Words First: Talking Text in Opera

Kanika Ambrose

August 03, 2020 Keturah Stickann Season 1 Episode 6
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Kanika Ambrose
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Kanika Ambrose
Aug 03, 2020 Season 1 Episode 6
Keturah Stickann

Keturah has a conversation with Canadian playwright and librettist, Kanika Ambrose.  They discuss her upcoming opera with Ian Cusson, Of The Sea, her work at the Curtis Institute on Anansi and The Great Light, her Caribbean heritage and how it informs her writing, performing in one’s own work, and much much more.

Show Notes Transcript

Keturah has a conversation with Canadian playwright and librettist, Kanika Ambrose.  They discuss her upcoming opera with Ian Cusson, Of The Sea, her work at the Curtis Institute on Anansi and The Great Light, her Caribbean heritage and how it informs her writing, performing in one’s own work, and much much more.

[Mozart played on the piano] - 00:00


Keturah 00:18

This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera.  I’m Keturah Stickann.


[Mozart played on the piano] - 00:24


Keturah 00:52

I have some terrific news concerning John de los Santos, whom I spoke to last week.  We discussed the world premiere of his opera, The Copper Queen, at Arizona Opera with composer, Clint Borzoni.  It was supposed to open this fall, but has been sitting in a bit of Covid limbo.  Late last week, Arizona Opera announced a reimagined season, stating that The Copper Queen would become a motion picture, filming this fall and set to be released in the spring of 2021.  Congratulations to John, Clint, and the whole team.  Go to azopera.org to learn more about all of the cool ways they’re creating opera this season.  This week is an interview with Canadian playwright and librettist, Kanika Ambrose.  Kanika is an alum of Tapestry Opera’s LibLab, based in Toronto, and came out of that with the beginnings of an opera with composer Ian Cusson called Of The Sea.  This piece is now being developed into a full opera for Tapestry, set to be premiered in 2023.  As a playwright, she was one of Cahoots Theater Company’s Thirty for Thirty Theater Makers for their 30th anniversary season, has had her work presented at Obsidian Theater and the Rhubarb Festival, and is currently the artistic producer of Paprika Festival in Toronto, whose mission is to generate opportunities for young artists to lead their own creative process with the support of their peers and professional mentors.  Kanika and I sat down last week to talk about all of these things as well as her other operatic ventures, how her Black Caribbean descent informs and shapes her work, and if you listen closely, there might have been a mention of how cool it would be to be able to shoot lasers from one’s abdomen.  Take a listen.


So actually I want to start by talking a little bit about your background, because I find, as I’ve been speaking with librettists, that the road to writing for opera always has strange twists and turns.  We don’t just start there.  You have a theater performance background, is that right?


Kanika 02:55

Yes.  So, I went to theater school, trained as an actor, acted for a while.  Really I should go back.  So, like most people, I started the theater background in high school, but I went to a high school that was wonderful, and my drama teachers were two women, incredibly progressive, and we weren’t just doing, like, plays that were already in the canon, already written.  We were writing and creating our own work about the things that, you now, teenage girls were going through at the time.  So, like, writing was inextricably linked to my performance from the beginning.


Keturah 03:44

What a lucky way in, you know?  To have that experience.


Kanika 03:48

Yeah, exactly.  So, I started writing and performing for theater at the same time.  It was hand in hand for me, and it always has been that way.  So then I went to theater school, acted for a while, really missed my...realized that my connection to theater and the reason that I was doing it was because...was the writing, and the importance of the types of stories I was telling, and it wasn’t just the acting and performing for me.  So I decided that where my voice and the importance of my work really lied was in my writing, so I decided to focus on that 100%.


Keturah 04:29

Okay.  And when was that?  Was that in college or was that after college?


Kanika 04:36

That was after.  I think I was about like 22-ish.  I had spent a summer doing outdoor Shakespeare, and I was like, “honestly, why am I doing this?”  [laughter]


Keturah 04:45

[laughter] Well, I think we all go through that experience at some point, right?  As soon as you have a fly fly in your mouth while you’re trying...you’re just like, “Wait a minute.  Let’s reevaluate.”


