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Walker Art Center: Permanence Collection, Part 2: Kira Obolensky

Playwright Kira Obolensky talks about her  role in the collaborative endeavor Permanence Collection, an in-gallery play she co-wrote with Ed Bok Lee.  “We wrote the piece in its first draft as an exquisite corpse.”FROM THE WALKER ART CENTER


by Sarah Peters

Playwright Kira Obolensky is known for her keen intellect and vibrant imagination that has led her to write about topics as far ranging as American garage culture and a hermaphrodite in the Victorian era in both books and plays.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her role in the collaborative endeavor Permanence Collection, an in-gallery play she co-wrote with Ed Bok Lee for a project with the Walker and the Playwrights’ Center. Her responses below channel some of our internal Walker meetings, where programmers sit around to discuss how visitors respond to the permanent collection, the act of looking and the meaning of creativity. Needless to say, our conversations are far less clear and poetic than Obolensky’s.

Were you familiar with the Walker’s Permanent Collection prior to this project?

Yes, I’ve been a regular Walker-goer for years.

Has working on Permanence Collection changed or shifted your thoughts about the Collection or the current installation?

Writing the piece has really changed the way I view the installation–simply because the process of creatively engaging with a work of art is different than simply viewing it. One of the questions the play asks is why is there such a difference? How can the act of viewing art be in itself creative? “Art is a conversation”—someone famous said that—and in our play I think we finally get to really talk to the art work. The process of writing the play has coalesced some more nebulous feelings I’ve had as a museum goer, walking through the Permanent Collection. For example, I’ve always been aware of the shift in feeling/emotion I get as I progress through the collection. We used that shift in feeling as a starting point.

What was the process of writing a play based on a roomful of art like? How did you work together to draft the script?

The process of writing a play that is about art, without being ABOUT art in a didactic way was challenging. I think we both knew we didn’t want the piece to feel like a skit which is the easy way to do something like this. We wanted something more layered, more mysterious, slightly ambiguous but also entertaining to watch. In many ways I think it was slightly intimidating for both of us to face the innovation and masterful work of the collection and to attempt to stand next to it.

We wrote the piece in its first draft as an exquisite corpse. I started it, then Ed wrote the next scene, and then I wrote the next one and so forth. That said, once it was in its first draft form there was a lot of hands-on collaboration between us and Hayley [Finn], getting the themes to surface, and attempting to find action in each scene. We also realized on our first rehearsal that there were far too many words. Because of the marble surfaces, acoustics are difficult and it became clear that each scene needed to be cut in half. So a fair amount of writing and editing has happened on our feet.

What artworks were particularly interesting to you and why?

I love the David Smith piece (The Royal Bird) in the mid-century room. It is as if something is being born from the abstraction and color fields. It struggles to take flight—a kind of representation even as the paintings in the room resist.

The Jasper Johns set piece in the Pop Art room is a reminder to me of how theatre is at its core spectacle and visual.

The Bruce Nauman video is compelling to me as a work of theatre.

The Gober chair is so layered and narrative…it’s meaning shifts constantly for me. It tells a story that evokes irony and paradox. It is in a room filled with ironic works of art. It itself has irony to it—but it’s not a one-liner. It reminds me of how nuanced irony can be.

In the Mythologies room, I’m particularly fond of the scale of the scale of the artwork. I love how big and challenging the pieces are, and yet how delicate they are up close. The Mehretu painting has such a fine line in it and yet it maps something enormous.

Tell us how you came up with the title for the play.

One of the ideas in the piece is about permanence. In the first scene Harry says, “It’s not fair they (the art work) gets to stay put and we grow old.” It strikes me that this idea of the artwork as permanent is true it doesn’t change in its being, although it’s interpretation can be in constant flux. The viewers of the artwork age and move and change, and the theatre they unwittingly create in the galleries is entirely impermanent.

Permanence Collection is performed again on Thursday, May 15 at 7 and 8 pm in the Walker galleries.