Magical realism and rituals: an interview with Kerry Kastin

For Decent Company June: secrets, Kerry Kastin will be performing a piece about a woman who returns to her childhood home only to find a long-lost item: a jar that she whispered secrets into during her childhood. Kerry sat down with producing director Josh Boerman to talk about the piece, the Berlin Wall, and the power of confession.

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JOSH BOERMAN: What you’re doing is an in-character monologue with a very clear fourth wall. And I’m curious what inspired the idea behind it. I mean, tell me a little bit about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

KERRY KASTIN: Well, we talked a little bit at the work in progress about magical realism. ‘Cause there’s a sort of drudgery to trying to talk about real life through real life. And so if we remove some of the real life rules, it becomes a little easier to look at the way real life works.

Kind of like what satire and sci-fi borrow from is like, well, if we change this thing, what do we know about humanity? What stays the same, right? So I like magical realism for that. Magical, as opposed to satire or sci-fi or whatever because I want to be able to play with whatever we’re playing with and let it resonate. Sci-fi, I think you sort of need to know a lot, whereas magical realism, you can just say, “Well, what if,” and tweak it. I saw Anne Washburn’s—

JB: Oh, Antlia Pneumatica, at Playwrights. Yeah.

KK: Did you see that?

JB: I did not.

KK: Well, I guess spoiler alert, there’s one character that was maybe dead the whole time and died before the play even started, but whom everybody interacted with as what they would have normally. And they don’t sort of realize it until the end when this last character shows up, and she goes through this very energetic “this is why I’m late” monologue, which includes the fact that that guy has been dead for a while.

JB: So in your play, not to give too much away, but it’s a woman who is cleaning out a house and is finding some things that are treasures that have been hidden away for a while. And it’s a bit of a surprise, right?

KK: Yeah. It’s a surprise for her for sure. And what’s nice is, I like when characters find out they’re in a magically real world and don’t know that from the top.

JB: What do you mean by that?

KK: Well, in Antlia Pneumatica, they assumed they were all going to a cabin that they’d all been going to for years and years and years, and that nothing was different about this time. One of their fathers who owned the house had died, and so they were coming to sort of mourn him together.

They had the ashes, and so they were going to spread them over the grounds of the cabin. For all their intents and purposes, this was a sort of solemn, but the guy was old, so sort of joyous gathering and celebration of life. And then they find out at the end (LAUGH) that they’ve been interacted with in a very supernatural or inexplicable way.

And so that’s sort of what I was looking at with this one. Yeah, she had a sort of weird habit or comfort mechanism growing up, but she didn’t anticipate existing beyond the realm of what she put into it. Like, she didn’t think that, “Oh, this is going to come back in my face in a very magical way,” she just thought she was coping with her life.

JB: Oh, so in your play, your character was under the assumption that when she was told to speak her secrets into this jar, it was just a thing that she was doing. It wasn’t, like—

KK: Yeah. It starts young enough that there’s probably some initial belief.

JB: Imagination.

KK: Right, right. That they’re kept safe in this place, but not that they remain intact, you know? But when you learn things young, you forget that you believe in them, you know what I mean? They’re still in the realm of fact when you’re learning them. Like, Santa Claus existing and brushing your teeth to avoid cavities are all in the same category for a long time.

JB: Right, right.

KK: And so it’s not something you think about. You forget that you had that weird belief.

JB: Yeah, and it’s a powerful thing when those beliefs start rushing back.

KK: Yeah, yeah.

JB: And I think that also is part of becoming an adult as well, is taking all of those things that you’ve experienced, all of those things you’ve learned, and being like, “Well, this is clearly bullshit—”

KK: Yeah.

JB: “—this is clearly important, and this, I don’t know.”

KK: ‘Cause it can be dumb stuff. Like, I remember, I must have been so old. I think I was out of college. Like, 23, 24. Just because this never came up. I was thinking about the Berlin Wall, right? This is gonna sound so dumb.

So I remember thinking, like, when you’re thinking about the Berlin Wall, great. It’s just this wall that went through Berlin, a wall that separated East and West Berlin. And then I remember thinking finally, one day in my mid or early twenties, why didn’t they just walk around the wall?

Well, of course, the wall doesn’t just go straight through the town. It goes around all of West Berlin. But it didn’t occur to me that there would need to be a border on the western side of the city, because they were only worrying about separating East and West Berlin.

I don’t remember if I had that epiphany while I was on stage while hosting an improv mixer, or if I was just recounting it. (LAUGH)

JB: ‘Cause you were doing this really killer improv bit about the Berlin Wall? (LAUGHS)

KK: And you’re like, “Let’s just walk around.” I must have had it in close proximity to hosting that show, because I wouldn’t have brought it up unless it were like, “Guys, did you realize? It must have been a circular wall.”

