BRATTLEBORO—Kali Quinn is a goldmine of creativity. Whether performing, teaching, mentoring, or facilitating, she brings her artistry and skills as a creative doula to so many different venues, including Sandglass Theater, New England Center for the Circus Arts, Brown University medical school, and Full Circle Festival, to name just a few.
With an entrepreneurial spirit, Kali continually develops and expands her repertoire. As one review said, “There’s no telling where this effervescent artist will alight next.”
I really encourage everybody to look at Kali’s website, where she’s given us a really wonderful picture of what she’s doing, what she’s done, and how she has come home to these various places and performs in her various ways.
The site also offers excerpts from her wonderful 2016 book, I Am Compassionate Creativity. The book’s official description: “Part memoir, part field guide, part curriculum, through her life’s work in Compassionate Creativity, Kali Quinn weaves a tapestry of experiences into an inspiring, funny, moving, and magical testament to the abounding resiliency of the human spirit.”
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Wendy O’Connell: You have been involved in so many different things locally over the years, and southern Vermont is one of your home bases. And we’re glad for that. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your path.
Kali Quinn: I was always a person who loved to do everything and that was always a challenge because I wanted to be involved with everything. So for me, the best way to go forward was to do theater, because then I would get to continue doing everything and playing with everything and learning about everything through the art of performance and storytelling.
And that that took me into the creation of my own work in northern California at a school called the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. It was all about being a creator and not being just a waiter, in all senses.
And little by little, that led me to a theater company in my 20s called Gutworks, and to this place — specifically to Athens. One of my company partners had a home here and we came up for the summer to the Putney School to teach. And then our company really found it to be so generously creative and welcoming that we started to make work here and share work here.
And I did the Vermonter thing of running around to a lot of the different places: working at the Bellows Falls Opera House, running down to New England Youth Theatre and doing a little bit there. This place set me even further on a path of what it means to collage a life as an artist: being available to do a lot of things and continually listening to my gifts and in which direction they wanted to go.
I live now between here and Providence, R.I., where I’ve done a lot of teaching.
W.O.: And you’re doing more and more workshops in smaller and smaller venues as you go forward?
K.Q.: My work has become more and more small and more and more specific. I do two solo shows — “Overture to a Thursday Morning” and “Vamping” — that are very physical performances, using 1950s objects that were bought in barns around this area.
At first, I was making those shows because they were around subjects of grief and loss and elder care that were moving in me. And little by little, as I performed those shows over a 10-year period at festivals and theaters throughout the country, it helped me to find the specific audience for them.
I create my art first through my own questions and listening about things that I don’t have answers to. Little by little, that takes me on a journey to meet the audience who is maybe also asking those questions or wants to create a vocabulary or culture around those unanswerable questions.
So that’s taken me much more into medical spheres. Now I work with a lot of medical practitioners at universities and in much smaller venues, and I go into homes and do story readings or concerts.
So I’m now performing for five people, as opposed to in my 20s, when it was about “Where’s the next bigger audience?” or “How’s the audience of 100 going to take on this story?” Now, I want to eat dinner with the people and get to know them and talk more about the work.
W.O.: So you’ve actually really followed an intuitive path: going from something that really comes out of you and bringing it to an audience. I’m fascinated by the fact that you’re in the medical sphere. What’s that like? How do people respond?
K.Q.: At first, when I started going into more festivals that had medical practitioners — like the Full Circle Festival in Burlington that was looking at the heart and art of aging — in the audience were different stakeholders than I was used to. Doctors and folks from councils on aging were responding to my piece in very specific ways, and because of their specialty or how they had thought about the subject material, they were teaching me more about what the piece was.
So little by little, that took me into realizing that these pieces could be brought into a medical center to help teach about patient/provider communication and to help look at case studies through empathy.
I was at Wake Forest University Medical Center recently. I used to feel uncomfortable in that space because I thought, “I’m not a doctor, you know?” And now I realize the importance of being an artist in that space and carrying in my weird old objects and my therapy dog, who goes with me there.
And as soon as I walk in, people start looking: this is weird, this is not something that we’re used to having in our space. And I believe in changing the atmosphere of that place and the active creativity being shared there.
The space feels very much like a laboratory sometimes. I move the chairs into a circle (if it’s OK) and I shift that space right away so that when people walk in, it feels different.
Then the first thing we do is sing. And at first you see everybody kind of go, “Oh, no — what else is she going to make us do?”
We sit in a circle and reflect on how are we relating to one another differently, on how different we feel because we just started by singing together.
When I asked one practitioner at Wake Forest how that moment affected them, they said that it was the first moment of peace that they had felt in their entire day. It was 7:30 at night.
