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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ford's Focus: Cat Kidd

Catherine Kidd At Granby Zoo (photo credit: Geoff Agombar)

The UN-definable Catherine Kidd 
A highly anticipated return to our stage after a journey in and out
by Barbara Ford

As we sat down to a late afternoon latte at Kilo, the spirited Catherine Kidd immediately jumped into the who, what, and wherefore of her newest creation, Hyena Subpoena. It was like sitting next to a lit fuse, the sinewy wire twisting and coiling as it burned, sparks flying, unpredictable but mesmerizing. Though this is supposed to be a profile of the artist’s life, I decided to see where this would lead me because if there is one thing I am certain of, it’s that there is no place Kidd could take me that is not fascinating and thought-provoking, so down the rabbit hole I leapt. 

Poet and activist Mona Morse is the subject of Hyena. She receives a grant to write a series of poems but her final product is panned by the critics who go so far as to call her crazy. She flees to the bushveld of South Africa where she morphs into a human-hyena hybrid. Through eight stories based on encounters with various animals, in true Künstlerroman tradition, Mona recounts the rocky ‘school of hard knock knock jokes’ that has shaped her. Slowly she peels off one layer after another, a Shamanic strip tease, slowly revealing the dark milestones that have mapped her life’s journey eventually landing her in a residential psychiatric unit. Kidd explains that it’s really two story lines grafted together: the narrator’s story and the animal’s stories, which become emblematic of the narrator’s past experiences as she negotiates those tricky grey areas between predator and prey, individual and society, freedom and captivity. 

On the boat to the Robbin Island prison which famously housed SA political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. In the background, the skyline of Capetown nestled under Table Mountain. (Cute fact: clouds over blowing off the mountain are nicknamed the 'tablecloth'... tee hee) (Photo: Geoff Agombar) 

The auditorium becomes a magical place where Kidd provides us with the unique opportunity to see ourselves in a different light...

Clearly Mona is unique in her Kafkaesque state but in a broader sense, who among us has not felt the sting of social rejection, that cold isolation being on the outside looking in, certain that everyone but us is in on some secret? Kidd’s works are whimsical, humorous, and bizarre, yet her strange creatures and their stories are instantly identifiable and relevant. The auditorium becomes a magical place where Kidd provides us with the unique opportunity to see ourselves in a different light, hopefully to learn something new about ourselves. 

Performing at the International
Spoken Word Festival in
Calgary (Photo: James Tworow)
Why a hyena? “Because they are hard to pin down. They’re not dogs and they’re not cats. They are scavengers but they are also good hunters. Even their sexuality is ambivalent, with the females larger than the males and giving birth through an enlarged clitoris that looks conspicuously like a penis. Their classification in the animal kingdom has given them a bad rep but really, who decides how to classify them? Doesn’t the act of naming reflect more about the person doing the classifying and their biases than about the animal itself?” 

As predicted, this IS fascinating but I’m getting lost; who are we talking about: Mona or Kidd? “They [hyenas] aren’t black and white; they don’t really fit into any of the neat Latin labels in the linear animal hierarchy. To try only demonstrates the flaw in the system. Maybe there’s a reason that creature and teacher sound so similar. Rather than trying to squeeze every living thing into its proper place with us forever perched at the top, maybe our relationship with the natural world should be less as a superior and more as a listener.”  

Kidd, Mona and the hyenas appear to share a common bond: they are all hard to pin down. Kidd struggles with all the genres that have been attributed to her work. Spoken word artist, poet, performance artist don’t do justice to the complete package. Writer-performer is the ‘genus’ she is most comfortable with for the time being. I choose to believe that some phenomena are not meant to be completely understood, defined or labelled. To do so would limit them, diminish their impact, cage them as it were, and Kidd aspires to none of the above. She is a flinger open of doors, a shedder of light and a catalyst for new ideas. She is compassionate, intense, playful, outraged and outrageous, tolerant and shy; the unquantifiable entity, an enigma whose personal journey, filtered through fiction, bears a novel gift: the chance to discover a deeper truth of our own. 

Her look is at once wary of your judgement and the damage it could do but hopeful that instead a connection will be made, trust will be established.

