“Prowling the Abyss” is a new one-woman show by actress and writer Karen Anne Light; the show is being presented as part of Theaterlab’s Gallery Program. The show features numerous tragicomical personas who live inside of Karen’s psyche.
In “Prowling the Abyss,” Karen becomes a modern incarnation of Medusa who is determined to put on a show that is derailed by guests who bring their traumas and dreams with them. The show combines text and physical theater and marks the third stage collaboration between Karen Anne Light and an accomplished Downtown theatermaker Elizabeth Baron.
Karen recently discussed this show and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the theater and how did you break in?
Karen Ann Light (KAL): I loved going to the movies when I was a kid and found myself relating so deeply to the characters that I believed myself suddenly identical to each of them. That one, that is how I really am inside. Any one of the women in A League of Their Own, Charlie Chaplin, Catwoman. Secretly, I was just like each of them. I would write my own adaptations of my favorite movies and plot which of my friends would perform them with me. Also, I had insomnia, and I would watch old tv shows and movies on Nick-at-Nite and AMC. I’d rotate through different actors to fixate on, and I’d watch all of their films on loop for weeks at a time. Then I’d work myself into fits, laying in bed in the dark and convincing myself of the most horrific and most blissful scenarios, until I was lost in their emotional reality.
My mother and sister noticed that I loved Shakespeare—and I did—but really, I just loved my big sister who was like Santa Claus or a demigod to me, because she was only with us during holidays and she was pretty and fun. She would recite her lines from whatever school play she was in, and my favorite was The Witches from Macbeth (she played all three.) They rented any film adaptation of Shakespearean plays that they could find, and Missy, my sister, bought me the Complete Works, which I dutifully carried to and from school each day.
My obsessive fixation on the characters in movies, and the actors who played them, led me to the conclusion that perhaps I could do what these actors did and that if I wanted to act in films, then I would have to start in the theatre like all of my favorite actors did. I let go pretty quickly of the idea of film acting, however, and remained devoted to theatre (and, ultimately, a kind of theatre that is not commercially or industrially recognized in this country). The first plays I saw were Shakespeare in the Park—I think As You Like It was the very first. I loved it. Really, all I ever wanted to do were Shakespeares and Chekhovs and Greek plays.
I started acting in a little black box theatre in my hometown—Chico, California—called the Blue Room Theatre. My first director taught me in the old school way—via negativa—and was a mean drunk, but he taught me everything I needed to know in order to work onstage, and instilled confidence in me by challenging me to the same nuance, humor, and quality of work as all of the grown-ups, even though I was only 14 or 15. (They were all very talented, funny, cool; it was like hanging out with the band backstage.) My first play there was “Bury the Dead,” which was originally an anti-war radio play. I played a drunk, suicidal woman, Julia Blake, who had lost her sweetheart and her kid brother in the war (the war being World War 1). We worked sometimes until 2 in the morning. Brad Moniz, the director, would mutter from the seats, cursing under his breath. He always wore his shades indoors and often nursed 40s throughout the rehearsal. We worked the scenes night after night, exhausted and frustrated. One night, I had the experience of observing myself as though I were sitting in the backseat of a car, with someone else driving. I felt myself change and I knew that this woman had inhabited me. Brad recognized what had happened and stopped the scene. “That was beautiful. You never have to rehearse this scene again.” I was lucky. I had a sublime experience in my first role, which I will never forget, and which caused me to believe that every potential person or character who has ever existed or could exist, probably resides somewhere within each of us.