Kanika 04:56

I know.  Exactly.  So, yeah, that was my journey into being a writer proper instead of a performer.


Keturah 05:09

And you’ve been a performer, you’ve been an assistant director.  I saw that on line.   And also, I just have to mention this because I’m a former dancer, that you started or were in a Dominican bélé dance group called Mabuya Dance Company.  Is that still around and are you still involved with them?


Kanika 05:27

Yeah.  I started that, again, in my early twenties.  For me, my culture...my family is from Dominica, has been a huge part of my upbringing, my life, and also still my art.  And so I was really interested in learning. I went to Dominica, I learned bélé dance and then I started a company here.  I was teaching young girls between 4 and 12-ish.


Keturah 05:57

Oh, how cool.


Kanika 05:58

I think that they still get together and perform.  I don’t as much anymore, but the group is still doing their thing.


Keturah 06:07

Yeah, I just...I love looking at well-rounded artists.  I feel like there’s a lot who dabble in a lot of things, and we get pigeon-holed into one space, and sometimes we want that, and that’s okay.  But I think other times, then, you look at the greater experience, and it’s all of those little things we stick our fingers into that develop the artist that we are now.  I was fascinated when I saw that, because I thought, “Ah, yeah, she also dances.  That’s great.”  Can you talk a little bit about...so you’re second generation Canadian then.  Your family is from Dominica.


Kanika 06:45

That’s right.


Keturah 06:46

And so, does...you said that ancestry, your Caribbean descent influences what you write.  Does being the child of immigrants do the same thing?  Do you feel like a lot of the subject matter you cull or pull from that part of your life?


Kanika 07:03

Yeah.  I mean, it really does.  Like, a lot of the issues going on for Caribbean people, whether they’re legal or illegal immigrants, really is a big part of my life and resonates with me, and those are the stories that really do come to important and prevalence in my life and in my art.  Also I just feel that still it’s...our stories are still underrepresented.  I find that a lot of times black stories can be..I don’t know...just broadly called black stories, but there are specific communities that, like, I’d like to hear...you know, that you want to hear some more specifics about.  Because those stories are important to me, and those people are important to me, those are stories that are a big part of my work, yes.


Keturah 08:10

The notion of being like a black playwright or a woman playwright, and that I...I saw in some places, because you know, I did a lot of research on line.  I Googled you.  That you’re referred to in some places as a black playwright, in some places as a woman playwright.  And you are in fact a black woman, so these qualifiers I guess make sense in a certain way.  But at the same time, I always feel like when I see that...and I mean I get this just from the female side of always being called a woman director, right?  That these qualifiers get placed on top of us, and they seem like categories that take us away, as you were saying, from the playwriting canon as a whole.  Do you feel like the qualifiers are important, or do you look more forward to a time when your work isn’t put under a separate label, or do you feel like those labels help bring representation to communities that need a little bit more push?


Kanika 09:10

I think that the problem is the canon itself, and I think everyone already...not everyone...but I think that’s a conversation that’s already being had.


Keturah 09:21

Yes, definitely.


Kanika 09:23

I think that it’s important...like, the fact that I’m a black woman is the most important part of who I am for me.  So, I think it’s important that that’s acknowledged, that that’s who I am, and it informs my work, it makes my work what it is.  So I don’t want it to be, like, removed, you know, as a qualifier of my work.  I feel like it is a huge part of my work, but it just needs to be that that can also be part of the canon, and also that people can identify with that...the same way that, like, black artists have had to identify with, like, white artists, or white men artists from the beginning of time.  You know what I mean?  I think that it’s more, like, maybe don’t think that my work is not for you...not you, but like people just because, oh it’s a black...


Keturah 10:22

The general “you” sure.


Kanika 10:23

Yeah.  It’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s a black female playwright writing about black people.  That can’t be something that I could like, so...”. [laughter] Look inward, and see where that comes from.


