Interview: Kate Smith of Skeleton Key Theatre
By Jessica Ruano | December 2, 2021
Skeleton Key Theatre produces original Canadian work that creates an immersive theatrical experience outside of traditional theatre spaces. Artistic Director Kate Smith shares her love of imaginary worlds and the “limitless” potential for creative collaboration during COVID-19:
MASC: As a theatre artist who has worked in all sorts of mediums, what drew you to focus on immersive theatre for your company Skeleton Key Theatre?
Kate Smith: As a child, I often imagined myself in all sorts of fantastic worlds while playing in the woods near my Ottawa home. I loved walking through haunted houses at Halloween, pretending to be a wizard while hiding in the trees, or imagining myself as a character from my favourite TV show (Sailor Moon, anyone?). When I grew up, I realized that I wanted to create those kinds of immersive experiences for other people, and that theatre was a way I could conjure up these worlds and invite people into them. While I love performing and directing for the theatre in all its forms, creating an immersive experience is especially exciting to me because audiences are able to walk right into the world of the play, and play a role within it. It’s a different level of engagement and creates electricity with everyone wondering: What is going to happen next?
Your production of Swan River was presented by the Ottawa Children’s Festival along the Ottawa River, and some scenes actually took place in the river itself! What types of spaces and venues provide you with inspiration?
I am inspired by the natural world, with a love of all things water-related. As a teen I was a lifeguard and learned to scuba dive, and in my artistic work I often go back to the water for inspiration. I am also drawn to unique architectural elements and historical spaces. I love being in a space and imagining the conversations that were had there, the people who lived there. What secrets does such a space hold? I have been fortunate to explore site-specific work through my role as co-founder and co-director of subDevision, a theatrical event that features eight to 10 local companies and has played in a church, an old courthouse, a bread factory-turned-visual artist studio, and most recently this past November at La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, where our team created short pieces in all of the nooks and crannies of the theatre – the places the public rarely or never gets to see.
You created a piece of theatre titled Runaway with your (then) 9-year-old daughter. How did her contributions add to the creative process?
My daughter and I worked together to create a pod play, where audience members receive an iPod and are directed through the space. We imagined the audience member was a fellow child exploring a “grown-up party” alongside my daughter’s character, who was the narrator and had decided to “run away.” We imagined visiting different worlds as audience members walked through an arched forest we built, played hopscotch, and met a woman spinning gold on a loom (visual artist Sayward Jonhson) – plus they got candy at the end. (This was, of course, Ava’s idea!) Ava and I toured the space and created the concept together, and she recorded the audio for the show. My husband, Patrick Gauthier, did the audio and sound editing, so it was a real family affair!
As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?
MASC is composed of such an incredible team of arts administrators and artists. They offer amazing support and guidance, in addition to nurturing and recognizing students through the MASC Arts Awards each year. Skeleton Key’s artists find working directly with students in schools and with community participants to be a very rewarding experience. Meeting artists from different disciplines through MASC has also helped us build strong relationships with artists from companies like Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre and visual artist Marc Walter, both of whose work appeared in Swan River!
In the midst of COVID-19, do you have any artistic projects on the horizon? How are you adapting to the limitations of physical distancing in your collaborative process?
Skeleton Key is adapting our workshops to a virtual platform to continue to serve school and community groups interested in learning how to create theatre through devising techniques our artistic team uses in our own work. Instead of choosing to view not being in the same physical space as “limited,” we are choosing to view it as “limitless” and finding creative ways to continue our creative collaboration process. Our Creating Theatre (Grades 4-6) and Devising Theatre (Grades 7-12) workshops are now available virtually and can be booked through MASC.
Our Swan River Field Guide shows kids and their families how to make a play in their own backyard! You can watch videos of artists from our creative team as they play residents of the fictional town of Swan River. We invite you to share your activities and performances with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
The company also continues to work on our upcoming rock concert on rising seas Deluge as the artists meet over Zoom and exchange audio recordings throughout the songwriting process. Our goal is to record all of the songs from the show for a concept album we can disseminate widely, in addition to our live show slated to premiere in Ottawa this winter. Deluge features a five-piece band with two actors/singers who are set adrift after their small town is swallowed by the sea. Also: there are ghosts. I am so excited about this new show and can’t wait to share it with audiences soon!