An Interview with Carrie Klewin Lawrence

Thank goodness for Carrie Klewin Lawrence!

It’s hard to believe that July is almost over. Maybe it’s the beautiful summer weather, or the travel, or trying to cram every summer activity in, but this month has just flown by in a deluge of hyper-colored delights. My littlest girl’s baby photos, my adventurous spouse away climbing a mountain, reuniting my older girl with her beloved cousin at grandma’s house, a long-awaited children’s concert at a Japanese garden, flying halfway across the country and back with my baby and preschooler, a 90 degree trip to the glorious but expansive Brookfield Zoo, a family reunion-slash-first-birthday-party, and on and on like a beautiful carnival.  

And boy, was I in desperate need of a bit of a break when I took a moment (whilst crammed between two carseats on a drive to the airport) to enjoy this month’s Artist Interview. Please forgive the mixed up metaphor when I tell you that reading through Carrie’s words was as refreshing, like an aloe balm to my summer-burned brain, as my dish of dippin’ dots tasted at the end of that sweltering day at the zoo.

Carrie is a freelance stage director and professor of theatre, so most of her work is ephemeral- but I am adding seeing one of her productions to my bucket list, and I can’t wait to track her down.  Carrie is a force of creativity, flexibility, and determination. Her story reminds me that the resume of an artist doesn’t have to look a certain way. Planning a career in the arts as a military spouse is going to be difficult and different than the plan I dreamt of before I met and fell for my service member, but Carrie shows us that setting priorities and being both assertive and flexible are some of the keys to cultivating your artistic career while on this extraordinary military spouse adventure.

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.

Carrie: Hello. I’m Carrie Klewin Lawrence. I am a freelance stage director and professor of theatre. People in the theatre world know me as Carrie Klewin. I’m from…  Well actually, I’ve been struggling with the “Where are you from?” question for a while now… I was born in Nebraska, and I credit my vivid imagination to the wide-open spaces and kick-you-out-of-the-house-to-play attitude of my mother while there. I largely spent my high school and undergraduate years in Maryland (there was also a semester abroad in Thailand during that time, and summers spent at our grandparent’s blueberry farm in Connecticut).

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Lt. Col David Lawrence and Carrie Lawrence at the International Attaché ball, Dec 2016, Madrid, Spain

As a result of graduate schools and military spouse life, I have lived in an additional nine states, and Italy, and traveled all around the world. My husband, David, is a USMC Harrier pilot, currently serving as an attaché at the US Embassy where we are currently living in Madrid, Spain. We met swing dancing in Washington, DC just after he started his career seventeen years ago. He’s from Orange County, where most of our family is concentrated. Our three daughters were born in Monterey (CA), Montgomery (AL), and Madrid (Spain). The girls are on their way becoming proper TCK (Third Culture Kids), and every day I feel a little more like the adult version myself. I wouldn’t say that I’m “from” anywhere, although I mostly feel like a Californian with a New York state of mind.  More than anything, I am a proud American, although I do not currently have a “home” there.

MilspoFAN: How did you become a stage director and professor of theatre? (let me know if there is a different way you describe yourself and I will change the question for the blog post)?

Carrie: Although I had been attracted to theatre my entire life, I never thought to pursue directing until an independent theatre club at my college groomed me to be the director of one of their shows. I started off with a bang and picked “The Pirates of Penzance”. We had a full orchestra and a 35-member cast, and the largest, most cumbersome set I’ve ever encountered. I think that it still may be hiding in the attic of that theatre…  Very soon after that I started creating my own work – first using the classic story of “Aladdin” as a jumping-off point. That was more than 20 years ago. It was a great joy of mine when I was asked to direct “The Pirates of Penzance” again for The Washington Savoyards. I was just finishing my MFA in Directing at the time. It was as if my work as an artist had come full circle and was starting an entirely new stage.

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Aladdin, 1996, devised and directed by Carrie Klewin
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“The Pirates of Penzance” at The Washington Savoyards

Currently, I would say that I am a very eclectic artist. I absolutely adore a good old-fashioned musical, but creating original ensemble-based work thrills me like nothing else. Oh, and I am just in love with contemporary opera. But I have also directed several solo shows. More than anything, I am drawn to stories focused on social issues, and artists that are using theatre to positively impact the world we live in. Whether that means helping a novice actor fine-tune their skills, or assisting a playwright to bring their story to life. It’s all about making art that will start a conversation and change things one small step at a time.

