Season Two – Sibyl Kempson

Image credit: Maria Baranova

Sibyl Kempson

Season 2 – Episode 9


Instagram handle @7daughters

Wellness: Louise Hay
Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson 
The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estes


Nick Breedon 0:00
Hi, I’m Nick Breedon,

Kiera Brew Kurec 0:01
And I am Kiera Brew Kurec and you’re listening to Pro Prac a podcast where we explore the professional practice of artists and hear their stories.

Unknown Speaker 0:10
Thanks for listening to Pro Prac. Today we are speaking with Sibyl Kempson. Sibyl Kempson‘s plays have been presented in the United States, Germany and Norway and in 2015, she launched the theatre company seven Daughters of Eve in New York City. Her Project 12 shots to the 10 forgotten Heavens, a three year cycle of rituals for the new Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District of New York began on the vernal equinox in March 2016, reoccurring every Solstice and Equinox through to December 2018. Other recent projects include True Pearl, a new opera with David Lang for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and Sasquatch Rituals at the Kitchen in New York City, both in 2018. Her plays are published by 53rd State press, Play Journal of plays and performance and art journal. Thank you so much for joining us in the studio today Sibyl.

Sibyl Kempson 1:06
Thank you, Kiera. Thank you, Nick, for inviting me.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:10
Do you mind starting off by letting us know the story of how you came to become an artist slash writer slash performance maker.

Sibyl Kempson 1:20
I will tell you everything that I know, consciously. So both my parents were both teachers, they’re still alive. But they are retired, they were public school teachers. And my mother is very dramatic. And my father is a really great storyteller. And they’re very lively, friendly people. And I always had a, I was an only child. And they split up when I was a little baby. And I had a very active imagination, I still do, overactive. And I did a lot of imagining. And I did a lot of Henrik I bsen style playing with dolls making up stories. And I began to see very early because of a couple of like sad, kind of cruel experiences that I had with different adults who shall remain nameless, for the sake of this podcast, that things are not always as they seem, and adults would carry around a certain reality that they were agreeing on and I was expected to agree to unfold into as well. But that that wasn’t always what was going on. So I guess that’s subtext. And so subtext became a big deal for me and atmosphere. And I was very sensitive. And I think that I was open to the unseen. But I don’t know, because they sort of shut that down. My mother didn’t, but my dad definitely did. He was a science teacher. So it was like anything that cannot be proven. It doesn’t exist. And so you think you’re seeing something, but you’re really not. And he was really into Carl Sagan as sort of the explanation for the universe. And my mother was really into telling stories that we had a Our house was haunted, where I grew up, where I live just with me and my Mum, which was scary. Because it was just me her and our little tiny dog who did he was very brave and macho, macho, but he, you know, there’s only so much he could do. And he tried, I mean, he was fierce, but there’s only so much he could do. So my mother would like make up a story about the ghost, and she named the ghost and his name is Herman and, and she would also tell us, tell me stories that you tell them to sort of herself and to me, I think about a little girl named Margaret, and we would get under her desk and she would in the knee hole of her desk. And that was sort of like our little story cave. And so that was a big deal. And then it turned into performing later. I think around the time she started dating my stepfather. So it was about six when he started coming around. And he was sort of my first audience and I would entertain him and he always got my jokes. And he would laugh and laugh and laugh. And then I had my father’s parents were they lived sort of in the condominium unit for a while next to the one where my dad and my stepmother lived and they would sort of let me do these shows, and they would sit and watch and applaud. And it was very positive for me because and there wasn’t a lot of positive feedback going on in my life at that time. So that was sort of how I learned to relate to people in a positive way. And around that time I wrote a lot and and when I was in grade school, they had a gifted program. And I somehow ended up in the gifted program, which later we moved, and they were like, No, she doesn’t qualify (Laughter). But the first place that I’ve been, I was in this and it was a great little program and at a certain point, they let us write the, these stage adaptations of different myths. And so we did Theseus, Theseus the big hero, who I can’t remember much. I remember there was a foot washer character, who we made sort of into an Ed Grimley type character. And so I wrote the stage adaptation.

Nick Breedon 5:53
How old were you?

Sibyl Kempson 5:54
I think I was eight or nine.

Kiera Brew Kurec 5:56

Sibyl Kempson 5:57
And they did it like it got performed. And there was another for like a girlfriend who I had done projects with before we had done. We had built a Lenape longhouse together out of clay, we were studying the Lenape tribe, which was the tribe, who were the traditional owners of the land in New Jersey, where I grew up. And they actually had a great education program about different a lot of different stuff, but the Lenape was one of the subjects. So that was really great. And then so she and I worked really well together. And she ended up sort of being the producer, and taking care of all the practical stuff. And I was, I don’t know how that this was allowed to happen in a public school, but I was allowed to cast it and decide how it was going to happen. And then we did another one after that, which was Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. And I brought in all my dress up clothes. So I did the costumes and, and like, it was performed in our little auditorium, that was also our cafeteria. And no one stopped it from happening. And I was very mischievous about the way I had some of the boys cross dressing and playing the fairies who attended the fountain of youth. And, and so when I look at what I’m doing now, it’s kind of the same thing. And getting away with something waiting until some teacher or administrator comes in and says, No, stop this right now (Laughter). And no one ever came in. And I can’t believe that it’s happening. I can’t believe I’m allowed to do it. So that was definitely the start of it. And some other stuff happened in between that and when it actually I actually actively began to pursue that, but that was the first experience of it.

Kiera Brew Kurec 7:45
Wow, that’s so involved for a child.

Sibyl Kempson 7:48
Yeah, it really was I can’t believe that it was allowed to happen in this public elementary school. It was kindergarten through eighth grade.

Kiera Brew Kurec 7:59
Incredible. So when you transitioned into now, I’m gonna stuff this up, because I just know, high school. What is that for Americans? It’s is that high school?

Sibyl Kempson 8:11
It is high school grade nine. So yeah, like 14 to 17.

