Kirsten Wilson founded Motus Theater to create change through truthful storytelling. Her company delivers stories from the mouths of the undocumented and the incarcerated, real people about whom we might never otherwise know. Through staged monologues, multimedia and podcasts, Motus Theater and its offshoot, the Shoebox Stories podcast, are about to take on the world.
Standing on the cusp of wider recognition, Kirsten Wilson has a lot to say about Motus and where it’s going. Learn more as she takes on the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Kirsten Wilson: I have many muses out in the world. I am inspired by the creative and courageous people on the frontlines of violence who are fighting every day to make our country live up to the promise of democracy.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
There are so many types of parties! A celebration has at its center my child and those friends and family who are woven into my daily joy. But then there are parties where I have a chance to meet other people who are not woven into my life. I would love to invite the Supreme Court over for dinner. Those nine people hold a tremendous amount of power over the lives of people whom they know nothing about. I would like them to meet Motus Theater’s undocumented monologists or our formerly incarcerated monologists, so that the justices’ legal decisions are impacted by getting to know people on the frontlines of violence in this country.
If it was a “creative” party — developing a performance in a week! — I would invite choreographer Pina Bausch, whose gesticular scores express our animal humanity in ways that words can’t touch. I would also invite author Ta-Nehisi Coates, because he is precise in cutting through the blinding myths of white supremacy with grace and intellectual generosity — and when you cut through to the core of white supremacy, clarity comes through on so many other seemingly unrelated themes. And then, there must be a musician. I would say Vic Chesnutt. I don’t love all his music, but some of his raw wails — his poetic cries — sing beauty at the broken. He is willing to be inarticulate and wrong at the expense of his struggling attempts at annunciating his truth. He would piss everyone off, but for a week, it would be worth it!
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
As the artistic director of Motus Theater, I live by Grace Paley’s quote: “When everyone tells the truth, there will be no need for artists.” My favorite artists in our community are the courageous truth-tellers who break open structural lies that undermine historical justifications of violence. I relate most to people — artists, authors, activists — who are using language to share stories that have been distorted and whitewashed.
One of the greatest artful story-shifters of this century lived until recently in Denver: the great Dr. Vincent Harding, who drafted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon. “Beyond Vietnam” is one of the most profound narratives of this country’s history. It was the most politically charged speech of MLK Jr.’s life, and he was assassinated on the anniversary of his delivery of that speech — exactly one year to the day.
I also think of the great jazz singer René Marie, who was asked to sing the national anthem in 2014 at Hickenlooper's State of the City address. But when she stood to sing, she did not launch into the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written by a slave owner and whose third verse seems to reflect the composer’s celebration of the death of slaves who fought for the British hoping for emancipation. Instead, she expressed her creative courage as an artist and without seeking permission, sang another patriotic song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This national anthem is more beautiful in tune, lyric and message. It was originally written to celebrate the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
There are many amazing creative locals who inspire me. The worst aspect of the local creative community is low funding of arts in the United States and, for Motus Theater, the high cost of theatrical venues.
How about globally?
Art and survival are wound together. I believe that global warming is going to intensify poverty, oppression, dislocation and forced migration. Art has an important role in expressing the resilience of communities, sharing stories of complicated truths and interrupting dehumanizing narratives used to justify aggressive policies.
How do you balance the arts and activism in your practice?
Those of us whose art engages injustice and inhumanity are labeled “activist artists.” But all arts actively engage some exploration: abstract lines of tension, palettes of color, stories of our humanity. Your art, narrative and non-narrative expressions always express what truth you feel most compelled to address and what insights you want to activate or explore.
I am the founder and artistic director of Motus Theater, whose mission is to create original theater to support community conversation on critical issues. I personally am interested in complicated linear narratives that break down the language that justifies oppressive structure or hierarchies. I work with people on the frontlines of violence in America — currently, people who are undocumented (DREAMers) and people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. But the hardest thing for me in relation to art and social-justice activism (the aspect of the question I will engage) is the tension in finding the balance between reacting and envisioning.
