Grand Forks has a few local personalities that almost everyone just sort of knows. Terry Dullum. Trevor D or Pat Mars, depending on your age bracket. The grande dame herself, Marilyn Hagerty. And for fans of local theatre, there is Darin Kerr. Kerr has been active in theatre for more than 20 years, and his newest performance is a role in the latest Empire Theatre Company Production of A Bright New Boise; he recently sat down with our very own Miss Jaye for a very interesting chat.
Janessa: Today we’re sitting down with one of the most familiar faces in local theatre, Darin Kerr! Thanks for taking the time to join us.
Darin: Well, you won’t undo the handcuffs, Janessa, so I’m not sure that I’ve got a choice. But you’re welcome, girl. It’s my pleasure.
Janessa: Don’t talk back, gimp. So, you’re working on a new show with the Empire Theatre Company that opens this week. Tell me about the show, and what we can expect to see.
Darin: A likeable husband’s tolerance and marriage is tested by the constant intrusion of his overbearing parents and dim-witted brother. Wait, no, that’s the logline for Everybody Loves Raymond. What show is this again? Oh, yeah, A Bright New Boise. It’s a humorous, poignant look at a man who gets a job at a Hobby Lobby in an effort to reconnect with certain parts of his part and escape from others. I’d tell you more, but that would ruin the humorous, poignant surprises of this humorous, poignant show. Did I mention that it’s humorous? And poignant?!
Janessa: A Bright New Boise is being staged in the downstairs gallery/performance space, Theatre E. How does that performance space affect the show – how it’s been staged and how you engage with the space?
Darin: Well, mostly, it means that everyone needs to wear deodorant that works, so slather on your Secret, ladies, boys, and ladyboys. It also means that you get to experience theatre in a particularly intimate setting. You can practically reach out and touch the actors (though I wouldn’t recommend it, we’re sensitive about that kind of thing). Every awkward interaction between the Hobby Lobby stalwarts is up close and way too personal.
Janessa: The ETC has done a great job of bringing fresh, contemporary works to the Grand Forks area. Are there any new shows that you hope will make their local debut on the Empire stage?
Darin: I’m not sure that people realize quite how much ETC has done to bring new works to the area. More than ever, I think theatergoers hunger for fresh, new stories they haven’t seen before, or for new takes on familiar stories. I think next season (which should be announced soon) will really address that hunger. In future, I’d love to see ETC continue to produce exciting new works by established playwrights, particularly playwrights representing underserved voices and audiences. I’d also love to see us branch out into producing new work, particularly by local and regional playwrights, and I think you’ll see that happen as well (perhaps sooner than you think!).
Janessa: You have been very active in local theatre productions for as long as I’ve been in Grand Forks. Tell me more about how you first got interested in theatre.
Darin: How long do we have? The version of the story that I most like to tell is that it all began on one of the oldest stages in the world: the great theatre at Epidaurus, in Greece. This ancient Greek theatre was the first stage I actually set foot on, though only as a tourist, when I was a wee child (hard to believe, I know). My father was in the Air Force, so we lived in Athens at the time. The next great step would be here in town, in the living room of my ancestral home (also known as our house). My parents owned a set of the Great Books of the Western World (there should probably be a trademark in there), and for some reason I gravitated to the two volumes of Shakespeare. As a kid of eight or nine, I would open Volume I to the first play, Henry VI, Part 1, and declaim away. My favorite role? Joan la Pucelle, better known as Joan of Arc. Of course, we’re talking the work of a true auteur here, since I was actor, director, producer, designer, and truly, the only audience member, as well. So when actual, honest-to-gosh theater came around in school plays and church camps and the like, I was primed for it.
Janessa: Tell us about some of the roles you’ve played – any particular favorites?
Darin: So many favorites! Sweeney Todd, the Baker in Into the Woods, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, just about every female role in The Comedy of Errors, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mayor Shinn in The Music Man…wait, scratch that last one.
Janessa: What about roles that have been especially challenging for you?
Darin: Again, so many. Uncle Peck was a particular challenge (if you don’t know the show, look it up, and you’ll have a decent idea why). And there have been roles that have presented particular kinds of acting challenges, like fight choreography as Mercurio in Romeo & Juliet, or the exhausting high kicks for the EmCee in Cabaret (and I carried around the late, great John Michael Lerma in a gorilla suit).
Janessa: You’ve played so many wonderful characters – are there any dream roles you’re still just dying to play?
Darin: Most of the dream roles I have now are roles in which I would never be cast. Two longtime dreams unlikely to be fulfilled are Cassandra in Agamemnon and Angellica in The Rover. I love me some classics. I could happily do any Shakespeare. And if anyone wants to mount some Shaw or Chekhov for me, I’d be most appreciative.