Keturah 10:39

So maybe it’s actually a completely...it’s about reframing the conversation in a totally different way, then sort of making it too homogenized of just, you know, throwing everything into one category and saying, “those are plays,” but actually it’s about seeing how we can connect to more parts of what the world offers.  So let’s...thank you for that..  Thank you for that answer.  I want to look at some of your work here.  I want to actually start with your libretto work since this is a podcast about opera.  But, so, how did you get started in opera? Where did your first work with opera come from?


Kanika 11:16

Yeah.  So, my first...I guess I’ll start a little bit, so I’ll go back to high school.  I’ve been an opera fan since I was in high school. Weirdly enough like I come from an area in Toronto that’s very like...I don’t even know what you would call it, but like, diverse.  So, we were taken as, like, fifteen year olds on a school trip to see Rigoletto at the Canadian Opera company.  Very strange place to take fifteen year olds from, like, I don’t know, Jamaica, and wherever else... [laughter]


Keturah 11:52

Right [Laughter]


Kanika 11:53

But I was like the only person in the group that loved it.  It was like, “Oh my god, this is totally like my life.  I love this.”  So, I’ve always loved opera, but I never thought there’d be a place for me in it, or even thought of myself as like...I never thought that that could be a place that’d be open...an avenue that’d be open for me.  And then a few...couple years ago?  Two years ago?  Yeah.  Two years ago this wonderful company in Toronto called Tapestry Opera contacted me, letting me know that they were doing the Composer Librettist Laboratory, which is like LibLab for short.


Keturah 12:33

Right.  I saw LibLab.  Good.  I was going to be ask you about it because it’s such a...LibLab being like “librettist,” but it is actually a marriage of composer and librettist within the lab, is that correct?


Kanika 12:46

Yeah.  It’s great.  It’s like there’s four librettists, four composers, and we had ten days straight together and we created four new works.  So we had about a day and a half?  Yeah...two days with each pairing to create like a five or ten minute piece.  So we created some amazing quick fire pieces in that ten days.  It was exhausting.  But from that, a few pieces were selected to be showcased...they have a show called The Tapestry Briefs that happens like a month after that, and a few of my pieces were in that. And it was great, like I met a lot of folks.  People started wanting to work with me.  And I was like, “Damn, like this could be a thing that I do.”


Keturah 13:38

Sometimes it takes just that one little thing, right?  You walk in the right door and then all of a sudden, there’s the opportunity.  I saw a little of your...and this isn’t Tapestry’s I don’t think, although maybe you got this started at Tapestry, but I saw a little of Anansi and the Great Light, which you did with Nick DiBerardino.  There was a ...that was what you did with Curtis, correct?   With the Girard College kids?


Kanika 14:04

Yes.  Yeah. Yeah,  that was a really great experience as a whole, like not just the piece, but the fact that we got to work with those students from Girard College and how we worked with them.  This was really, like this was Nick and, I think, Mary, who he worked with on this idea to really involve the students from start to finish.  So, they were involved...they contributed to the libretto, they contributed to one of the musical motifs, so ...  I couldn’t go in for the workshops,  but there was a libretto generating workshop...


Keturah 14:51

Oh my gosh.


Kanika 14:52

...where I had an idea that straight off the bat that there’s this character who is The Great Light, the god of the sun, or the great god of everything, but in in this case the sun and the moon.  And I was like, “well, that should be who the students play.  They should be the great god of everything.”  So I was like, “Nick, ask the students, if you were the great god of everything and Anansi the spider asked you to hold his light for him while he went to do whatever he was doing, what would you say?”  And then we got like the smartest, caddiest answers like, “I’d be like, I’m the great god of everything, I don’t have time for you.” Like, “I’ve got to do other stuff.  I’ve got other people to help.”   And then it made me think, “Wow, this great god of everything is really sassy, like really has attitude, and it really took that character in that direction for me. Where I was thinking more like ethereal and majestic, but I was like, no, this person knows their power and is really not putting up with nonsense.


Keturah 16:07

Interesting.  So the kids really shaped that for you.  Really gave you the in.


Kanika 16:13

Yeah, definitely for that character, and also with Nick, I think they..there was...there’s a specific like piece in there, there’s a progression in there that came from them, and it made them more invested in the piece and in the performance.  It was so powerful.


