canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Karen Hines

A Conversation with Karen Hines,
author of The Pochsy Plays (Coach House Books)

Interview by Anne Borden

Karen Hines is the creator/performer of the award-winning solo shows Pochsy's Lips, and Oh, baby (Pochsy's Adventures by the Sea), and Citizen Pochsy, which have toured across North America and in Europe.

In her performances, Hines draws upon bouffon techniques to present the girlish, mercury-afflicted anti-muse Pochsy, an embodiment of the bleak, furious flirtation between the creative instinct and capitalist excess in North American life.

Hinesí trilogy about Pochsy was recently collected into one volume by Coach House. The book is particularly useful for critics who want to get at the core of Hinesí work, as well as actors who are interested in Hinesís performance technique and influences, which she discusses in the text. As well, the collection includes Pochsy composer Greg Morrisonís inventive scores ("The Pochsy Songbook").

An established writer, director and actor, Ms. Hines is a long-time collaborator with Canadian horror clown duo Mump & Smoot, as well as a series regular on Ken Finklemanís "The Newsroom" (CBC). She is currently in production in Calgary with Road Pictures on "Everything's Falling Apart But Everyone's Falling in Love," a short musical film for Bravo!

I spoke with her in Calgary in summer 2005 as she was preparing to head off to the "Everythingís Falling Apart" set.

See also: http://www.pochsy.org 

*

You left The Second City to create the solo show (Pochsyís Lips) that has now become The Pochsy Plays. Why did you decide to go solo?

Well, part of why I went solo was because although I loved the process of improvising and creating scenes collaboratively, there was also something that I wanted to get to on my own that I wasnít going to get to in a group.

While I was at Second City in my final year there, I wrote a solo piece, about four minutes long, called Canada. It was a piece where I embodied the countryÖ (laughs)Ö I wore a hospital gown with a red maple leaf on it and pretended that I was the personification of Canada, whose heart was breaking because of all the prime ministers that had done her wrong. And I found that to be a thrilling experience.

The director who I worked with at Second City at the time, Sandra Balkovske, was someone who I really enjoyed working with, and I told her that I wanted to create a piece that was no longer just Canada but the worldÖ and she agreed to work with me on it.

So you had some continuity working with her.

I had a bit of continuity on it, in that way. Now, Pochyís Lips didnít resemble the piece called Canada, but it was a springboard for it conceptually speaking. Through working with Sandra there was a continuity. We had a shared language and a shared technique of writing that had developed through Second City over the years.

But there was also quite a difference. The material that I was doing was political in a different way from what was happening at Second City at the time. It cut deeper to the core, because at Second City there was a mandate not only to be satirical and edgy, but to entertain, and not to leave people kind of devastated, which at times Pochyís Lips would do!

How did it feel going solo when you first hit the road?

The idea of performing solo was terrifying. I had done it for four minutes at Second City but I had the support of the cast on either side and knew that there were all standing backstage, we all got ready for the show together. It was quite a different thing to start touring, because when I was first touring I couldnít afford to bring my director with me, and I certainly couldnít afford live music. So I was traveling solo.

Now, I was traveling in a van with Muff and Smoot because I was directing their show. But backstage I was completely alone. Walking out there, I was completely alone, just me and the technicians in whatever venue I happened to be in, in whatever city I happened to be in. It was really pretty terrifying but also galvanizing.

You did a lot of different fringe festivals at first, right?

Yeah. It was a lot of different cities and a lot of difference scenarios. It really toughens you up. You have to be totally self-sufficient. Youíre producing your show as you go along the road, youíre photocopying your own fliers as you go.

Itís really a tough gig. Itís like circus travel in a way, but yet youíre trying to do this refined performance on the stage. It was really grueling, but it was excellent training for the future.

A lot of solo performance art is often autobiographical, even confessional. Yet you steered clear of this impulse early on. Why?

UmmmÖ because Iím really shy and private? (bursts out laughing).

I didnít want aspects of my personal life to be in any way exposed. Of course some things are inspired by my own experience, but I chose to make the character a microcosm of North American culture, and I did that because thatís what interested me. I donít find my own experiences to be ones that I have any interest in sharing with people. But I DO have really strong opinions about our culture and where weíre headed, what I am afraid of for us as a species.

These are the things that preoccupy me, so these are the things that I want to write about.

Your show is very audience-interactive, so it can be radically different from night to night. How does the show play out before different audiences in different types of venue?

