From a birthday party puppet show for grown-ups to an absurdist dark comedy about "Superstitions," Kelly Kerwin plans to keep showing Oklahoma City audiences the possibilities of what theater can be.
The artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theater, Kerwin is following spring's "Reboot Season" with a full 2022-2023 slate of innovative programming at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center's Te Ata Theater.
"What I learned in 'The Reboot Season' was that, well, my hope was confirmed: that the audiences of Oklahoma City are more adventurous than I think they might otherwise get credit for. Many of the shows that I programmed were a little bit hard to understand on paper ... and I was really heartened by the audience responses," said Kerwin, a recent NYC transplant who in July 2021 became just the second artistic director in OKC Rep's two-decade history.
"That was a good learning moment for me as far as thinking ahead to programming for Oklahoma City and knowing that people here are game for an adventure, excited to try something new, and they will begin to trust you if you give them a few things that they find to like. They'll continue to come back."
For OKC Rep's three-title "Reboot Season" — the award-winning regional professional theater company's first performances since fall 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Kerwin programmed Britain-based performer Inua Ellams' one-man poetry showcase "An Evening with an Immigrant," New York City-based musical storytellers James & JJJJJerome's ever-changing show "Piano Tales" and the immersive guided audio tour "Of a Mind: Oklahoma City," which she helped create with a team of fellow artists from OKC, New York City, New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland.
Audiences can expect more inventive titles as OKC Rep gets back to its regular fall-spring schedule, starting this week with "Bill's 44th," a cleverly devised puppet show for grown-ups.
"I have dreamed of programming like this for Oklahoma City since I was a young theater student," said Nicole Poole, a local artist who serves on OKC Rep's board. "She's bringing cutting-edge professional theater to Oklahoma City ... with new voices, new methods and new advances in storytelling that we have not yet seen here. The caliber of artists that we’ll all get to see — and that our theater artists get to see and be exposed to — is so vitally important."
OKC Rep offers sliding-scale and 'Pay What You Can' ticket prices
With the bold theme "This Is Theater" and lofty goal of "expanding the definition of theater in Oklahoma City," Kerwin also is getting creative about OKC Rep's ticket prices in her first full season as artistic director. The general admission seats to the season-opening puppet show are priced on a sliding scale of $20 to $60, or people can pick the "Pay What You Can" option and buy tickets for any price of $5 or more.
"Theater has just been a part of my total life, and I want it to be something that can be a part of anyone's life if they want to have access to the theater. ... If you need a discount ticket, get a discount ticket; if the discount ticket is too much for you, get 'Pay What You Can.' … And if you know that you can pay more money, please do, because it's helping us bring in folks that might not otherwise get to go to the show," said Kerwin, who was previously the associate producer for The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York City.
"I want OKC Rep to be for the city of Oklahoma City — and that means that we need to take a different look at what ticket prices are."
Here is a look at the performances planned for OKC Rep's 2022-2023 season:
1. 'Bill's 44th'
When: Sept. 29-Oct. 1.
Marking its regional premiere, the 55-minute wordless puppet show follows the title character as he prepares for his 44th birthday party in his apartment and then anxiously waits for his guests to arrive. The new play by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck — who perform many styles of puppetry alongside fellow puppeteer Jon Riddleberger to tell the relatable story — premiered last year in NYC.
"We start with puppetry, and one of the reasons for that is because the show is just so delightful. … I just felt like it could appeal to a really large swath of people. It's like, 'Let's get them in and show them this weird puppet show and then hopefully they'll come for the rest of the season,’” Kerwin said.
“And yeah, it is a strange puppet show where two people embody one man named Bill."
2. 'The Great Leap'
When: Nov. 10-20.
The Oklahoma premiere of Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee's tale of cultures clashing over sports and politics will be directed by Jessica Holt. Fueled by rapid-fire dialogue, the show follows an American basketball team to Beijing for a "friendship" game during the post-Cultural Revolution 1980s.
"It's a playwright who wrote about a fictionalized version of her father's story, which is such an American tale, wanting to tell your family's story. At the same time, it is that second-generation (American) telling the story of the first-generation father — and it's about what it means to be an American," Kerwin said.
"I think in Oklahoma City where that can really resonate is that there's a huge immigrant population here in Oklahoma."
3. Under the Radar: On the Road
When: Jan. 26-29.
Kerwin continues her relationship with The Public Theater and its esteemed launching pad for new and cutting-edge performance from the U.S. and abroad. OKC Rep will present an exciting title that will come straight to OKC after premiering in NYC.
"When I was working for The Public and the Under the Radar Festival, every single year ... there would be shows that I would see that would completely reframe how I thought about something. They would really hit my heart and then go up to my brain, and I would go, 'Oh, if only my parents could see this.' Or, 'if only more folks in Middle America could see this,'" said Kerwin, who is originally from Springfield, Missouri.
"These are the kinds of shows that really only tour to the big cities, and I was always really hoping that these types of things could tour more throughout the country. ... So, I was hopeful that I could make a little bit of that dream happen here," she said.
When: Feb. 23-March 5.
Emily Zemba, a New York playwright originally from Connecticut, was part of the creative team for "Of a Mind: OKC." She will return to Oklahoma City next year for the regional premiere of her unconventional dark comedy. When a foreigner finds a penny on the ground and offers it to a stranger, it starts a scary and absurd conversation about American “bad luck.”
"It's a show that is about a world similar to ours, that is just a little askew," Kerwin teased. "There's a lot of crossing paths with strangers, but then connecting in ways that ended up being wildly meaningful, for better or for worse."
5. 'The Brothers Size'
When: April 27-May 7.
Along with winning an Academy Award for adapting his semi-autobiographical play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" into the 2017 Best Picture winner "Moonlight," Tarell Alvin McCraney penned "The Brother/Sister Plays," three interconnected stories set in the Louisiana bayou.
Making its Oklahoma premiere, "The Brothers Size" is one-third of his trio of contemporary stories incorporating poetry, music, dance and West African mythology.
"I think he's one of America's most amazing writers," Kerwin said. "It's a story about two brothers, and one of them is just trying to stay out of prison. It's heart wrenching because you fall in love with these characters, and it's done in such an artful way."
For tickets, go to https://www.okcrep.org.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Repertory Theatre launches season with a puppet show for grown-ups