Kelly Ashton Todd
Edited by: 
Shea Carponter-Broderick

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you became involved in the performing arts as a child so starting from the very beginning?

My mom loves to tell the story of me sitting in front of the TV when I was three years old, some dancers came on TV and I pointed at the screen and was like, “how do I get in the box? I want to be in the box.” And it kind of started from there. My mom put me in acting and dancing classes. I was from a really small town in Texas so the training was a little limited, and I actually didn't start ballet until high school. And then I went to college at Texas Christian University and majored in dance and environmental science and biology. And then after that, I moved to Houston and I worked with Zoey Juniper for a year on an installation she was doing out there, A Crack in Everything. Then I moved to Los Angeles. And that’s where it all kind of started.

Q: What have the performing arts taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

I do so many other jobs outside of the performing arts as well and every time I've been in an interview for any sort of job they've all said that they prefer working with dancers because you just learn how to be extremely versatile and move very quickly, and you're so good at collaboration. So kind of seeing the forest for the trees, always seeing the bigger picture. And the performing arts have helped me kind of work in terms of, it's not just about the movement, you have to involve the entire story. And that goes with any sort of business.

Q: Have the performing arts helped you overcome any hardships in your life?

Absolutely. I've had a very lucky life. A big hardship for me was probably when my father moved away to Malaysia, when I was in sixth grade to do work abroad. It was just me, my mom, and my sister. My mom really upped my dance practice and my dance rehearsals and put me in even more performing arts then, and it kept me distracted at that time. And then once I got older, it helped me realize where I was holding emotions and anger for all that. The performing arts have just helped me be able to move through the emotions instead of suppress them.

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside or inside of the performing arts that influence and inspire your artistry?

The environment. Ever since I was a child, I’ve just spent all my time outdoors and there's always been this deep, deep love for that. And so, the environment always inspires me to figure out how I can weave the arts and where we are with our climate right now together through storytelling and creating a richer relationship with the outdoors.

Q: How do you think the performing arts can be a platform for social justice issues?

Art’s purpose is not to change laws. Its purpose is to open up people's minds to change how they vote, who they elect, how they see the world, and to teach morals. So it's our job as artists to find strategic ways to tell these stories that have underlying moral obligations for our future generations. And so, especially for for me, what I work on for environmental science, is how can you have your basic moral story of good versus evil, add a layer of the environment and what's presently happening onto past relationships with the environment, and then use the emotional vulnerability of movement to add the extra sense of awe to that.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

The Off Broadway show that I was performing with, Sleep No More, closed. So, it put me in unemployment. And we don't know when that will open up. Especially living here in New York and having so many friends that depend on their Broadway jobs and performing jobs, it's been a little heartbreaking and devastating to now start to reflect on the fact that theatres probably won't open up for a while. And with that, it dominos to all of us freelance choreographers because if all the big shows are going to struggle, the smaller artists are going to struggle too. So like grants, we're not really sure where grants are going to go right now, where that funding is going to go. I was working on another project called Riding Red, which is a live theater piece  with some of my dancers about puberty, because I work at a Montessori School. It's been totally on hold, and honestly I don't know when it can pick back up just because of funding. Our economy is totally crashing and artists have always been the ones to struggle and receive the last bit of finances and I think we're gonna feel that even more after this. Film festivals have been put on hold so my films will not tour for a while. And, yeah, it's affected just overall creation. There's nothing like being in a room with someone and collaborating, and you just can't do that in your living room when it comes to making a life theater piece.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your initial reactions When the shutdown first happened and kind of what process you were in during that time?

We were in rehearsals for this piece, Riding Red. We were in about two days a week of rehearsals to try and make an evening length piece. I was meeting with business production managers to figure out how to tour this across the nation and meeting with costume designers and sound designers. I've also been in post production for my second film, and honestly I've been very grateful for this time to actually have more time with my sound designer and my colorist. So, that timing couldn't have worked out any better. I was in acting classes, and those have been cut. And those acting classes directly went into my research for my other productions.

Q: What does a daily routine look like for you? What have you been working on during this time?

I still teach online courses for the Montessori school that I work at, so I'm still working with my middle schoolers. I also started an online platform called “Movement for Home” that brings dance classes, art classes, yoga classes, fitness classes, from teachers all over the world to your computer. So scheduling for that, booking teachers, that always goes into a day. And then, I really like to pocket time for reading. I'm reading a lot of environmental books right now and learning how to sketch the environment. I'm not a “drawer”, so I'm trying to learn that to figure out new ways of inspiring movement, since I'm not inspired to dance right now. And then I'm still working with Under Review, the second film, and it's mainly working on getting sound design and color, where it is. So that's pretty much my day.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what you've been seeing the performing arts community doing during this time in a time of social distance and online?

Oh, it's been so amazing. Everyone has really come together and all the classes that are being offered are really inspiring. The theater companies from all over the world are sharing their works online right now for free. I've been dying to see a lot of these works, and they've either been touring Europe for years, and I'm not over there, or I’ve just not been able to see them here, so it's been so special to watch these performances online. And I just feel like everyone's trying to support, stay optimistic, and move through this time. It's really nice to see.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I mean, for my friends and I in the performing arts world, when we filed for unemployment, our unemployment checks were higher than our show pay. And so what I would like to see is the artist community being served better financially, because it's a job, it's a service, and you're providing a product. So I would like to see equal pay in that realm. And then I would really love it if we could continue to find a way, even after this, for these shows and classes to still be available for free or donation based online somehow. And I don't know how that will work because so many are dependent on those classes for pay. But especially for underserved communities, if there's a way to implement these Zoom classes more, or for universities to use Zoom for guest choreographers to choreograph big works if they can't necessarily afford to fly them out, or artists talk-backs through Zoom. I think we've just opened a really unique box that I hope keeps trickling down after this.

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