Keturah 16:35

So, talk to me a little bit also about, I’m just going down my list here.  Was Ian CUSS-on?  Is that how his name is pronounced?


Kanika 16:44

Ian COO-San. Yes.


Keturah 16:47

His Of The Sea, was that one of the pieces that you developed in LibLab?


Kanika 16:51

Yes.  And it is being further developed.  I can’t say too much...


Keturah 16:57

That’s what I saw.  It just says, “In development for 2023” and I got very excited for you.


Kanika 17:05

Yeah. Yes.  So, yes, we did start that in LibLab.  A version of it was shown at Tapestry Briefs in 2018, September.  And we are currently developing that further with Tapestry and Obsidion Theater Company, both in Toronto.  But Yeah, Ian’s wonderful.  Thank god.  I’m so, like, fortunate, and like, just happy to be working with him.  Yeah, I think that’s the other thing I love about libretto writing, is that I think that I...fall in love with the composers.  I’m like, “Oh my god, you guys are amazing.”


Keturah 17:42

It’s a thing, right?  As a playwright you don’t get that collaborative art making that I think you do just naturally working on an opera as a librettist I would think.


Kanika 17:54

Yeah, no, definitely.  That is definitely...like, I feel like when it works well, and when you’ve got the right match, the way that they elevate or, like, I don’t even know...yeah, the way that they elevate what was in my head and just make it that much greater, I just love that part of it.  I love that.  It’s just like...and then I feel like I can really...I fall more in love with the piece because I feel like I can, you know, when it’s your own work I find, or when it’s my own work.  I’ll speak for myself.  I find that I can often, it’s hard for me to feel like...to feel like I can say, “Wow, this is a thing of beauty.  This is really great.  This is really strong.”  Like it can be a bit more, “Oh, I don’t know, I would change this.  Maaa maa!”  When it’s the composer as well, I feel like I can appreciate it more also because of the...and be like, “Oh, look at that.  Look at what we did.”  I really dig that.


Keturah 19:16

Do you find ever...are you ever surprised by what comes back musically from words that you hand to a composer?


Kanika 19:27

Absolutely.  I mean, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.  [Laughter]


Keturah 19:33

Right.  Because I’ve spoken to other librettists who say sometimes that, you know, of course in their head they have a very, they have an idea of the mood of what they’re writing, and sometimes a composer comes back and clearly has had a very different idea.  How do you deal with that, when something doesn’t quite sound the way that you anticipated?  Is it...what kind of autonomy do you feel with the words in terms of once you’ve handed them off.


Kanika 19:59

So, I feel like by the time it’s final hand off, we’ve already had those conversations, but, like, I try to at the same time that I’m giving the first draft, I guess, or any draft, to also schedule some time to go through it and say what I was thinking and what I was trying to do, and where their head is at, so I have a chance to make it clear.  But sometimes they’ll do stuff that is surprising and interesting, and I’ll be like, “Fine, go with that and I’ll just, like, write it that way because I like where you’re going.”  But yeah, if it’s later, and I don’t know, it’s something that I really did not think it’s the thing, I will say that.  And yeah, a few times it hasn’t gotten changed, and few times it did, so I think I just kind of let it be sometimes.


Keturah 21:05

Do you feel like you learn a little bit about your own words when you hear them put to somebody else’s music?


Kanika 21:10

Yeah, and I think...I do.  I learn about the characters as well.  I think that I learn each time, and I am a pretty new librettist, but I learn how I can make myself - my intentions clearer, so that I can skip some of the crunchy bits.


Keturah 21:35

I like that.


Kanika 21:38

And I think that’s something I’ll get stronger at with time.  But I think that I am good.  I’m not great, but I am good at perfecting and improving communicating from the get-go what it is that i was trying to do.  I am like...I call myself a backwards writer.  I write less to begin with, like, even in my plays, because I expect...I think that I inately expect that people just understand what I mean.  I’m like, “Of course you should know what I mean,” and so that’s something that I...It lends itself well to when I first started writing librettos because I wasn’t over-writing so much.  I use less words to say what I mean anyway.  But yeah, still sometimes it can be like, just like, I need to get even more specific with the few words that I’m using.


