A Case of Radiant Moxie: Performer Yana Kesala and the Art of Going it Alone

[media-credit name=”Charlie Ainslie” align=”alignnone” width=”640″][/media-credit]A true storyteller needs only two things: a worthy story and the sturdy means to tell it. Solo performer Yana Kesala has those qualities and in spades.

After several years on the touring circuit, working with ensemble groups like theater simple and Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Kesala developed a fondness for life on the road, but there was seldom a guarantee of landing touring troupe opportunities with degree of regularity. So, she conceived of her own touring opportunity. But where to start?

Growing up a child of Ukrainian immigrants, Kesala’s home was filled with vivid stories, both mythical and personal, stories that ultimately became woven into her particular personal myth. “I could write some fictionalized piece about some historical figure,” says Kesala, “Or I could interview [a total stranger] and tell that story but that’s not quite what I wanted.”

Taking Marya Sea Kaminski’s solo performance class at Freehold was the springboard for Kesala’s first solo piece. “For the second class session we were to write the first ten minutes of our piece,” Says Kesala, “This is what became the first 9 ½ minutes of my show and they are pretty much verbatim. So I very much came in with the idea that I wanted to write this story.”

It’s not surprising Kesala came to class so incredibly well prepared: she’d being listening to the source material since she was a child.  “I’d already done four hours of interviews with my mother,” says Kesala, “which transcribed to sixty-eight pages of first-person material. I was twenty-five when I interviewed her and I told her, ‘I want you to tell me all about your life up to my own age.’ I also told her, ‘Anything you say I can use, so now is the time to edit. You can’t tell me something and then later say, “I wish you hadn’t used that,” because that’s not fair.’”

[media-credit name=”Charlie Ainslie” align=”alignright” width=”199″][/media-credit]The story goes something like this: It’s New Year’s Eve, 1967, and a young woman waits for her groom outside a New York Ukrainian cathedral. Between the turning of the new year and the impending wedding, the atmosphere about the cathedral should be profoundly festive. Not so. The groom is two hours late. Two hours. And as the one hundred fifty guests sit freezing inside the church, the bride waits for news of her fiancé’s fate while her imagination spins out of control.

From Kaminski’s class Kesala’s ten-minute monologue, The Ukrainian Dentist’s Daughter (TUDD) took on life of its own. “You have to forge your own path because that road is not paved yet,” says Kesala. “I knew I wanted to write that story and I knew I that would be my linchpin when I walked in to Marya’s class.”

After landing performances across the Seattle fringe theater community in venues like Annex’s Spin the Bottle and Macha Monkey’s cabaret, the turning point came when Kesala caught the attention of Keira McDonald while performing at On the Boards’ 12 Minutes Max. “Keira said ‘If you want to expand this to a full length show you can submit it to the Solo Performance Festival (SPF) in the springtime.’” Kesala was over the moon.

TUDD held its debut performance at SPF #5 in April of 2011. Running about thirty minutes in length, responses to TUDD were unanimously positive, spurring Kesala to take to the road, booking herself in fringe festivals up and down either coast and into the wilds of Canada where she took Montreal Fringe’s “Spirit of the Fringe” award.  Essentially a runner-up award, the award was an honor that didn’t exist until Kesala shone her light onto the scene. As a result, adjudicators stretched their award parameters for Kesala, adding an additional guaranteed performance spot for her in their 2013 festival.

Though notices were supportive, the true test of TUDD’s success lay with those who’d inspired the tale. “My mother and father very sweetly ‘peacock’ when they see my show,” Kesala smiles. “They’re very proud and feel so honored that their stories are important enough to be told, to be shared and to be so well-received.”

Beyond the solo festival TUDD evolved and expanded from 30 to 50 minutes, becoming something more deeply layered than Kesala could have ever foreseen. “I experienced the loss of someone extremely close to me who I loved very deeply,” says Kesala, “That brought not only a new plane to my own existence but for my character as well.”

Kesala found that the drastic changes in her own life came to inform how she felt her character would address the inciting incidents of her story. Kesala started asking herself a whole new set of questions, questions that up to that point had never crossed her mind

“I think it all made her a truer character,” says Kesala. “I think that any woman in that situation, any person in that situation–she’s sitting there for a couple of hours–would ask all the extreme questions and the in-between questions. She would ask the questions that you’re not supposed to ask.”

Over a year later Kesala brings TUDD, the expanded edition, back home with a run at the Seattle Fringe Festival, earning herself the “Audience Pick” at the Seattle Fringe Festival. “It was fabulous to feel so much hometown love,” says Kesala.

[media-credit name=”Charlie Ainslie” align=”alignleft” width=”199″][/media-credit]Beyond the personal and artistic growth Kesala gained through TUDD, she also taught herself a great many things about how best to market one’s self. “That’s actually been one of the biggest hurdles for this year; flyer-ing and producing,” says Kesala. “I’ve had to promote myself as a commodity and found that modesty gets you pretty far…especially as a solo performer on the road.” Not surprisingly, Kesala discovered that that she was the best person to market her product. “Being the only one able to promote my show is wonderful. I love my product and I think everyone should be a part of it.”

Having learned volumes about self-promotion and emboldened by TUDD’s success, Kesala is back at work on a new performance piece as well as forging her own solo production company, Radiant Moxie.

Kesala’s says her new piece I Think My Heart Needs Glasses is still very much in the zygote stage. In it Kesala promises to throttle the demons that once caught her blindside. “It has to do with love and my relationship with love,” she muses, “In it I explore what happens when you finally get everything you want, what you do when that suddenly disappears, and the strength and burden of survival.”

“It’s a story more about who I’m bringing to the date than who I’m going on the date with,” says Kesala. “I have experienced in my love life things most people don’t experience until much later in their lives.”

With her new piece, Kesala says she hopes to explore why connecting with one another becomes so very difficult after a certain point in one’s life. “I’m friends with the most intelligent, driven, gorgeous, ambitious, talented women and a lot of them are single and that’s really interesting to me.” Grateful for the rising number of festival invitations, Kesala sees I Think My Heart Needs Glasses as part of Radiant Moxie’s growing repertoire.

At present she wrestles with all the concepts she hopes to fold into her latest piece but knows the process is not one she pursues on a whim; it has now become vital to her being. “I think a lot of creative people are mediums for larger muses and TUDD was the story I was supposed to tell at that time,” Kesala smiles.  “Now I have a new story I need to tell and if I fight that, bad things happen. I don’t sleep. I get really sad. I just knew it was time to tell this one–like when you know you’re in love.”