Kiera Brew Kurec 8:16
Did you when you transitioned into that, was it still something that you were spending a lot of time doing? Or was it something you were like, grew out of for a stage?

Sibyl Kempson 8:27
I moved my first year of high school. And I had already been in like the big stage productions, I’d done community theater, I’d gone to theater camp, and I had done like a big stage production of Noises Off and I was like friends with all the seniors who are in that, and it was so awesome. And then we moved and everyone was like, threatening all these different groups of other girls were threatening to beat me up all the time.

Nick Breedon 8:58
And I’m gonna change your mind with theater.

Sibyl Kempson 9:01
which eventually I did, but it took for definitely four years. So at that school, it was more about the band, the school band, and the show choir and the chorus. And there wasn’t really a lot that we did get one drama workshop and I basically made a performance piece that the guy was like, I don’t know how to relate to this. So I don’t know what to say to you about what you made.

Kiera Brew Kurec 9:23
the teacher?

Sibyl Kempson 9:23
Yes. I basically made like, I took some clothes and I rolled up newspapers and I made a dummy. I used to love to make dummies like at Halloween and stuff. And we were given a monologue to say and I just made a performance piece for it that had nothing like I didn’t try to do realism or anything. Like No, I need to do this. And the guy was just he didn’t know he was the theatre guy, you know?

Kiera Brew Kurec 9:47
Yeah. So you mentioned community theater, but were you were you going to see plays performances or was it kind of taking it in from other aspects?

Sibyl Kempson 10:01
Thank you for bringing this up Kiera because there was a woman in my life who was sort of like an adopted grandmother and her name is Edna Frederick’s. And I was like an adopted grandchild for her. And I called her Minimum. That was her name from her grandchildren. I was allowed to call her that too. And she used to go see shows on Broadway. We didn’t live that far from New York City so we go there for class trips and stuff. And so I saw a production of Annie. When I was like, maybe five, and it blew my mind. And I said, that’s it. That’s I’m doing that I’m gonna play Annie. And for Christmas, that year, my mother gave me the record album, and I listened every day. And I practiced, it was very difficult. Those songs are not easy to sing. And I was waiting for my mother to bring me to the audition. And I was worried about it. And we never went to the audition. And I found the program later or recently, like maybe a couple years ago, and I was moving house. And it had been Sarah Jessica Parker was Annie (Laughter). production, and I had gotten autographs. I don’t think I had her autograph, but all the other, you know, orphan girls. So that sort of did it.

Kiera Brew Kurec 11:19
Sarah Jessica Parker.

Sibyl Kempson 11:21
Yes. She played Annie. That was her first breakout role. And there was a man that lived down the street from us who would complete he worked in film special effects and he would completely transform himself every Halloween. And and you know, with before, there were contact lenses, and we would go there for Halloween. And it was like, What is he going to do? And it was such a gift to me, because I saw like, this is how far you could go.

Nick Breedon 11:50
That must’ve been like the best day of the whole year for him.

Sibyl Kempson 11:54
For all of us. Yeah, Halloween was the best day and it was right at the borderline were bad stuff was starting to happen. But we were still carrying on the tradition. So it wasn’t getting watered down yet. It was pure magic. That is a magical holiday. There’s no doubt in my mind. Yeah. So my parents, my mother especially encouraged artistic practice for me. And I think she is an artist. I’ve heard her say, because I will go wild also when people were around anytime we had company or in a social situation, because we lived quite an isolated life. So if there were people around, I would go totally wild. And people would say to her, she’s told me later, aren’t you going to stop her from doing that? Are you gonna do anything about that? And she was like, she’s not hurting anything. And she would let me go. And she didn’t squash it, which was maybe the hugest gift that anyone gave me was not to squash that expression. For sure.

Kiera Brew Kurec 13:02
You are so lucky in that way.

Sibyl Kempson 13:03
Yes. Because there were a lot of students who I went to my second high school with who are creative, and there wasn’t a structure, there wasn’t a framework for them to express it. And they ended up doing drugs and alcohol. And I also went, when I did move to Pennsylvania, the state of Pennsylvania sponsored a school called the Governor’s School for the Arts, it was sponsored by the state it doesn’t exist anymore. But that is what really, you went for a month. And away from home to a university campus. It was kids, it was 200 kids from all over the state, like all the freaks from their high school (Laughter). You thought you were alone in the world, and it turns out that no, it’s so many like you that are the freak in their school. And we got to spend a month together and they had these incredible teachers, and there was dance music, creative writing, visual art and theater arts. And they worked us into the ground and worked us the way that you end up working. Okay, when you become an artist, and when Yeah, you’re going to be really tired. And they taught us about arts advocacy. And it was incredible. And it taught me about rigor, and, and advocacy. And so and it, let me know there’s more there is more than what you’ve been shown in your life so far. That is out there for you. That’s what saved me.

Kiera Brew Kurec 14:32
So when you were finishing you had you had an idea of, I guess you’re kind of exposed in that sliver of time to what it would be like. Did you know when you finished high school that you definitely wanted to go on and study?

Sibyl Kempson 14:48
Yes. Yes. That was there was no question. There’s nothing else that I wanted to do. And they were all I remember there were friends of my parents. That would be like Having because my parents never had these talks with me. They were a little worried about if I, they wanted me to go to a state school, you know where I would get in state tuition. Because we weren’t wealthy, we weren’t wealthy people. But I wanted to go to all these really expensive, you know, fancy arts liberal arts colleges.And I did end up going to one, we just found a way to work it out. It wasn’t easy, but I ended up going.

Kiera Brew Kurec 15:27
And what did you study?

