As a little girl, Kris says she always narrated her life in her head as she was living it, internally describing her actions and motivations to herself. She has always naturally been drawn to stories and writing. Kris earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree both in English Literature and began teaching at the college level when she was in graduate school, and likes to say she has “sort of hung out in classrooms since then.” She also worked as a journalist and a grants-writer/fundraiser for non-profits. Her own writing focuses on creative non-fiction, essays and memoir, although she has “dabbled” in poetry. She serves on the board of directors for Lit Youngstown, and formerly served as a trustee at the Oakland Center for the Arts. A self-described sometimes actor, sometimes runner, sometimes gardener and an avid hiker, Kris lives with her husband, Jim Canacci, and their daughters Miranda and Gillian, and a few rescue pets in Youngstown, where she was born and raised.
Can you tell us a little about The Strand Project, how it came to be?
I love telling this story because The Strand Project’s origin set the stage quite literally for the vibe of the project. The artistic director of Selah Dessert Theater, Mary Ruth Lynn, approached me about finding a way to bring original writing into the space. At the same time, Brian Palumbo, who owns Selah restaurant, sent me a creative piece—a monologue he’d written—to look over. Suddenly, the idea sparked—we could create a full-length production of original dramatic monologues. So, I sent out a call for submissions, and I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot. I thought we’d get maybe 25-30 pieces and use 15-20 of them. Well, about a week later, I checked the email account and found 88 submissions, and that number kept growing. In the end, we read through about 100 submissions from which we chose 22.
We looked for pieces that revealed something about the characters—secrets, fears, joys, quirks. Then we cast 20 actors to perform these pieces. This year we also received more than 100 submissions, and our cast includes 17 actors.
What’s unique about The Strand Project is that the actors don’t merely read or stand in the center of the stage and do what I call, “the Linus,” after the Peanuts Christmas cartoon. We assign actors to groups and they become characters with relationships to others in their groups.
The actors work in a different way than in a typical play. The monologues don’t come with a context, so the actor must create one. We begin by reading together in the actor groups—I call them pods—and these readings include discussions of interpretation. We talk about who these characters might be and what their relationships to each other might look like. Then I ask the cast members to go home and create a back story for their characters. So, the project organically grows from this collaboration of writers, actors, and directors.
On stage, the characters tell their stories to each other as if they are real people interacting in real time. Because the Selah space is so intimate, the audience feels as if they are eavesdropping. I guess if I had to describe it using literary touchstones, I’d stay The Strand Project is like Spoon River Anthology meets Balm in Gilead. Each production is followed by a talk-back with audience, cast, writers, and production team.
How is the current political situation impacting its direction?
We talked about seeking political pieces this year, but decided against it, and we kept our call for submissions the same as last year. We invited people to share monologues that told stories, and we found a range of pieces that discuss the American experience from different individual perspectives.
For example, this year’s production features three young adult voices in various stages of discontent, from rebellious to outright nihilistic. The production also includes several pieces about work and the characters’ relationships to their jobs. One character, a coroner, discusses what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Another character describes being stuck in a minimum wage job and the exploitation of the workers there. A biology teacher describes the reality of teaching sexual education to eighth graders. We hear from a mother of an addicted daughter, a young woman describing the beauty of Mt. Rainier, and a cantankerous curb-picker talking about waste.
The most poignant piece in the production is the story of a woman—a true story written by another actor in our production—about her breast cancer diagnosis and the long medical road to real answers.These pieces each paint the American picture of institutionalized sexism and classism, but there is also hope in these characters’ voices. They are committed, earnest, reflective, and loving people and that all comes through. The production, however, is not without a couple of dog whistles to the resistance.
How does Selah figure in your future? What do you envision for the future?
The Strand Project couldn’t be a stage anywhere other than Selah. The space provides the intimacy that the production needs because what makes this piece work is for the audience to feel they actually could be in the urban park with the characters. We can only accomplish that when the audience is only a few feet from the actors. And because Selah is such a small space without much overhead, we can take these kinds of risks in productions and with casting.
I love being able to offer a new actor the chance to invest in a character and be an equal part of the production with more experienced actors. In a typical theatrical production, the cast has leads, supporting actors, and ensemble. We’ve broken that hierarchy in this project. The Selah production team—Jeff Chann, Brian Palumbo, and Mary Ruth Lynn—are experienced professionals in their crafts, and yet they are so open to the fluid nature of this project. Our plan is to run the production in June every year so we can build a regular audience. The project will naturally evolve and keep current, and it’s that unforced connection to real concerns of the day that truly makes The Strand Project unique among local productions.