So I’m really able to meet the folks there where they are but then also open it up to much more storytelling that can also include their personal stories. Usually that medical sphere is kept to professional terms.
W.O.: So over the course of a workshop or a class they also get to participate with their story.
K.Q.: Yes, exactly. One of the pieces that I do actually looks at a local woman and friend Rupa Cousins and the end of her life. It’s only about a seven-minute performance, but I think of it more as a sharing that I knew I needed to do as part of a healing process in my own grieving.
When I share that piece with practitioners, it completely opens up all of their stories about people in their own personal lives or people who they have lost as patients. They are then able to talk about grief because of me sharing so personally, through art, and not just asking them to talk about something.
It really starts energy moving in a different way. And I think about a lot of what I do now feels like the un-lodging of energy: energy that doesn’t want to move.
That program specifically is called “The Movement of Grief.” And more and more places are asking for it and asking to talk about grief and how that can be included in the conversation.
W.O.: And having it be part of curriculums and part of the learning process. These are mostly students in medical school?
K.Q.: Medical students and practitioners. Sometimes there’s chaplains as well in the room. At Duke University recently, I worked with freshmen who were thinking about being pre-med.
So it’s really interdisciplinary space where I get them to light up about why they chose to take classes in end-of-life ethics or patient/provider communication. They’re 18 year olds thinking about these things. It’s also very inspiring, because it feels like the world is only going to get more amazing.
W.O.: It’s very exciting to hear that kids who are studying a very clinical kind of discipline are also getting this kind of input at the same time. It’s expanding everything about them, and they’re going to be different practitioners because of it.
K.Q.: More and more, there’s a thought now that a subset of the medical curriculum should be what’s called “medical humanities.”
W.O.: This brings us to this whole idea of creative culture and also compassion. Here in Brattleboro, there’s a new series that just started up of different groups of people coming together and talking about compassion in the community. So there is definitely a shift happening.
K.Q.: Definitely. I had a student a few years ago ask me, “You do all these different things in all these different places. Seems like you’re running around a lot. Like what is it that you do?” And it was one of my students teaching me, which happens all the time.
So I really looked at old notebooks. I had been in a way running around in many different places for over 15 years and I was trying to ask myself, “What is this really about?”
And the question became: “How do we cultivate compassionate creativity in ourselves and our communities, and how is that a reflective thing?”
So it’s both: us and our communities, not just helping our communities but also nourishing us. It just feels like that’s in the water of the culture here in southeastern Vermont. All of it’s a real hub and magnet, and there is a language of creativity and compassion brought out in each individual in different ways.
W.O.: Kali, in the midst of all of these different workshops and facilitating, you’ve also written a book and created an audiobook from it. A new experience, right?
K.Q.: It’s a totally new experience. As a theater artist for so many years, I was used to making something, sharing it with an audience, and having the opportunity to change it in the middle.
When I was 35, I needed to take stock. I’d lived in a lot of places, and I knew that I wanted to write out the stories of my life so far. At first, I didn’t know if I was going to share these stories or, if so, in what form. But I knew that it was important for me and my process.
I was teaching at Brown University, and I would say to my students who are running around like crazy and not sleeping and eating: “It’s not just about ‘The show must go on.’ You are the show. Right? So the show doesn’t go on if you don’t go on.”
I started really thinking about how, as an artist, we might take better care of ourselves and how, as human beings, we might take better care of ourselves. I let that be part of the process.
I realized I had become a little bit empty. I was still doing stuff, but my original intentions had shifted.
So in taking better care of myself, I took a little time off and I called it my low-input-low-output diet. I didn’t see any theater, I didn’t teach.
So I took time to write. And that writing was based on a journal entry that I found from when I was 23. Our younger selves were so wise and give us raw material: they were thinking about all these things but without all the layers of life on yet.
That journal entry was advice to a young artist like myself. There I found 111 written ideas, or what I now call values, around what it meant to take care of ourselves, to learn about work and love and relationships and play and enjoying myself and life and taking care of our communities, too.
So I thought, “Wow! I wrote this list. Where did these come from? Why is young 23-year-old me thinking about these things so specifically?”
I took time to write a story for each one. At first, I shared those stories with 111 people around the world for 111 days. It was really amazing: I would go to so many places where I loved so many people. I always said that I wanted to bring all the people I love into one neighborhood. That’s the world, you know.
At this point, those people who had been in my life had spread out — they move, you know. Doing this project online and having people share stories — people who are friends, family, colleagues, even some I didn’t know at all — felt like this joining of community around these ideas of compassion and creativity.
