Theater artist Kaneza Schaal has been hard at work transforming the avant-garde scene through her creative pieces that have been shown everywhere from Kigali, Rwanda, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. At Harvard, she now teaches a Theater, Dance, and Media (TDM) master class called “Performing Death: Ancient Texts as Performance Score” and a semester-long course, “The New Social Practice: Creativity and Political Space.” She is also preparing for upcoming showings of her most recent work, “Triptych (Eyes of One Another),” which explores the formative impact of black-and-white portraitist Robert Mapplethorpe through a performative display of music and photography.
The Harvard Crimson: You graduated from Wesleyan and are based in New York. Can you tell me a bit about your early life growing up?
Kaneza Schaal: I grew up as a child in San Francisco in the ‘80s. And part of my attraction to this project “Triptych” is that I am always drawn to work that is in some way addressing the presence of the absent. My mother and I were living at my aunt's house, and there was a social group of 10 gay men around my aunt and her partner. And by the time I was six, eight of them had passed away because of AIDS. And so in this project, we are holding a lot of guilt. Some of those folks made it into archives, and many of those folks didn’t make it into archives. And so part of the work of this project is to hold the ghosts that everyone has put into the world.
THC: What are some of your biggest inspirations?
KS: I’m always interested in work that speaks many different languages: direct, aesthetic, and formal and artistic languages. And that’s also cultural and historical and experiential languages. I believe that if we make work that speaks many languages, it can speak to many different people. I do not believe that avant-garde performance practices are inherently for small, elite audiences and if we can make work that speaks different languages, it can reach many people.
THC: Going off of this theme of difference and universality, we know you are big on concepts of hybridity, radical borrowing, and diversity. How have those motivated your travels, and in turn, how have your travels affected these principles?
KS: I came up performing in a kind of European tour circuit. I’m particularly interested in my own practice in participating and promoting artistic exchange — so looking for ways to share work within the context of the global south. Artists of the global south are speaking to each other directly, rather than the traditional model in which that is mediated through a western platform. So I'm always looking and excited by the ways that ideas and stories and the world can move.
THC: You’ve worked on five major works so far: “GO FORTH,” “JACK &,” “CARTOGRAPHY,” “MAZE,” and “Triptych.” What has each work represented to you?
KS: In some ways, I think of myself as an essayist: Each of the pieces is me thinking of a question or an idea. “GO FORTH” was considering mourning rituals, and in a way my exploration of personal processing theater as personal processing. I was experiencing the death of my father at the time, so it was exploring how we make space for the absent. “JACK &” was a continuation of a conversation with an artist who I had already been working with, Cornell Alston, who served 33 years in the New York State prison system. In some ways that piece is my take on “community theater” and considers how we get out of the guilt-innocence dichotomy in which so much of our conversations in the US revolves around. And then with “CARTOGRAPHY,” I would say that piece is thinking about migration and mapping. It is also rooted in a personal place with my own family’s history as refugees and also that is me thinking about children’s theater. I'm always interested in how our cultural institutions can understand themselves as public spaces. And with “Triptych” I would say — “Triptych” is a complicated project. We have so many different artists that come to the piece with many different interests and admirations and questions on Mapplethorpe’s work. Sometimes they agree and our curiosities and desires overlap, and sometimes they diverge. And as director, some of my work is arranging this tapestry and seeing to it that it doesn’t tear.
THC: Can you tell why are you here at Harvard? And how does that relate to “Triptych?”
KS: One of the things the Theater, Dance, and Media department has been interested in is how the inquiries around theater, the inquiries around performance can be research-based creative inquiries. So much of my work, both in thinking about social practice and creative practice and thinking about formal and aesthetic exploration, is rooted in ongoing research practices. So the conversation with the Theater, Dance, and Media team started with this exciting moment where that department is thinking about how their processes integrate with this broader community at Harvard. And that is what interested me in teaching the workshop and then the course next semester.
THC: Can you tell me more about the workshop?
KS: There are two workshops in November that I will be leading as a way to meet the student body. I deeply believe in collaboration and that the strongest tool of an ensemble is the culture of the group. Before teaching the course next semester, I wanted to have some contact with folks on campus who are thinking about creativity whether they are directly art majors, or students from other disciplines who would be interested in this kind of research practice.
Kaneza Schaal’s latest work, “Triptych,” will play at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3.