Janessa: Tell us about other “roles” you’ve played in the theatre – what kind of experience do you have with the technical side of things?
Darin: Well, there was that one time I stapled my thumb with a pneumatic stapler. That was fun. Or the time I was stage managing Macbeth from a crow’s nest position behind the proscenium arch on the Burtness stage when an actor passed out off the top of a five foot platform and then proceeded to fall all the way down a circular staircase to the basement. That was even more fun!
Janessa: Is there a dream show you hope to direct?
Darin: My tastes when it comes to directing generally tend to the stranger and more obscure, so it’s rare that I actually get the opportunity to do the stuff I’d *really* love to sink my teeth into. That being said, I’d love to direct a full-on, mammoth production of the entire Oresteia by Aeschylus. Sex, Murder, Furies, who could ask for anything more?
Janessa: You’ve been involved in theatre in a number of contexts: professional theatre, community theatre, and educational theatre. What are some of the joys and challenges with working within these different contexts? Do you have a favorite?
Darin: As you suggest, each mode has its own joys and challenges, but at their heart, they’re all devoted to the art of putting live bodies on stage in the service of telling interesting stories. I’m more interested in their commonalities than in their differences, and I think each has its role in the artistic economy.
Janessa: Very diplomatic of you – I like it, Senator! You also teach theatre to young hopefuls. What sort of practical advice do you have for the next generation’s budding actors and performance artists?
Darin: Eat on stage if you can. Steal shamelessly. And above all, be an advocate. For your character, for your art, and for your audience.
Janessa: You are actually one of the people in Grand Forks I’ve known the longest. I met you my freshman year at UND when we were both sort of dating that creep Andy. Remember him?
Darin: Now I do. Why do you hate me so? Never have I ever met a person who lied so much about things of such little importance! Come to think of it, he probably taught me a thing or two about acting!
Janessa: Ugh, what a tool. Anyway, how has the theatrical landscape in Grand Forks changed over the years? I realize I’m talking to you like you’re the official theatrical historian for Grand Forks, but, well, you kind of are!
Darin: Again, how long do we have? As with many things, there’s a kind of cyclical ebb and flow to Grand Forks’ theatrical culture. Different kinds of theatrical endeavors thrive at different times. I can remember a few different heydays for the community theatre, for instance, including under its present leadership. I can also remember some rather lean years. There have been moments (the mid-90s) when theatrical experimentation has had a pronounced presence in Grand Forks, and times when more commercial fare has dominated local stages. I think we’re at a nice moment of balance presently, and I think it’s particularly encouraging that ETC has been able to provide theatrical artists with modest stipends to support their work in ETC shows. Valuing art means that we need to recompense artists for their efforts. These things don’t mount themselves, you know! So donate to your local arts organizations! If you value a vibrant arts community, be an advocate for the arts by supporting local artists through attendance, through patronage, and through your time, if possible. Wow! I’m amazed I was able to get up onto this soapbox with these handcuffs still on.
Janessa: Do it again and you’ll get the hose. Anyway, why do you think theatre is still important?
Darin: Because we still have war and poverty and famine. Because women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community still find themselves beaten and killed just for being who they are. Because we all want to be loved and to feel that our voices, our stories matter. I know that makes me sound like a pretentious asshole, but I’m a pretentious asshole who believes that art has the power to affect people, and theatre in particular, as a communal art, lets us experience other lives, other points of view, and brings us into conversation with one another. At least, it *can* do that. It can also just be really fucking fun.
Janessa: What does a community gain from having a strong arts scene?
Darin: Everything. A community with a strong arts scene is more socially aware and more socially responsive, because the arts can’t help but reflect what’s happening around us. A strong arts scene contributes to the economic health of a region, and it also attracts (or keeps) creative, talented individuals who otherwise might leave the community. I think we could more carefully define what exactly a strong arts scene *is*, but that might be a conversation for another day. At the very least, however, strength in the arts is achieved through diversity, in its audience, its artists and media, and its subject matter.
Janessa: You’ve been in some shows that take on some pretty controversial material. A Bright New Boise and Doubt, another recent ETC production, both engage with religious identity in ways that are thought-provoking but can ruffle a few feathers in a conservative place like Grand Forks. You were in a UND production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive which presents a narrative of a young girl being molested by a male relative. How do you approach working with material that may be very sensitive to audience members?
Darin: Well, I think one can be sensitive to one’s audience, but you can’t be afraid of saying things that might prove unpopular. Sometimes feathers need to be ruffled! Girl, as a drag queen, I’m sure you understand this more than most people.
Janessa: Tell me about it! There are plenty of folks around here who are good and tired of this whore mouth!
