Photo by Johnny Knight
Multifaceted writer/director/teacher Kelli Strickland emailed me from a swamp. Out of town for the holidays, her internet connection was spotty, but Strickland’s opinions came through loud and clear. Star of the much buzzed-about film Hannah Free, Strickland is on the cusp of opening her one-woman show "We’ve Got a Badge for That." A “love letter of sorts to the Girl Scouts,” the show has been performed locally and nationally. Below Strickland shares her thoughts on lesbian films, arts education and more.
Our Town How was your experience filming Hannah Free?
Kelli Strickland It was filmed at a rather breakneck speed but the people who came together to make that happen were a force to be reckoned with. The reception to the story was pretty overwhelming. I still get emails from people all over the world who have lost partners or grew up in a very different time period that tell me that it resonated with them.
OT How do you feel about the category “lesbian films?”
KS Categories are handy and can serve a purpose and inevitably tick some people off. You could argue that to describe any work as 'lesbian' in nature is to contribute to the gay ghetto-ization of a piece or you could argue that there are films made by and for lesbians, and why not label it that? I believe that stories are important. And so long as people are working hard to tell those stories and audiences are benefiting from hearing those stories, call it what you like.
OT I haven’t seen Hannah Free, so this isn’t a swipe at that film, but I’m pretty critical of most lesbian films. I have this sense that lesbians (even in 2011) are so desperate to see themselves reflected in art that they celebrate even the mediocre. Any thoughts on this?
KS I suppose that an under-representation in media does lead to a celebration of any and all representation. But I hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of audiences for not being discerning enough or even the art makers, for that matter. As your question suggests, that desperation for representation indicates what a dearth of films there were. Film is an incredibly expensive proposition and until recently, highly dependent on the literal and metaphorical green light from people who didn't seem all that interested in telling queer stories. So, yes, I think often the projects were and are homegrown, grassroots efforts – made by those same people who wanted to see themselves onscreen. Changes in the cultural landscape are definitely afoot, however, when a movie like “The Kids Are All Right” can not only get made, but get made with that kind of budget, that kind of cast, that kind of marketing and distribution and finally that kind of reception. Artists interested in telling queer stories, like all contemporary artists, are currently learning how to navigate a new media world where you can get product out and very process is much more affordable, accessible and therefore democratic. I think that's a good thing for storytellers, especially those storytellers who want to tell the stories that the heads of major studios won't. My guess is that we're in the midst of a great upswing.
OT If you could only act in one medium, which would you choose?
KS Theatre, without question. Especially now, when we consume so much of our films, television, music in isolation with buds in our ears and [on] a tiny screen. Nothing can replace live actors with a live audience sharing that ephemeral time together. It is pure, simple and a unifying act in an increasingly divisive time.
OT Can you take me through the process of creating We've Got a Badge for That?
KS I was fortunate to have a terrific director and collaborator in Sharon Evans, who founded the Filet of Solo Festival at Live Bait many years ago and has worked with a number of well-known solo artists. When we began, I had chunks of text but there was little shape and certainly no dramatic arc. Sharon would watch and listen and then give me invaluable feedback: pointing out themes that were emerging, holes in the transitions or logic, encouraging me to write out moments that weren't necessary for the show but shed light on attitudes that I held or opinions I wasn't even aware I had. She did such a masterful job of leading me to places that I needed to be and making me think I had gotten there on my own. That was especially handy when it came to cuts that needed to happen. Because, you know, everything I wrote was brilliant, and there's no way ANY of it could have been cut.
OT You teach acting. How does teaching inform your own acting?
KS Teaching keeps you actively engaged in dialogue and thought process behind the work. And reminding others reminds you about the importance of the basics: listening, staying present, accepting what is given. Also, students are crucial in not letting my opinions and attitudes cement, not just about theatre, but about the world. You have to be more reflective when you know they will ask you why.
OT Why is arts education important?
KS From a pure learning standpoint, studying the arts encourages more complex thinking and is one of the fastest ways to develop significant social and emotional benchmarks in children, like empathy, self-esteem, collaboration. It allows students who don't necessarily excel in test preparation driven classroom cultures to shine. I get real worked up about this one, so I'll leave it at that. But suffice it to say that the prevailing attitude in Chicago Public Schools that the arts are a luxury, disconnected from learning and success, drives me bonkers.
OT Care to share a new years resolution?
KS No resolutions, but I will say that I have a very good feeling about 2012.
"We've Got a Badge for That" runs January 13th and 14th at Raven Theatre.