Sibyl Kempson 15:29
Well, I went to a school called Bennington College was very small. And you could study whatever you wanted. It was almost like a Montessori school in that way. Which maybe I started, actually a lot of visual art. In the beginning of my time there. And the end of my time there, I was taking ceramics and painting. And that’s where I really got into learning about process. And our teachers were these incredible. The visual art teachers were really, really incredible teachers, they would come up from New York, it was like a three, three and a half hour commute for them, they would come up once a week and teach us and then go back to the city and continue their own practice. So they’re always showing up really haggard. You know, they weren’t there for office hours during the week. But they, they really gave us a lot about what it means to make art work or have a process and I still use their teachings to this day. And as a teacher, also my teaching practice, which is mostly teaching writing, I referenced the stuff that I learned in the visual art courses more than anything else, but I studied theater. So I studied acting, costume design, some literature, and some I really liked ethics, and philosophy and ethics. I got into that a little in high school, we had a high school teacher who was a philosophy teacher, and, and the visual arts stuff, ceramics and painting, I really was into all of that.

Kiera Brew Kurec 16:57
Yeah, at this time. Did you have like a vision or a dream to be like, I’m going to be an actor and do this kind of thing?

Sibyl Kempson 17:05
Yes, yes, I wanted to be like a theater, film and television actor. And something broke my confidence at that school that I went to, there was a lot of drugs there. And it was kind of actually a really dark time for me. And I was in a very angry place. And also, the dream of what I was shown. I probably should have gone to a conservatory if I would had wanted that to happen. What I was shown at the Governor’s School that I was saying about because it was very much it was like a rich kids school, and they were very just wanting to party.

Nick Breedon 17:43
And so the vision was like go to New York.

Sibyl Kempson 17:45
Oh, yeah. Yeah yeah and be Sarah Jessica Parker, like that was but it I got sidetracked from that didn’t really work out was a crisis of confidence. If you want to be Sarah Jessica Parker, you’ve got to have confidence (Laughter). And I had some questions about it. So I that is not what happened to me, I ended up in an experimental community of experimental theatre artists. And that’s sort of where I’ve stayed.

Nick Breedon 18:16
Just going back to some of the stuff you wer saying earlier. mythology seems to be something that kind of, you know, keeps cropping up so far in the discussion, is that something that came from that, you know, the ghost and the, you know, the school production? Like, where? Where was the seed of that kind of born for you?

Sibyl Kempson 18:41
Nick you just really put your finger on something for me. Thank you. Yes, I am seeing that now. I am seeing that. Yes. It was all about what is beyond reality for me what is not, either it’s not seen, or if it is, no one’s talking about it. And I could never tell which was which I could never tell what I was seeing that other people were also seeing and ignoring, or what I was seeing that no one else was seeing. And I had a lot of fears. I was really afraid of aliens, Sasquatch, I talked about that at the when we did the jaffle symposium, terrified of a lot of the unexplainable and the unknown. And so, and that is the realm of mythology. That’s how that’s how mythology becomes so important, I think in a culture is how do we explain what we can’t see? And what we don’t know? And it’s where religion comes from, and ritual. And so all of my work, I feel like has always since our production of Theseus, and the foot washer in grade four, has been contending with that.

Kiera Brew Kurec 19:53
Mm hmm. It’s kind of great that you found it so early.

Sibyl Kempson 19:58
I feel super lucky.

Kiera Brew Kurec 20:00
Yeah, yeah. You know, some people don’t find their, their that kind of crux of their practice until much later.

Sibyl Kempson 20:09
Well didn’t know at the time I thought I was gonna do with Sarah Jessica style (Laughter). Actually, I’m thinking about my college experience my undergraduate experience and it being so dark that also was in line with, with everything that I had been actually pointing to instead of in my conscious goal setting. Thanks you guys.

Kiera Brew Kurec 20:34
What I’m what happened after university, what what was the kind of trajectory from there?

Sibyl Kempson 20:41
Oh, that was a rough time because I then I had wanted to go to New York University, which was also like another one of those super expensive schools. And my mother was very afraid for me to live in New York. And so they kind of put the kibosh on that. But I knew that I wanted to live there since I was a little kid, because we would go in to the city for class trips, and I was like, Who wouldn’t want to live here instead of where I live. And so I went there. And a lot of people that I’d gone to school with went there. And it was a strugle to survive!

Nick Breedon 21:16
When was that?

Sibyl Kempson 21:17
Mid 90’s. So I graduated undergrad in 95. And I went straight, I came home for a few months and worked as a waitress and saved up money. And then I moved there. And it was, it was not easy. And a lot of my friends from school had help from their parents, like their parents are paying their rent or and everything, you know, everything else in some cases. So I didn’t really get how the world works yet, in terms of money, like how money works, and how that defines everything I didn’t, I probably I don’t know.

Nick Breedon 21:50
So you thought you should try hard, like, as hard as your friends were trying?

Sibyl Kempson 21:53
or harder, I guess, because it seems to be so much easier for a lot of them. but also nothing was happening for any body. Yeah, so it was I had some rough rough years there. But that’s where you build your muscle and figure out and and and learn about what kind of work is happening. So when I moved there, Richard Foreman was still making work. So I saw some Richard Foreman productions, and that totally blew the whole, the whole thing wide open. And I started working with some of his some of the younger people that have been working with him on their work and learning a different way of doing things. And that has continued. And some of those people that I met at that time I worked with, for, you know, I’m still working with a lot of them. And someone gave me some really good advice at that time, which was get to know as many people as you can, and say yes to everything, so that you’re constantly expanding the circles of people that you know, and I really did do that. And I still am doing that to the point where I’m like, Oh, my God, I know too many people now (Laughter). To the point where I am like how can I you know….

Nick Breedon 23:01
go to the bodega? (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 23:03
Yeah. So but it really was true, because you end up running into people later. And everyone’s in a different role and a different position. And but you know each other and so it’s, it’s actually quite rewarding to, to have stayed in in one place and committed to for so long.

Kiera Brew Kurec 23:21
I’m just wondering if you could touch on how you came to the point where you decided to make your own Theatre Company.

