Dystopia Interview: Cara Chiaramonte, Andy Hicks, and Kamela Dolinova

Dystopian Design & Performance

An Interview With Cara Chiaramonte, Andy Hicks, and Kamela Dolinova

by Devon Jones

While What Once We Felt is Flat Earth's first show featuring sound design from Andy Hicks and the acting chops of Kamela Dolinova, the two of them have been working on theater projects with Flat Earth company member Cara Chiaramonte for seven years. Since a theme in the trio's theatrical history has been dystopia, we sat down for a chat with them to learn about what motivates them as designers and performers, and to see how this informed their process for this new show.

FET: Could you tell us about the show all three of you worked on together?

Cara: Blade Runner the Parody Musical, With Lesbians. I basically tell people that.

FET: What's its real name?

Cara Chiaramonte

Cara: 2010: Our Hideous Future: The Musical!. Carl Danielson is the artistic director of Unreliable Narrator... Carl wrote the book and Andy wrote the music. Andy sent me this e-mail with a subject line I couldn't refuse: “hey wanna design costumes for a dystopian cyberpunk musical?” So obviously I said yes.

Andy: The idea was sort of just there hasn't really been a cyberpunk musical comedy, so let's do that. I love all that old music from the 80s, all that industrial music, and I love musicals, so let's try to combine those things. We were like, “We don't know what this show is called, we don't know what this show is,” but we booked the space. Kamela played this woman Kate who falls in love with another woman while she's trying to take down the system, which is a computer controlling the world by social media. And then it turns out Kate's girlfriend is a robot! Which is bad because Kate hates robots.

FET: Hence the Blade Runner comparison.

Kamela: Dehnise was like a very perky Rachel.

FET: Cara and Andy, how did you meet? Did you seem destined to find yourself working on so many of the same projects over time, or did it just feel like coincidence?

Cara: I answered a Craigslist ad when I had just moved to Boston in March 2007, and someone was looking for lighting help with an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's short stories. I get there and I discover it's tech week and I'm the lighting designer. Andy is the writer, director, and one of the actors. … We both ended up on the same project then and it just kept happening and happening.

Andy: We're sort of the go-to people in Boston for dystopian science fiction comedies now.

Cara: If there is a niche, it is our niche, I've come to accept that.

Kamela: Except in between I seem to hire Cara to do Shakespeare shows, I don't know what that's about.

Cara: It was like ten things we worked together, Andy?

Andy Hicks

Andy: Probably, yeah.

FET: What draws all of you to dystopian narratives? Sci fi narratives?

Kamela: I didn't think there were that many of them, at least not for the stage. The sort of funny thing that gets me involved is— I get cast. I am six feet tall, I'm big boned, I don't get cast. I'm not old enough to play the matriarch, and I'm considered too large to play ingenues or second bananas. I get cross-cast, or someone writes a musical with a female, slightly butch protagonist. I've been laughing about how much the role I'm doing in What Once We Felt is [again] the butch half of a lesbian couple— in a soft way, who's sort of emotionally closed off and scared to death, and has a sweet, adorable femme partner, and it's in a futuristic sci fi world.

Andy: What draws me to dystopia is— it's weird, I feel like I love the idea of here's what the future used to look like. I love the idea of the 1950s' “eat your Wheaties, Johnny, we're going to the moon with our jetpacks!” I love the idea of the 80s future that never happened, which is that strange cyberpunk dystopia thing, except it kind of did happen. When we started doing 2010 I was mostly drawn to the kitsch factor. Then I started realizing all that stuff in the show, in Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, has often come true, except for robots that look like us, but we're getting there.

Cara: In high school I started reading all those great dystopian works, and the older I got, the scarier it got, because it all felt true. Look at 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale. This is the genre of our reality, or our reality in the near future. There's this sense that this could happen, this is a reality, this is a warning sign— dystopia as a warning sign to society. You know The Handmaid's Tale happens in Cambridge? They hang the bodies off the walls of Harvard Yard. The social commentary of dystopias is what I keep coming back to and finding relevance in. Underrepresented genres should be onstage, sci fi should be onstage. And telling stories about women, and queer people, and the marginalized, it's a way to tell stories that can be more direct, sometimes.

Kamela Dolinova

Kamela: About dystopian comedy, too: when you look at 1984 and Brave New World, people largely feel like the future that came true literally from those choices is Brave New World, the things keep developing are developed for our pleasure, like we'll like it. Those of us who are benefiting from it don't notice it as much. We're in a pleasure-based short attention span society. What's interesting about doing dystopia comedically is that it helps realistically illustrate what's going on, people see something serious and scary and they're like “that's not really going on.”

FET: Cara and Andy, do you think your repeated collaboration has led to you influencing each other's aesthetics, or is there not really a uniform "Cara and Andy" design package?

Cara: I'm not sure how much— I know his stuff and I know what he does. I don't think there's a package. We work in very different mediums; when you hire “the Cara and Andy package” you know what you're getting based on our past work. Maybe there's bright colors and 80s electronica that complement each other. But... it varies.

Andy: I don't think we influence each other, but I've started to notice when Cara puts little Easter eggs into the costumes. And I'll put little Easter eggs in the sound, little references to stuff. The part where the Internet ripped open during Paper City Phoenix, there's like 12 tracks, there's random voices swirling around, J. K. Rowling, Ray Kurzweil, “Vox Magnificat” jammed into Skrillex, all sorts of crazy stuff. That's the world as we see it, the post-Internet-blowing-up apocalypse of Paper City Phoenix.

Cara: People who know our shows find the Easter eggs— people who don't know them don't find them.

FET: Kamela, tell us about your character in What Once We Felt, as a snapshot of what the play is about. What do you think she represents in the society that's being portrayed?

Kamela: I think she represents— this is the other part that's common with playing Kate for 2010— she's the crusader who has it all. She's a lawyer, she lives in the most expensive penthouse on the block. She has everything, she wants everything to be perfect, she cares about her position. But when things get pushed, and it comes to things about justice, she makes the right choice. It feels like this show is full of archetypes of one kind or another, I'm not sure what I would call mine— justice, maybe. If you were going to make each of these characters a tarot card, Yarrow would be justice.

FET: What made the three of you want to work on What Once We Felt?

Andy: I find it interesting that it's an entirely female-based society, and I also find it interesting that it doesn't eliminate patriarchy, in an interesting way, because the class system is still there. But that was something I noticed later. What really drew me to it was— I love designing science fiction, I love the chance to go back to that place, it seemed very 2010-ish, it seemed very satirical, I wanted to work with Flat Earth, you always do interesting stuff. Whether or not I like it, you're taking risks and the tech is really cool.

Cara: This was my favorite play from last year's reading period. At Flat Earth from January to March we read a bunch of plays, and then we argue about a bunch of plays, and we pick three of them to produce. Last year was the first time I was involved in this process, and this one was what I liked the most, and I wanted to design it, I wanted to bring it to the stage. I wanted to see us do it. It's the sort of thing that I want to be doing again with the stories it's telling, the things it's bringing up. What it's saying.

Kamela: Honestly the project kind of scared me, which is always kind of a good sign. Here's a play I've never heard of by a playwright I've never heard of, which may be terrible. But then I just sort of went in and went with it and I saw all the sides, and I thought well this is interesting, let me just see. Here's this play where it's all women and I could get cast as anyone, depending what the director had in mind. So many other plays— there are one or two or three women, and they're very specific in type and role.