Keturah 22;41

Yeah, it’s interesting because it kind of goes into the next question that I want to ask you because I was thinking about looking at your theatrical works, your playwriting works.  So, I was going to ask if you, if you find that your writing style works well with the operatic form, and it sounds like kind of yes is the answer.


Kanika 22:59

Yeah.  Yes. Yes.  I think it really does.  I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is totally me anyway.”  I don’t like explaining too much.  I’m like, “You fill that in with the music now.  I left space for you.”  [laughter]. Yeah, I think it works really well for me, and yeah, I always end up having to like...my plays are always like short, like 20 pages, and then by the end of it, it’s like 95 pages, and it’s like extracting why do I have to write so much?  So it’s better for me this way, yeah.


Keturah 23:44

So let’s talk about some of your playwriting work.  I was particularly taken...I looked at a number of stuff, but I was particularly taken with the piece Art of Traditional Head Tying, that you did for Toronto Fringe.  I was largely taken because you actually performed that piece yourself.  You played all seven characters, you did that work yourself.  Do you find yourself performing your own work a lot, or was that a different experience to be speaking your own words?


Kanika 24:13

I did a lot when I was younger.  I think that I was like 23 or 24 when I did that one.  And that was the last time I performed at all, slash, no, I did a few plays after that.  But that was the last time I performed my own work.  Mainly, I just...I wanted to, A. I wanted to get out of the genre of writing one person shows.  There’s nothing wrong with them, I just was like, I needed...I wanted to take myself out of the work and start to see how my work moved through other bodies.  I also, like truthfully..I remember one day I was sitting, I was watching an Obsidian show.  Obsidian Theater Company.  I was watching one of their shows and there were two wonderful black actors and I was like, “You guys are great, like, I don’t even need to do this.  I’m good with watching you, and I think that I would just love for you to say my words, so, you do that, and I just want to like make great things for you to say.”  I think it works well for me now because, like, a few times I’ve had to like read...do readings of my own plays by myself and there’s like five characters and I can do all the voices myself.  So, it’s still...I still use that part of me, but not like publicly other than a reading.


Keturah 25:53

Gotcha.  So, are you currently a playwright in residence at Cahoots Theater?


Kanika 26:00

I am.


Keturah 26:02

And do you have a play in development there right now?


Kanika 26:05

Yes.  It’s called Our Place.  It’s about two Caribbean women who are working illegally, if you use that word, but under violation of a visitor’s visa at a Caribbean restaurant.  And they’re trying to find ways to stay in the country legally, and unfortunately/fortunately the easiest way to do that is to find someone who will marry you which obviously comes with a whole host of risks and vulnerabilities.  So, that is in development.


Keturah 26:49

How long have you been working on that play?


Kanika 26:51

Oh my gosh.  I want to say three years.  This was supposed to be the final workshop slash public reading last month, but hey.


Keturah 27:06

But things happen. [Laughter]


Kanika 27:09

Things happen [Laughter].  So, we’ll see when that happens, but yeah.  So that residency will end, oh my goodness, I think it’s done.  Yeah!  Oh my goodness.  Who knows what the theater season is anymore.


Keturah 27:27

Right?  I think I’ve said this a million times, but I just feel like time has absolutely no meaning anymore.  Especially in the arts.  There’s just something about...I feel like we’re all just sort of floating around in this...I don’t know...space, this haze, waiting for something drop and hit the ground, but, it is.  What is our season?  What is a season?  I don’t even understand.


Kanika 27:49

What is a season?  Yeah.  I am also the artistic producer of a youth company called Paprika Festival.


Keturah 28:02

I saw that.  And this is a new appointment for you, correct?


Kanika 28:06

Last year I started in April...May?  Yeah.  But our season was supposed to end in May, at the end of May, but our festival just closed on Sunday, so it’s been a weird extended season in general, and also like...