Sibyl Kempson 23:28
Thank you, Kiera I, I was not doing great as a performer. It just wasn’t there wasn’t a lot. I was doing a lot. But there wasn’t a lot happening for me. And I was getting really frustrated. And I wrote a piece of my own with a friend as a joke. And we ended up performing it years later, he was an actual playwright and I was just a frustrated performer. And when we did that, there was a rush of energy in the whole room that I just felt this is what I need to be this is more like it because I felt like I finally was able to express what the craziness that was inside of me, I had been able to build a framework that could contain it and like communicate it. Because I was really really nuts high energy at in, especially at that age, like all through my 20s and most of my 30s and I was always getting in trouble. So create creative practice was really important to me to just work myself into the ground all the time. So I for a long time was writing plays for myself to perform it and then getting other people to perform in them also and doing the costumes, no stage manager like maybe 25 people in a cast for no money and people would just do it and I would ask people that I met in different contexts to come and perform in them same as in fourth grade (Laughter). And so I should have probably started the theatre company and sang the official thing of it then. But that didn’t happen until 2015. I went back to grad school as a, as a, as a playwright, to Brooklyn College to the program that Mack Wellman and Aaron Courtney run. And so I was really focused on writing, I was writing on commission and writing and outlandish ways, looking for new structures of collaboration for several years after that, from like, 2006 until, until really, I started my company in 2015. And even longer, like, I’ll still do that work if I have something interesting and helpful comes up. But I started to become more of a control freak about the way that the writing was being directed. And so I wasn’t able to beahve myself well, in the traditional hierarchy of, of a theater, working structure. And a couple of friends had said to me, you’re gonna have to start your own company. And these are people that I trusted. And that was the last thing that I felt like doing. But deep down, I knew that they were right. So I started it in 2015. And it’s been difficult. But I am learning to balance the creative and the practical in a way that I had not, I just really was writing this stuff that was so outlandish and impossible to perform, except by myself. And I also felt like I didn’t want to be by myself anymore. There were other artists that I wanted to work with. And also, it’s impossible to make work actually, by yourself, even if you’re telling yourself what you’re doing. But I wanted to be able to choose my collaborators and bring people that I wanted into the room. And so when you have your own company, you do have the freedom to do that.

Kiera Brew Kurec 27:01
That is actually something I’ve always kind of thought about with with theatremakes, filmmakers and musicians, like the making and writing and then other other people can access at just me as being a control freak myself, like I wouldn’t I would really strugle with that. Yeah. I mean, collaboration when you one of the, you know, one of the partners within that and that you can you know, but you know handing over your work for others. I imagine it must be a very hard process, depending on who you’re working with at that time.

Sibyl Kempson 27:38
Yeah, like when I would visit you in your studio two years ago, when I would walk by Testing Grounds. I was like, that looks like heaven in there. Like she’s just in there making and it’s like, a little like scientists laboratory.

Kiera Brew Kurec 27:51
I’m also the person that always shuts the door. Like, I think there Trent or Arie would want to come in and talk to me. And I’d be like crughhhhhhhhh don’t come in.

Nick Breedon 28:02
Make an appointment please. (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 28:05
Writing has been like that part. And then it opens up. And I feel for me, it’s important to work with other people and share the burdens and the credit and everything with a group. And I love that it ends up becoming something that it wouldn’t have been able to come if it was me.

Kiera Brew Kurec 28:22
Yeah, that is definitely something I’m starting to learn as I collaborate with people is that when people have strengths that you like, being able to recognize your weaknesses and your strengths, and so that you can hand something over and be like, you’re so much better at this than me please take this.

Nick Breedon 28:37
And its a skill too, you know, you actually have to learn how to collaborate. Yeah, it’s not something that’s inherent, you know, and it’s, well, it’s not something as well that like, you know, you necessarily get taught when you’re at art school.

Kiera Brew Kurec 28:50
Well in primary, I feel like in in school, they’re always like, group projects. I was always the kid that was like, I’m gonna do this on my own and figure out a way to recreate the project that’s meant to be like a group of five to do it on my own and argue to the teacher that I can do this.

Nick Breedon 29:07
But like, I mean, our particular arts education as well. It’s like, okay, partitioned off, go in your little box, right? And you paint. And you look, you know, you put your headphones on, early headphone days, lock yourself in, you know, paint for like, eight hours. and just go for eight hours straight and come up for a cigarette.

Sibyl Kempson 29:26
So heavenly. Yeah. So heavenly.

Nick Breedon 29:28
Well, it isn’t one way. But it’s also like, a rejection of everybody else.

Sibyl Kempson 29:33
True. That’s true. I mean, I have both. I have both times where I’m like, I need to be alone. And mostly writing practice allows allows me so at that time when I can get it now. But what I love to do is to sort of make a space where I can invite collaborators in and I know, I know what they do and what they can do. And so I just like set them and I give them a little like a couple of things that I’m thinking about. I just let them find the connection between what they’re already thinking about and their own aethetic agenda and these other things that I’m thinking about, and just let them go to town. And it’s when you can choose people that you trust them and you trust their practice, you don’t have to worry about it, you just know that they’re gonna make something so much more amazing. And I work with an astrologer. That’s one of the people that I work with. Her name is Omi Johnson. She’s amazing. She’s She lives in New Orleans. And I went to undergrad with her. And she came and worked on this 12 shots project with me. And she had this observation in one of the rehearsals One day, she was like, everything that’s happening in this room right now is something that you can kind of do a little bit. But then you get these other people that are really good at it to actually do do it. And it’s their thing.

Kiera Brew Kurec 31:00
Yeah, with a project like that, that was so massive and went on for so long. And working with so many people like performers, costume designers, choreographers. I’m sure so many others security guards, arts administrators. How do you, I don’t know if you have an answer to this. But how do you set up a space where you are still in control? And you can kind of delegate tasks and have a cohesive piece of work come out on the other end?

Sibyl Kempson 31:33
Well, you’re making an assumption that it is a coheasive piece of work (Laughter). But it is a process that I’m still that was really a big learning process. What really was important that came out of it is like, okay, Sibs, what kind of person do you want to be? Because in that situation, you can really be a total a – hole. (Laughter)

Kiera Brew Kurec 32:01
I am sitting here in admiration, because I know I would be that.