I continued performing at the Blue Room until I left home for college in San Francisco. I studied theatre at San Francisco State—a wonderful school and I adored my professors, but studying theatre academically was a mistake in my case, because it got me stuck in my head. Still, I performed professionally and sometimes at school when the opportunity was there, always while working 3 jobs at a time to keep afloat. I learned more about theatre from underground filmmakers at the New Nothing Cinema, from George Kuchar, and from my dance teacher, Lorna Zilba, than anywhere else. I was in love with the writings of Artaud. I became obsessed with theatre’s origins and began to wonder what the first moment of theatre in human history would have been like. It’s like the instinct to sing—what is that feeling? What was the first song that any human ever sang? Who was the first human? The first woman? This inquiry led me to pursue the most ancient forms of theatre I could find: dance, poetry, mime, clown, mask, and ritual. I saved up all of my waitressing tips in an envelope and hurled myself at Ariane Mnouchkine and Theatre du Soleil (Paris), desperate to partake in what they had achieved—the pinnacle of theatrical possibility, I believed. Ariane Mnouchkine was a student of the Lecoq school of theatre, which is a comprehensive training in all of the ancient arts of theatre. She’s also one of the most important theatre artists alive, and a lesbian. The research of Theatre du Soleil and the rigor of Lecoq training were exactly what I wanted. The grainy video recordings I saw of her productions shook me: pure theatre, something that could never be achieved on screen in quite the same way. Spectacle, ritual, dance, music, poetry…everything mounting rhythmically to something that I couldn’t stop watching. This was the theatre I dreamed of and I had to learn from Ariane and her company. My ego got a hard smack when I finally attended one of her workshops, but I still considered myself blessed. I wept at the exquisite subtlety of these performers who were more like mythical creatures to me than actors; was blessed to be in an environment where the leader of the pack (Ariane) began her work by proclaiming the theatre as sacred—something I truly believe. I returned to San Francisco with my tail between my legs and found that a physical theatre conservatory had been born in my absence: Flying Actor Studio. There, I was able to receive the theatrical training I had hoped for in Paris, and I began to find ways to create the work I dreamed of. I began devising my own work and finding my own way within the world of devised physical theatre.
MM: What inspired you to write a play based on all of these personas and which were the most fun to write?
KAL: I have never written a play. “Prowling the Abyss,” like all of my self-produced plays, was devised through improvisation. I enter into specific states of consciousness, states of play, which I access through breath, voice, and movement. This eventually develops into different theatrical forms, which I improvise from. When I say forms, I mean deeply cultivated and embodied characters. They could be clown forms, mask forms, elemental forms. Most actors in the U.S. would call them “characters”, but a character is often something prewritten, to be realized by the actor after its creation by a writer. Forms emerge from the body and are discovered through improvisational play in relationship to the audience. My director, Elizabeth Baron, engages with the forms to see them in action and for us to learn more about them. We continue returning to the same forms again and again over long periods of time—in the case of this show, a year and a half so far. The forms create scenarios and speak in their own way, from their own worlds and minds and imaginations. Some of what they do and say goes into the working material for the show. I transcribe these parts while watching recorded work sessions with Elizabeth, and the transcribed bits are intuitively quilted together into a working script.
So, when we began work on the show that would become this show, I had no idea what forms or themes would come through me. I had some ideas that interested me: Dylan Thomas, sheepherding, and a Feminine Theatrical Pedagogy. But I knew that once I really opened my body and myself to this process, I wouldn’t necessarily get to choose what resulted. I had no idea that the Medusa, this very particular edgy femme version of her, would be a primary form. I didn’t even know she was a form within me! All of the forms that came through the development of this work were new to me—and there are more than you would see in the performance. I think we discovered around twenty of them. What I can tell you is the physical origin of these forms: they all emerged from movement and vibration in my chest. So that, you could say, was the inspiration for these personas and this play: my chest, my heart.
MM: How are acting in one-woman shows different from acting with a cast?
KAL: Instead of creating space, scenario, setting through interaction with other players or with a set, you rely on your body, voice, imagination, and the space (both the physical space you perform in, and the poetic space you create as a performer). The audience becomes your scene partner. All of these things can also become your enemy—your voice can constrict with tension and suddenly change, your heart might race, someone in the audience might do something that pulls your attention and annoys you. Whether it’s love or war, you take a moment to acknowledge the reality that is taking place in that moment and to play in that reality.
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?
KAL: This is like asking me which child is my favorite! Of course, I have a favorite child and I’ll never admit it. But I find myself calling each one of them “my favorite”, depending on which one I’ve most recently encountered. I love them each in a very distinct way that cannot be compared to my love for any of the others. I love Tremble Lip because she is pure pleasure (I’m talking about the forms now, and not moments in the show—each form plays out many pieces, each of which are part of the world of that character). She’s delicious, like bathing in milk, or a bowl of whipped cream. I can only feel pleasure when she’s there. Even her sadness is a kind of pleasure. I love Medusa because she is such a bitch and so committed and unapologetic about it that she makes it funny. She makes brooding intensity a mischievous game that I never want to stop playing. She makes engagement and conflict fun (instead of terrifying, as I usually find it).
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
KAL: If I thought about this I couldn’t do the show. I have no idea what they’ll take away and I don’t want to try to control or predict these things. Theatre is a dream place. Dreams don’t tell us what to take from them. If we are lucky, we remember a few watery (or striking) images. I hope that I and the audiences get to experience a kind of intimacy with one another which I have only ever experienced in the theatre. I hope that we all get to be surprised, to discover something new together.
