Theatre Assistant Professor Kara-Lynn Vaeni on Her Directing and Playwriting Career, Teaching, and SMU Theatre
Assistant Professor of Theatre Kara-Lynn Vaeni joined SMU in 2017. She earned an M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama, has been an artist-in-residence at multiple universities, and has directed plays and produced workshops throughout the U.S. and Europe. In North Texas alone, she directed three plays in one year that were praised by area critics in their “Best Theatre Productions of 2019” lists. In addition, she is working toward certification in intimacy coaching for directors and actors, a critical topic in the theatre profession today. She is currently at work on a new play, Shape, at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.; the theatre received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce the play, which Vaeni is both writing and directing.
Journalism student Julia DePasquale ’20 sat down in February with Vaeni and with Dr. Gretchen Smith, associate professor and chair of the Division of Theatre, to learn more about Vaeni’s involvement with SMU theatre, her career as a director, and how she is working to make the changes that she wishes to see in the industry.
Professor Vaeni, what first drew you to the theatre world?
Kara-Lynn Vaeni: I started at a young age. My first show was when I played Little Miss Muffet in nursery school, and I got my picture in the paper! I came to learn that the community in the arts is different, I think, from the kinds of communities that exist in other businesses. I moved a lot when I was little, but you always fit in if you’re in drama club. I like telling stories, I like reading stories, and I like creating and living in fictional worlds that are better than our current one or worse in some way. It is powerful that you can change it in a story.
How would you describe your aesthetic as a director?
Vaeni: I’m very physical. I really like making discoveries in rehearsal through physical exploration. I enjoy the challenge of finding the weird, magical option that relies solely on human creativity and the human body and all the weird athletic dance stuff that it can do.
What areas of theatre are you the most drawn to, and why?
Vaeni: When I was in New York, I worked with the Obie-Award winning theatre company New Georges, and their whole mission was to produce interesting theatrical plays by women and playwrights of color. Being a woman myself, I’m always very interested in advocating for women in the arts and leadership positions, and I feel a strong advocacy for people of color in the arts and in leadership positions. I’m always thinking, how can we get women and people of color into positions where WE are setting the agenda and creating the conversation instead of just partaking in it? This is how you get real change! Until I came to SMU, I had not directed a play by a straight white man besides Shakespeare since I had gotten out of grad school (OK, one exception, but it was a national tour and I needed the money!!), and that was intentional. When I can choose my projects, these are the ones that I choose.
Three of the plays that you directed at Dallas theatres last year, Reykjavik, Noises Off, and Lela and Co., were mentioned in the Dallas Voice’s “Top 10 Productions of 2019.” Will you talk a little bit about the direction that you took with them?
Vaeni: They are all really different. Noises Off, which we did at Theatre Three, is a play that has been around since 1982. I was hesitant to take on this play because I didn’t think that there was anything I could add to it. But I really enjoyed it. It is one of the most challenging plays that I’ve ever done because it is so precise. And I’ve never seen this in a theatre before, but every night that I went, people in the audience were laughing so hard that they were holding their bellies and clapping. I’ve never directed a show where the audience was that into it. It was incredible!
I got to work on Reykjavik at Kitchen Dog Theater with the playwright, Steve Yockey. Honestly, it was a very sexual play and this was before I had any intimacy training, so I was very nervous. It was completely out of my comfort zone, which I loved, so I thought okay, let me figure this out. I ended up working with the actors and with Dallas choreographer Danielle Georgiou to create a very specific, sensual, very dark kind of play.
Lela and Co., at Second Thought Theatre, was so hard. It was a two-hander about the story of a woman who is growing up in another country. She was sold into sex slavery by her dad and then she escapes and the audience meets the men who rape her. It is very dark, but there were moments of comedy, so the challenge with this one was, how do the actors and I keep the audience alive? How do we keep them invested and not make them feel like we are preaching at them or making them feel guilty about something? It was very challenging.
In addition to directing, why did you choose to teach in the theatre department at the collegiate level?
Vaeni: The payoff is more immediate emotionally for me because I feel that teaching is a more direct way to make the world slightly better by helping create citizens who are empathetic, caring leaders. I don’t necessarily think that theatre is great at effecting immediate social or political change in the world on a large level. But I can change the world by working with the next generation of humans, some of whom will be artists, all of whom will be more compassionate, empathetic and aware through the study of theatre (which is really the study of humanity). I want my students to walk out of my classes feeling empowered to stand up for what they believe is right in the world, and to be able to do that in ways that are collaborative, intersectional and active.
Dr. Smith, as part of the search committee, why do you think the department chose to welcome Kara-Lynn into the SMU Theatre community?
Dr. Gretchen Smith: On paper, she jumped out at us as someone who had worked places around the world that were interesting to us. When she came to visit SMU, we were drawn to her energy, her passion, and the way that she worked with students. One of the first things that you get from her is a tremendous amount of energy and laughter, and she is also very sharp. She had the skill sets to fit into the curriculum, and it makes me happy to have seen her grow as an artist as well as in her connection with the department during her past three years here.