And when I shared stories that were very personal, some of the ones that were most difficult to tell, people would say to me, “Thank you for telling that story. No one ever talked about that. I have a similar story.”
I had done theater that wasn’t necessarily autobiographical. So I thought, “OK, maybe I should look at this a little bit more, or maybe I do have stories to tell.”
So I took the time to write them out. And little by little I said, “OK, this is going to be a book. I think it’s an object that people can have and I can give it to them and then leave with them, which is a very different experience than theater.”
And I would write a very different book today than I would have when I wrote this in 2015. I would write a very different book yesterday or tomorrow. Our memories change and evolve.
A lot of the stories in the book take place in this area and around what it was to have a theater company here; what it was to move to an area more rural than any where I had lived; how this place was similar to and different from Buffalo, where I grew up; what it meant to have a relationship end in this place and how to have a continued relationship with this place, one that was my own.
And so the stories cover a lot of that time. I finished that in the end of 2015 and thought, “Well, how do I really finish it?” Because these stories could keep changing.
I thought as a theater artist: “Well, I have to take them on tour.” I would take them around the country and do the reverse of what I did in my 20s. So I would go from Providence, R.I., where I then lived, to Buffalo, where I grew up, by way of California, where I had gone to school and done a lot of work.
We were talking before about the performances and ideas around creativity becoming smaller and more intimate. That was very much what this was. It was going into people’s homes and asking them to consider their home a center for compassionate creativity.
I think of Jerry Levy here in Brattleboro, who is a great teacher for me. He had people over to his house and would have somebody perform a play in his living room and then afterwards have a dinner and say, “OK, let’s talk about it.”
I would be there thinking, “Oh, this is a play that will then go on to big theaters.” But often, the person would say, “I just want to do this — you know, just be with just these people in this place and be able to share.”
And so a former student and I went around the country — 12,000 miles over three months, camping in a van with my dog, Max. The experience was outside of an institution, outside of academia, outside of any kind of business model, really. We wanted to be compassionate creativity all the time.
So it started as my 23-year-old self reflecting. Who knew that years later it would really be a kernel for reconnecting with so many people in my life — family, friends, colleagues all throughout the country — and connecting them to one another?
One of the last performances — or sharings, as I thought of them — was in fall of 2016 at Everyone’s Books here. And that was a really nice way to bring it home.
It’s one thing to write a story to remember something. It’s another thing to be in the place where that story took place, remembering that, and seeing some of the people who were part of that story, people who maybe remember the story a very different way. There you can let that story continue to move and evolve, and you can realize how much of an effect that place and those people had on you.
W.O.: And the format itself is so interesting — sort of like house concerts. You’re creating this format where everybody can participate, and the effect of that is very different for all of the individuals and for the group itself. You’re creating a community right there. It’s really exciting. I mean it’s really a new idea.
K.Q.: We just asked for a community potluck, and we would show up and share something. It almost felt like we were the beggars coming in for the night.
Communities would be so welcoming and so grateful. People were always surprised at what we did. We ate together. We shared stories. We shared stories that maybe we didn’t think we would share. And we witnessed one another, we saw one another. We met neighbors we hadn’t met before. That simple. And the shift in people when they were leaving — it was monumental.
It kept teaching us. It kept energizing us.
W.O.: And after going around the country like that in sort of a nomadic, itinerant kind of way, what’s next for you?
K.Q.: It’s a great question. I lived my life for a long time saying yes to a lot of things and just showing up and being present and seeing what happened and then letting the connections go from there. I feel as an artist and a creator and a human, I’m in more of a phase now of discernment of how do I really want to use my time.
I think through writing the book and through physical injury and through now being 38, I’m slowing down and simplifying in a great way. That includes simplification of lifestyle.
I really want to continue to deepen my relationship with communities where I’ve been — specifically, southeastern Vermont/Brattleboro and Providence, R.I.; I now live just south of there in a smaller town, Riverside.
I’m returning to Durham, North Carolina and to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. And it feels like those return communities all feel like homes in varying levels with various needed rhythms. I’m trying to see what it means to actually live between all of those places.
Rupa Cousins used to help me because I always had this thing about where should I be: Should I live in Vermont, or should I live in Rhode Island? She would always say, “Well, why is it ‘or?’ Why couldn’t it be ‘and?’ Why isn’t it both?”
I’m thinking about a real shift in lifestyle to becoming more of a nomad and actually living in a bus and traveling around and doing compassionate acts in exchange for staying in a community or at someone’s home for a little while. I would let that smaller simple lifestyle — a house on wheels — be a teaching within itself.
This is the hatchling. This is where I start. Always. By next spring, I can imagine being in more of that place. And we’ll see about where that bus might park.