Designing, Directing, and Disney: An Artistic Discussion With Kennon Cliche

In little over a week, I’ll be making my tentative, facemasked return to New York City– resuming University in a Covid-19 world. The pandemic has shifted what it means to get an Acting degree and while I’m thankful for the hybrid, somewhat in-person class model I’ll be returning to- I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that things will be different.

Not bad.

Not good.

But different. The pandemic has had actors, myself included, thinking about theatre differently. It has been an extraordinary exercise in resilience and fortitude. With this creative thinking comes a good deal of reflection and I find myself increasingly meditating on the allure of theatre as my return to NYC draws nearer and nearer. What purpose does it serve? What do I get out of it? What are my responsibilities to the craft, as an artist? I try to answer some of these questions in previous posts but it dawned on me that I can only answer these questions through the lens of my experience as an actor and a writer. I wanted to explore these questions with someone who connected with theatre through different means. That search for diverse discussion led me to Kennon Cliche.

Kennon is a designer and director based in Memphis, TN. They received their BFA in Theatre with a concentration in Design and Technical Production with an emphasis in Scenic and Costume Design from The University of Memphis Department of Theatre & Dance. They were also apart of an organization that helped shape my young artistic life.

I met Kennon at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. The Governor’s school is an audition-in residency, summer intensive program that specializes in multiple artistic mediums (music, visual art, theatre, dance, and filmmaking). I attended for theatre, Acting specifically. My time there helped me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in Acting. When I attended, Kennon was a counselor. However, back in 2013, Kennon was a student at the Governor’s School as well. A student for design.

“I remember, the night before I interviewed, I was in bed, drawing as many set designs as I could.” They recalled, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I had never really designed a real set before.”

Kennon grew up in theatre, although they had always viewed it through the acting lens, “A lot of the theatre I was involved with back in my hometown was oriented around the actors. There weren’t any major design elements. In my high-school, we only had ten stage lights. We’d bring costumes from our closets at home.” It wasn’t until 2012, just a year prior to their admission to the Governor’s School, that they would discover an entirely different side of the theatre.

I was incredibly curious about what drew Kennon to the design aspect of theatre-making. So, naturally, I asked. They paused, attempting to put an abstract feeling into concrete words, “I felt like I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell more clearly. I’m definitely a more hands on artist, tactile, so much of it had to do with bridging the gap between creating physical art and the theatre which I had been so drawn to.”

Theatre-making has a place for all types of artists, I personally view the theatre as a melting pot where creators of all mediums can come together and give birth to something fantastic. It takes all types: musicians, story-tellers, and, of course, designers. Although, while theatre only functions when these different artists work in tandem, communication between artistic branches can be a beast to navigate. Kennon viewed it as a Tower of Babel situation, saying, “Actors and directors, they can speak so theoretically about the world in which the show takes place- it’s the scenic designer’s task to take that abstract theory and make it tactile.” Kennon welcomes this challenge, believing that process to be the most rewarding part of design.

Kennon also noted that, while trying to physically manifest the abstract, there can be a tendency to rely too heavily on the pillars of time and space. They mused about their thought process as a developing artist, “I used to think the concept of a show sat upon the pillars of time and place. Where is it? When is it? So I’d shake it up to try and make things interesting. Shakespeare in Space, or something, you know? I’d do things for the sake of being different, for a certain aesthetic, but I came to realize that concepts are only effective when they serve the story, which is something I learned while directing.”

I found it interested that Kennon mentioned directing here. I think their experience only supports the theory that the exploration of multiple theatrical roles actively improves individuals as an artists. I’ve heard time and time again that becoming a director made an individual a better actor- and vice versa.

Kennon explained how their time directing actually aided in their growth as a designer and how they had come to realize that a subtle subversion of conventional storytelling is incredibly effective. They laughed, “I finally came to understand that the concept doesn’t have to be a huge knock to the head, it can be simple, as long as it resonates with the audience and supports a part of the show.” This exploration was best displayed in a production of Lonely Planet that Kennon directed in 2018. The show, traditionally centering around the AIDS epidemic, has a cast of two men. Kennon had cast two women. “Their sex is important to the story- but I had two women. I was reviewing the script and realized that they never actually address it as AIDS, I mean its apparent- however, they only ever refer to it as ‘the disease’.” This is when Kennon’s concept for the show started to form more fully, saying, “This was around 2018, the #MeToo discussion was ramping up, protests over gun violence, the BLM movement, all of these issues were being discussed. I wanted to tackle those topics. I figured the best way to do that was to make ‘the disease’ mentioned in the show racism, sexism, police brutality. That would be our disease that we would take action against.”