As both a mentor and a colleague, how would you describe her inside the classroom?
Smith: She’s very interested in her students’ growth, she pushes them because she believes in them, and she wants them to challenge themselves and take risks. I’ve personally noticed her attention to detail and rigor with her students. She gives them very good feedback in a way that makes them want to say, “Oh yeah, let me do that scene and try again.” Sometimes this is a very hard thing to do.
Professor Vaeni, what are some projects that you have accomplished while teaching at SMU?
Vaeni: I created “The Sophomore Acting Project” in 2019. Our program is highly competitive and the odds of getting a lead role as a sophomore on the mainstage are slim. As part of their training, I wanted the sophomores to experience the final step in the process of acting, which is performing in front of an audience. Further, Kristi Dana (a vocal coach in the department) and I collaborate on this project, which allows the students to incorporate their voice and acting training and then apply it in a real world situation. I assign the students a role to play that is completely different from themselves, and the show runs for two days. Their friends, family, and the SMU community are able to attend the play, and it is a great way for them to put their training into practice. I think it’s really important that performers get to perform regularly and I’m thrilled that I was able to help create an opportunity for them to do that.
How have you integrated intimacy training into the classroom?
Vaeni: Before intimacy training, there were no protocols or safety nets built in when actors rehearsed intimate scenes. Let’s take a kiss for example. The whole idea behind this method that I teach (called The Noble Method, which I learned from its creator, Adam Noble) is that before we do this scene, we want to talk about it. Why are the characters kissing, what do they want to get out of the kiss, then what do we want the audience to feel? This is all going to inform how we do it. The students then say, these are my boundaries. In my class, general boundaries are always in effect. This means that palms and fingertips can’t touch anything that is covered by a bikini. In addition, there are other boundaries that the students can decide when rehearsing a scene. The example that I give is that your lips may not be on my lips, and that boundary is non-negotiable. Then, actors talk about blessings. For example, going with the kissing scene, the student can offer other areas such as their neck or an open palm. Now that we know the “why” of the kiss, the acting beats of the kiss and the physical boundaries each actor has in creating the kiss, we can choreograph it.
How has this affected your students?
Vaeni: They feel much more empowered to clearly state what they will and won’t do with their own bodies, without embarrassment and without being perceived as “difficult to work with.” This frees them up to be able to actually work on the story and eliminates opportunities for accidentally or intentionally being unsafe in rehearsal.
Dr. Smith, what do you think Professor Vaeni has added to the SMU community?
Smith: She is a great addition to our department and our program because she brings wonderful, unique qualities that mesh really well with our community. I’m also happy that she is working with theatre companies outside SMU, where she has different experiences and acquires new techniques, and then brings all of that back to her students. I see that as a great opportunity for her, too, to continue to grow as a director, theatre artist, and as a teacher. I think that the department is very lucky to have her.
Professor Vaeni, turning to your current work – what was your motivation to write the play Shape?
Vaeni: The reason I wrote this play with three other actors is because I was really interested in working in a specific way. I wanted to make a piece in which physical activity is required in every scene but it’s not a dance piece or an aerobics lesson! And so I wrote this play called Shape. It takes place in a gym and everyone in it has to be able to lift weights and swing kettlebells in real time. The play is being produced in New York and I’m directing it this summer. I’m also scheduled to begin work on the sequel, Run, with the New Public Theatre in London this summer.
What does it mean to you to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund this play?
Vaeni: To artists, it is a really big deal! It is the one governmental agency we have that is federally funded to give money to artists, and I’m so excited that I got one. I hope to have a production of Shape in Dallas at some point.
Will you talk a little about your upcoming projects, specifically Frantic Assembly and Prague Summer Nights?
Vaeni: I am going to London this summer to work with the theatre company Frantic Assembly, (best known in America for their Broadway play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night). They are known for their work in physical theatre devising and I’m thrilled to get to learn from them. Prague Summer Nights is a young artists’ music festival in the Czech Republic. I’m the acting coach for the mainstage operas and I direct An Evening of Czech Scenes, which is staging around 10 scenes, in Czech, from the Czech Repertoire. (I’m not fluent in Czech and I don’t read music, so that’s always a fun challenge!) I’m also going to be doing some intimacy workshops for them as well. SMU provided funding for me to go on a trial basis last year. When I got there, I was like, “Hey, I think you guys could benefit from an acting coach and a dedicated director for the scenes that you want to put together.” They agreed and created a position for me to be able to do that, which is a huge honor.
What are your goals for the future?
Vaeni: I hope to be at SMU for at least 10 years and to continue to create work with awesome collaborators locally, nationally and internationally that is artistically challenging and personally satisfying. I want to write another play or three. But, my secret plan is that I would love to form a coalition of other artists, who would all write together as critics under one pen name. If you saw us in the audience, you would never know that we are critics! This could allow for very blunt critique – which I personally would find incredibly useful! Also, because we are a coalition, no one would ever know who we are or if we are attending a show to review it. Basically, we’d be able to give and receive public peer reviews and still maintain our personal friendships. Secret plan!