When you create art from the frontlines of violence in America, there is pressure to react, resist, respond and move fast, because lives are on the line. Every day, children are separated from their parents — young Americans thrown into a prison system where they will be assaulted, dehumanized and reduced to a DOJ number. But I don’t want to simply RE-act — I want a NEW act, a new theater, a new story, a new America. The key to great art is vision. When you are on the frontlines of a war zone, it's hard to find a breath to pause and look up at the stars and see a new constellation. But the best aspect of Motus’s work is when we are holding that tension of vision and action.
What’s your dream project?
My dream project is always a project that wakes us up from the aspects of the American dream that are achieved at the expense of exploiting people and the planet. I prefer the full palette of contemporary theater: photographic projections, music, movement, words.
Before I started Motus and began spending so much of my time on the business aspect of running a theater company, I experienced an artist residency at CU Boulder, where I could sit in a theater and envision. I look forward to having the money for more Motus staff, so I have the opportunity to sit in a theater, in the darkness, and envision again.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
My twelve-year-old is happy in Boulder, Colorado. And where I hear my child laughing is where I want to be. Also, a key aspect of my work with Motus is built on creative alliances. It takes time to build the trust necessary for courageous collaborations, whether that is Motus’s work on stage with law enforcement and people who are undocumented, or with people who are formerly incarcerated and state legislators.
Everyone who works with Motus must know that they will be honored as a valuable human being. Of course, in each town, city or corner, there are stories that need to be told. But I would have to start over in that community to build trust, and that would slow me down for a while. The only thing that would make me want to leave would be the possibility of financial stability and a bit of economic ease.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
The amazing, award-winning, nationally recognized slam poet Dominique Cristina. She has the power to weave words together to help us rise above the pathologies of misogyny and white supremacy so we can take a clear breath of fresh air. I often find myself gasping when she performs. I’m so hungry for the air and insight her words bring. Her poems help us name the pathology, see its contours and envision ways to keep our sanity and resist.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
The treatment of immigrants and refugees, and the ongoing abuse of people within the criminal justice system is a human-rights and civil-rights crisis in our country. On stage in Colorado and in six cities across this nation, Motus Theater’s undocumented monologists will be telling personal stories that reveal the human damage being done to immigrant families.
We will continue releasing episodes of our new Shoebox Stories podcast, where we ask prominent Americans like activist Gloria Steinem, op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof, chef/humanitarian José Andrés and actor John Lithgow to stand in the shoes of Motus’s undocumented monologists and read aloud their personal stories. Grammy award-winning musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Arturo O’Farrill offer musical responses to these stories.
In Boulder, during the week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are launching Shoebox Stories Live, where local leaders — from the President of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce to four presidents of CU-Boulder fraternities — read the stories of Motus undocumented monologists. And then in March (Boulder) and April (Denver), we partner with award-winning photojournalist Joel Dyer on two multimedia performances telling stories of immigrants in sanctuary in our country.
On Monday, January 20, 2020 — MLK Jr. Day — we publicly launch the JustUs monologues and partner with people who are formerly incarcerated to tell the stories of criminality and injustice within the criminal justice system.
And if you are reading about Motus’s work and want to participate, we have the most intimate style of home theater: You can order our Shoebox Stories reading, where we provide scripts and tools in a shoebox so that your family and friends can stand in the shoes of one of our undocumented presenters and see the world through their eyes. Better than a book club!
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
I think a spotlight should live wherever Dominique Cristiana performs. I’m excited to see what the multi-talented Brenton Weyi will create in his upcoming musical theater work about the Congo. Visual artist Angela Beloian has profound aesthetic integrity and is always on compelling creative explorations I want to follow.
The Shoebox Stories Live UndocuAmerica Series launches on Monday, January 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder, and runs nightly with a series of individual presentations, through January 17. Admission is $20 ($50 Motus Theater Supporter) online.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.