As Kidd describes the play’s themes it’s plain to see that on some level, Mona speaks for Kidd but exactly how auto-biographical is this piece or any of the others she’s written? Is anything we create pure imagination? Is not at least a small portion of who we are and how we understand and view life expressed in everything we create? “It’s no more auto-biographical than mistaking the sculpture for the sculptor,” she says as she looks directly at me. Her gaze is usually elsewhere, everywhere, scanning, absorbing, working things out in her head, trying to nail the exact string of verbal DNA to convey her thoughts … ‘out there’ searching but ‘in there’ thinking, so it’s not often she really looks at you if you’re a relative stranger, as I am. Her look is at once wary of your judgement and the damage it could do but hopeful that instead a connection will be made, trust will be established. Kidd has doubtless been through some ‘serious shit’ in her life but the details are not important. Fictionalizing parts of her life and the experiences of others she’s known creates the buffer zone that safeguards her against the judgers, gives her the freedom to say what she wants. 
At The Little Red Schoolhouse
Poetry Festival, Camden, East Ont.
(photo: Geoff Agombar)
Despite her unidentified genre, Kidd has travelled the world bringing her singular art form to Africa, Asia, Europe, the UK and North America leaving rave reviews in her wake. Toronto’s Broken Pencil said she is, “Clearly one of Canada’s most talented wordsmiths.The Scotsman described her Fringe performance in Edinburgh thus: “[Kidd's show] should win you over with its reflections on life, love, and the lessons animals teach us… slight but dominating this ‘goddess of beats’ transfixes with her adult blend of Dr. Seuss and Aesop’s Fables.” Canadian scholar T.L Cowan wrote of Kidd’s performance at the Calgary International Spoken Words Festival that “Catherine Kidd’s performance style makes me think of Dr. Seuss meets Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom meets David Suzuki meets Vaudeville meets Patti Smith. Yeah, it is that good. It’s a musical theatre crash course in punk rock zoology.”
What particular set of circumstances, environmental influences and evolutionary adaptions took place to create the highly original, way-outside-the-box artist known as Catherine Kidd? She was born in Quebec to a Scottish immigrant father and a mother raised in the Eastern Townships. “My father had always wanted to be a minister but he stammered and had a thick brogue with a nervous disposition so he never pursued it, which might have affected my choice to go into acting.” Her family worked the asbestos mines and their own dairy farm. An avid reader of zoology and a journal-writer since she can remember, Kidd also did some of her growing up in Whitehorse and Vancouver. The high school years were rough, really rough, but beneath Kidd’s delicate frame dwells a core of tempered steel. She poured all of her considerable energies into language arts and theatre studies and won an award for the highest mark ever in the provincial exams, as well as a scholarship in the mid-eighties to Studio 58, Vancouver’s conservatory-style training program at Langara College. 

I start with the story and write it out; it tends to be very long to start with. Then I make a bonsai out of it...

She loved being there. Her classmates and teachers loved having her there … all but one. That professor said that Kidd was taking it all too seriously, not having enough fun and promptly kicked her out! Kidd took off to India for a couple of years where she began to write more seriously. When she returned to Canada, she started work on her BA at UBC but completed it in Montreal at Concordia University where she later acquired an MA with Honours in Literature and Creative Writing in 1997. 

At Edinburgh Fringe, 2004
On that tour Jacky Murda (formerly
Jack Beets) spun soundtracks live
on stage using homecut vinyls produced
in his Brooklyn Studio
(Photo: Natasha Mauquoy)
In 1996, she published her first chapter book entitled everything I know about love I learned from taxidermy (Conundrum Press, 1996). It was around this time that she also met and formed an enduring musical alliance with DJ Jacky Murda (formerly Jack Beets, a.k.a. Jack Biswell), who now lives and creates the soundscapes for her work from his home in Barcelona. When they first started out together, Jack spun soundtracks live onstage, using home-cut vinyls produced in his Brooklyn studio. “I start with the story and write it out; it tends to be very long to start with. Then I make a bonsai out of it; trim it down to its most concentrated form. As I keep re-reading it, memorizing it, I discover rhythms that are already in it and try to flush them out; the musicality starts to emerge. Then I send it to Jack in Spain and we work on it together from there.” The original music coupled with Kidd’s high octane language is a perfect union. 
Also in ’96, a Toronto publisher who had read everything I know about love on the recommendation of a friend who had seen Kidd perform, offered her a contract to write a novel. Everyone in Kidd’s life said it was a miracle, that new authors never get the contract before the book is written and to turn it down would be mad crazy, so she accepted. 

Bestial Rooms, eventually published as Missing the Ark, was based on Kidd’s thesis for her Master’s degree about a woman fighting to maintain custody of her daughter and wrestled with the serious topics of maternal ambivalence, post-partum doubt and depression. In an interview for Quill and Quire the book’s maternal themes found their way into reality as Kidd admitted that the “gestation of Missing the Ark rivals that of an elephant, and birthing the thing has been close to that excruciating.” To me she confided that, “it was like giving your baby up for adoption before you get pregnant.” Over the course of the ten-year incubation, the original publisher changed houses several times, always bringing Kidd’s contract with him but leaving her feeling a little lost in the shuffle. Added to all this upheaval was the death of her father and with a character based on him in the book, she was digging into emotional territory that was still too raw to explore. Fearing she was so entrenched in her fictional world that she might forget the way home, she took a break and returned to her performance work, resulting in the CD/chapter book, Sea Peach, for Conundrum Press, which adapted some Bestial Rooms material and had a life of its own, touring internationally between 2002 and 2007. 

