Interview with Nancy Keystone, director of “How To Disappear…”

by Ayla Harrison

When I first came into contact with Boston Court’s HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY AND NEVER BE FOUND, I was stunned by the immediate veracity of Fin Kennedy’s writing. My first thought: “How does one even begin to direct this ferocious, sad, funny, poignant gem of a play?” So, being rather nosy, I tugged on the sleeve of HTDCANBF’s very talented-uber-collaborative-director–an-design-whiz, Nancy Keystone, to find out.

It went something like this:

AYLA HARRISON: What is your history with Boston Court?

NANCY KEYSTONE: I directed and designed Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The America Play” with The Theatre @ Boston Court in 2006.  I love working there because they are committed to artists and new work, because they’ll do projects like “How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found.”  They push boundaries and aren’t afraid of doing something new or uncomfortable.  Plus, they’re genuinely nice people.

AH: What about HOW TO DISAPPEAR sparked your interest as a director? Did you read it and immediately think: “I must do this play.” 

NK: My introduction to the play was in the 2009 production at Portland Center Stage, directed by Rose Riordan.  I thought it was an exciting production, and a terrific play.  That production stayed with me, and I felt like I didn’t know how to make something different, so I wasn’t sure I should direct it.  However, I wanted to share Fin’s play, so I passed it along to Boston Court, and they asked me to direct it.  I was nervous about doing it—but I think that’s probably a good thing!

AH: This play is not your typical A-to-B narrative piece. There are so many shifting characters and places. How did you translate the idea of Charlie’s manic state and so many constantly changing worlds to the actors in the show?

NK: I shared a lot of research with the company, and we did a lot of talking about the play, the characters, the structure and all the challenges those things presented.  We worked collaboratively to discover what the world of the play was, and everyone brought exciting and useful ideas to the table.

AH: Your set design is a thing of beauty, really. How did you come up with it?

NK: Thank you!  This was a tough one. I had to think a lot about how I was going to stage the play—usually I try to give myself options and keep things open, but I knew this design was going to dictate how the play worked physically.)  I looked at a lot of research images for all the [play’s] different locations to understand architectural details. I thought about mazes and labyrinths—magic boxes. On a conceptual level, I knew I wanted to make a room in which Charlie could be trapped. I made different sketches of possible configurations, and through a lengthy process of trial and error, came up with what we have.

AH: Briefly describe your collaboration with the other outstanding designers to create the world of HOW TO DISAPPEAR.

NK: This was an unusual and exciting process in that I’d not worked with any of these designers before—I’d admired their work, and it was great to finally get to collaborate with them. We had a number of meetings where we discussed the ideas and aesthetics of the piece. I shared my research and ideas and the designers brought in their ideas. We explored these ideas and layered them in throughout tech rehearsals and previews.  There were specifics in the script—Fin writes a lot about the sound scape, for instance—but most aspects of the design are not specified, so we had room to discover for ourselves what things might be.  Apparently, this is the first production to make use of video projections, so that’s interesting.

AH: Did you talk with Fin Kennedy much before you started rehearsals and/or during the rehearsal process? What was that like?

NK: Fin and I had been emailing each other for over two years. We saw each other’s shows at Portland Center Stage (my show, “Apollo” was running in one theatre, while HTDCANBF was running in the other space).  We didn’t meet or talk in person until he arrived in LA last week!  He was very open to answering any questions I had. He sent me some terrific research about the play.  Most of my questions were about language, class and certain English references that were unfamiliar to us here.  He allowed us to change a few words or phrases in order to clarify certain things for an American audience.

AH: Did you do much research on the Bureau of Missing Persons in England? Did you read the book “How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found”?

NK: I did research the missing persons aspect, and I read the book of the title, as well as The Modern Identity Changer.  There was a lot of research that came out of the given circumstances and specific references in the play. For instance: the Shipping Forecast, which Fin adapted and which I became obsessed with; all the different locations in London and Essex; forensic pathology; London Metro and Lost Property procedures; the world of advertising agencies and brand management; drug and alcohol addiction and withdrawal; British class system….

AH: Yeah. It’s all intoxicatingly rich material.

NK: Each subject is like a window into a whole new world, and each thing leads to something else.

AH: You seem to be very attracted to the marriage of directing and set design.

NK: Performance space and scenic environment are key elements in any production I do. As I conceive each piece, the scenic design is part of the whole idea.  For me, there’s no separation between directing and design—it all works together.

AH: Besides being busy with Boston Court, you have your own company. Tell me a little about your company–Critical Mass Performance Group. What is your role with CMPG?

NK: Critical Mass Performance Group came out of a project I did at UCLA in 1985.  We are an ensemble dedicated to the collaborative creation of new works and reinterpretations of classic plays, aiming to push the boundaries of narrative form and performance techniques. The process of making each piece is long-term, taking several years, allowing for thick exploration. I am the founder and artistic director. I produce, direct, write, and design.

AH: A brave task indeed. Who are your theatrical heroes? Name your top three bravest of the brave.

NK: Jerzy Grotowski, Ariane Mnouchkine and Theatre du Soleil, Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment, Suzan-Lori Parks, Richard Foreman, Pina Bausch, Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Tadeusz Kantor—that’s more than three.  But they all resonate with me for the same reasons, which are that their work is absolutely unique, idiosyncratic, and personal, and it mines the essence of theatre.

AH: And, lastly Nancy, if you had to skip town and disappear completely and you could go anywhere…where would you go?

NK: I’ll never tell.

So for those of you in the market for a play with more delightful twists than Thor…go see a performance of How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by: Fin Kennedy running at Boston Court for two more weekends.

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