Darin: That being said, I try not to do shock for shock’s sake. Anything I put on stage I’m willing to stand behind.
Janessa: How do you determine your own boundaries for what you will or will not perform? Is there any subject you think should not be explored on stage?
Darin: No. Art should be able to explore anything. I’m not a fan of limiting the scope of art’s inquiries. Fortunately, there haven’t been too many things I’ve been asked to do that I found myself unwilling to do. In a production of A Few Good Men, I played Capt. Markinson and didn’t really feel comfortable putting an actual gun in my mouth (unloaded of course, but still). I made my discomfort known, and the director decided that the moment could be achieved another way. Really, it’s about knowing your own boundaries and effectively negotiating them with your director. And if he or she is a good director, your concerns will be listened to with the seriousness they deserve. But I’ve done partial nudity, I should win some sort of award for gross onstage makeouts, and I’ve humiliated myself in any number of ways.
Janessa: Tell us about some of your other interests outside the theatre.
Darin: (with a dead eyed stare) There is a life outside the theatre? Someone should have told me much sooner. No, seriously though, I’m a giant nerd/dork/geek/whatever. I have a longstanding love affair with the extremes of high and low culture. I’m a sucker for continental philosophy and critical theory (even when I don’t understand it), but I’m also obsessed with comic books, roleplaying games, and exploitation film. I patronize the Criterion Collection sales twice annually at Barnes and Noble, and I have shelves lined with action figures. Basically, I pretty much love culture in all its manifestations. Except sports. I just don’t get sports. Except rugby. It’s like fast football with thighs.
Janessa: I’m far too pretty to sports, but I love a good thigh. Regardless, it’s time for us to move on. We’re getting into the really random part of the interview – be warned!
Darin: NOW a warning? (Death Becomes Her, kids. Know your classics.)
Janessa: What’s the last book you read?
Darin: Uh, I’m currently reading The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft; Thongor at the End of Time, a truly terrible late-60s science fantasy novel; and Spectacular Rhetorics, a book about the relationship between human rights and visual rhetoric.
Janessa: Who is your favorite Golden Girl?
Darin: I am ashamed to admit that I am not a Golden Girls aficionado.
Janessa: You should feel deep shame. For your people.
Darin: That being said, it’s Dorothy. Always Dorothy.
Janessa: Who was the best Edna Turnblad: Divine, Harvey Fierstein, Bruce Villanch, or John Travolta?
Darin: Really, There can be only one. It’s like Highlander. If she were still alive, Divine would come in with a big muthatruckin’ sword, cut off some heads, and eat some dog shit. All hail Divine.
Janessa: I’m glad you got that question right. I can almost forgive you for the Golden Girls thing. Anyway, what do you think is your spirit animal?
Darin: Lori Petty.
Janessa: Mine is Amanda Bynes, before the medication. Next question: is she born with it? Or is it Maybelline?
Darin: She paid for it, girl, and it ain’t Maybelline.
Janessa: If you were on The Walking Dead, what would your signature weapon be?
Darin: My razor sharp wit. (I’d be dead inside of five minutes.)
Janessa: I can’t even look at you right now…
Darin: …but surely she can’t be worse than Claire Underwood. And if she is, then sign me up.
Janessa: Even without being a fan of The Walking Dead, do you have an opinion on who you want to see become zombie food next?
Darin: Daryl, so I don’t have to look at him on the cover of Entertainment Weekly ever again. And so every asshole who was so upset when it was rumored that his character might be gay can cry into their Wheaties. (Hey, I may not watch the show, but I’m pop culturally literate.)
Janessa: I would absolutely ride that ’til the wheels fell off! But I think I’d want to bunk in with Crazy Eyes. She would totally throw her pie for me.
Darin: (blank stare)
Janessa: This has been fun! Before we go, are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Darin: Send help. These things are starting to chafe my wrists.
Janessa: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. I’m sure our readers are going to love A Bright New Boise.
Darin: Hey, get that dirty sock away from my mouth! Mfmmfghmmfgh!
Janessa: That’ll do, pig. (Whip crack is heard in the background, lights fade)
Assuming that Janessa lets him out of her basement, Darin Kerr will be appearing in A Bright New Boise at the Empire Theatre, running for the next two weekends and directed by Chris Berg. The show performs in the downstairs gallery space, Theatre E, so be sure to get your tickets early as the space fills up fast!
Tags: A Bright New Boise, Chris Berg, community theatre, comunity theater, Darin Kerr, Doubt, Emily Burkland, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, FrostFire, How I Learned To Drive, Into the Woods, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, local theater, local theatre, Miss Jaye, Nicole Quam, Paula Vogel, Shakespeare, Sweeney Todd, Twelth Night, World of Champagne