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The Beggar’s Opera, 2007 – directed by Carrie Klewin

I think that directing and educating are extremely similar in that they both have goals of leading people to a specific outcome. So being in the classroom has come very naturally to me. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping others achieve their personal and professional goals. Recently, I have also focused on applying theatre to corporate environments – translating theatre skills to business and public speaking arenas.

 

MilspoFAN: You specialize in ensemble-driven, movement-based storytelling, developing your work through improvisation. Can you describe that process and why you work that way?

Carrie: In fact, I’ve been working with a good actor friend of mine, Eli Sibley, to try to articulate that process. We plan to write a book on it. We’ve developed several projects together, have a shared vocabulary, and a real partnership.  She’s one of the best people I could work with to try to explain our development process, and one of my favorite people to say “yes, and…” with. I find that extremely important, the level of connection I have with the people involved in a project. In fact, there are several artists I have developed that kind of a relationship with – director/choreographer Pauline Grossman, playwright Stephen Spotswood, actor/director Neil David Seibel, director Ryan Whinnem, actors Lydia Real, and Erika Phillips – my own tribe, if you will.  People I could call up and pitch ideas to, or just brainstorm wild hairs over coffee… Unfortunately, we are spread out across the globe, and I constantly think about how to collaborate with them from such disparate corners. We don’t have the opportunity to work together face-to-face very much at the moment, but I know we will work together again in the future.

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“Thistle” workshop with Erika Phillips directed by Carrie Klewin, 2010

 

 

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“Thistle” workshop with Erika Phillips directed by Carrie Klewin, 2010

 

 

 

But back to the process! I first find a theme or a source of inspiration to use as a jumping-off point. Then I gather as many artists from my tribe as possible, and put them in a room together. For one of my first original shows, “A Christmas Catastrophe”, I was asked to develop a show as a counterpoint for a production of “A Christmas Carol”. I had been teaching improvisation classes in Baltimore, and asked several of the students to become the ensemble – we brainstormed and played around with Christmas themes and characters for about a week. I wrote an outline for the script, which contained fill-in-the-blanks for the actors. I took all of their crazy ideas and wove them together. Then we worked to flesh out the show and incorporate their ideas. It was a real team effort. I have duplicated this process many times since, although I rarely rely on such an obviously structured process now – I trust my sense of development and timelines, having done this so many times. It can be frustrating for artists who have never worked with me before, however. A challenging aspect to being a stage director is that you can’t just show someone your work – like a painter does – so you often find yourself needing to articulate an “experience” of your work. I’m not very good at that. But I do find that when I discover artists who thrive during this kind of a process, and we really connect, there is very little explanation needed in the future. The foundation has been laid, and then it’s all about trust.

Christmas Catastrophe Costume
Christmas Catastrophe 2000 “Tree” Costume Design by Heather Kirtland

 

I have carried out variations of this process on almost all of the shows I have directed. Even when there is a script, I encourage whole team to work from a place of bringing themselves into the story. I find directing to be rather boring and lonely when there is a lack of collaborative energy.  Also, I am very much a postmodern baby. The more layers and symbols I can pack into a story, the better – that way everyone can find their own way into the material. Maybe I read too many “choose-your-own-adventure” books as a kid. I also try to leave space and trust the audience. To me there is nothing worse than a production that beats the audience over the head with a message. I guess that’s why I find myself drawn to dance and physical theatre so much – there are so many layers of communication possible with just the body in space – and then you add lighting, costumes, props, song, dialogue, and the possibilities for profound storytelling are endless.

 

MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as an artist- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?

