Designer Kathryn Kawecki has brought her mind-broadening vision to a series of productions at 1st Stage, culminating with her evocative creations for Proof, running through May 8. Writer Jamila Reddy offers an indepth look at the artist's work in this month’s At Rise.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
My history in art began as visual artist doing printmaking, some painting, and as I got towards the end of my college career, sculpture and instillation pieces. I had a suitemate in the theatre program that told me “I’ve taken these technical classes, and I really think they’d be up your alley.” So I took one. That was part of it starting.
The other part was that I was a performer with a student-run Shakespeare troupe and the director asked me to do costume design for a production. All of a sudden, I was having these conversations with him about who these people were and what they could be on stage, and those conversations were really exciting to me, so I started dabbling in what it would mean to be a professional theatre person. I still think of myself as a visual artist; it’s just that the visual art that I predominantly make now is on stage, as opposed to for a gallery.
Tell me about the design for Proof.
When we started talking about the show, we knew we wanted to have elements that could ground it in reality, but we didn’t want it to feel like a kitchen sink drama. We wanted to see if there was a way that we could have layers of the play, visually, which felt more like metaphor. A lot of my work tends to lean that way—there are elements of realism that help ground the play in a world that is not totally foreign.
In Proof, the characters are such real people—even if they’re real people who happen to be geniuses—they’re still real people who are the kind of people you would meet in our real world. We wanted things about the set that could connect with our world.
We were interested in exploring metaphors related to the human mind. I was thinking about neurons and how the brain works and how ideas travel—these electrical impulses that connect the way your thoughts and body work—and getting really interested in the idea of being able to have something that showed connection of thought and connections between people.
We have these people in the play who are trying to connect to each other—people who are so intellectually ahead of the people around them and so intellectually busy in their brains that they don’t always have an ability to make personal connections with other people. We really saw Catherine as one of those people who craved the ability to connect to somebody else, but she has this huge mind that would get in the way of it.
Who is one artist- designer or otherwise- who inspires you?
One person I come back to a lot is the visual artist Kiki Smith. Her work is never limited to one niche. Whatever is fascinating to her, she goes into exploring. Her work, I find, has a really strong connection to emotion and human feeling, even her pieces that are more “thinky,”—I feel like there’s a heartbeat to them; they come from the blood and guts of a breathing, living, human being going through what it is to be human. I find her work to be really powerful and fascinating.
What do you know now that you didn’t five years ago?
About three years ago, my wife had a medical condition and ended up having five surgeries within a span of about a year and a half. It really changed my life in terms of the way I think about being in the world. I had never had an experience like that—one that so fully turned all of my expectations upside down, and in a really short period of time. What I know now that I didn’t know five years ago is just what it means to endure the ebb and flow of life—what it meant to live through an experience where you really had to focus one day at a time. I’m happy to say that we’re very much on the other side of that. Even now that I’m working at the kind of full pace that I was before she was sick, I have a better sense of priority in life and an understanding of what really matters.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I love that being a theatre designer allows me to have constantly new explorations. As soon as I’m stepping away from the opening of a project, I get to give myself permission to move on to whatever else I’m working on—to explore a new set of characters, a new world, new meaning. I constantly get to dive into something new over and over and over again.