Penny, a silent love story told through physical theatre and clowning, is charming audiences at the Chicago Fringe Festival. I talked with creators Nico Fernandez and Kearstyn Keller who both star in the production about the imagination behind Penny.
What is your background as performers? How long have you been acting, writing, devising theatre, etc?
Nico: I’ve been playing pretend ever since I tried to get to Neverland after reading Peter Pan for the first time. I studied acting at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, IL. I’m the son of an inventor so when I had this idea I knew I had to see it through to its creation. This process has really inspired me to develop more original stories and I’m constantly filling up my notebook with new ideas. I know this won’t be the last thing I collaborate on with Kearstyn, and I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!
Kearstyn: I have been performing since I was four. I always knew that I wanted to be an actor/singer. I didn’t get into devising until I was in college. I had a professor, Jeff Casazza, that introduced me to composition and a form of Theatre that was more physical and visual. Once that door opened, my imagination exploded and I have been devising ever since.
Where did the inspiration for Penny come from? How long have you been working on this project? How has it evolved?
Nico: I’ve been working on “Penny.” for a little over 3 years. Music serves as dialogue in the show, and therefore I had to have the full soundtrack set before I could flesh out the story. I knew that I wanted to set the story in a timeless land where it rained creativity. A big idea that inspired me was the thought of the audience entering the theater as adults and leaving the show with the rediscovery of the curiosity they had as children. “Penny.” was first performed at Northern Illinois University amongst our peers, and last year it was adapted into a short film which I am currently editing. We then decided to remount the original stage version and bring it to The Chicago Fringe Festival. In preparation for the festival, we made many new discoveries which lead to a more refined and well-oiled machine.
Kearstyn: Nico approached me after he came back from Russia with this great idea. He had a story that he wanted told, and (me being very flattered) he thought that I would be a great partner in fleshing out the story and staging. The process was one of my favorite experiences while in graduate school. We created it while we were still at Northern Illinois University. The project now has taken on a life way passed the initial production. It has grown and matured with us for three years now. It has evolved into a short film (which is in post right now), and now we are remounting it at Chicago Fringe.
The play nods to silent film by using clowning and physicality to tell the story. Why did you choose to tell Penny and August’s story that way?
Nico: I’m fascinated by the silent film era and knew that part of the magic of this story was that these two tramps never say a word to each other. I think some of the most powerful theater is silent because the audience has the space to experience it on their own. It’s truly a love story no words can tell.
Kearstyn: This was Nico’s idea. He found a picture from Buster Keaton’s film College that inspired the idea. I think it also helped that while at NIU and in Russia we were introduced to telling stories through movement etudes.
The show incorporates music from several different genres. How did you decide which songs to tie to your story?
Nico: Almost a year before I came to Kearstyn with the idea, Penny and August were always on my mind. I love listening to all kinds of music, no matter of the year it was released. This inspired me to set the story in a timeless era. I compiled a ton of songs that established a blueprint for our world. Kearstyn and I then brought in others that filled the holes. It was a lot of fun compiling a soundtrack full of songs from any time period. The music serves as our dialogue and our soundtrack is extremely imaginative and has something for everyone.
Kearstyn: It was a lot of trial and error. Nico came in with some set sounds, but the rest was “Hey let’s both bring in stuff that feels like this moment and then we will decide.” We went through a lot of different sounds before the right ones came to fruition. In the end the music is as much a character as we are.
What drives you to make theatre and tell stories? What kinds of stories are you passionate about?
Nico: I’m constantly inspired by the artists I surround myself with. I guess I’m also trying to hold onto the curiosity, freedom, and imagination that was such a big part of my childhood. I can’t get enough of the stories that demand for us dream bigger and fall in love with our dreams. I’m a creative person and a child at heart and I’m passionate about inventing stories that’ll inspire us to find the magic in the world.
Kearstyn: I believe that we need to keep telling stories and sharing experiences in order to make that connection and keep the conversation going. For me personally as an artist I want the world to remember the magic that the world has to offer amongst the mess. There are so many things that we can’t explain, and I think it’s our job as artist to keep searching for possibilities.
What’s next for Penny and for you as theatre artists?
Nico: We have concluded filming on the short film version of “Penny.” and it is now in post-production. It was shot throughout the course of a year in order to see the progression of their relationship in real time throughout the four seasons. We are aiming for a release date early next year. I will next be seen in The Runaways Lab Theater’s production of Mary Shelley Sees the Future which runs Oct. 21st-Nov.13th at Outerspace Studios.
Kearstyn: Penny is one of those projects that will not go away! Nico jokes that I can’t get rid of him, but in all honesty I think this is a story that is universal and will constantly need to be heard. The film is in post-production right now and will be released in the near future, but as for the stage version…we will see! While I wait for the next Penny adventure, I am beginning the journey as an actor in Chicago. The city is fantastic and I can’t wait to see what this year brings.
Penny is playing at The Gift Theatre, Sept. 9 at 10pm, Sept. 10 at 8:30pm, and Sept. 11 at 2:30pm.