We talked with Abigail Klipfel, a director, actor, and activist from Providence, RI. She uses her personal experiences as a queer Jewish woman to create work that aims to enlighten people about the diverse perspectives that humanity is made from.
Where are you from? Where do you live now?
I’m from Providence, RI. I suppose I technically was born in New York, but I didn’t spend much time there. Now I go back and forth between Providence and Poughkeepsie, NY, where I attend Vassar College.
Can you tell me about your creative work?
In terms of creative work, my primary pursuit would probably be the theatre. I’ve been involved with theatre for as long as I can remember. When I was in first grade I was brought up from the lower school to play the changeling child in the high school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My mom and I spent hours pouring over the text, learning about the characters and the world I was to be entering into. As a six-year-old, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what all these humans were doing in a play full of fairies! Why would anyone want to watch humans when you could watch fairies? My love for theatre as an art form has only grown since then, and that foundation in Shakespeare has taken root and blossomed into something I am prepared to devote the rest of my life to.
To me, theatre is about making your audience think, and reconsider, and reevaluate. It is the ultimate test of empathy. My drama teacher in high school always used to say “If you leave a play with more questions than you entered with, it’s done its job,” and I must say I’m inclined to agree. Theatre should make you think. I know we always go back to Aristotle’s concept of Catharsis as a “purging of pity and fear,” and while I don’t agree with Aristotle’s entire evaluation of theatre, I think he was definitely heading in the right direction with this idea of learning; of seeing a story play out and thus learning from what you see before you. I think in every play, in every piece of text, there is always more hiding below the surface for us to uncover. This discovery, this folding back the layers in an attempt to discover the truth is why I’ve begun down the path of directing and dramaturgy. Shakespeare in particular always has something MORE, something else hiding just around the corner waiting to be discovered. Which, when it peeks its head out from behind the curtain it has been hiding behind, sheds a whole new light on the text. As a director and a dramaturg, it is my job to coax those hidden meanings out of hiding and show them to the actors, and to the audience. And in this way, show the world a different side to life that they may not have experienced before, and may never be able to experience outside of the theater. But in uncovering these truths, in uncovering what it is like to live a life that is different from our own, we are able to gain a greater understanding as to how the world works, and will be better equipped to approach those we meet with empathy and understanding, and hopefully work together to make the world a better place.
How does your identity impact your work? What work have you done that makes you the most proud of yourself?
My identity will always impact the work that I do, even in ways I don’t even realize. And as anything, my identity continues to be an evolving thing as I figure out who I am and how I relate to the world around me. I currently identify as Jewish, queer, asexual, and as a cis-gendered woman. Each of these identities gives me a window into another world that others may not be able to see, and where they overlap something even more special emerges. Through my art, I am able to bring out little bits and pieces of this world to share with those around me. I am currently working on a writing piece/ monologue series/ play/ something or other inspired by my trip to Poland to visit the nazi death camps. I am using what I’ve learned in my time with the theatre to create the structure of the piece, but the heart comes from the other identities I mentioned. I’ve been speaking to other queer Jewish teens, to hear their stories and their experiences, and merging them with my own to create even more text. I don’t know exactly what form this piece will take, but when I am finally able to share it with people, I hope people will see it and understand a little bit more about what it is like to walk through the world in my shoes, and the shoes of those like me.
Also relevant, though a more recent discovery to myself, is how my asexual identity has also deeply impacted my work. I’ve discovered recently I see the world a little differently than my friends around me. I view relationships, in particular, in a very different light. And this has impacted how I direct scenes, the notes I give when I shape an interaction. What I see may not be the same as what most people see, but that doesn’t mean my view is not as valid or does not deserve to be seen. I have only ever seen one portrayal of an asexual character in media, two if you want to count books. So to be able to put my voice out there, even if it doesn’t reach very far right now, is important to me. I want other people who see the world the way I do to know that they are not alone, and that I see them. I see their experiences and I understand.
What does being powerful mean to you? What is something that makes you feel powerful?
Powerful is such an interesting word. There are so many different ways to be powerful, yet when you turn it inward to become what makes you FEEL powerful rather than simply what makes you powerful, it changes it a bit. I feel powerful when I stand on top of a mountain that I’ve just hiked to the peak of, surveying the world around me. I feel powerful when I walk through the dining hall at college and see so many people I love turning to greet me and give me a hug. I feel powerful when I create a piece of theatre that brings the audience to tears; when I can see them processing and thinking over what they have just watched. I feel powerful when I record my thoughts and emotions in my journal, no matter if anyone will ever read it: it is a record of my own humanity, my own experiences in life, and it is exhilarating to write it all down in one place.
I don’t know what these moments in time say about who I am as a person. I’m sure there’s something in there for me to analyze. Maybe I like a sense of completion, or of accomplishing something. Maybe I like the sensation of existing in a world with other people, being able to see those threads connecting us all and tug on them gently, affecting the worlds of those around me. I’m not sure. I think I prefer those tugs to be subtle though. I’ve never been one to stand in front of a crowd and talk. You would think being in a position of influence where you can sway an entire group of people before you would seem powerful, but I’ve never felt less powerful than when I’m stuck in the front of a room, staring out at a sea of expectant faces, all of them waiting for me to speak. I believe the way to a person’s heart is through empathy. Connection, on a fundamental level. So I suppose I feel powerful when I’m able to see those connections in the world, see those threads binding us to one another as human beings, and use that to discover more about the world around me.