Sibyl Kempson 32:07
I mean, there were times I’m like, like,

Nick Breedon 32:09
I would be like everyone leave, I’m doing it myself! (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 32:11
I mean, I could have been like that. And there were times when I was like, wouldn’t it just be easier and simpler, if I just did like a smaller version of what, but then it just wouldn’t have meant as much. There’s something about the chemistry of the people in the room for me. That is, that’s almost like what the medium is, almost like setting people up from different parts of my life and putting them in a room and watching how they interact and become friends. And then they end up collaborating on stuff, or they end up forming a romantic relationship, in some cases, and watching how that happens. And then also this, there’s a working structure that I’m experimenting with, which is not hierarchical. It’s actually it’s about the leader, faltering, and then everyone else having to come in and pick up the pieces and make the thing happen so that everyone has to take responsibility for it. But then everyone gets their say, but that no one is coming at it with just this is my agenda. Where everyone has to, myself first of all, and then everybody else has to put their own agenda kind of aside, and their own worries and concerns aside, for the sake of this bigger thing that’s happening. And so there would always come a time when I couldn’t go any further because it was so stressful for me to have to be the leader and make all these decisions, and endless endless questions that I don’t have answers to. So exhausting, that I would always sort of have this breakdown. And people are used to hierarchy, it feels really safe to them, everyone’s role is really clear. They know that there’s someone else that’s going to tell them what to do. And we’re used to it, so. But I was so not good at being that person at the apex of this hierarchy. So there was always a point where I would be like, I don’t know, I don’t I don’t know. And I can’t go any further. Actually, I’m totally tapped out. And at that moment, the whole thing is gonna fail. Because she’s down, she’s down for the count. She’s not going to make it or I would actually get physically hurt sometimes. It’s always you know, and I tried to observe this pattern and, like, make it so it wasn’t so dramatic. But then everybody has to sort of swoop in and make it happen and do their part of it what and make their own decisions about it and try something and it always would end up this huge celebration. I think the fact that those rituals only happened once helped But always something really magical would come out of it that we just couldn’t believe no one could believe it in the end.

Kiera Brew Kurec 35:08
Yeah. Well, it kind of I guess you’re kind of answering my question that I had in my head there about how to create a sustainable workflow for performing a work for three years. And had how do you do that? But I guess he kind of just answered that by allowing others to take step up.

Sibyl Kempson 35:31
Agency. And letting go and letting go, go giving everyone as much imaginative food as I could. And having done my research and gotten excited, and like a little bit obsessed with it, and talking about it in a way that gets everybody’s else’s imagination going, and then just letting them go nuts you know.

Kiera Brew Kurec 35:55
Amazing. It is, what’s the word that I’m looking for? Like, it’s pretty radical.

Sibyl Kempson 36:03
I guess it is. I mean, I think it’s really important right now to be working that way. And it was funny, because everyone’s sort of got used to it. They’d be like, Oh, you’re here. Okay. Yeah. Like, we know, what kind of questions to ask and what kind not to ask, that aren’t going to be helpful. And like a new person would come on, and be like, asking all these, and they’d be like, you gotta chill out? Because she doesn’t know.

Nick Breedon 36:26
And they would educate each, you know, everybody educate each other.

Sibyl Kempson 36:29
Yes. So we had, like, a

Nick Breedon 36:30
Well you created a culture

Sibyl Kempson 36:32
That’s exactly what it was. That’s exactly what it became. And there was a lot of support, I want to say that too. Like, there’s no way I could go forward from here and keep doing that without that much support. Again.

Kiera Brew Kurec 36:47
I guess you’ve kind of already answered a lot of these. But you’ve brought up a lot of challenges that you have had to overcome to continue to practice. But I’m just wondering if there are any other challenges that kind of stick out to you that have, you’ve had to kind of overcome or that you’re still working through to continue making?

Sibyl Kempson 37:08
Yeah, it’s, it’s mostly personal stuff. I feel like it’s stuff with my personality. The stuff that wasn’t so great in my childhood, like I’m having to heal that now. And I’m finding these like little slivers of like, evil and darkness that are still in my personality.

Nick Breedon 37:30
You are making this gesture like you are like pulling hair out of the drain.

Sibyl Kempson 37:35
Ok That’s good. I was thinking of it as like tweezers. And because I, I don’t see myself as being the kind of artist that points out everything that’s wrong. There’s, we need those artists. For me, it’s like about imagining the way it could be almost like utopian or something. But something that’s also practical, what are the practical adjustments that we could make? And how can we visualize a better way together and make artwork that that’s a proposal, or that’s an idea that we could actually move toward in a positive way. So in order to do that, I have to make sure that I stay really positive. And that is my current challenge is to not give in to negativity and to make my life so that I, I have the things that I need that allow me to stay positive.

Kiera Brew Kurec 38:28
It’s really hard at this current time. (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 38:33
But it’s a good time to do it.

Kiera Brew Kurec 38:35
it’s a challenge time, if you can get through now. I feel like sometimes if you can just get through a day now that’s a pretty amazing. Yeah, act of defiance. Yeah. I guess and again, you kind of have already answered that in about, I was just wondering, what does a successful practice look like to you? Do you have a way that you think a successful practice even looks? Or is it something that’s ever changing?

Sibyl Kempson 39:08
I’m still figuring that out. Because there’s a lot at the practical end and with having a company that I need to get in place now. And like the infrastructure of my company, because really, when I did that 12 Shouts project, the Whitney Museum became this other part of that organism, the support part of that organism, and there’s something like I’m, I have trouble asking for help. Especially when it’s from, you know, when when it’s the practical stuff, I have trouble asking someone to come and be my producer and when there’s so many people that want to also be making their own creative work. So I, that is now what I need to fit, like, how do I get that support mechanism in place and so I’m doing a lot of visualizing of how can that work.