Keturah 28:23

But you were able to...did you do a virtual season then?  Did it end up being mostly on line?


Kanika 28:30

Yeah, we did a digital festival over the past...from Thursday last week til Sunday.  It went really well, but it ‘s just like...a lot of the participants, and they’re young, it’s a youth arts festival, but they were like, “When is the deadline?  When do you need this thing?”  I was like, “When do I need?”  What does that mean?  I don’t know?  What is time?  So, I didn’t even have a date.  I was like, “This is the date of the festival.  Just get it to me before then..” So that’s what that was.  We just kept extending it. We’re like, “Let’s just give people time.  It really makes no difference.”


Keturah 29:16

Right.  It’s true.  And we’re all sort of floating around trying to figure out how to make things right now.  And it just...I think that time....it goes really fast, and there are times when it feels like you’ve been sitting in a chair for two years, you know?  It’s very strange right now.


Kanika 29:33

I know.  I know.


Keturah 29:37

I don’t quite understand it yet, but you know, someday.  We’ll look back on this and have perspective.


Kanika 29:42

I don’t know.  I don’t know.  And some days I really...like, I think that I recognize this in myself today actually, that I am still at times getting stuck in my previous perception of time, and I mean, some companies haven’t told me that my deadlines have changed for things, so I’m still like, “Oh my god, I need to get these two things done by the end of August, and I don’t know if I can do it because I don’t even know what I’m doing every day.”  So, and then I was like, “If I just tell them, or I ask them, ‘hey, the past few months I don’t even know if I was coming or going.  I just need another month to get my head in the game.”  Like, I’m sure they wouldn’t be like, “No!  The show must go on.”


Keturah 30:37

Because I do find...do you have days where you absolutely have no idea what it is you actually did?  I have these days sometimes where I sit and I think,”I feel like I just stared at the wall for three hours, and I’m really not exactly sure what happened.”


Kanika 30:50



Keturah 30:51

But it just...Yeah, it’s really a fascinating phenomenon that’s happening for so many of us creatives right now.  I want to actually ask you - this has nothing to do with time having no meaning, but can you also talk about your work that you’ve done with the Rhubarb Festival, and what the Rhubarb Festival is?  I love the name.


Kanika 31:11

Oh yeah!  Rhubarb Festival is a festival that is hosted by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is a queer arts theater in Toronto.  They do amazing work, and pivotal work, and like...Rhubarb Festival is really a place where artists can test out new risky work that wouldn’t kind of like have a place or chance to take that risk in other companies and festivals.  And there’s a lot of work that you would not get a chance to experience and see were it not for Rhubarb.  They’re great and the work that I did there...I did a couple things.  So one was, like, I was working on this play called Reception and there were two spaces in Reception.  There’s like the real world and real time, and there was like this space called The Clouds which was like a space where there is no time and people...and like there’s no consequences if you say what you want to say to people or do what you want to do to people.  And I really wanted to test that out, and my dramaturge at the time was also the ...I think it was the artistic producer of Rhubarb Festival or festival producer of the festival.  So I got to try that out there and really experiment with what that looked like along with a collaborator who’s a choreographer.


Keturah 33:01

Oh nice.


Kanika 33:02

Yeah, so I did that there.  It was great.  I learned a lot about the piece.  And another time I did Black Lives, Black Words.  I was asked...and this was a movement that was going around I think the US and then they were branching to Toronto, and then they were in England.  But they were going around asking what Black playwrights - what does Black Lives Matter mean to you?  And then we would respond with a ten minute play that would go on in kind of like a pop-up kind of like a festival, and Rhubarb was hosting it that time, so I wrote a ten minute play as part of that...that was part of Rhubarb that year.


Keturah 33:45

Was that Keep Safe?  Was that the piece?


Kanika 33:47



Keturah 33:48

Mmm hmmm  I think those types of festivals and workspaces  and places are so important to just play with material that...I mean I find it as a director as well to be able to go into festivals where you can fall down a little bit while you’re making things, but you still have the opportunity to perform and to work with people and to develop your ideas.  I think that’s really great.  So, in researching you, I came across a play...so I haven’t really read...I heard a couple of things.  I listened to, like I said, Anansi and The Great Light, and I listened to a little bit, there was a tiny little clip of Of The Sea that I listened to.  And then I haven’t really read anything of yours, and then I came across a play that you just wrote called Jojo, which is, you know, ten minutes long maybe?


