Co-producer and actor Beth Thompson sits down with This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing set designer Kaye Blankenship to talk lady-heavy projects, arts education, and world creation in the third installment of the This Woman portrait series.
Photos by Lava Alapai
I love Kaye Blankenship. Her intelligence is distinctly embodied. Her creativity has a magic and an earthiness to it. It’s always a joy and an honor to be present and play with her. This chat is just the tip of the iceberg in knowing Kaye.
We first worked together at CoHo in Many Hats Collaborations’ production of The Snowstorm – Kaye was the lighting designer, I was a performer. Since then, Kaye is always at the front of my mind as a technical design mastermind who I prefer to have on board any project. In the past year, Kaye has started to pursue a Master’s degree in Education to teach art to youth, a move which permeated much of our conversation. But, to begin, I asked her to tell me why and how theatrical design became her heart’s work.
“Theatre became my heart’s place in high school. My community and my support structure was all in theatre. And I had a really fantastic theatre manager, a really wonderful woman named Tina who became like a mentor and now is a very good friend. Which is, I feel like, sort of rare to come out of high school with an adult that you really trust and respect and can go to for advice. A lot of that sort of emotional connection was what brought me to…well, what kept me in theatre.”
“In high school, I found that I really gravitated towards stage management. I think it’s because that mentor told me – well, I told her I was thinking I’d like to ASM (Assistant Stage Manage) and she was like, ‘No, you should just Stage Manage. Like, don’t even go to the assistant part first, you should just Stage Manage. You could totally do it.’ I had never even considered it – and that started me down the road of getting more involved with the technical stuff, and really loving that because I had this strong female mentor who is a techie and also designs all the shows for my high school. So I think having that strong mentor to begin with was crucial to getting into that side of theatre.”
But I wanted to know why scenic design was the thing for Kaye. I’ve worked with her as a lighting, props, and scenic designer, but I have always been aware that scenic design is the truest of Kaye’s theatrical roles.
“World building is incredible. One of my favorite things that anyone ever said to me – granted this was my thesis in college – but when we closed the show the lead actor came up to me and he said, ‘I don’t know how you did it, but that set felt like my home.’ That’s what every scenic designer wants to hear! He said, ‘By the end of it, I felt like I lived here, I felt shocked and appalled whenever somebody came in a door…’ He really felt like it was his and wondered, ‘Why are people in my house’? Knowing that I had given that actor that connection to the play that wasn’t just ‘I’m on a set, I know it’s fake, and I’m going to ignore that because I’m an actor’…making it feel real to him was more powerful than I thought. Because if it’s reaching the actor, it’s reaching the audience.”
And her favorite kind of work? She was itching to tell me about that.
“Things that are not realism. A realistic script with the set dictated in it is one of the least interesting things to me. It’s easy. It’s great. You can check all the boxes. You have some wiggle room within that, but at the end of the day, you’re really not creating a world. You’re just representing exactly what the playwright envisioned. Which is fine. There is room for that. That can exist in theatre. When I really get excited and when I really enjoy my work is when I get to do something that is more experimental, or that is more open ended – there is either some magic, or whimsy, or terror – any strong emotion-backed play is more interesting to me than kitchen sink realism.”
I’m grateful to Kaye for digging in with me about what it’s like to be a woman moving through an industry that tends to be dominated by men. I wanted to do this interview and portrait series to connect with women who are succeeding in this world. Kaye, as usual, was kind enough to be frank.
“I went to Lewis and Clark which was a very supportive school. Most of the people in the theatre department are women, most of the designers that come out of that school are women. So, I felt lucky in that. I only ever had a single male mentor there. And he was great, I learned so much from him. But, that was my only opportunity to really learn the craft of scenic design. And then I did an internship in New York when I was a junior, and there were no female designers that I got to meet or work with there. It was one man who was in charge of all the productions we were doing.”
