Who is Cherdonna Shinatra?

Have you been wondering what The Ensemble is cooking up with Cherdonna’s Doll’s House? Our Literary Manager Maggie Rogers had a chance to sit down with Jody Kueher, aka Cherdonna Shinatra, to talk about the crazy world she and Ali el-Gassier have created! Cherdonna’s Doll’s House plays April 28 – May 15, 2017. Get your tickets today!

Maggie Rogers: For people coming to the show who do not know Cherdonna, how would you describe her?

JK: To people who don’t know Cherdonna, I guess I would explain her as a drag queen, a performance artist… I don’t know, I don’t like to explain her as two things. I don’t like her to be a totally separate entity from me. And she IS a character, so it is separate. Cherdonna lives more in an abstract world, a non-linear world. I don’t really like to put Cherdonna in a place. People always ask me, “who’re her parents?” or “where was she born?” and I’m like, I don’t know, that’s not a part of the spectrum of Cherdonna. I don’t like to put her in a spot like that. I think it is in the vein of how do you develop character, and I don’t want to put her in a place because it boxes her in too much.

MR: Having a background in dance, it’s not a tool you implement often?

JK: Not really. It is used sometimes, but dance is more aesthetic, visceral, more a way into movement.

MR: How was Cherdonna created?

JK: Very organically, actually. She was created over the last eight years of starting to work with friends of mine: Ricki Mason, Lou Henry Hoover. We had danced together and got interested in doing some character work and playing with gender. It randomly started there and has grown over the years. It’s been a long process into it; it really has. It has never been, “I wanna make a character! And do this! And do this!” It’s been more of “I’m a dancer and I’m going to make a piece and I will do more feminine and you will do more masculine and we will see where that takes us. And what if we push this further?” It is very in process.

MR: How did Cherdonna’s Doll’s House come into existence?

JK: It really happened because I did WET’s reSET on The Tall Girls and had so much fun. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done, and honestly, the feedback from audiences is that it is one of the most successful things I have ever made. I have had people say “that is the best thing I have ever seen you do.” There was something about those parameters of seeing the play, getting to use a script, and getting to use the set that was really cool for me. Afterwards I wanted more of it. I talked to Ali el-Gasseir and said, “ I want Cherdonna to come in and just ruin a play.” Initially it was like, “Can you all just do a play and I can do whatever I want during it?” Like not set (laughs). We then decided we should work it out and have it be set.

MR: How did you decide on A Doll’s House?

JK: Ali was totally thinking about what the play would be and I don’t really know much about plays. I mean, I have seen very little theatre. He suggested the play and then we did a reading of it one-and-half to two years ago and I thought it was great and I was into it.

MR: What has the whole process looked like?

JK: It started with reSET, then the reading, and since then Ali and I have been meeting and he had to really tell me all the stuff about the play (laughs). We talked about idealism and realism; these are not in my wheelhouse. And then from here, talking with Ali about what would Cherdonna do and what is the point of doing it? That brought us into how we wanted Cherdonna and Nora to have a similar trajectory and how we tie them into the larger themes of the play. Ali did all the work on the script with editing, and we would get together and talk creatively. We also had one workshop with the cast in Fall 2016, which was funny for me because we did so much script reading, and even up until now, I was antsy to get bodies in space. Reading is not so much my process. I have been really jonesin’ to get to where we are now – in the thick of it, in the room doing it. It’s a different process for me with theatre where you rehearse up until show time and then you are in the space. There is no room between rehearsal and show time, like what if we need more time? That is nerve wracking to me. And I think it is going great and also, there is so much we can do. My main goal is to get as far as we can get. And of course projects are never done. No one puts on a show and ever thinks it’s perfectly done.

MR: How does this differ from your other performances?

JK: The theatre format is the most different. There are actors. a set, and starting from a story base. I never start from a story. My process is normally like: I saw this person on the street who seems incongruent to whatever was going on, and then I read this book, and I saw this thing on YouTube, and I gather all those things and then they always fit together.

MR: What are you most excited for?

JK: We are asking the audience to watch a theatre piece in a different way. I’m not gonna be quiet, I’m gonna be all in their area. To have me in the audience then onstage and backstage and in the front and back. They aren’t gonna be able to sit. We are going to be distracting them in different ways. We are going to set it up so people won’t feel like they missed something because Cherdonna is talking to them because that is something they should be experiencing. I hope that they let themselves go to wherever their attention is grabbing them. I don’t want them to think they need to be focused on me.

MR: Do you have any messages for Ibsen traditionalists?

JK: (laughs) No. (laughing) No, I do not. I mean, plays are weird to me because I am in a dancer way. Literally the first 15 minutes of any play I see I have to re-calibrate. Seriously. Because of all the words! I am not used to that many words where I have to follow along and remember people’s names. For me, since I see so much dance, when I sit down there is a certain way I take information in, and for theatre there is a real extreme re-calibration for how I watch and take it in. It is fun to mess with this and allow that to not be the case.

MR: WET does have a reputation for doing weird shit so I think people will be down, or hate it which can sometimes be more fun.

JK: Yeah! My biggest concern is that there is so much excitement that I’m not going to deliver what people are expecting out of Cherdonna. This is my worry for every piece I make. People get really excited and have really particular thoughts about me, what I do, and what they like to see. It’s hard to not feel like I’m going to disappoint or not go far enough. They expect me to be this crazy, bonkers experience and sometimes that happens, and sometimes that doesn’t. For all artists, how much you want to please your audience and how you stay integral to what your interest is is always a question for me.

MR: Anything else you want the people to know?

JK: Yeah, actually! I guess I just want the people to know that because I do these different forms as Cherdonna, I want people to come see her in these different ways and have a more holistic view of her.

MR: You’re multifaceted.

JK: Yeah! I can do Homo for the Holidays, I can do a Velocity crazy abstract thing, and I can do this thing at WET. People shouldn’t have expectations of me to produce in a certain way.  I think that is on my mind because this is a new collaboration and it is a new thing to go into a play. I hope people come in with a real clean slate and open eyes.

MR: Absolutely. I’m excited to see our audiences meet.

JK: Right! Ali has been like “the theatre community is going to think this is bonkers” and I’m like the dance community is gonna be like “ehh.” (laughs) I don’t know if that will happen but that’s my wonder. It might be real mixed and that is cool.

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Rehearsal photo by Michael Notestine

Other photos by Spider OQ, www.typenamehere.com