Kanika 34:42

Oh yeah!


Keturah 34:43

Yeah, on line, and I just...which, by the way, I loved!


Kanika 34:48

Thank you.


Keturah 34:49

It was really just...I love...It’s just that little microcosm?  That’s the whole thing?  That piece?  Because it’s perfect.  It’s this just wonderful little gem.


Kanika 35:02

Yeah!  That’s so funny.


Keturah 35:05

But you just wrote this piece and so I wanted to ask if you found it hard...and it kinds of leads into what we had been talking about.  Do you find it hard to write at this time, or do you think there’s inspiration happening inside of the weirdness that we’re all experiencing right now?


Kanika 35:20

Well I’ll answer that in two parts.  So, part one:  I wrote that piece, yeah, it was early quarantine and this like great company... I always say every company is great but I really have positive experiences with all these folks.  So this is Convergence Theatre, again in Toronto, it’s run by Julie Tepperman and Erin Willis who are a wonderful power couple in the city.  And they were doing, like, paying artists a fee to respond to these Covid confessions.  Like people were calling or writing in with like a one-line or two-line about something that they’re going through or something that’s going through their mind during Covid, and it’s like in the early early days.  So I got a few, I got a couple prompts, and I picked one that was about...I picked two.  I can’t remember the second one, but the first one was this Grandmother who was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for years for my parents...” not my parents, “my kids to have children and now I can’t even see my grandchildren.”  And that resonated with me because, I guess people are going to know, I’ve told some people...I, I have...recently became pregnant.


Keturah 36:47

Congratulations.  That’s wonderful.


Kanika 36:49
Thank you.  When I say recently, not that recent, but at the beginning of Covid.  So I was like, “Yeah, shit, is this still going to be going on when I have a baby?”  Like, what is that going to look like?  So yeah, so that was what inspired that piece, and just like the protection and wanting the plans that you made to be the same and not wanting to...being rigid and not wanting to adjust to whatever is going on in the world that might screw up the trajectory for your life.  And I’m like, “No!  I said I was going to do this now.  I’m doing it!  I don’t care if the world is ending” and then you grow like super powers because it’s like...


Keturah 37:38

Right.  Which I found....which I just think is fantastic.  We should all grow super powers right now I feel like...


Kanika 37:47

Yeah. I was like why not blast people from your stomach, or wherever I made it blast from.  So that, and in terms of finding it hard to write.  I think that...so like early on, I was like, “Oh my god, Covid 19 is only going to be like two weeks.  This is the one time in my life where I’m actually gonna have time to write these things.”  Because I was supposed to be on tour, and running a theater company, and also pregnant, and also...like...I was already being like how am I going to survive, like, life working 80 hours a week.


Keturah 38:30



Kanika 38:31

Anyway, I was like this is it!  This is the only time I have to write these plays.  So I had a real productivity spike in the first month where I just, like, I finished a draft for something that wasn’t due until the fall, and like really was pushing, and then had a bit of a not such...just kind of like a slower pace, but also there was a lot going on.  I was moving, and if anybody’s been pregnant probably knows that that’s not easy.


Keturah 39:05

It’s not a good combination.


Kanika 39:07

It’s not a good combination of things.  So anyway, that.  And then, yeah, and now I think I’m settling back into...over the past month or so, trying to settle back into a writing routine, so...but also the other thing I was thinking, and I’m sorry, this is a very long-winded answer to your question.


Keturah 39:31

No.  This is great.


Kanika 39:33

The other thing I was thinking was, the things I write, nothing is light, nothing is easy.  Like it’s all challenging, and I had my ways in my regular life to come down from that a little bit, whether it was smelling candles at the store nearby, or whatever it was.  And I was like, what do I do now to get outside of my head after writing about whatever atrocities I’m writing about, so that was, I think, the challenging thing at first that I had to kind of get my head around.  And I’m still trying to figure out.


