5 Questions with Michael Kennedy
I first met Michael Kennedy when I was cast in her production of Any Addict which played at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in 2014. It was a large collection of stories from those struggling with substance use in and out of recovery created from interviews. It was a thrilling collaboration which melded theater, social welfare and personal growth into a singular experience. I caught up with her recently to talk about her company, Creative Action Unlimited, and their latest show Sides, opening Nov. 18 at the Meader Little Theatre on the Russell Sage College campus in Troy.
PW: For those who might be unfamiliar with what Creative Action Unlimited does, can you talk about the theater that you create?
MK: Wait, what? – there are people who still might be unfamiliar with Creative Action Unlimited?! We’re in our 8th year of developing and performing original theater and film productions about social issues. So far, we have created productions about substance use disorder, suicide, sex trafficking, racism, classism, anti-war activism and housing instability. And, following our initial public performances, each of our films and theater productions remains available to community organizations to help them raise awareness about the issues they address. In essence, we start with a social justice related topic and then we book a theater about 6 months in the future. Then we cast the show and work collaboratively to develop a script about the theme. It’s a challenging and rewarding leap of faith every time! Plus, we offer monthly performances by the Creative Action Playback Theater Company, where audience members tell stories from their own lives that are immediately played back as theater, and we are the umbrella organization for the Capital Region’s Social Justice Artists Collective, a group of artists whose work intersects with social justice that offers quarterly open performances and discussion.
PW: Where did the idea come from to create these original works based on a social justice theme, was there an “Aha!” moment?
MK: It’s been my intention to combine theater and growth at every level – individual, organizational and community – since I was in my mid-twenties. I pursued degrees in human development and Community Psychology, studied psychodrama for 15 years and became a specialist in creative group work, all while continuing to do theater – acting, directing, and teaching – in the Capital Region. As a counselor, case manager and advocate for individuals with multiple challenges, I was painfully aware of the ways that systems often hold people and communities down, rather than lift them up. If the systems are designed to maintain the status quo – to keep people focused on just meeting their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing – then it’s the systems that need to change. And, in my experience, presentations and intellectual arguments about the need for systemic change don’t make much of a difference. But stories? Stories are powerful. And they’re a way for people with more privilege to empathize with those who are marginalized; to say, “Oh, I get it now. The person has so few choices and so little help.”
So, at a point in my life when I was deciding what to do next, it was less of an “Aha!” moment and more of an “If not now, when?” moment that led me to begin CAU, as a way to tell those powerful stories and encourage meaningful action.
PW: Tell us about Sides.
MK: Sides is a full-length narrative play about a near-future America in which the erosion of individual rights has escalated, and citizens are encouraged to denounce each other, in order to comply with national mandates. It is a disturbing and realistic imagining of where we might be heading. And it’s an exploration of what we each might be willing to do to safeguard our political and religious beliefs, our families or our lives. And this cast? Wow! This incredibly talented ensemble cast has participated in daily research for six months about current events that clearly demonstrate how quickly our rights are being dismantled. They have each brought their full talents to this project, working collaboratively to develop character relationships, write the script and refine the narrative, as well as generously sharing their other talents, including visual art, graphic design, filmmaking, singing and sound design. This one is not to be missed!
PW: In the world of Sides, there are three slogans used by the government to dictate the behavior of the citizens – Live Right. Choose Carefully. Feed the Lion. Why a Lion?
MK: From approximately 1310 – 1797, the Venetian Republic used Bocche dei Leone, relief carvings of a lion’s face with an open mouth that were embedded into the walls of churches, the judiciary and the Doge’s palace, to collect denunciations from citizens. Paper documents could be inserted into the lion’s mouth as a way of denouncing a fellow citizen and there was a financial reward if the information provided proved correct. In Sides, the character of The Lion is a representative of the oppressive government – and “feeding” information to the government is required if one wants to escape being “thrown to the lions” by others.
(And in the “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction” department, less than a month ago Trump posted a video of himself on his Truth Social account, narrating it by saying, “This lion, he’s the king of the jungle…huge mane, he’s so big, he’s so hot.” Enough said!)
PW: Correct me if I’m misstating it but part of Creative Action’s mission is to inspire their audiences to take action, yes? Is there a specific, special reaction to one of your creations that you’d like to share?
MK: Yes, inspiring audience members to take action is definitely part of our mission. Here’s one example. Following performances of Whitewashed: the racism project the cast was often asked by white audience members, “What can I do about racism?” As you can imagine, this was an exhausting question for the group of Black actors, who had just performed an extremely emotional show – and the question was asked of them at almost every talk back. Aaron Moore, an actor in Whitewashed, would consistently reply to this question by saying, “Bring all your feelings about racism into rooms where we aren’t invited or welcome, where our silence is mandatory and expected. Remember that, when we don’t have a platform to be there, you do. So, when you’re talking to someone who says something racist, remember what you saw and felt here, bring that with you and offer it to someone who needs to hear it.” Many audience members reported to me that Aaron’s words remained with them and prompted them to speak out against racism in their interactions with others.
An original production from Creative Action Unlimited
November 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 7:30pm
November 19 and 26 at 2:00pm
Meader Little Theater, Russell Sage College, Troy
Tickets available at sides.eventbrite.com