Tamara Kissane: Theatre-maker and Podcast Host

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity. 

Photo by Erin Bell of  Bull City Photography

Photo by Erin Bell of Bull City Photography

 Tamara Kissane is a playwright, theatre-maker, creative coach, and podcaster for Artist Soapbox (www.artistsoapbox.org). Locally, she’s worked with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Manbites Dog Theater, The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, Duke Theatre Studies, Transactors Improv, Summer Sisters, Archipelago and both hands theatre company. Tamara is a co-founder of Curious Theatre Collective. Her stage-plays, The New Colossus and Master Builder were commissioned and performed by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern in 2016 & 2018. Tamara recently wrote, directed and produced the MASTER BUILDER AUDIO DRAMA and has plans to release a second original audio drama in early 2020. In 2019, she received grants from Durham150 and the Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist Award.

 You host a podcast, you’re also an actor, you’re also a playwright and you write audio scripts. What else?

 Artistic identity is a complicated idea. Mine has definitely morphed over time. So in thinking about this and trying to characterize what I do, I came up with this idea that I’m a maker and I make all kinds of things, but very particular things. 

 So I wouldn’t want to make, for example, a birdhouse or a nice meal or a scarf. Those are not the things that I make. I’m a maker who focuses on collaborative, performance-related events, and that can span the gamut from the podcast to audio dramas to plays for adults or children. And within those [roles] I toggle back and forth – so I’ve been a director, producer, playwright, actor, or interviewer, as needed. 

Photo by Erin Bell of  Bull City Photography

Photo by Erin Bell of Bull City Photography

 At the end of the day something will be collaboratively made and that’s what lights my fire. If I were to make something and never share it with the world or only make something without other people’s input then something would be lost there, for me. I don’t think I have all the answers – in fact, I often know I don’t have all the answers, so I look to other people to make my work better or richer or deeper and it’s part of my joy to do that in community.

 What does living a creative life mean to you?

I don’t know what living a creative life means to other people, but for me it’s really important that I have this expression, it’s almost like things build up to the point where I feel a lot of internal pressure and it has to be released in some way. And the form can be a poem or a script or anything but it has to go somewhere. And so it’s about sharing my internal questions. Putting questions out into the world that I am wrestling with and seeing what other people have to say.

How do you think we can get this country in particular and the world in general to value art and creativity more highly and what do you think it would look like if we did? 

I struggle with this question. This question comes up on my podcast [Artist Soapbox] constantly. We could talk about this forever. 

I don’t think there’s anything we can do on the federal or national level to make our society value artists in a way that compensates them financially because there’s so much chaos and mayhem and odd priorities right now. If we’re looking at spending billions of dollars on a wall instead of trying to handle homelessness, poverty, systemic racism and inequities that are rampant … then there’s no way the money will appear for the artists. People who are smarter than I am and maybe more optimistic than I am are doing the work to advocate for that and I really appreciate that.

Dana Marks recording with Tamara Kissane (Photo by Erin Bell of  Bull City Photography )

Dana Marks recording with Tamara Kissane (Photo by Erin Bell of Bull City Photography)

I’m more interested in focusing on a hyper-local way to see what we can do in our smaller communities to affect change. And even if that means going back to old ways like bartering for things that are important and necessary: food, shelter, space to make your work --  that will shore up that financial instability that artists have. But the relationships we have within our community where we can share resources and give to one another is our best hope.

Because I do think society values art. If you think about how much is consumed on a daily basis, people are sucking it down. But they don’t equate it with financial compensation. 

People think that art is part of being human and that access to it should be made available and made available for free. So there’s a misconception there that negatively impacts artists. But there’s also something amazing about how embedded [art] is into our human experience that we expect it to be there all the time.

Right -- it’s one of those situations where a positive is also a negative, which makes it so hard to disentangle.

What do you think the world would look like if we did value art and creativity more highly?

I’m a big proponent of universal basic income, where people are paid to live and then make work as they’re called. [I experienced] a long period of about 15 years where I was financially unstable, and it was very hard to make work. If we could find a way to support people who consider themselves artists then better work would come out of that, more of it would come and you’d also have a whole class of people whose self-image would be more robust and healthy and soothed and calmed. Because the money aspect has huge ramifications on the ways we think about ourselves and the value of our work. 

Yes, it’s so easy to internalize the capitalist system so easily. If nobody wants to pay for my work, does that make me worthless? 

That can be very damaging. 

How do all your different art forms intersect or interact?

Certainly story is a big part of it. I heard someone say that stories are the currency of human experience. We trade in stories and we are always looking for patterns and ways to make meaning. So as humans we do have an attachment to story, but also artists have the honor of sharing stories with the world. 

As humans we have an attachment to story, but also artists have the honor of sharing stories with the world.
— Tamara Kissane

Even artists who don’t work with traditional narrative structures, their work still provokes story engagement from their audience. They are the artists who are poking stories with sticks and seeing what happens. 

My work [also] focuses around … this idea that we’re not alone. [Artist Soapbox] is often about how artists have questions in common with each other. I’m sure you’ve seen this in your interview series as well. We’re all dealing with the same things, and we don’t want to feel alone in something that’s really isolating.

And so for me a lot of the work that I put out there is an invitation to view the listeners and watchers as not being alone.

What are some creative challenges you’ve come across during your artistic journey and how have you moved through them – or have you? 

How much time do you have? (laughs) Well, the one I mentioned before was the financial problem, which was pretty extreme.

Besides that the biggest challenge has been getting in my own way. I’ve always been able to access the work -- knock on wood -- and generate creative material. But it’s the psychological stuff that I set up and have to leap over in this really extraordinary way. And that can be imposter syndrome or an inflexible idea of what my art should look like or how I should make it or what people might think. The list is endless of the ways in which we sabotage the creative process. 

As far as overcoming it, I’ve just learned to turn the volume down. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. But two things have happened: the first is that I’ve begun to read [that voice] like an old friend, like, oh hello again, there you are, how predictable. And the other thing is that I had two kids and so I simply can’t spend as much time in that place.

I can spend 15 minutes thinking that I’m a piece of crap and no one will like my work or I can spend 15 minutes making a thing. And so I just have to make the thing. That necessity drives those voices into the background.

If I could go back in time … two decades ago – boy, when I think about the stuff I could have made when I was spending time letting those insecurities overtake me. I try not to grieve that too much but it’s a shame.  

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative? 

I have two pieces of advice. The first is to identify what the obstacles are and work to remove them. So if it’s time, if it’s money, if it’s space, if it’s your own brain – figure out what is stopping you and focus on that. 

Secondly, so many people and get stuck and hung up on this word creative. They think, oh I’m not creative. So if the word creative is what’s stopping you, then choose a different word; maybe, I want to be curious, take risks, to try new things. The urge to be creative is so deeply embedded in us that it will come out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.