JB: And everyone was like, “Uh, yeah.”

KK: I kid you not, a couple people were like, “Oh yeah!” But it’s not like— I didn’t believe that there was just a wall that separated the city, it was just—

JB: You never thought about it.

KK: Never thought about it, right. And so it’s sort of in that world. The Berlin Wall is round, not straight.

JB: Right. And when you speak secrets into a jar, they stay there metaphorically, not literally. Or do they?

KK: Yeah. Right. And so when she’s opening it, she’s just sort of anticipating an emotional release.

JB: Right. Just to remember the act, the physical act of doing a thing.

KK: Yeah.

JB: Well, because there’s also a lot of power in ritual, and in the things that we just do for the sake of doing them because it makes us feel more grounded.

KK: Yeah, absolutely. I come from a Catholic family of military parents, so ritual is king. (LAUGHS) Absolutely. And I don’t practice as much anymore, but I remember also when I was in college, because at college you decide whether you’re going to uphold certain rituals that you adhere to. And I remember when I would go to confession, if it had been a long time, I would just cry.

‘Cause it’s, like, such a release. And when you go all the time in school, it’s bad and good, right? Which is why I’m sort of on the fence about practicing it now, because it’s sort of an external forgiveness component, where, like, you really gotta learn how to forgive yourself, or you are not going to do very well for very long.

But as a kid, this is what the priest does. They forgive you, and you feel better about it when you leave. And I remembered all the feeling betters, and I hadn’t quite learned how to forgive myself yet. So when I would go there, before I’d said very much— like, there’s the “Bless me father for I have sinned; it has been however long since my last confession.”

And then it was just as recounting these things, I was like, “I’m going to be forgiven today. I’m going to feel so much better.” So, yes, I believe in the power of ritual. (LAUGHS)

JB: You talk about confession and, for that matter, what your character does in the play, which is essentially a form of confession. All of that is very private, very personal, just you to yourself, essentially. How important do you think it is to share our secrets with other people?

KK: I do think there’s a burden and a weight to deciding actively to not share things. Just like any decision is a burden, ’cause now an action must follow, right? So if you decide you’re going to withhold things, that takes action. That takes, like, “Okay, I have to be cognizant of every time I’m talking to Josh, I’m not going to mention the fact that I had bacon for breakfast even though I’m a vegetarian or whatever.” I didn’t.

JB: You disgust me. (LAUGHS)

KK: I didn’t, I didn’t. I don’t eat bacon. But I have to decide, right, that if I do that, I’m actively withholding something. Versus, to sort of jump off the same example, if I go to a restaurant and I’m fairly confident that they use chicken stock in cooking that rice, I’ll in some cases let the restaurant keep those secrets from me if it’s, like, more burdensome to my life to know this information.

So I think it depends. I mean, of course you build relationships off of vulnerability and intimacy, right? Like, I am sharing this with you, therefore I trust you, and you can see my trust through the sharing.

This is not what you asked, but I’ve gone back and forth on— not that this has been relevant to my life recently, but it was when I was first dating, is cheating and things like that. And, like, what about those— I think there are secrets that sharing them does more damage than withholding them.

So, there’s no one answer to— I mean, thinking about Cristina’s story, you know, my sense is that she wasn’t talking about that relationship, while it was happening, to other people. And now there’s power in a release of sharing that secret.

Whereas, I don’t think that guy’s marriage is going to be any better if he tells his wife about that relationship. I think it’s actually going to be better if he doesn’t.

JB: Right.

KK: Not to say anybody should be cheating and not talking about it.

JB: But there’s value in confessing certain secrets maybe to ourselves and allowing us to live with the implications of what that is for us personally—

KK: Yeah.

JB: —for to a priest, or a therapist. (LAUGHS) Or whoever it is.

KK: Whatever your modern confession is, yeah.

JB: But sometimes you’ve just gotta keep things to yourself.

KK: Yeah. I think to the improvement of a relationship. Because you have to think about— and we talk about this in acting all the time too, is what is your desired effect from the other person? And what do you want by sharing what you’re sharing?

And most of the time when people share that, they’re saying they wanna be honest, but really they just wanna be forgiven by some external source. And that’s a lot of burden to put on another person.

JB: Because what if they don’t wanna forgive you?

KK: Right. And they have to now live with the actions that you took in their own life, whereas they were sort of ignorantly blissful about it before. Now that means you’ve still got to work on your relationship. (LAUGHS) But there’s sharing that’s good, and there’s sharing that’s bad.

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