Kiera Brew Kurec 40:00
I’m wondering, with younger Sibyl who wanted to be Sarah Jessica Parker and had this idea of like, television and the stage, was it anything that you had to resolve? Or I guess it might have been an evolution over the time, but making work that is sitting like in a gallery outside of those conventional theater contexts. Was that something that, like you were considering when you were younger? Or were you Did you have a vision of like, your idea of what a theatre maker or performer looks like? Did that have to kind of shift and change over the years about where your practice can sit? And what it looks like?

Sibyl Kempson 40:45
Yeah, I mean, I just never fit in. And that’s been true for me my whole life I never fit in. And, and it’s true today, my work doesn’t fit in. And it ended up at the Whitney because there was a curator there who’s into that into stuff that you can’t tell what it is. And so that was how I ended up there doing my work. And so I have to sort of invent my own working structures, my own opportunities, my own faith in what I’m doing. So that was, it was like the Sarah Jessica Parker image, like someone who is really able to be successful within the system, and that system by the lapels and be like this is, you know, here’s how I’m gonna, I’m going to work the system and succeed is something that just causes me to crumble inside when I think about having what it would have to do to make that happen. So how can I so it’s always been about building this other thing. Well, I’ll just build my own thing, which now I’m aging, and I don’t have as much I used to have endless energy. So that was a great thing for me to have to do. But now that’s becoming it’s not as possible. Like I can’t just work around the clock, like I used to which I read that is what a goal like that requires me to invent a new universe, you gotta have a lot of energy to do that.

Kiera Brew Kurec 42:16
Do you feel like you’re seeing a shift within different institutional structures, about what they are allowing and showing and how they’re presenting work. I feel like in Australia, we’ve like we just in the past, like 10 years, finally got that dance can fit within the visual arts as well, which is something that was definitely talked a lot about for a very long time before this, but it’s like Melbourne, it was like a new thing. Oh, you had dances, or like a visual artist can be a dancer as well. So we’re starting to get like structural changes in the way that the institutions are showing work, and that there can be crossovers within practices. I’m wondering if you’re seeing that as well in different areas?

Sibyl Kempson 43:04
Yeah, we’re starting to I feel like the visual art. I like the visual art institutions a lot because there’s a different conversation going on that is free from dramatic narrative structure those like I don’t have to worry about those rules. I can write whatever I want. And no one’s going to give me a hard time about it. And I think they are seem to be getting more into performance because it sort of solves the, the issues of commodification of visual art that are that are getting to be so gross. I probably hear too, that it’s a it’s a it’s it’s really hard to collect a performance. It’s hard to sell a performance it’s not a product, it’s a process and and we had that experience many times at the Whitney Museum, one guy that worked there in the in in production there. I heard him telling his boss Well, it’s not as bad in here as it was yesterday it looked like a Jo-ann fabric store exploded. Because we were there making our stuff last minute glue guns and sewing machines everywhere. And it’s so crazy, you know, everything was so nuts and exuberantly so as well, but such a mess. And they’re not they weren’t used to that. Remember, they were bringing some trustee in to tour the room. The guy just had this look of horror, abject horror on his face.

Nick Breedon 44:37

Sibyl Kempson 44:39
Its so sloppy! (Laughter)

Kiera Brew Kurec 44:46
It’s so funny like you know that. I mean, this is that whole thing of the white cube gallery is like these work that does go through a process to me made that is messy that materials are messy that that process the thinking everything is messy. And then we put it in this gallery. And it’s so removed from that. And it’s so clean. And it’s delivered final product wrapped in bubble wrap.

Sibyl Kempson 45:11
It is handled there.

Kiera Brew Kurec 45:13
Yeah, yeah yeah, It’s with, you know, a specially paid technician. Whereas in the studio, it’s just, you know, it’s just work.

Nick Breedon 45:22
Maybe you were the first person to use a hot glue gun in the Whitney.

Sibyl Kempson 45:25
Yeah, yeah. Becausethe building was so new.

Kiera Brew Kurec 45:27
Yeah. And I mean, it could have given the some of those arts workers a real education.

Sibyl Kempson 45:34
It was wild is definitely wild, but I also got the feeling that like it never, it never should have happened there. But it did anyway, which was really a beautiful feeling. And I would love to bring that to other places. And there was a real kind of redneck energy about it that we wouldn’t bring into this super fancy building, I didn’t even feel like I should be allowed into when I first started working there, except that the people were so lovely, and so welcoming. But by the end of it, we had really left this imprint were this fancy membership desk that we were using as a crazy altar for our weirdo religion that we were starting with never look to me, it would never look like capitalism to me again. Or the stairwell that was, you know, it just there was so many there were so many things that we left behind in terms even though it was an ephemeral event.

Kiera Brew Kurec 46:30

Sibyl Kempson 46:32

Kiera Brew Kurec 46:33
yeah. That’s really cool.

Sibyl Kempson 46:35
So I hope that the institutions will start to change a little more and, and open up a little bit more to allow some disruption, like real disruption in the moment to happen because it was it was, it was quite liberating.

Nick Breedon 46:56
Kiera has left me my favorite question, which is really nice.

Sibyl Kempson 47:00
You guys have a whole language that is like this unspoken (Laughter)

Nick Breedon 47:05
Yeah. So we asked all of our artists what, what their practice looks like. We usually go go by week, but a day, you know, I think generally everybody has a different day. But like, what is a week? What does a week in the life look like to you?

Sibyl Kempson 47:23
Yeah, that’s such a great question. Well, I have a dog who is sort of my, my family. He’s my child. He’s my husband. He’s where I unleash all of my maternal urges.

Nick Breedon 47:36
Sorry unleash? (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 47:38
Oh I am so funny, I don’t even realize I unleashed upon him. Oh, god, oh, my maternal my frustration of maternal, you know, expression. And he sort of holds that for me. And he really he works it believe me, so. And he needs to get out. He’s a big dog. So he needs to get out every day. So every day contains an excursion into into areas where there are less people, more trees, more rocks, more plants.

Nick Breedon 48:11
Is that first thing in the morning?

