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Kathe Koja’s approach to immersive theatre takes ‘nerve’

Author Kathe Koja talks about her next adventure, nerve.
Author Kathe Koja talks about her next adventure, nerve.
Photography: Rick Lieder

Kathe Koja is a force to be reckoned with. The Michigan native is a popular, award-winning author who has won acclaim for her speculative fiction novels, short stories and Young Adult fiction. Koja, in her stories and in real life, seems fascinated with opportunities for transformation. A creative spirit who glides beyond (or straight through) the usual boundaries placed on those who would compartmentalize the arts, she embraces collaboration and experimentation. Most recently, she has explored the world of performing arts and, more specifically, immersive theatre. With a number of successful productions under her belt, and a rich pool of collaborators, Koja is pouring her energies into a new theatrical company called “nerve.”

She graciously met me for coffee during Detroit's recent monsoon season and the result is this interview about nerve, with another interview about the troupe’s upcoming production of “Ali<e” soon to follow,

Q: What first got you interested in immersive, participatory theatre, and when did you know you wanted to try your hand at it?

Koja: "Under the Poppy" was my gateway. After I'd written the novel of the same name, I recruited some very talented collaborators – including Austin-based composer/musician Joe Stacey, Brooklyn-based animator Aaron Mustamaa, and Detroit-based puppet artist Al Bogdan and filmmaker Diane Cheklich, one of this year's Kresge Foundation fellows – to put together a bawdy shadow puppet show for a book trailer.

The process was amazingly fun, and the story adapted perfectly for performance, so it was clear there was more fun to be had. (More fun on the page, too: the “POPPY” sequel, “THE MERCURY WALTZ,” was published early this year; “THE BASTARDS' PARADISE,” the final book in the trilogy, comes out in 2015.)

But I felt that the Poppy experience needed to be more than just a stage show – I wanted to invite people inside the brothel. So Diane and I made a research trip to check out "Sleep No More" in its original US production in Boston, before it became a fixture in New York. And the exhilaration of not just watching, but being able to move through the performance, confirmed what I'd hoped was possible: that "immersive" was all about energy, and the audience was truly integral to the experience, which enabled the story to come alive in a new and ravishing way.

Back in Detroit, we put together a series of events to introduce people to the world of the Poppy, including one at the Detroit Institute of Arts. And in April 2013, the brothel opened for business in the historic Bernard Ginsburg House: the smell of whiskey and French perfume, the gorgeous floozies, the timeless love story, the house itself as a character. Patrons came from all over - not just the metro area, but New York, Ohio, Colorado - dressed in Victorian finery, and went wild for the experience and the story ... and the puppets, created by puppet artist Megan Harris. Anyone who was there remembers the Chevalier!

Q: The new company is called “nerve.” Where did that name come from?

Koja: We knew we needed a name – people kept asking "So what's your ensemble called, who are you?" – but it had to be the right name, one that caught that spirit of daring, and the urge to involve the audience on a deeper level. There were a lot of ideas, some better than others (we won't mention the rejects!), but when "nerve" hit the table, that was it. Our mission statement is "We define success as sensation. We take space and use it. We make consensual art. Our audience is everywhere." And that's what it means to have nerve.

Q: Who’s in the nerve company?

Koja: Our core ensemble is Steve Xander Carson (associate ensemble director, who collaborates with me in adapting the texts for performance), Marisa Dluge, John Denyer, Laura Bailey, and Chris Jakob. For “ALI<E,” nerve is proud to work with adjunct guests, movement artists Rachael Ahn Harbert and Marianne Brass (Marianne created the spectacular choreography for “FAUSTUS”), and to welcome Egla Kishta.

Q: Tell us about the journey from “Under the Poppy” to “ALI<E,” which debuts this fall.

Koja: The Poppy performances proved that this group was fearless in its approach, and could do amazing work together. We gathered again for an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's “FAUSTUS.” Marlowe's plays aren't performed nearly as often as they should be, and I wanted to really plunge people into his dark masterpiece, this tragedy of an ambitious young man who takes life to the absolute limit.

Our venue was the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in midtown Detroit, where we raised hell with shadows and red glitter. The pews were overrun by the Deadly Sins of Lust, Wrath, Envy, and Sloth, who flirted with, crawled over, and menaced the patrons, while Mephistopheles and Faustus fought for Faustus' soul on the altar. And the UU organist, Todd Ballou, even volunteered to be our musical director, so the glorious pipe organ was a performer, too. Every site has its own gifts to offer.

The choice to do “ALI<E” next came up organically – we have a list of texts we want to explore, but this just felt right. When it's your time to go down the rabbithole, you just know.

What’s lurking down the rabbithole? This interview picks up in our next installment as artistic director and playwright Kathe Koja shares a glimpse into the upcoming production of "ALI<E."

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