Keturah 40:21

Yeah.  I think it’s an ongoing process.  This is life long learning, this is not something that I think is necessarily solvable because we’re always walking forward into new stuff.


Kanika 40:35

Always, yeah.  It’s true.


Keturah 40:37

So in that vein, what stories should we be writing right now, or what stories do you feel you should be or that you want to be writing right now.  And I don’t mean that as in, “The time of Covid,” but just you know, looking forward in your life, at the stories you’ve put out there already, and the stories...what do you see in the future of things that you feel like need to be told from your point of view.


Kanika 41:05

Oh, yeah.  So, it’s tricky because I’m right in the thick...I’m writing four pieces right now, so those ones.  But, yeah, I think it’s important to shift, like...what is the word I’m looking for?  To shift the tropes, like those same old narratives...I’m going to speak specifically of black people because that’s who I write about most of the time, but the same old tropes of the things that we want and the things that we do and the struggles that we have, and just broaden the narratives of what black people, what people of color, what indigenous folk can do and want int heir lives, and care about.  You know, it’s not the same things that are constantly in the mainstream media, so I think that the more that work that challenges those narratives and those tropes can get produced and done and seen is the most important.  Also like also same thing with women.  Like strong female characters, diverse female characters doing things that are not like...I don’t know...women get their tropes too, like just continuing to break those things down, so continuing to break those things down.  I remember when I was in school and when ....in my short acting career, I played so many crying moms.  Like, my sons were always getting killed, and I was like for goodness sakes, you know?  [laughter]


Keturah 43:05

Well, I think...you know, it’s interesting because this is such a huge conversation in the opera world as well.  Giant, because if you think about the operatic canon, and just the old operas.  And even in a lot of the operas that are being written just in the last twenty years, there are so many stereotypical ideas about relationships and just the way that people relate to each other and deal with each other, that I think you’re exactly right.  We are very specifically trying to move ourselves away from those lazzi that we all try to like...these stereotypical ideas that we place on characters and just tell some stories that are human.


Kanika 43:54

Yeah.  Quite simply that’s what it is.  Like I try to...without getting too much into specifically what works I’m talking about.  But like I have black male characters who are single fathers, or like they are the main caregiver for their child, and then I have like, I have a play with an older couple in their late seventies who are still having a sexual relationship.


Keturah 44:27

Awesome.  That’s great.


Kanika 44:27

That’s a really volatile one, but it’s a sexual relationship, but I’m like, “These are the things that happen.  These are the things we need.”  And like a woman who would be considered plus size who is the sexy main woman in the thing. And I’m just like, “Why is this a thing...” This is a thing that we need to consciously continue to do, and like...


Keturah 45: 05

Yeah.  Like, why is this a big deal?  This should not be a big deal.  This should just be...this is a story of a person.  This should not be groundbreaking to do it this way.


Kanika 45:16

I know.  I know.  I’m like, they exist.  It happens in life.


Keturah 45:20

Yep.  That’s great. Kanika Ambrose, thank you so much for speaking with me today.  This was a really great conversation, and I can’t wait for both of your plays that are upcoming, for this opera that’s upcoming in a couple of years.  I can’t wait to see more of your work entering the space because I’m looking forward to being able to sit down in an audience someday and actually see something that has your name on it.  So thank you so much.


Kanika 45:50

Thank you Keturah.  Thanks for the interview, for asking me, for the questions, conversation, all of it.


Keturah 45:55

I want to thank Kanika again for a great conversation. You can check out everything she’s up to at her website: Kanikaambrose.com.  Next week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Cori Ellison about the role of dramaturgy in writing words for opera, and we get in depth about the education of librettists and composers, how we could all use a dramaturge in our life, and the art of writing supertitles.  I hope you’ll join us.  Until then, thanks for listening.


[Mozart played on a piano] - 46:23


Keturah 46:29

This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, TN.  Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet.  Thanks for listening, and until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.


[Mozart played on a piano] - 46:48