Letting it all out: an interview with Kristan Seemel

For Decent Company June: secrets, Kristan Seemel will be telling the story of a life-alteringly mortifying experience. Kristan and Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman sat down to talk about that experience, the dichotomy between fake and real, and the absolute fear that can strike when revealing one’s worst moments.

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JOSH BOERMAN: This is your first time performing in quite a while, is it not?

KRISTAN SEEMEL: Yes. Right after I got to the city, the first project I ever did, we developed and devised a work for Target Margin for one of their festivals of lab work. I got a group of actors together; we devised a work based on The Suicide, which is an old Russian play.

And as we got very close to tech, we realized that we needed somebody to be the tormentor of the cast. Someone to really make the rest of the cast feel the pressure and the burn of the performance. So I went on stage as that character for the three or four performances of that.

JB: Well, I suppose that’s what directors do sometimes, isn’t it?

KS: Yeah. It felt like a natural fit.

JB: Put a little extra pressure on, yeah. And you went to grad school at Brown—

KS: Brown/Trinity, yeah.

JB: And they do quite a bit of performance stuff, even if you’re studying the directing curriculum, don’t they?

KS: That’s true. We went through most of the actors’ curriculum as part of our three years, especially for the first two and a half years. We were in all of their scene study classes, their voice classes, a lot of speech. All the physical theatre performance, and we had to do showings in front of the entire school along with all the actors. It’s a big part of their curriculum; it’s also part of why I chose to go there.

JB: The show I did last month, that was my first time performing in quite a while as well, ’cause I also primarily direct. And it’s kind of fun to use that muscle again if you haven’t used it in a while. How are you feeling about that?

KS: I feel good. Performing is really scary for me. It’s one of the things that helps my directing, is my level of empathy for it and for what it means to be a performer. So this is good, because it’s a good reminder in a very concrete way of how one empathizes for that experience. Because I’m actually doing it, so I’m actually feeling it.

But I get kind of stage fright, so it’s pretty interesting to watch me perform. When I started to develop my stage fright problem in undergrad and the end of undergrad, one thing that I didn’t lose was my ability to improvise. And also in grad school, clown was much easier for me. So one of the hard parts about it is actually practicing and memorizing.

The one thing that I’m going to do, I have a much easier time just getting up and making my way through it with no plan than when we do have a plan.

JB: But the plan is there. I mean, you’re going to be telling a story about a terrible secret.

KS: Yes.

JB: A terrible, horrible secret.

KS: Yep, one of my terrible secrets.

JB: In far more detail than probably a lot of people are perhaps ready for, but that’s part of the excitement of the story, isn’t it?

KS: (LAUGHS) Yeah. I mean, I’m sharing something, and it was a secret, and it still is a secret in the sense that I haven’t told a lot of people it. But it doesn’t feel as scary in and of itself anymore. Like, it’s not something that I’m as afraid of sharing, because I’ve gotten older.

And as you get older, shit happens to you, and it stops being as important, I guess. The individual bad things that happen in our lives, the things that we’re embarrassed for, become part of a much larger group of embarrassments. (LAUGHS) So they lose their particular weight individually.

JB: So what you’re saying is your whole life has been an embarrassment up to this point. That’s what I’m hearing you say. (LAUGHS)

KS: (LAUGHS) Self-respect has nothing to do with being in a state of shame, I guess. Like, it’s not about avoiding shame or embarrassment. I have broad shoulders, and directing is oftentimes the practice of taking on your own mistakes and other people’s mistakes and just taking responsibility for them so that everyone can move on.

JB: It’s interesting that you mentioned shame because I feel like shame and secrets often go hand in hand. I mean, in the interview that I did with Cristina, she talked a lot about how she’s putting some of her secrets out in the open because she wants to live a life without shame. Do you feel like that’s part of who you are? You want to life your life forthrightly, (LAUGHS) free of shame?

KS: (LAUGHS) Yeah, sure, I agree with that. I think that’s a strong way to live your life. I mean, I don’t have a lot of secrets. That’s why it’s a tough thing for me. I’m a pretty open book. Although the process of writing this has required me to kind of dig into stuff that I didn’t really want to go back— you know, it’s like, don’t wanna relive this stuff.

‘Cause this is from 15 years ago, and I was a totally different person. And I don’t want to be that person from 15 years ago again. But you have to be in order to re-find the thing. And A.J. [Ditty, the piece’s director] has been really good about pushing me about, like, why is it a secret? What is the cost of secrets? What is the shame cost about what you’re doing?

So that’s been really good. Yes, you want to live without shame, but the only way you can actually live without shame is if you’re willing to get in there and wrestle with shame everyday. Or at least address it; at least have your own awareness about what embarrasses you, and realize that you’re being embarrassed. And instead of hiding it or burying it or making it someone else’s fault or turning it on someone else, you can take responsibility for it and just move on, you know?