Carrie: You can’t just drop into a new city and expect directing opportunities to magically appear. It takes a lot of time and relationship building to find an artistic home. Every time we move (which has been five times in the past six years), I have to prioritize my goals for my time while in that location, always making decisions about who I want to be as an artist. This is both exhilarating and exhausting. Time is limited, and when you are only living in a place for a year, you have to very quickly decide how you will make the best of your time. And now I have three young rascals to factor into the decision-making. But they have been such a gift to my artistry. Watching them navigate such incredible, and deep cultural exposure has been inspiring. For example, they are attending Italian school with mainly Spanish-speaking students. On any given day you can hear a mix of Italian, Spanish, and English, in our house. My concept of communication and storytelling have been forever changed by watching the world through their eyes.

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Carrie with daughters Genna (5 years), Katie (3 years), Lucia (2 weeks) – photo credit Ira Jielyn

The job that my husband has now is a real departure from his time in a squadron. Being part of the diplomatic community has given me a unique opportunity to interact with people from all over the world. I actually feel more connected and proud of our military now than ever before. It’s like Take Your Spouse to Work Day several times a week at our house. You might think that I would be frustrated to not have more time for my own career, but there have been some incredible benefits. When we lived in Italy (David was working at NATO near Naples), we toured all over Southern Europe. We explored some amazing theatres and opera houses. The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Italy is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. To witness a place the originators of theatre created with the ocean and Mt. Etna in the background – you get an indescribable sense of the epic quality of their contributions.

 

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Taormina, Italy, Greek Theatre

I was also fortunate to study Spanish before we moved here – and the military even paid for it! As a result, I have been thinking about how to get more involved with theatre in Spanish-speaking communities when we return to the states. Recently, I have been teaching acting and improvisation classes at The International Institute of Madrid. I get to work with students who want to strengthen their English skills and develop an appreciation for theatre simultaneously. It has been fantastically rewarding for all of us, especially from the aspect of cultural exchange. I can’t help but imagine that there will be some unique opportunities in the future for me as a result of embracing my experience here to the fullest. And I have the military to thank for that.

MilspoFAN: Being a working artist, mother, and active duty (I’m assuming) military spouse creates layer upon layer of logistical challenges. What are some ways that you have found success managing your work and family?

Carrie: Luckily with the Internet the world is continuing to change in unexpected ways. After teaching theatre classes online a few years ago, I developed an appreciation of how technology can connect us. I continue to be inspired by artists practicing digital theatre, and look for opportunities to be a virtual collaborator. Recently I co-taught a workshop and directed a one-person show called “The Normal Giant” from overseas. I never thought that I would be supportive of the intersection of the Internet and live theatre, but the possibilities are truly limitless.

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Neil David Seibel in The Normal Giant, 2016, directed by Carrie Klewin, photo by Chris Rich

I have discovered that I really need to prioritize my goals alongside my family instead of just on my own. When I pass a project past my husband, and we start to dig into the logistics, I know pretty quickly how important it is to me by what I will sacrifice to make it happen. He’s a great devil’s advocate, so we make an excellent team in that way.

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Carrie with her mini library of favorite theatre books.

I have also found that a key to my happiness is simplicity. For example, I currently carry only about a dozen books from my theatre library with me. Although this was originally a practical decision based on space available, I also think it is also sign of not looking to others as much for the answers. I am trying to carry this over to our children as well – they get quiet time to play on their own every day. I love listening to them playing when they think they are completely alone. I need some of that too – quiet time – it’s the only time I really get to pay attention to all of the projects I have resting on back burners.

MilspoFAN: What does a day in your life look like? What logistical tricks do you use to balance parenting young children, military-spouse-ing, self-care, and your work?

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Carrie on her terrace downtown Madrid

Carrie: Luckily, here in Madrid daily life is very conducive to healthy living. The food is incredible, the sun shines almost every day, and we live in the city so we walk almost everywhere. There is a lot of running around, but we have everything we could want right in our neighborhood. I have found that I work best when I have a schedule, even if it is self-imposed. Of course my three daughters (all five and under) have their own opinions about how the day should go, and they have a knack for sabotaging my plans when I over-schedule. So it has been a process to figure out how to balance their needs with my own. I really need (and want) to get out of the house and work, but it has to be the right fit for me to want to sacrifice family time. I feel like I have “paid my dues” in my field, and don’t need to take on a job “for the experience”. After studying and working more than full time for years, I am seriously trying to enjoy the opportunity to focus more on being a mother, because it is also a job I wanted very badly. I know the opportunities will be there when I am ready to go back full time. This is definitely not the easiest attitude to maintain. When I see colleagues and friends of mine achieving enormous professional success, it can really stir up feelings of anxiety. Being okay with slowing down and being present for myself and my family has been the singularly most difficult challenge for me. Lucky for me, Spain is the perfect place to practice the art of slowing down.

