Chris Kaminstein on “The Stranger Disease” and the magic of theater (Artist Statement)



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Goat in the Road Productions partners with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo for its latest work, an immersive and historical look at yellow-fever in 19th century New Orleans.
WHEN: March 23-April 15; Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.)
MORE: Visit the website

(Editor’s note: As we resurrect PopSmart NOLA, we do so with more intention of making this a forum for the creative people of New Orleans. The inspiration came from, of all places, a sports-related website. (Read more about that soon.) This means more content generated BY the artists and entertainers of New Orleans who explain their craft, their performances, their intentions, their challenges, you name it, as a way of making PopSmart NOLA a forum and a safe space for dialogue and engagement. Here Chris Kaminstein of Goat in the Road Productions kicks off the “Artist Statement” series as he discusses the creative process at work in their latest work, “The Stranger Disease.”)

Ian likes to creep out tourists out the second floor window. Here’s what he does: He stands with his face in one of the panes of glass and stares out at Dumaine Street. When a passing tour group sees him — some member of the group, the person particularly attuned to the hauntedness of the French Quarter — yells out, “It’s a ghost!” Ian waves, then fades away from the pane. Fun game.

I’m talking about “The Stranger Disease,” an immersive performance that Goat in the Road Productions — the theater company I help lead — is producing at Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.) in collaboration with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo. The show is about yellow fever and the rapidly changing “color line” in 1878 New Orleans. It’s immersive because the audience can follow multiple story lines and characters at their leisure. That’s the spiel.

A piece of theater is like a magic show. When it works well, it is effortless looking, surprising, as smooth as a cresting wave. The actors move in tandem, entrances happen at precisely the right moment, monologues are recited, feelings are felt, applause is exerted. Yet for all the complication of putting on live performance, one of the most common questions that actors seem to get from non-performance folks is, “How did you learn all those lines?”

Ask this to an actor and they will roll their eyes; learning lines is the basic price of admission for acting. Not knowing your lines is like a baseball player trying to take their at-bat without a bat.

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Uncomfortably “Numb,” once again: Goat in the Road gets back in the chair

14500241_10154444151351760_8418151351694952114_o“Numb” — Chris Kaminstein directs Leslie Boles Kraus, Ian Hoch, Shannon Flaherty, Dylan Hunter, Emilie Whelan, Jake Bartush, and William Bowling
WHEN: Thurs.-Fri. (Sept. 29-30), 8 p.m.; Sat. (Oct. 1), 7 p.m. & 10 p.m.
WHERE: Catapult Performance Space (609 St. Ferdinand St.)
TICKETS: $15 general admission, $10 students
INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

I was always bummed I didn’t get “Numb” after interviewing Goat in the Road Productions’ Chris Kaminstein back in 2014 when the theater company presented this examination, so to speak, of all things pain management.

Fortunately, the show is back for an encore performance, relaunching last weekend and, following its run in the Catapult Performance Space (609 St. Ferdinand St.), will hit the road later this fall for a U.S. tour.

14290045_10154399846036760_1324648673572932237_oThe production, which won Big Easy Awards for Best Ensemble, Sound Design (Kyle Sheehan) and Original Work-Devised, is serving to kick off Goat in the Road’s 2016-17 season, though without original cast members Francesca McKenzie and Todd D’Amour (we miss them!). The work takes a look at early 19th century attempts at pain-free surgery, as well as “the ecstasy and intoxication of drugs that alter human consciousness, and the often-forgotten human stories that accompany advancement.”

It was a truly collaborative effort, director Kaminstein told me, in which the company partnered with the Pharmacy Museum as well as the Cachet Artist Residency Program to bring together experts in the field, as varied as Dr. Harry S. Gould, professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at the LSU Pain Mastery Program and a Cajun healer. The inspiration:

Goat in the Road has spent a couple of shows looking back at history to mine for interesting artistic material. One of the things I love realizing (over and over again), is that inventions we take for granted, like getting knocked out for surgery, have human complication attached to them. When nitrous oxide and ether were first being used in dental surgery in the mid-19th century, there was a tremendous battle between three men for the claim of being “first” to try it. Each man, over the course of 10 years or so, was destroyed by this fight in different ways. In “Numb,” you will see the story of Horace Wells, one of the first to try nitrous in dental operations, and his steady decline and eventual addiction to chloroform.

I’m planning to attend this evening’s performance and will share my thoughts soon after. Visit the Goat in the Road website for the rest of the 2016-2017 season.






Francesca McKenzie, even when in school, makes a cool theater honor roll

Francesca McKenzie in a publicity photo for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.

Francesca McKenzie in a publicity photo for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.

New Orleans theater audiences who might have wondered whatever happened to actress Francesca McKenzie received a pretty cool update when American Theatre named the San Francisco native one of its six theater figures to watch, in Role Call. Along the way, the article noted that McKenzie — a member of NOLA’s Cripple Creek Theatre and Goat in the Road Productions — is working on her MFA in theater at Yale University.

But even though she’s gone in the woodshed, McKenzie (whom I met when she sat in for a “StoryQuest” reading for kids at NOMA) clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed. As for what she’s up to:

She’s currently in her first year in the Yale School of Drama MFA acting program—and she brings a lot of experience with her. “I am excited to be challenged as an actor and have this time to focus solely on my craft,” she says. “If I had gone to grad school right out of undergrad I wouldn’t have known why. Since I’ve been making work in New Orleans I’m going into the experience with a clear sense of what kind of theatre I want to make.” She’s understudying a role in peerless at Yale Repertory Theatre this month and will be in Salt Pepper Ketchup at the Yale Cabaret in January 2016.

Here’s to McKenzie getting done as quickly as she can so she can back here and continue to help bring fresh young voices in the New Orleans theater scene. You’re gone for now, but definitely not forgotten. It’s clear, based on her comments to Role Call, she’s got vision: “I envision a national theatre landscape where all stories can take center. I want people of all skin colors, class brackets, and experiences in the audience, onstage, and on the production team.”

P.S. I saw another artist on this list, rocking cellist Ben Sollee, perform live in concert. Catch him if you can.