There are definitely differences. For example, when I went to Dallas, I was performing typically for people who were quite well-heeled, a lot of people in the oil industry, things like thatÖ

Both in Dallas and in Louisville, people were typically really religious so the blasphemous stuff, the blowing kisses to God in a provocative and almost sexual way, didnít really go over that well! There was sort of a chilly response in the crowd. I got the same feeling sometimes in certain places in Canada as well, sort of Bible Belt places.

The more expensive the tickets, typically, the quieter the audience. Because when youíre playing for $10 to a fringe audience youíre typically going to find a wide-open audience. Even if they are religious, youíre going to find people who are looking for an experience. I found the fringe audiences to be the most wonderful and open audiences.

But, itís not necessarily Canadian-American or socioeconomic. When I performed in Ottawa in certain places, it reminded me of Louisville. In New York City I performed before a very well-to-do audience and they were raucous. It has to do with what the experience is that the audience is expecting and seeking. Those are generalizations and you canít really generalize.

Oh, yeah, see in Louisville the first evening was the night you would have the typical Louisville audience. In fact, there were two nuns sitting in the front row of my opening night. But as the run went on, those people told their friends NOT to go and the technicians told their friends TO go, and by the end of the run the demographic of the audience had changed drastically. It was an audience seeking a more wild theatrical experience rather than, perhaps, something that was going to make them smile with a tear in their eye.

Have you read much criticism about Pochsy? What about feminist criticism?

Amazingly, it doesnít tend to go into that territory much at all. I think this is partly because most of the critics we have, in our country anyway, are male. And even with female critics who are writing about it for newspapers, they donít tend to go into thatÖ I think largely because I donít present myself as that.

However there have been a number of writers who have written papers on Pochsy for conferences or books about gender and comedy. Thereís one really exceptional paper that was written by Shannon Hengen, an exploration of Pochsy in terms of gender issues and the waif, and the victim/perpetrator dichotomy in Pochsy. [See Performing Gender and Comedy: Theories, Texts and Contexts, ed. Shannon Hengen. 1998. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach.]

When I write, I donít think along feminist lines, I think more along cultural lines. I happen to be female, and I use what I have to get at the issues that I wanted to get to. I use my female body because I have a female body.

And then also because itís part of the technique that Iím using, bouffon, which involves the use of charm, to use whatever charm you have to achieve your end. So I go for this ultra feminine, coquettish, coy, seductive character just because it worksÖ the spoonful of sugar that helps get across the darker ideas.

For the first time, another company will be performing your work soon. Whatís that like?

Itís the first time that Iím allowing another company to do it. So far I hadnít given out the rights. But thereís a company in Vienna that are going to be producing the work next year, in German.

Iíve had contact with them, and with the actor who is going to be playing Pochsy (laughs). She actually looks like what I think Pochsy wishes she looked like, sheís like this little German gamine and itís really great. I will be going there to see that.

Why do you suppose it has an appeal in Germany?

You know, I really donít know! Iím curious to know what it is that draws the performer to the work. I canít wait to see how much of the humour does translate and how much doesnít. The conversations with the audience are wildly different [depending on the crowd]. If theyíre not giggling at the blasphemy and theyíre having a different experience then the whole conversation can take on a different tone. And I have no idea what end of the spectrum itís going to fall on in Germany.

It's a huge transition for any writer to see their work produced for film or television. What has it been like working on "Everything's Falling Apart..."?

A huge transition! But absolutely wonderful. I have really waited for this, for the time and the circumstance to be right.

I turned down a number of opportunities to record the show straight to film or video for the reason that these plays are highly, highly theatricalÖ the whiteface, the extreme lighting, the physicality, these elements are intricately involved in the creation of a very specific universe that extends from the character, and I donít believe they would travel well in a straight transfer.

The director of the film, Sandi Somers, is working with me with infinite patience and detail in order to find the filmic equivalents of each of these aspects. Weíre making tests and practices to determine, for example, how pale the face must be to create the same effect within the viewer on the screen as it does on the stage. Because it's all about the audience's experience in the end, and playing with these elements is about essences, not surfaces.

What's next for you?

Iím writing an animated feature film and developing my first television series,í one for hire, and one original.

Like with the film, my adventure of the moment is translating particular styles of comedy, satire and the imaginative into other forms. Iím learning about film and television structures, limitations and possibilities, and after so much time in the theatre, this is really refreshing. Though I'm sure I'll miss theatre soon!

What's next for Pochsy?

More films about Pochsy. Sandi Somers and I are going to continue to make more shorts. Greg Morrison and I are aiming to get back to touring once we've got our newer projects underway. We have a wish list of cities we'd like to play, including Tokyo and Milan, so weíre scheming to put them all together for a truly fantastic tour! Perhaps it's time to go back to the USA too...

Anne Borden lives in Toronto.

 

 

 

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