Sibyl Kempson 48:14
No, because that is I try to reserve first thing in the morning for creative energy because that’s when I have the most energy. It causes problems with him because he then he’ll mope and sort of pull at me.

Nick Breedon 48:27
Well he’s got his creative energy too.

Sibyl Kempson 48:29
He’s got his interest that he wants to do. So he wants to go out first thing, but I do I’ve started doing this crazy. I can’t believe I’m gonna tell you guys this,

Nick Breedon 48:40
not just us! (Laughter)

Sibyl Kempson 48:43
Thats what I mean! These affirmations Do you guys know Louise Hay?

Kiera Brew Kurec 48:47

Sibyl Kempson 48:47
Okay. Am I the first person that brought up Louise Hay on this podcast?

Nick Breedon 48:53
Yeah. I have read some Louise Hay.

Sibyl Kempson 49:01
Okay. So I do some affirmations for 15 minutes. I write for 15 minutes, just like a journal. And then I do like usually some kind of yoga for like half hour or an hour. And a lot of times it’s yin yoga, which is basically just about slumping over and forgiving yourself.

Nick Breedon 49:23
That is the best yoga there is.

Sibyl Kempson 49:25
Yeah, exactly. Like I don’t have to do anything. And then

Kiera Brew Kurec 49:29
Do you use a video?

Sibyl Kempson 49:30
Yes, YouTube, I should say it’s YouTube. And it’s in my home. I have stopped going to those classes and paying that money and getting angry and out because there’s so many feelings and frustrations that come up.

Kiera Brew Kurec 49:41
Do you have a bolster?

Sibyl Kempson 49:43
Yeah I ordered a bolster. I ordered some blocks and I have a I know it’s, it’s I know you could you can use pillow but I was like, you got to have a bolster. And now I want another one because I want like this bigger one. So it’s taking I’m trying to take And I was strapped also. Yeah. So I use all that stuff. And that is because I’m in my, well, I’m, I’m in middle age, I was diagnosed with middle age a few years ago. And so you know, you get, you have to stretch. So I have to do that. And then I really tried to get into some writing, I used to just get up and start writing, which is probably really would be great. But I’m also trying to figure out this practical end of things. So I’m putting energy toward that. And then, so I do writing, emails I usually try not to do too much of in one day, like I’ll leave a day for it, because it can take over. And when I do the writing, it’s sort of like prioritizing, like, I set the prioritizing of what I’m visualizing. And then I take that and I go to this is pretty new, I go to my to do list, and I number it, I prioritize my to do list. According to what I’ve envisioned, like, this is where I want to go in this world in this universe, this is the mark that I want to leave on the world. This is the healing that I want to do to bring to myself and to others, whatever the thing is, this is what my Louise Hay, you know, efforts have shown me this morning. And then I prioritize my to do list according to that.

Kiera Brew Kurec 51:20
That is so cool!

Sibyl Kempson 51:21
And it is magic. And so, you know, the Louise Hay stuff changes every day. But then so I can alter and then I, and then I go through that to do list and, you know, if it’s creative writing, then I do the creative writing, if it’s I have to do this budget, I do the budget, if I have to do this grant application, I do the grant application, and I prioritize it and I leave, because I used to do this thing of, um, let me just get this stuff that I don’t want to do out of the way or do the easier thing first, you know, to get it out of the way, quote, unquote, but then that is what eats up your best energy t And you want to do that when you’re like, who cares about anything, like, I’ll just do this now. So that’s been a big, made a big difference. And then the hike usually happens at like 2pm. And I take him out for a pee and I feed him and and then there’s always errands after the hike, you got to go get food, you got to come home and cook the food. And I try to work a little bit after that. And I should say that I get up at like 4am – 5am. So there’s a long span of early morning time to work. So it’s not I’m not getting up at 10. But it’s it’s a long day. So. So then like by eight o’clock, it’s time to wind it down. I got to wind this down. You got to be in bed by 10. And that’s for my adrenal glands. Actually, yeah, I had an medical intuitive guy who was like, I was working with him for a while he was great. He was like, your adrenal glands are so squirted out from being so stressed out for so long, you have to work to replenish them. So I was taking a supplement for a while and he’s like, you have to be in bed by 10 every night. And I was like, What? I can’t do that I’m in the theater. And he’s like, well, then you’re gonna get sick. So I started doing it. And I immediately felt different. And now that’s what I do. And changed my life for the better. I really was headed for disaster. At the end of the week I’m like, oh, man, I’m almost caught up. I can almost catch up. I can get all the rest of this done tomorrow. It’s like no girl because tomorrow’s your teaching day. And so on Fridays, I get up and I drive for an hour to Sarah Lawrence College and I teach like heavy metal teaching from 10am to 4:30pm with a half an hour break in the middle. And then I drive back home and it is super intense. Some weeks I teach during the week also. So that’s what it looks like.

Kiera Brew Kurec 53:51
Do you take weekends?

Sibyl Kempson 53:54
I’m starting to do that once in a while. And it’s very difficult for me and I if I do it, I don’t do anything social. Unless it’s with someone that I’ve known kind of forever. Because it just makes me really uneasy. Like, I want to be going back and getting back to my practice the whole time.

Nick Breedon 54:14
Are you just like sitting and looking?

Sibyl Kempson 54:19
I’m losing my mind right now. I have to get out of here.

Nick Breedon 54:22
What is weekend again?

Sibyl Kempson 54:24

Kiera Brew Kurec 54:24
There is only a few people in this world that I can actually hang out with and actually rest. Yeah. But it’s otherwise Yeah, I’m sitting there being like, I really need to get back to this. I really don’t know what is the use of this conversation. Then I just feel like an asshole.

Sibyl Kempson 54:42
I read something David Sedaris wrote one time and it was really helpful, which was we have four burners, I got in a big argument with another artist about this recently and I was like, you know, try it, let me know, you know, and there’s family, friends, work and health and you In order to be successful, whatever your definition of success is, will be defined by what you do you have to shut one of the burners off. To be really successful, you got to shut off two. And so I go through periods where I’m like, Alright, we got to put the family burner on, you know, we’ll go visit the family. Got to put it so right now it’s really work and health for me. And so I don’t have a lot of like, if I have a friend, like you have to come up and see me and come on the hike with us. With me my dog. And like, that’s my friendship and the people who are able to do that I stay friends with and the people I work with. My work is very, very social. So I don’t feel lonesome.