“In college there was no real female input in terms of design at all. I realize that now, I didn’t realize it at the time. Any guest designer that was brought in when I was there was a man…a white man specifically. So it was an incredibly male thing that I was trying – I was conscious of that, but I wasn’t like ‘I’m going to be the girl that disrupts everything.’ I’m just going to do it because I want to do it. I find this part of theatre the most interesting, this is what I think I’d like to do for my future. And so I did it.”
“I think most of the female-driven art I have been a part of has been independent, with lovely folks like Emily Gregory and Alex Ramirez, Caitlin Fisher-Draeger and Erica Terpening, creating new work that we really love. But, now that I think of it, the most lady-heavy work I have done are one-off productions. Which is so sad now that I think about it. Most of the theatre companies are man-driven. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t there. I think almost every show I have done has had a woman in some leadership or design capacity, so that’s refreshing.”
With this series, I wanted to give context to the mythical, hopeful feminism portrayed in This Girl Laughs…, and connect real life powerhouse women to the characters in the play. In the play, sisters Albienne, Beatrix, and Carmen find that their paths are shaped by discovering the needs of their communities. Kaye’s awareness of the needs of the world she lives in was a crucial part of her recent shift in career focus.
“My application to grad school was in direct response to the election. It’s hard to make a living in theatre in Portland but I want to be in Portland, so I was already thinking about what is the next step going to be, and I was like ‘Oh, education exists. There are art teachers!’ I don’t know why my brain never went there before, but it suddenly became obvious that this is a career I could have. And the more the election cycle rolled on and the worse things got, I felt like I needed to do something. I could do other things, volunteer a lot. But the thing that became more apparent to me was that a lot of activism is getting at the effect, rather than the cause. I want to try to address things before they become a problem – get to kids before they become Nazis, get to kids before they are stuck in this path where they hate themselves and it’s manifesting itself in other ways, address children as children before things go south and they feel stuck. So that’s when becoming a teacher became like, ‘Yes, this is it. This is what I need to do.’ The program I’m in is very social justice focused, and it’s good to see that there are other like-minded people in this community that are like, ‘Yes, we need to make some significant changes and education is a way to do that.’ To talk to the youth and to engage with the youth, and see where they’re at.”
“Kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. So many of my students know so much more about the world than I did when I was a student.”
“That’s been heartening in its own regard. But it’s made me wonder even more ‘Okay, what can we do as teachers to not be reinforcing stereotypes? To not be reinforcing oppression? To not be doing X, Y and Z that is leading to these situations like the election?’ The other huge element is that being an art teacher I still get to be creative, I still get to make things, and I get to make things with students.”
“So many of my students have never been in an art class before. They’re 15 years old and they’ve never been in an arts class. And part of my soul just cries. If you don’t know how to create something, if you don’t know how to make something out of nothing, how limited is your life experience going to be? You can explore identity, you can explore social problems, you can do all this stuff via art and via other creative mediums, like theatre, that are not possible in other forms of thinking. Creative thinking is one of the most in demand skill sets in the workforce. Everybody’s looking for creatives. So many kids are going through life with limited access to art or poor arts education that’s really just focusing on the product and not the thought process. That’s something I’m really looking to change, as much as one art teacher can. Bringing in the idea that this is a way you can think about life, and not just about this clay bowl that you are making.”
“And, as to where I’m going and where I’ve come from…Maybe I’m rare, but as a kid I was never like, ‘I’m going to be an astronaut!’ I never had the answer to that, ’What are you going to be when you grow up?’ question. But, the thing that has stuck with me is art. My career is changing as I move towards arts education. I’m changing where my money is coming fomo. I’m changing the hoops I have to jump through and the effect I have on other people, probably. But, it’s still about art and fostering creativity, fostering thought.”
You can check out Kaye’s scenic design on This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. Keep an eye out and know that anywhere you see her name, that theatre was lucky to get their hands on her talent.