MM: How did you come to collaborate with Theaterlab?
KAL: Theaterlab’s Artistic Director, Orietta Crispino, had attended a concert staging of “Unblinking Eye,” which is another devised, collaborative play that has been in development for several years with Justin Taylor (playwright) and Jessi Hill (director). I had never met Orietta but Justin shared the very generous and kind things she said about the work after the staging. When “Prowling the Abyss” received a CAC grant and I was seeking a venue to partner with, Justin suggested that I reach out to Orietta. When I visited Theaterlab and met Orietta, I was incredibly moved by her energy and the energy in the space. I can’t recall all of the details of it now, but so many things were said which were directly related to specific details of my show. I talk about entering states in my work, and in that first visit to Theaterlab, I was definitely in a state. I felt that my own show had dropped me there, that the entire Universe was lighting up this theatre studio in sparkling gold, telling me in every way imaginable that this was the place where I should present the workshop stagings of my show! Orietta also graciously offered me a residency in Theaterlab’s Gallery series, which helped a great deal.
MM: What other plays have you written and what are they about?
KAL: The other plays that I’ve devised and created were “Portals,” “Alice: Down the Rwong Wrabbit Whole,” “Unblinking Eye,” and “Sisters of Rapture.” “Portals” was almost exclusively movement, with very little language. It was a series of dreams, mythologies, and visions told through my own blend of mime and dance, with some choral poetic refrains, vocalization, and made-up language. It started with a mime exercise that my teacher, James Donlon, shared with us at the Flying Actor Studio conservatory: You sit on top of a wall, and see a door. You hop off of the wall and approach the door. I took the exercise too far and made it a journey through the door, then through all the layers of the earth, and into other realms with spirits and otherworldly creatures, through lifetimes, death, and back to the beginning again. There were other chapters to the performance, as well, such as a piece based on a myth from Breton called “The Destruction of Ker-Ys,” about a pagan princess who avenges the murders of her family members.
“Alice: Down the Rwong Wrabbit Whole” was devised and created over two years with Edna Mira Raia. We were both in conservatory together and realized that, oddly, we both had the entirety of the Disney 1950s cartoon version of “Alice in Wonderland” memorized, word for word. That alone was weird, but what was weirder was that I suggested we adapt the entire thing into a two-woman mimed play—and she said yes, and we both fully invested our lives into this endeavor. We spent hours upon hours, night after night, watching and rewatching scenes from Alice, perfecting our imitation of cartoon gestures—each finger, the eyes, the voice, the feet, everything had to be just as it was in the film. (“You should try moving exactly like a cartoon! It will make you laugh!”) We approached our clown teacher, John Gilkey (of Cirque du Soleil, who later started a clown theatre revolution with the Idiot Workshop and Wet the Hippo in Los Angeles). When we asked him to help us, he noted the absurdity of what we were trying to do—and encouraged it. He helped us to develop a sense of ourselves as characters, of playing our relationship to one another. It became a play about us performing a two-woman play of Alice in Wonderland. We were wonderfully possessed by the show, completely taken over by its spirit. I have never experienced anything like that with another artist before or since.
“Unblinking Eye” has been in development since 2013. Justin Taylor and I started by playing with different scenarios and characters. His only thought was that the play should be about transformation. “Transform or perish.” We landed on the theme of drone warfare and he wrote a beautiful role for me, Iris Carter, a 17-year-old with a horse named Walt, who lives with her religious mother and hunts in rural New Mexico. She is a skilled hunter. She also has encounters throughout her life with a spiritual force which she calls “Big Nothing”. Due to financial struggles, Iris is forced to take a job as an Air Force drone operator. She learns the reality of warfare and experiences a spiritual transformation because of her job.
“Sisters of Rapture” (directed by Simone Federman) is a rhapsodic poem-play that follows a young girl (Hester) who becomes a nun (Sister Agnes) as well as a troubled teen in Northern California, named Mae. Both find their rapture amidst darkness: Mae is liberated from abuse and misogyny through queer sexuality. Sister Agnes is liberated from the ghosts of her family members and all of the spirits who haunt her, by the rapture of God in everything: nature, language, breath.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and what topics would you like to address artistically in the future? What are your ultimate career goals?
KAL: The Latin origin of the word vocation is vocare, “to call”. I have a lot of passion and vision—a calling, or vocation. This is both a spiritual truth and a fancy way of saying that I’m very bad at capitalism (career). My goal is to continue clearing the dross of my mind so that I can hear the call and make space in myself and my life for whatever it is that wants to come through me into my art.
