Spotlight: Juliacks + Kathleen Amshoff
Women Center Stage, February 2012

Emmeline Grouse lives in a small town in Vermont, in a house overlooking a quiet cemetery where she and her sister Lucy would often play. When Lucy unexpectedly dies during Emmeline’s freshman year of college, her family enters a tailspin of despair. Adapted from the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, Swell explores the memory-shifting and kaleidoscopic journey of grief, immersing the audience in a lush visual landscape as Emmeline confronts her fears, dreams and imagination.

WCS: Your play is based on Juliacks’ graphic novel by the same name. Can you talk a bit about the process of adapting a graphic novel for the stage? What challenges did you face in your creative process of trying to stay true to both the novel and the stage?

JuliacksJuliacks: Plays like comics work upon many different levels. Inherent to comics is the pacing of time, the portrayal of character, language of text and symbols, the arches of the story, the page versus the frame versus the whole. The drawing in detail, the spread, the space in between. Another term used for comics is sequential art. In that sense a play is similar in being LIVE in a moment in a space in time. Our philosophy is to approach these levels by working with wide ranging talented folks who construct and make worlds out of all of these rhythms in completing one body that is Swell.

Kathleen and I knew from the beginning that every person that is part of the team that creates Swell is essential to bringing the vision of the book and its layered parts come true. In that vein, we are devising the play through a highly collaborative rehearsal process. We trust each crew member’s insights and hard work will pull off this experience that begins when you pick up your ticket until you go home and read the book, hopefully resounding with you in the future- one moment thinking of it as you leave a subway car, sip a soda, clean the litterbox.

JuliacksKathleen: So many challenges and a million questions. When you sit with the book, you enter each (very detailed and intricate) page as you wish, and you can spend as long as you like. But we’re in the theater for a finite time, so the team is figuring out how to engulf the audience in the kaleidoscopic, layered, black and white world of Swell while still guiding a human narrative.

I’ve adapted from other sources before — music and text — but this is my first time working with material that already has its own strong visual language. It was interesting for me to discover that I needed to take some time away from looking at the book — almost create my own parallel visual universe — to find my way into a staging concept. That surprised me.

WCS: This is by no means the first stage adaptation of Swell—You’ve both been involved in at least 15 performance art creations of Swell, all around the world since 2007! How does the story change with each rendition? And how have these previous renditions of the story informed the piece we’ll see in this festival?

Juliacks: The performances I’ve done in the past by myself and with other collaborators have been for the most part non-narrative (performance art) that distill an idea and emotion from the story. Different performances have had different questions. For instance, one of the first performances was about a simultaneous emotion and thought-the grief in the present and the imagined state of non-being. Many performances have portrayed scientific ideas of the construction of memory and imagination. When I went to Finland, not wanting to make cultural assumptions of responses to loss and grief I made a few different site-specific performance installations (in cemeteries/comics festivals/hospices) that were more relational interactions. The performances have changed as they are influenced by the state of its creators, place and context and what element/page/piece of the book.

Kathleen and I started developing Swell as a play in 2008 talking almost weekly about the ideas and development, putting on DIY playreadings and have done three theatrical renditions of it together. As an ensemble we want the story to be the driving element of the performance.

These past experiences might be drawn upon for the play and inform some of our approaches- acting as elements which are lying in a bag of goodies that can also feed a new animal.

Kathleen: The Swell performances I’ve contributed to have been experimental excerpts. We’ve taken a section of the book and played with adapting it, often juxtaposing the narrative with other elements — live music, a recorded extemporized phone call with a grief counselor, youtube videos memorializing lost loved ones, performance actions with raw eggs, etc. We’ve been finding out what approaches help the audience enter the narrative, and which turn them off. But we’ve never had the opportunity to flesh out the whole story before, so the Women Center Stage Festival is very exciting for us. It’s the culmination of a lotta lotta thought, experiment, conversations and love.

WCS: You both studied the arts on Fulbright scholarships. Is that just a crazy coincidence? How have those experiences informed your work together and individually?