JB: I think some of the reason that a lot of people try to keep a lot of secrets, sometimes at least, is that they are afraid of some sort of judgment of themselves. If they reveal these things, that what somebody else thinks of me is going to change in a fundamental way.

KS: Right. I mean, that’s what embarrassment is about.

JB: Right. It’s about a part of yourself being exposed.

KS: If you knew this about me, you wouldn’t love me anymore. Or you wouldn’t like me as much as you do, or you wouldn’t feel the same way about me. And I don’t think that that’s true. I mean, once you reach a certain age, everybody knows that that’s not actually true. But it doesn’t change who we are, like, how hard it is.

JB: Well, and also, if you really, truly care about somebody, you’re still going to keep caring about them and you’re still going to keep loving them regardless of what they throw your way, hopefully, right?

KS: I mean, there might be things that are so bad. (LAUGHS) Things that are so terrible that—

JB: That’s the question, right?

KS: —they do fundamentally change how you feel about people. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that this secret is of that nature at all. I think that it felt that way at the time. That’s the thing. Like, fifteen years ago, it totally felt like that. It felt like people couldn’t know this, because I couldn’t live with it.

JB: Oh, interesting.

KS: But now, I mean, it’s so long ago.

JB: So you’re just able to put it into perspective better, that it was one mortifying experience that doesn’t define who you are as a person.

KS: It’s funny; I need to look up the term “mortifying.” Because I believe it means to cast, to put on death. To put death on.

JB: Sure.

KS: And I think that’s actually literally the kind of shame we’re talking about in my piece. Like, I think mortify is actually better than embarrassment or shame. I believe that that is actually the exact word that should be used.

JB: Because you experienced a small death in that moment.

KS: Yes, literally. That it reminded me of my own mortality in a deep, deep, deep way. And that’s what this story’s about. Which is a great thing to tell, I guess. I’m doing the right thing. I’m glad you picked my piece.

JB: Well, because we need stories to remind ourselves of that. Of the fact that we don’t have it all together, and crazy things can happen anytime. It might be your fault, it might not be your fault. But whatever happens, you’ve just gotta buck up and deal with it.

KS: Yeah, you do. That’s how life works. You know, you can’t schedule and write out your life. Crazy curveballs come your way. And how you deal with them and what you do in the context of those crazy curveballs, those are the things that are going to define your character more than the literary plan that you have for your novelistic life.

JB: Right. Or your ten-year career trajectory ideal. None of it is real; it’s all hypothetical.

KS: Yeah. You can try to write the life that you have in your mind, but the life that happens is going to be different, and it’s going to be real life.

JB: And I think that, too, is why— just thinking about, like, reality TV, for instance. This is totally jumping to a different subject, but in reality TV, the worst thing that you can be called is “fake,” right? You wanna be “real.”

But ultimately it comes down to, when you’re experiencing somebody who you feel is fake, it’s because they aren’t open and up front about who they really are. They’re trying to project something and put themselves out, but they’re still hiding behind this massive wall of secrets that they’re keeping between you and them.

KS: Yeah. It’s actually the subject of a friend of mine and often collaborator, Dominic Finnachiaro; he just wrote a play called After Reality that’s about a reality star. And as is typical of the brave writing that Dominic does, he makes the central character this terribly fake— instead of the friend, the “real” guy, you know what I mean? He’s not the hero.

No, the hero is the fake dude, the guy who’s always fronting, who’s always putting it up. And yeah, we get to watch the friction of that, and that becomes the story that unfolds for us.

JB: Considering everything you’ve said, that you have some degree of nervousness, some degree of stage fright, et cetera, are you afraid for what’s gonna happen on Monday?

KS: Yes, I’m very afraid. I’m very afraid. I’m not afraid of telling the secret, really. I’m not necessarily afraid about what the people I know are going to think of me afterwards, or the people I haven’t met who might some day be my friends except that they saw me do it. (JOSH LAUGHS) But I’m more afraid of just getting in front of a very large group of people, which is actually super boring, honestly.

So I don’t want to make a big deal about it. But yeah, I’m fucking terrified, actually. And that’s fine. Because I went to theatre school, and I love performers and I watch them all the time. And I know that I can just buck up and use it.

What I’m talking about, there’s a lot of sense memory still left over from it, and we did have a moment in rehearsal today where I was a little bit worried about whether I was going to be able to do that in front of a group of people.

JB: Maintain your composure?

KS: Maintain my composure. I’ll be a live wire because I’ll be up in front of a whole bunch of people. It’s a piece about— A.J. said this, and he’s right. You’ve gotta pop the cork on the bottle and pull your heart out, you know? Gotta expose yourself. Gotta let it all be out there.

To purchase tickets for Decent Company June: secrets, click here.

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