Welcome back to the February edition of Fellows Spotlight!
For those catching up, each month we’ll feature a new Fellow and invite you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program. (applications for the 2020-2021 class of Fellows are open now!)
Last month we introduced you to Paulo K Tiról, and we’ll be hearing from all other 2019-2020 Fellows: Andrew Rincón, Andy Roninson, Avi Amon, Elliah Heifetz, Jessica Kahkoska, Kate Douglas, Kyoung H. Park, Melis Aker, Nikhil Mahapatra, and Nolan Doran.
Each of these writers were asked the same series of questions, exploring where these writers have been, are now, and are journeying towards. Our Fellows took this gentle structure and ran, each submitting responses as unique and creative as they are.
Allow us to introduce you to Jessica Kahkoska!
What was your first experience with theater?
I grew up in Colorado, so my very first encounters with theater were through visiting national tours and a particularly influential kindergarten production of The Ugly Duckling.
As a teenager, I was lucky to participate in a training program called the Youth Repertory Theatre at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Youth Rep is one of those amazing, comprehensive camps where young people have the chance to act in the show, build the sets, work on the program… and being someone who is so broadly interested in theatre, it was all very exciting to me. Later in high school, I also attended Interlochen Arts Camp for two summers in the musical theatre program.
I think these early experiences with summer theatre programs influenced me more than I realized at the time, because now I have SUCH a soft spot for summer theatre. I just love everything about it! I love the bugs, the rain, rehearsing with the windows open, all the weird things that inevitably go wrong… and a lot of my favorite professional jobs share qualities with these early summers at Youth Rep or Interlochen. I guess I feel like if we’re going to be tired and stressed at some point in the theatre process, at least we should do that in beautiful, sunny places with lots of trees.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I was initially more focused on performing, but after a couple years in New York, I actually had some health issues that changed my interest in both performing and living in the city. I ended up spending a couple years outside New York, working at various regional theatres in Colorado, Western New York, Michigan, and Maine.
While out of the city, I also had a chance to reflect on some of the badges of success I had initially assumed I needed to claim a life in the arts: namely a New York address and a singular focus of working on commercial musicals. Obviously none of these are destructive in the slightest (or have any deeper meaning!), but I think that as a young person out of school, I had internalized this singular, unchecked narrative about what success in theatre entailed, and at that moment, it wasn’t really serving my creativity, interests, or health.
As I was chewing on all that (and also starting to feel better), I started rethinking a lot of things that I wanted to be true about my own life and creative practice. I’ve always loved using theatre to make new connections and bridges, and I realized that whether as a dramaturg, writer, or administrator, I’m deeply interested in work driven by community, research, and incorporating new types of collaboration.
So I never had a moment where I dropped everything and became a writer, but it was this interest in re-configuring the creative process and broadening my own life and theatre practice that led me to writing. Now, I do live in New York again (among other places) and also work on commercial musicals (among other projects), but feel a lot more aligned with theatre spaces that feel exciting and nourishing to me.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I definitely gravitate towards projects that have a weird factor. I love an unconventional process, mixing genres, and starting with a big, huge “okay, what if we….?” question.
Because my work is driven by an impulse to examine process and incorporate research, I feel like my actual projects are pretty eclectic. I am currently working on an all female/TGNC, punk-rock investigative concert-play with Preston Max Allen, an oral history-driven magical realism play (happening this month at the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), a multi-composer song cycle exploring American history with director Michael Bello and a 19 incredible composers (many of whom are DGF Fellow alums!), a community-responsive project with Notch Theatre Company documenting the experiences of rural communities impacted by oil and gas leasing….
So there’s not a ton of overlap in genre or style, but my hope would be that that they’re all created with a sense of care for the topic, needs of the piece, and collaborators in the room.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
YES! I’m collaborating with composer/lyricist and fellow fellow (….been waiting to use that for months) Elliah Heifetz on a new musical called The Death of Desert Rose, which is a female-driven, revisionist Western. Our musical takes place in 1890’s Colorado, where notorious bounty hunter “Desert Rose” Ramsey is well-known for her vigilante justice and a good-faith alliance with the local sheriff. However, everything changes when Rose receives an order hat she must hunt her arch-nemesis— “Betty Britches” McBain—in her most personal bounty yet. Unbeknownst to most, Betty and Rose ran in an outlaw company together when they were young… but when Betty killed the outlaw gang’s leader, donned his clothing, and took control of his men, Rose decided to walk away. Betty let her go with a promise (“The next time I see you, I will kill you)…
So over the course of the show, we follow this epic game of cat-and-mouse between Rose and Betty, but also learn about their childhood, romance, and what they each consider to be freedom and happiness. The story is basically grappling with destiny, forgiveness, and when/how we get to start over (and at what cost). But it’s also a big huge Western, and explores all these questions through bank robberies and train heists and dime novel culture. The sheer scope of the world is so much fun to dream and write into.
A revisionist impulse is also an exciting starting place because Elliah and I get the opportunity to explore our own complicated relationships to the Western genre, a canon that is obviously rife with problematic assumptions and erasure on many, many levels. In exploring what an updated Western would look, feel, and sound like, it’s been a privilege to have a cohort and mentors through the DGF Fellowship to support this process of interrogation and expansion, and above all, help us stay true and accountable to our vision.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
Well, for one, I love how many amazing opportunities there are for writers to develop work at various summer theatres or through summer programs…
BUT during the rest of the year, I really appreciate how the writing process makes space for community– it’s rewarding to see the little communities that spring up and grow around a piece as it develops, and meaningful to cultivate that through developmental steps like readings, workshops and productions.
I think, to be honest, that there are so many times that our larger theatre community or culture fails us in delivering on the empathy and accountability it heralds, but as writers, and emerging ones, we have a unique opportunity in our own processes to model the values that we’re interested in seeing implemented on a larger scale. For example, it feels important to me to prioritize my health and the health of my collaborators, and I think when I’m the writer of project, I’m able to articulate and make space for that in a more impactful and resonant way.
Jessica has a reading of her play “In Her Bones” at the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts! You can find more information about the show and tickets here.