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Katie Kalahurka Meditates On Motherhood And Acting With A Puppet

Julie Denesha

In Sarah Ruhl's play The Oldest Boy, a suburban couple's life is turned on its ear when they learn their 3-year-old son may be the reincarnation of a high Buddhist lama. Playing the boy's mother in the Unicorn Theatre production is Katie Kalahurka. 

For our series called Actors Off-Script, Kalahurka spoke with me about motherhood and the innovative way her character's son's story comes to life.

In the play your son is three years old. And as most parents know, it would be challenging to have a three-year-old on stage. I’m going to let you describe how the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, solved this issue.

"Well, first of all, Sarah Ruhl is brilliant in general but when I read this play, my respect went up exponentially just based on this choice: the three-year-old in our play is played by a Bunraku puppet, designed by PaulMesnerPuppets. It’s a beautiful puppet controlled by two puppeteers, Alex Espy and Andi Meyer.

"In Buddhism, they talk about this idea of impermanence of the body. It’s gonna go away, right? But the one thing that keeps on going is the consciousness. It really works to illustrate the idea of consciousness passing through the body and the idea of reincarnation. It's just such a beautiful device."

Do you think the audiences' eyes will be on the boy, on the puppet, or the puppeteers?

"Well, honestly, we always hope the eyes will be on the actual puppet and what's odd is that, even in rehearsal, we often forget that the puppeteers are there. It's amazing how this puppet comes to life. It's got a life of its own."

That leads right into my next question, that is, the mother has a line that’s like a punch to the stomach. When this plan to take her son away begins to take shape, she says, "I think I might break in half.” How do you call up such emotional devastation when you’re not interacting with another actor but a puppet?

"It's been interesting. To what I just said, it's phenomenal how real Tenzin is. It's beyond. Even the first day we sat down in rehearsal, I couldn't take my eyes of Tenzin. So even though he's a puppet, there is an emotional connection there."

How did you develop this character who is put in an extraordinary predicament?
"First of all she was, as I said, born and raised a Catholic. What helps is that I was too, so there’s some knowledge base there. She meets this Tibetan refugee and falls in love with him. And she begins to take on his religion, which is Buddhism, and starts to study it.

"When I found out I was taking this role, I started to research what Buddhism would mean for somebody who is questioning their spirituality. And so one of the things I started to do was hone in on my meditation practice every day, and start to research the ideas of non-attachment, which is a prevalent theme of the play and a cornerstone of Buddhism. That spiritual stuff was baseline."

Did you meditate before you took on this project?

"Yeah, actually, oddly enough. Even though I was born and raised Catholic, I fell out of that circa middle school, high school. My parents went all new age on us and my mom actually began to meditate when I was in high school and she taught our theater club how to meditate, so I’ve been an on and off meditator for many years."

Speaking of your mother, how might she have shaped your development of this character you’re playing? 

"There are mothers who are motherly and there are mothers who don’t have that natural inclination. My mother is that mother figure — a mother to everyone, not just her kids, and that’s a parallel with my character as well so it's been helpful to draw on my relationship with my mom."

I have a feeling this part has made you think about what kind of mom you want to be.

"Absolutely. First of all there's a baby boom going on all around me, you know, all my friends and relatives my age are having kids. Oh, man. If I thought I wanted kids before taking on this role, it just connects me to that maternal nature within myself."

More so than anything you've done?

"Absolutely. And I think it's going to continue as we go on. But, yes, asking those questions about attachment and love and desire and nurturing and mothering. Yeah, it's really gotten me in touch with what I want in that realm."

'The Oldest Boy' runs August 26 - September 20 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-531-PLAY (7529). 

The Actors Off-Script series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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