we move to the power plant. The original Broadway production had a spectacular third-act set that many reviewers felt overshadowed the play, and I realized I didn’t want to replicate that by hiding tiny electronics inside everyone’s bodies. So I’ve actually turned a lot of that off, and my show now ends more with a wood-and-paper man in adoration of a paper generator.

O’Neill definitely meant this to be about the destructive effects of man’s relationship to technology and industry – a lot of great art about that danger was created in the 20s, it was in the cultural air – but, knowing O’Neill’s oeuvre as we do, can we really imagine that Reuben and Ada could have had a happy future if the dynamo had not come between them? Maybe I’m interested in it not being something physically stronger and more spectacular that takes us down, in the end – it isn’t that the technological world actually overpowers us, its bright light is just where we now choose to cast our affections. We react to and are destroyed by the thing we decide to engage with, or decide to love. Would it be better to choose our families and neighbors instead of turning to the glitter of technology? Yes, but maybe the latter is just the newest way to ruin our lives.

TMT: Talk to me about the influence technology has on your everyday life. What piece of technology could you absolutely not live with?

KKT: Well, let us give a moment’s thanks for electric light. I am not a champion sleeper, nor an avid one, so I get a lot of value out of the overnight illumination services of the Consolidated Edison company. But I know that isn’t what you meant.

The single device I can’t do without – and I’m serious, this is miles above a mobile telephone for me – is my Dremel rotary tool. I couldn’t make my work without it. It’s a tiny cutter, sander and miniature drill all in one. Astonishingly useful. I work a lot in paper, but there is almost always an underlying armature of wood or metal, and I use the Dremel for 90% of the toolwork. It’s a versatile handheld marvel.

TMT: What do the coming months hold for you?

KKT: My work is very small-scale, and direct personal engagement is an important aspect of it – being there watching in real time – and I don’t perform a lot. But as time goes by, as the city changes, and my neighborhood changes, I find myself wanting to hold harder to a sense of community, of being here, still, now, with these people and in this place. Making my shows is a pretty solitary endeavor most of the time. So I need to figure out how to extend my reach a little: whether it means making more work, or bigger, or more collaborative, I’m not sure what the answer is, but — trying to be more expansively in the world.

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Click HERE to buy tickets to Eugene O’Neill’s DYNAMO by Lead Artist Kathleen Kennedy Tobin.

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