There Is No Line: Director Jenny Koons on the Politics of Participation

AUG 9, 2017

The room is the thing for Burn All Night director Jenny Koons. Grounding her directing work in experience as an educator and organizer, Koons sees rooms—rehearsal rooms, classrooms, and performance venues— as the spaces where we model, and redefine, the social patterns of oppression or liberation.

“I’ve been thinking about directing and theater, and the rooms that we’re forming, as a mode of community organizing,” said Koons in a June interview just before Burn All Night auditions at OBERON. “I wonder how we continue to create spaces in which we collide as a training for the unknown—and how do we take what we’ve learned in our little room where we’re making a play and magnify that?”

Koons’ recent productions pursue innovation by facilitating atypical encounters. “I’m really charged by the idea of what it means to bring a really diverse room together—in every sense of what those words mean—to make something that we, singularly, wouldn’t be able to imagine,” she says. As a director of Theatre for One, Koons staged intimate yet public exchanges inside a mobile, miniature, state-of-the-art performance venue. “I’m most excited by projects involving a collision of some kind, whether that’s a DJ and a poet”— as in her 2014 A Sucker Emcee—“or, in the case of Burn All Night, a synth-pop band and two Broadway actors.”

Burn All Night draws inspiration from club culture on the eve of global catastrophe. “The show asks, ‘how do you grow and experiment and be young when your future is uncertain?’” Koons explains. “Is it better just to go hard, burn bright, and burn out?”

Developed for OBERON’s club-theater environment, the piece invites audience members to share the space with performers and dance along with the show’s live band. For Koons, dissolving spatial boundaries is a crucial step toward expressing the millennial sensibility at the heart of the new musical.

Burn All Night uses millennials as a way for us all to think about ourselves,” she says. “There’s no line between ‘those crazy 20-year-olds’ and the 50-year- olds who after November 2016 were like, ‘This is not the country I thought I lived in.’ The show feels more real now than it did when we started.”

Since November, Koons’ own hybrid experience as a director, facilitator, and community organizer has mobilized action across the country. As a steering committee member for The Ghostlight Project, Koons is organizing actions by over 500 member theaters (including A.R.T.). Inspired by the tradition of a leaving a “ghost light” on in a darkened theater, the Project facilitated lamp- lighting events outside member theaters on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. Audiences, artists, and administrators gathered to lift lights in a public pledge to foster values of inclusion and compassion in the face of persistent exclusionary practices and rising instances of hate speech nationwide.

Koons’ methods as a director and organizer draw on her experience as an educator and facilitator. While keeping active ties to the theater, Koons worked as a public school teacher in New York City then as a director of a literacy education initiative before returning to theater full-time in 2012. In that year, her Odyssey Project unfolded across twelve months and all five boroughs of New York City. Featuring performances on a commuter ferry, on soccer fields, and on Brighton Beach, the project was a turning point for Koons, proving that new types of performance could successfully reach beyond the walls of existing establishments.

In theater, education, and activism, Koons finds herself pursuing a unified goal: “How do I move a group of people towards something that is invisible, that we collectively have to imagine? And how do I access everyone’s connection to that invisible or imaginary thing so that we all move forward together?”

In these collective pursuits, Koons points out, form can be even more important than content. Referencing the work of emancipatory educator Paulo Freire, Koons emphasizes that participatory models of art can be incubators for social activation, even when their plotlines aren’t explicitly “political.” In Burn All Night’s invitation to dance, Koons finds a link to the courage required by other opportunities to participate. “I can sit in the dark and feel scared, and then get up and dance. Afterwards, I have the experience of pushing through that feeling of fear, so the next time I’m at a protest, and I think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ I know that I can.”

Instead of rushing audience members into awkward encounters, Koons says, Burn All Night views them as core collaborators in the work—key components in the construction of the environments where the story takes place. “There is no line; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she says. “It is a collective experience. In a classroom setting and in a theater setting, I’m thinking, ‘How do we truly bring out the best of everyone so that it feels like a collective success?’”

In this respect, Koons offers an innovative model for directing itself: artistry not as a linear hierarchy of power, but a collaborative vision of artists and audiences moving, marching, and dancing in concert toward a more equitable ideal.

Robert Duffley is Publications & Artistic Programs Fellow at A.R.T.