... the whole affair left a bad taste in Kidd’s mouth and for now it’s simmering on the back burner where at some point she may revisit it...

In 2005, she released another chapter book, this time with DVD, called Bi-Polar Bear. Unlike the first two chapter books, this was more of a collection of stories without the usual cohesive thread tying them together. She could easily have let the novel slide by this point but after a couple of years away from the manuscript, Kidd was able to return to it. She eventually bought out her Toronto contract going back to her East coast publisher at Conundrum. 

Missing the Ark was finally released in 2007 while Kidd was performing in South Africa, taking advantage of the trip to film wildlife footage for Hyena. In her absence she felt there were important aspects of the book release that she would have handled differently but couldn’t from where she was. It got a bad review in the Globe and Mail (another shared experience with Mona) but Kidd feels that could have been due to the book not being presented in its proper context. It’s obvious that the whole affair left a bad taste in Kidd’s mouth and for now it’s simmering on the back burner where at some point she may revisit it, perhaps even republish in the UK or elsewhere. 

I could have made writing a hobby, performed in community theatre or continued teaching; all of that would have been easier, less scary and definitely more lucrative.

In addition to performing, her chapter books and novel, Kidd pays the bills through various avenues, including writing short stories for anthologies, periodicals and magazines, teaching creative writing (Concordia University and Quebec Writers’ Federation), acting in film and television, and voice acting for video games, documentaries, animations, corporate web sites and film presentations. Recently she was contacted by a woman who had been in a creative writing class with Kidd twenty years ago who is now working in education administration for SOFAD, an organization that creates (Kidd loves this expression) pedagogical scaffolding for students, many of whom live in remote areas of Quebec where they have slipped through the cracks. At SOFAD’s behest, Kidd wrote a Grade 12 language arts text book for students wishing to complete their education. 
Cat standing in front of her family's Danville, QC
(Eastern Townships) home. Her mom and grandparents
were born and raised there. Built by her great-
grandfather who arrived from England with his
brother to build side-by-side farms. Now
the horizon is dominated by mountains of
Asbestos mine waste. (photo credit: Geoff Agombar)
As with any artist, some periods are more flush than others but Kidd believes that learning how to be broke is a good skill to have. “I could have made writing a hobby, performed in community theatre or continued teaching; all of that would have been easier, less scary and definitely more lucrative. But sometimes the scary thing tells you exactly where you have to be. Creativity is a force unto itself. You have to let it out or it’ll run you!” 

Kidd’s performances elevate words to new heights, their endless pliability and depth stirring up lightning-quick associations, setting synapses afire. You can’t latch onto any one idea or memory as they come at you, rapid-fire, from every nook and cranny of your conscience and sub-conscience; you have to let go and just let the images wash over you. One super-charged phrase of words-on-steroids can bring you to the brink of despair and have you laughing to split a gut. The Montreal Gazette wrote that, “[Kidd] takes little shreds of language and lifts them up and turns them in the light, holding them, playing with them – searching them for meaning as if they were toys that had just come out of a black box, without instructions."

"Cat Kidd's Best Bits" at MainLine Theatre
as part of OFF CINARS 2006
(Photo credit: Tristan Brand)
Back to 2007 and South Africa where Kidd is performing while her book is launched back in Canada. I ask how she managed to score a trip so far away. Kidd was performing in Ontario at the Little Red Schoolhouse poetry festival. “There couldn’t have been more than fifteen people in the audience when I performed a poem using a sheep puppet. The brother of Ingrid de Kok, a well-known, highly respected South African poet was in the audience. He called Ingrid to say that the sheep poem had made him laugh and cry, and Ingrid (knowing how tough it is to pull those reactions out of her brother) recommended that Antjie Krog do what she could to bring Cat over. Krog, herself a prominent S.A. poet and author (Country of my Skull) who had spoken out against the apartheid with her poetry and covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a radio journalist in the mid-eighties, was the curator for the Spier Public Arts Festival on the Spier Estate in Stellenbosch, near Capetown. It was a huge honour to be personally invited by Krog and exhilarating to perform to a packed outdoor amphitheatre of eleven hundred people.

Maybe if we made more of an effort to see the similarities rather than the differences, that creature-teacher thing could happen.