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Carrie with baby Lucia (8 weeks)

MilspoFAN: What advice would you give to other military spouses who are artists?

Carrie: I will not pretend that I have the artist work/life balance figured out. However, I have definitely identified a couple of survival techniques for the artist relocation toolkit…

*Say “yes, and…” Not that you should say yes to everything (in fact saying “no” can really pay off), but that you should evaluate the opportunities you are presented with – you may find real pleasure in doing something on the periphery of your career – for example, through the US Embassy Mission Speaker program here, I have been teaching workshops using theatre techniques to prepare young students for job interviews. Not only have these young students been an inspiration to me, the workshops have led to additional job opportunities.

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Teaching a US Embassy Mission Speaker workshop at TAI University, Madrid May 2017 – photo credit Alexander Dimitrov

*Find your tribe. Facebook is an easy place to start, but also read books, blogs, and watch documentaries. It’s so much easier to be creative when you don’t feel isolated. And of course, get out and see other people’s work. It’s amazing how many times I have started a conversation with someone after seeing their work, and it has led to a future collaboration.

 

*Create. Find ways to be creative. This may be obvious, but it isn’t always easy. When we were living in Italy, I started a blog about our adventures, and foodie hobbies. I find that I get a lot of artistic satisfaction as a writer, and I have connected with some very interesting people that way. I also had an excuse to work on another creative outlet of mine – photography. That blog has nothing to do with theatre, but it fills a void, and has become an excellent way to keep connected to our friends and family. Here in Madrid I have created a garden on our terrace, which fulfills a need for camouflaging an ugly view and gives me a reason to get some extra vitamin D every day. I have also continued to explore opportunities for writing and criticism, and as a result I was recently invited to be a regional editor for The Theatre Times. I am looking forward to getting involved in the theatre scene here in Madrid and reporting on it for an international audience.

 

*Tell people what you do. I think that sometimes we forget that we (spouses) all are creative, had a career BML (before military life), have a degree in something… have aspirations past changing diapers and shuttling kids to school. I choose to look at motherhood as a type of sabbatical. I try to focus on activities that really nourish my creative spirit, until I can get back to my work as an artist full-time. I think that taking some time to meet your personal goals is a very important step to becoming a successful artist. And it’s probably why so many artists do their very best work when they are older. I share my business card and my website as much as possible. I also don’t hesitate to send out my resume and a cold introduction letter via email. I try to work my job as a theatre artist into the conversation whenever possible (and appropriate). It’s who I am, even if I’m not in a theatre directing a show every single day.

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Cabaret with Michael Ahmad, 2010, directed by Carrie Klewin

*Get excited about designing a cobblestone career instead of a straight boring path. As artists we live on the edge of “normal” in society – strange hours, contracted projects, multiple jobs simultaneously…  Accept that you are an exception, especially in the military communities, and embrace the weird. For me, it’s starting to feel like all of the crazy pieces of my life are finally coming together, and they are starting to make an incredibly beautiful picture.

 

Carrie, thank you so much for sharing your story and all of your wisdom with us! Now, dear readers, are you inspired, engaged, or curious? What part of Carrie’s story resonated with you? Post a comment below or on our facebook group or facebook page. MilspoFAN artists love to hear feedback (and adoring praise, or course!) from you.

 

Can’t get enough Carrie Klewin? Me neither. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Check out Carrie’s web presence at the following links:

Carrie’s personal website: www.carrieklewin.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carrieklewin/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carrieklewin/

The Theatre Times (Carrie’s profile): https://thetheatretimes.com/author/c-klewin/

Carrie’s travel blog: https://dramababyabroad.wordpress.com/

The International Institute of Madrid where Carrie has been teaching: http://www.iie.es/

 

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