Kennon wanted to stay faithful to the play however, and as such there were very few indicators surrounding the change in concept. They explained, “It was never something that blatantly appeared up in the show. Nobody was wearing anything that would suggest that message, no mention of it in the program. The intention wasn’t to be different or to shove a political message. It was a way for us to try and relate the text to something especially present today.”

Artistic vision is very important to Kennon, more specifically, the clarity of that vision. This is where our conversation turned toward outward examples of storytelling- specifically toward large budget projects. I’d describe Kennon as a very independent, innovative, tear-the-house down, anti-institutional creator. More importantly, I also think that is how they’d describe themselves. That stance bleeds into their view of major entertainment companies. Kennon thinks that, in the creation of art, the audience should not be considered too heavily. Instead, the focus should revolve around the story you want to tell. Whatever the audience thinks, well, that’s what they think. When storytellers churn out stories with the intention of ticket sales at the forefront of their mind, Kennon winces, saying, “It feels manipulative, not authentic, forced.”

None are safe, either, as Kennon began to list companies who partake in this, “Disney-Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars.” Kennon explained how they thought that, due to the attempt to please such a wide audience (for revenue), these stories lacked specificity. They were broad. The vision didn’t shine through the final product.

I didn’t agree.

So I inquired further.

I brought up the fact that, while large budget projects are tied down to an aim for mass appeal, I don’t think they sacrifice specificity. Take the movie Up, for example. It’s incredibly specific. Each character is well written, the plot is motivated by strong intentions. Nothing about Pixar films seem unspecific to me.

Kennon agreed, “They’re three dimensional, for sure. But not specific.” This is when I realized that we were each defining ‘specific’ differently. When Kennon said specific, they meant specific to the artist’s original intention. They believe that specificity is lost in large budget projects- as the art has to be filtered through the whims of countless producers in order to get off the ground. Too many voices, resulting in creative dissonance. I briefly discussed something similar in a previous post. It was an interesting take, although I’m still not sure how much I agree. Regardless, I respect Kennon’s conviction.

Out of curiosity, I asked them an absolute whopper, “If offered the chance to work on a Disney-Pixar film would you take it?”

They laughed and I could practically hear them shaking their head over the phone, “Sheesh, okay, I don’t know. I would absolutely hate it, probably. I’m a huge fan of smaller companies- A24 for example- I wouldn’t hesitate if someone reached out from there. I’d probably turn down the opportunity to direct a Disney film. What would be seen by the audience wouldn’t be my vision, it would be the vision of others. Those filters.”

Vision and integrity, they’re at the core of Kennon’s artistic pursuits. They made it clear that their draw to storytelling is one of introspection. They tell stories because the act of directing and designing helps them to know themselves. It’s about making sense of the abstract.

“I think that art is a way to observe and make sense of the abstract. Things we may not be able to mentally frame any other way. Novelists put into words what can’t be put into words. Visual artists, well, visualize it. Actors give actions to concepts that are hard to act on, hard to make sense of. There are different types of abstracts which is why we have so many art-forms.”

Kennon’s motives for creation are incredibly interesting and I think they are telling. Kennon explained, “I’ve said this before and people laugh at me when I say it. I say something and then after I’ve said it, I decided whether or not I agree with it. The same goes with art. I could make something, it could even be good, but I won’t know if I identify with it or agree with it until it is made.” When art acts as an individual’s compass, specificity of vision is important, lest you not know which direction you are going- which is likely why Kennon would never work on a Disney film. I admire the aim.

My discussion with Kennon was an interesting one… one that forced me to explore other motives for creation. There are countless types of creators, all creating in different ways. Art is fantastically accessible in that way. The conversation I had with Kennon reminded me of the developmental discussions I partook in at Governor’s School. It has reaffirmed in me that, in order to become a better artist, you have to view art across mediums. You have to discuss it as well as practice it. It’s abstract. Talking makes it tangible.

You can learn more about Kennon at https://www.kennoncliche.com/

How do you connect with art? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

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