Nick Breedon 55:43
So how could you feel lonely with Rey?

Sibyl Kempson 55:46
He takes away loneliness for sure. He’s a sweet guy, sweet guy.

Kiera Brew Kurec 55:53
I’m wondering so if he would be able to share with us some of the more influential resources that you have come across?

Sibyl Kempson 56:01
I mean Louise Hay is incredible! And she has really helped me make some very positive changes. And that whole negativity thing that I’m working with is very helpful if I can learn to turn on Louise Hay. I also listen on YouTube. There’s these like chakra musics like chakra balancing music, and I’ll put those on and they kind of keep things feeling generative and positive in the atmosphere, and they drown out other noise. There’s a book called Women Who Run With The Wolves. It’s from the 90s. Have you read it?

Kiera Brew Kurec 56:42
I’ve heard of it

Sibyl Kempson 56:43
I feel like you guys are kind of living that book. So you don’t have to probably you, you could read it. And it would be great. But you’re already doing all this stuff. But it sort of helped me justify for myself putting my creative practice at the center of my life and not apologizing for it and not. And just owning that and getting behind it. That that’s been a huge influence for me. Also, in terms of the subject matter of what I’m working on, in my work, it’s the Chalice And The Blade, a friend of mine gave it to me a guy friend, and I just was so moved, when I started reading it that a dude gave me that book, I was like maybe things are gonna be okay. That that’s been a huge influence on me. And then there’s another writer called Victoria Nelson, who was a huge influence on me. She’s she, she’s in Berkeley, and she wrote a book called The Secret Life of Puppets, and another one called Gothicka. And she also writes creatively, she writes stories and plays. And her writing, particularly her academic writing has been so enormously inspiring and world changing for me. And a lot of my work early on, came from her like when I really started getting rolling with writing, I was hugely inspired by her. And any kind of travel that I can do. I always learn and I get really charged up and my imagination really gets going. So anytime I travel, I always come home and want to write something. Oh, and I’ve done a bunch of journeying, I guess it would be called shamanic journeying with a mentor that I work with who I also work with on wilderness skills in upstate New York. And that has brought me a long way to visualizing and receiving vision and inspiration. Also, that’s also just plays into everything, everything that’s happening in my life. And it certainly shows me how it all folds together on the spiritual plane, which has been transformative for me.

Kiera Brew Kurec 59:02
That’s a great, thanks for sharing those with us.

Nick Breedon 59:03

Sibyl Kempson 59:04
My pleasure.

Nick Breedon 59:05
Oh, here’s a good follow on then. So if you could travel through time. Back to primary school making plays in the cafeteria. What advice would you give to yourself.

Sibyl Kempson 59:21
Oh man, I wasted a lot of time in my life, thinking I had to get married, or be in a partnership with like, one guy for the rest of my life. And I kept trying and trying to do that. And being like, this guy sucks. And actually, that wasn’t true. Like they were all great guys, but I was looking for the, I was wrong. And I was taught wrongfully to be looking for that in my life. And I wish someone would have said to me early on, prioritize your work. And you will always have love in your life. But you don’t have to feel obligated to get married and have a family. Because I wasted some a lot of time and energy thinking that that’s what I had to do.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:00:19
Yeah. And creative energy, probably as well.

Sibyl Kempson 1:00:23
Yeah, it all comes from the same place. So I think if I had if I would have just been like, I can have boyfriends. You know, like, I do now, I have boyfriends sometimes. And it’s, and it’s wonderful. But then it’s almost like, like a plant, like the way a plant goes through phases of flowering and then seeding and then going back into a generative phase like it has to follow a cycle. And then I’m, I just don’t have, but being an artist is is kind of all consuming. And I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. But I thought I could do everything. And yeah, and I don’t think that you can I don’t think that’s true. I see women doing it. And I see men doing it together, women together, men together, but it’s I rarely see a woman leading a fulfilled life as an artist while living with a man And that’s not the men’s fault, necessarily. Yeah.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:01:19
I think like a society, like structural problems.

Sibyl Kempson 1:01:22
Yes. and biology. It’s biological to I think it’s hormonal. And it’s all this stuff that that energy needs to go into my work.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:01:35
that’s some pretty important life advice.

Sibyl Kempson 1:01:37
Oh, my God, it’s devastating. It’s devastating. I’ve told it to younger women too, because I wish someone would have told me and they cry. Because they’re like trying to live with this filmmaker and it’s not working out for their work. You know, it’s very, it’s terrible.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:01:51
I think also just to have the permission to put all your energy into your work. That permission is never really granted. Especially to women.

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:02
You have to take it. And you have to have the stomach to hurt people’s feelings.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:02:07
Yeah. And it’s not just romantic relationships, like family relationships as well. Because sometimes you hurt people.

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:15
You have to let people down. It’s not easy.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:02:19
But it’s okay.

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:21
It is okay.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:02:23
Well this just got really deep.

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:26
It’s rough, but we have to we have to forge ahead because it is really important. Yeah. Because we have to bring it to the future.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:02:35
Thank you so much for coming it today.

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:36
Thank you, I love you guys. This is really powerful.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:02:39
Thank you for being here and sharing your stories and your practice

Sibyl Kempson 1:02:43
It was a huge gift to me to be able to talk about it. Thank you.

Nick Breedon 1:02:50
This episode is recorded on the sovereign Land of the Kulin nation, we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land the Wurundjeri people and pay respects to elder’s past, present and emerging.

Kiera Brew Kurec 1:03:00
Thanks for listening to Pro Prac. You can listen to other episodes and subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can stay up to date with what we’re up to on Instagram at @propracpodcast, or send us an email at