Juliacks: It is coincidence-but I think I was drawn to Kathleen for a few reasons, one subconscious thing might be her love of things German and my German upbringing. Together, in part influenced by extensive international travel and the Fulbright scholarships, Amshoff and I have become increasingly interested in local customs of grief. We are disturbed by the global and “universal” impact of the American denial of death, and the increasing medicalization of human experience. Earlier this year, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagonistic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders-an internationally influential document-essentially reclassified grief as a disease. The “accepted” mourning period has been truncated, major depression can be diagnosed more quickly and anti-depressants prescribed.

The intense pain of mourning is to be short-circuited. It’s in defiance of this approach that Amshoff and I are interested in exploring the local culture’s mechanisms for dealing with loss on a person-to-person basis.

Individually-the Fulbright gave me confidence to continue pursuing SWELL in all its alterations and to do something I had never done before-make a film. The world and its varied perspectives, cultures, economies and modes are present daily in my life. Perhaps that is because the world is changing as well, but it makes one think of how many possibilities there are in life and how fragile yet strong each person is.

Kathleen: Have to second Julia’s thoughts. I think we’ve both always been attracted to other cultures, and our experiences abroad have informed our conversation about the project. I’ll never forget one phone call, probably two years ago, when we were dreaming about taking Swell to Finland, Sweden, Ecuador, Zimbabwe — all places we’ve grown attached to — and incorporating their grief customs into the narrative. That’s when the project really lit a fire under me. As for my Fulbright time in Berlin, it was absolutely formative in the way I think about theater — the very beginning of my understanding and appreciating it as a social and political medium.

WCS: Kathleen, you’ve been quoted as saying that “theatre is fundamentally a social event,” a sentiment that definitely seems to hold true for this piece. What exactly does that mean to each of you? And how do you find yourselves following through with that conviction for Swell?

Juliacks: Swell being a live performance with people in places is integral to its idea. Swell is about the specific people present in the space with the creators and the process going through the experience together. We are making it for them-whoever they are. When contemplating the unknown, loss and death, it is vital to feel alive! This story celebrates life!

Kathleen: I just can’t get away from the liveness of theater. That’s what I love. I love being in a room with other bodies having this one experience at this one time, and then it’s gone. That’s life. I like when theatermakers force me to acknowledge the other people who are there watching with me, when civil inattention is not allowed — we’re not on the subway pretending we’re alone. Maybe cause I’m from the South? I like to invite and feel invited. The ways to do it can be so small and subtle, too, it doesn’t have to be like standup.

We continue to work on this with Swell — within and without the performance. I’m really excited to be working with J’nelle Bobb-Semple, an applied theater practicioner who will be leading creative workshops on loss. Where aesthetic questions and social ones intersect — that’s where I want to be.

WCS: Finally, what do you hope your audience takes away from this performance? Is it similar to or different from what you hope your reading audiences take away from the graphic novel?

Juliacks: So many things! I feel a little shy to express my inner desires for this piece-maybe just to say I’ve received a gift, I’ve put a lot into it, and I hope persons they receive it, maybe confronting absurdity, death, their lives.

The book and the play are different mediums and ways of communicating. To me a book is like having a special bathroom where you can take a long bath, dance and dye your hair at the same time, or see yourself reflected in thousands of mirrors. You can spash paint all over it, or lie down on the tiles for hours.

A play is like climbing an Appalachian mountain, sometimes you can be alone on the mountain, but often you will go with others and its better to have those moments together, noticing things, resting, expecting a peak, perhaps getting too scared to get there, but you know it is there and that you will come down.

Kathleen: I definitely can’t top Julia’s answer but I guess my desires are actually relatively modest. I’d like the audience to eagerly follow Emmeline’s story, I’d like them to be as dazzled by the images as I was when I first read Juliack’s book, but mostly I want to create a brief, deep pocket of time — I just learned about kairos, what the Greeks called a moment of suspended, divine time — a moment to enter their own deep body of very personal thoughts about the beginnings and endings of things, about the infinite, the profound experiences and essential people that accumulate with the years. Okay, maybe that’s not so modest. But that’s what I’d like Swell to do.