My deep desire has always been to connect to the ritual origins of theatre. In my seeking and study of the original theatrical arts (mime, clown, etc), I found myself facing two problems: why is physical theatre and “modern, realistic” acting compartmentalized and separate? Shouldn’t voice and text be included in physical theatre pedagogy? Shouldn’t modern, naturalistic acting include an understanding of movement, and inhabiting of one’s body and physical space? Also, though I adore all of my male teachers, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the master teachers in this theatrical lineage were straight cis men. The foundation of the work is Neutrality, and Neutral Mask—yet I found that the kind of neutrality that I had learned and integrated into my own body erred towards the masculine. This isn’t to criticize masculinity or men, but I am a queer femme woman, so naturally, I wonder what if all the masters were women? Not only now, but always throughout human history? And what if everyone’s default was to err towards the feminine? (Note that I’m saying ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’—not ‘male’ or female’. I am discussing archetypal energies which exist everywhere and within everyone.) When I first set out to bring the Feminine into my work in “Portals,” I was told (by my girlfriend at that time, no less), “That kind of energy doesn’t work onstage.” This was a message I have received (and continue to receive) again and again, directly and subliminally, and it is a message I will challenge at every turn. My work is for the Feminine; to embody the Feminine in art and in life.
When I met Elizabeth Baron, who has been my teacher and primary collaborator since 2014, I realized that she had the same questions I did. Of course, she was much further along in her research. She had, in fact, created a pedagogy of breath and voice for physical theatre actors, and had created (among other works) an adaption of “Agamemnon” which featured rich feminine physical theatre archetypal forms. We were seeking the same things, artistically.
While beginning the work that would become Prowling the Abyss, I was feeling a profound sense of isolation and loneliness as a femme. The archetype of a butch dyke is beautifully, if tragically, rendered in Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues.” This is a distinct, recognizable archetype in art and in life. I wanted to create space for a Queer Femme archetype in theatre; in my lineage of theatre. This exploration has been profound: I have created space in my body and in my poetic imagination for an entire realm of Queer Femininity to exist, on her own terms. Having cultivated it in myself artistically, I am now ready to share it with the audience; to carve out space in this world for Femme to simply exist. This is not an archetype that has been recognized in the world of theatre, and it is an energy that is violated, ignored, and abused in this world. By embodying theatrical forms, by experiencing creation through the body and the breath, actor-creators have the ability to transform and I am transforming relationship to Femme, from within my own Femme body.
Why stop there?
This theatre has the potential to create space for every kind of body, for humans of every expression. I want to share this work with queers of all stripes, certainly including trans and genderqueer people. I hope to find an ensemble of artists who are curious as I am to rediscover this theatrical lineage through their queer bodies, and the archetypal energies living uniquely within each of them. Queer contains myriad archetypes. Trans certainly does, as well. I hope that by carving out space for the archetypal forms within my body, I will be creating space for other artists to do the same; for the galaxies of unseen and underrepresented archetypes to shimmer into full view so they can be known and seen and felt; so that this world can be imbued with their magic and can learn how to respect and embrace them. I would love to find an ensemble and to continue these discoveries in a shared community of artists invested in this same kind of work and devise new plays together. I want to illuminate a queer cosmology in devised physical theatre.
I still want to do what I always wanted to do: Shakespeares and Chekhovs and Greek plays. But I wish to rediscover them as I would any devised work, in a deeply embodied way. I believe that clowns are the only actors capable of Shakespeare. The Chekovs could all be performed by drag queens and butch dykes. Theatre could be more fun and have more audience if we did it this way!
Justin wrote a beautiful translation of Ionesco’s “The Chairs” and a hilarious farce called “Maid of Radiance.” We want to stage those, and to find production partners for a full 3-month rehearsal and staging of “Unblinking Eye.” And I’ve fallen in love with working with children. Many children love mime and they are often far more funny and interesting than adults. They are agents of chaos. I want to share the art of mime and theatre with children and help them to create their own work, according to their own laws.
The show will be presented on Saturday, October 23, and Sunday, October 24 at 5:00 pm at Theaterlab’s Gallery space (357 W 36th St, 3rd floor, NYC, 10018.) Admission to this event (funded by NYFA/City Artist Corps Grant) is free but RSVP is required; to reserve, visit https://www.theaterlabnyc.com/prowling-the-abyss/. To learn more about Karen, visit her official website: www.karenannelight.com