For this very special occasion, Kidd chose to perform Human Fish, her piece about the Slovenian Cave Salamander, a blind albino creature that lives in (you guessed it) caves. Interestingly, when it crawls out of its cave into the light, its skin turns black and it grows eyes. Even more miraculously, when it returns to the cave, its skin assumes its vampire pallor and the blindness returns once again. Is it just me or does this naturally occurring allegory reek of Plato’s little cave story? What’s even more interesting is that Kidd uses the freaky phenomenon to illustrate her point about the biases of those busily classifying the animal kingdom. How can we possibly consider ourselves at the top of Darwin’s survival-of-the-fittest heap with such an adeptly adaptable creature quietly living out its life in the depths beneath us? 

Kidd and life/artistic partner, Geoff Agombar, stayed in S.A. for two months, spending a good chunk of it in Kruger Park taking photos and videos of the wildlife. “We spent a lot of time watching animals and it’s not what you see on TV - we call that ‘animal porn’ - where you see lions chasing down zebras and feasting on the kill. A lot of the time, like us, they’re not really doing much, just hanging out. Maybe if we made more of an effort to see the similarities rather than the differences, that creature-teacher thing could happen.”

She questions treatment that is supposed to help people yet repeatedly re-enacts their trauma, reinforcing their sense of powerlessness rather than empowering them.

Whatever Kidd is working on, she tries to strike that delicate balance between not being too hard on herself and pushing the envelope. To keep her motives clear, she continually asks herself why she’s doing this. If there is even a hint of ‘victim-stancy’ in her answer, Kidd starts over or abandons the project entirely, at least for the time being. “There are some themes I’ve wanted to write about for years but if they’re still too volatile, I leave them alone. Time creates distance but I also think it’s true that it’s easier to write about home when you’re away; the geographical displacement creates the distance you need to have a clearer perspective.”

That was definitely the case with Hyena. Kidd wanted to explore issues about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The play examines who our teachers are and why. What lessons have we learned from which experiences and why those incidents and not others? She wanted to understand how it is that two people can live through the same circumstances and one carries on while the other falls apart. She questions treatment that is supposed to help people yet repeatedly re-enacts their trauma, reinforcing their sense of powerlessness rather than empowering them. 

While in S.A., Kidd and Agombar met with Alison Darcy, who was directing a play in Cape Town. Darcy had written a positive critique of a 1997 Fringe show of Kidd’s which formed the basis of a kinship between the two artists. Darcy felt privileged to be asked to direct Hyena but Kidd admitted this partnership was a long time coming.

Mark Lang's piece
Kidd’s artistic collaborations tend to endure, as exemplified by her sound designer, Jacky Murda. The same holds true for her production designer, Jody Burkholder, as well as Mark Lang, a visual artist who saw her perform Sea Peach, after which he painted a small portrait of her from memory. When it came time to come up with an image for Hyena, she gave Mark a call.

A similar solid relationship is developing with Darcy. “It’s a very collaborative process for this show; we’ve dubbed it ‘collective dreaming’. I had a collection of stories but no idea how to line them up dramatically. Alison was great for that; the shape of the show she’s developed is excellent. She has an eye for what looks good physically on stage.”

What are Kidd’s plans post-Hyena? “I would love to tour this show. I’m not very pro-active about that but Alison is good at it so I’m hoping that the play will get to some other parts of at least Canada. Ottawa and Toronto have both seen excerpts and seem interested but right now I’m focussed on the Montreal show.” 

Though Hyena’s subject matter may be serious, the show is as light as it is dark with Mona’s and Kidd’s outlooks in sync. Kidd advises to turn whatever life throws at you into art. Mona’s got the right attitude with, ‘If I could be a hybrid species, here’s what I would be. A creature who’s one-half hyena and one-half me. And should I be called to testify upon my own behalf, I’ll take the stand, and be sworn in, then laugh and laugh and laugh.’
Facebook Kidd to watch a variety of videos, from live shows such as the opening of the Spier Festival to compelling commentary on the Harper government’s cuts to arts funding. I leave you with Kidd’s closing statement at the end of that video where she reminds us of Gabrielle Roy’s passionate words inscribed on our own Canadian twenty-dollar bills: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” Though she may be an artist without a genre, through discussing her work I feel like I have come to know Catherine Kidd just a little. “What I have to say I put on stage”, she says. That is where you too can know a little more about Ms. Kidd and more importantly, about yourself and your fellow travellers.
Other Links:
Hyena Subpoena plays at Les Atelliers Jean-Brillant (3550 St-Jacques West, Metro Lionel-Groulx) from October 13 to 29, 2011, Thursday through Sundays at 8pm. For tickets call (514) 276 - 0839.

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