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  • Writer's pictureLeah Geisler

A New Way Forward with Kenz Mangan

This is the third installment in The Grappler’s Lab Interview Series. This year The Grappler has committed to interviewing every director of a Lab to showcase their exciting work and hear about their creative processes. Stay tuned for more interviews coming soon!

Kenz Mangan (she/her) is a director, educator, and theatre maker in her fourth year of the Theatre Arts program. Her credits at The Theatre School include Ninki Nanka, The Wonder Project, Lunch Money, and Exit the King.

Kenz Mangan, a BFA4 Theatre Arts Directing major, wants you to feel seen by her theatre. Her upcoming Lab, Witch Way, focuses on the experience of being queer and fem through the stories of four iconic witches. In this interview, we explore witchcraft, power dynamics, sexuality, being a director for the first time, and navigating the world as a fem person.

Leah Geisler [LG]: Let's just start by talking a little bit about the concept of your lab.

Kenz Mangan [KM]: I think to get into the concept, I'm going to start with what generated the concept, which is that in sophomore year I took a History of Witchcraft in the Western World class since I'm a history minor. I got to learn a lot about witches from ancient Egypt, the Roman times, and throughout all the witch hunts in Europe. I learned these crazy things, like how witches went from being midwives to old women with medicinal knowledge, to villains because of the patriarchy. I also learned that there were a couple towns in the Middle Ages that killed every single woman, except for one. They knew that the one woman left was a witch, but they also knew that they needed to repopulate the town. It's wild how much the demonization of women has persisted. I was really interested in that.

I'm also just really interested in mythology, folklore, and storytelling; why we tell the stories that we tell today and how that reflects on societal values and what people think. We have some witch mythology that we've been telling for centuries and the stories and the characterization have changed. We still evoke the names of these famous witches.

LG: I think it's such a cool concept to talk about; witchcraft in relation to women and how the intersection of that is still happening today. Where do you see this show going?

KM: It's a devised piece, so we are focusing on four witches from folklore and mythology. We are focusing on Baba Yaga from the Russian fairy tales. She's our favorite, we've discovered. We're focusing on Circe and Medea from Greek mythology and Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend. We've been doing a lot of generative work, improv and moment work, to put it together. It's a lot of disparate scenes of these witches’ lives, talking about sexuality and power, all of those things that are inherent in witchcraft. I know my degree will say Directing, but I've never really had the chance to direct something at The Theatre School, so I'm really nervous, but it's going really well. I have a really good group of people working on it.

LG: That seems like the most important part for sure, just having a really good group of people. I didn't even know that this was your first directing process. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and what it's been like directing this piece?

KM: It’s been terrifying. I think because of COVID, but also just the way that the Theatre Arts Directing track is structured. We, as Theatre Arts Directors, don't really get a lot of chances to do anything beyond assistant directing unless we pitch a Lab or Prototype. I have assistant directed before, I've co-directed a prototype with Jordan Kost. That was wonderful, but it was Jordan Kost's beautiful brainchild, and I kind of wanted to have my own brainchild that I could see to the end and develop with a group of people. The biggest problem for me was finding people to work with. Everyone is so busy right now and because of COVID, I didn't know anyone in the years below me at all. I was scrounging for actors and a stage manager and really having trouble finding people. Finally, I found someone who graduated the Theatre Arts track two years ago, Riley Coduto. I'm also working with Eliana Deckner-Glick, who is a BFA3 Actor, and Rowan Willingham-Nowlan, who is a BFA2 Theatre Arts major. I just absolutely struck gold with them. I've just been so blessed with how wonderful they are.

Part of what I'm excited about is that this is based on interest. I really have a group who is genuinely passionate about these stories. I was so stressed going into it that I wouldn't have anyone. I was stressed about the timeline. I was so stressed about every little moving part, but they just make the rehearsal room fun to be in, and I think that's the most important aspect of this.

LG: Completely. I'm so glad that you have such a great group. What have you discovered about your directorial process through creating your brainchild?

KM: It’s funny because I took Directing Theories with Damon Kiely and at the end of the class, we created a manifesto of our own directing theory. That was really hard for me because I had never directed, so I didn't know what kind of a director I am. This process has been good in solidifying my values as a director and the things that I really look forward to in directing. I really wanted to be very non-hierarchical. Sometimes when people do devised pieces, they generate ideas with the group and then they go off and write the script to bring back to the group. That's totally fine, but that's not really what I'm interested in. In every theatrical group project I've ever been a part of, especially when it comes to creation, people come up with ideas that I could have never come up with on my own.

The people I'm working with have such amazing creative impulses. I'm trying to tie things together to make it coherent, but firstly everyone comes up with ideas, even our stage manager. Everyone has creative freedom. It's a really rich environment. Most of what I'm having trouble with is trying to keep people on track because we start getting into these side conversations about the witches or about our experiences as fem people in the world. Then we just run with it. It's been really hard for me as a person who's also really passionate about those topics to say, okay, now we really need to create something. I'm still working on that aspect as a director, but everything else has been really good so far.

LG: What are some exciting aspects of this process? I'm wondering if there's anything in particular you want to share about this that will be exciting for audiences to see.

KM: We originally started with four actors, and one of them was unfortunately too busy and she had to drop, but there's four witches. Since we have four witches and only three actors, we had a little brief moment of thinking “oh my god, what are we going to do?” We eventually decided that Baba Yaga was going to be played by all three of them at once, which I think is very cool. I believe a lot in audience interaction in some form. Nobody's going to be pulled up on stage, but I want people to feel like they are a part of the show. Personally, that's why I think theatre is still around, because if you want to just watch a story and be removed by the fourth wall, you can watch television and movies. With theatre, you're in the room with physical, real people, and I want you to feel like you're in the room with physical, real people. If you're passionate about witches, magic, and the fem experience, we're trying to create an environment in which you really feel that you are a part of what is going on.

LG: What do you want your audiences to take away from this? What do you want their experiences to be?

KM: That's something that we've been talking about in rehearsals a little bit. I had the actors do an exercise in which they came up with the overarching message of the play. Essentially I really want people, especially fem people and queer people, to come in and look at what's happening on stage with these amazing mythical, goddess witches and think “that's my experience, what they are doing.” Even if they think what the witches are doing is evil and horrible, I still want them to see themselves in the stories that we're creating.

LG: You have given such a wonderful little glimpse into this process. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and I'm excited to see what this turns into. Thank you.

KM: Thank you as well. I'm excited for everyone to see it.

"Witch Way," directed by Kenz Mangan, will have performances March 3 through March 5 at 7:30 PM and March 6 at 2:00 PM in TTS Room 418, featuring the talent of Riley Coduto, Eliana Deckner-Glick, and Rowan Willingham-Nowlan.

"Witch Way" is double-billed with another devised piece directed by Claire Hayes (interview coming soon!)

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