Since arriving in the fall of 2011, worn and ragged from a year spent touring the country singing and playing guitar, Aba Kiser, 23, has set herself on a new path to define herself as an artist in …
Since arriving in the fall of 2011, worn and ragged from a year spent touring the country singing and playing guitar, Aba Kiser, 23, has set herself on a new path to define herself as an artist in Port Townsend, her new hometown.
After her time on the road, Kiser needed a break and felt inclined “to crawl into a hole and not have anyone count on her.” Instead, other artists gravitated toward her and challenged her to continue her journey of self-discovery – what it means to be an artist, and woman, in a society filled with stereotypes of both.
Kiser said she was intimidated by how quickly the peninsula art community accepted her into its fold.
“People here were more supportive of my music than I could handle,” Kiser said. “I felt sort of called out.”
More apt to describe herself as a “creative mind” than a musician, Kiser said she uses music as one part of her performances, which –when right – approach the feeling of faith.
“The level of intimacy and vulnerability that my music necessitates requires a closeness, an audience that is fully present,” she said. “My music requires curiosity.”
One local musician who was immediately curious about Kiser’s work was mandolinist and songwriter Matt Sircely. The two began collaborating on a music series, which has blossomed into the In Yurt Studio concerts. (Both live in yurts in different parts of town.)
Sircely said he was intrigued by how Kiser’s original compositions leave room for freestyle and improvisation. He had never heard her particular combination of folk, pop and jazz with elements of hip-hop.
“Her music contains a very cool combination of elements of old and new, simple and complex, composed and spontaneous – the delicacy of a blooming flower and the momentum of a slow-moving train,” Sircely said.
Early on, Kiser was recruited to put her acting skills to the test. She debuted in her first dramatic performance locally last spring in a type of self-revelatory theater titled “Courageous Acts,” which required actors to bring their own stories to the stage. Kiser said she was immediately drawn to the ritual of the four-hour rehearsals with a group of kindred spirits. Kiser was attracted to the process in which both the actors and audience had to bring something to the table and thereby collectively create a transforming experience. Nothing was spoon-fed; nothing was covered up. The audience and actor became partners in that joint experience. “That process really cracked me open as an artist.”
“I think of Aba as an eccentric, eclectic, talented sort of visionary,” said Zhalleh Almaee, who directed “Courageous Acts.” “She has a great presence.”
Her performance also caught the attention of Key City Public Theatre (KCPT) artistic director Denise Winter. She said she recognized Kiser’s ability to tap into a deep, inner emotional life and share that on a stage, and was impressed by Kiser’s command of her body and voice. “It was really exciting to see her perform.”
Winter encouraged Kiser to audition for KCPT’s “Woyzeck,” an 1830s German play that focuses on the struggle of a working-class man in love with a prostitute; a character who is pitted against the system and himself in a world filled with absurdity.
Winter and “Woyzeck” director Sarah Grosman were blown away by Kiser’s audition. Her preparation and choice to perform as both a puppet and puppet master simultaneously immediately convinced Grosman that Kiser was perfect for the role of Marie, a prostitute.
“Her piece was sweet, beautiful, precise and brave,” Grosman said.
While she was honored to land the part, Kiser said it required a significant “leap of faith” for her to embody such an enigmatic character. Simultaneously embodying the sexual energy and the motherliness of Marie has been a challenge, she said, because a lot of expectations for women are wrapped up in her character – sex, women’s status, young unwed mothers, promiscuity – and society doesn’t have the tools to deal with these stereotypes in a healthy way.
“I’m somewhat concerned how my heart connections will see me in this role,” Kiser said, regarding the friendships she has forged since arriving in Port Townsend.
In Marie, Kiser said she has found guilt and shame, but also real strength in the character’s ownership of her own sexuality and the obligations of motherhood.
“Women are seen as a sexpot, a mother or a stone-cold bitch,” she said. “These dichotomies are alive in [Marie’s] character.”
Challenging herself to unify the dichotomies into a single character, Kiser has impressed her director.
“Aba brings an unabashed fearlessness to this role that is critical for Marie,” Grosman said. “Because this play is so fragmented, it was important for us to find someone who could walk headfirst into every rehearsal and every scene.”
Winter said the chemistry between Kiser and actor Eben Hoffer, who plays the title character of Woyzeck, was instant.
“You don’t always get that chemistry, and it will only grow,” Hoffer said. “She’s fearless.”
Anyone who knows Kiser from her day job at Chimacum Corner Farmstand knows she’s likely to be dressed as a tomboy, in a plaid shirt and wearing a homemade crocheted “half-band” to keep her short hair out of her eyes. At 12 years of age, Kiser made her debut as a jazz singer in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Her artistic sensibility was supported and encouraged by her father, Jim Kiser, a jazz trumpeter. At 17, Kiser left the D.C. area to live on a commune in southern Virginia, and there began her physical journey to find her inner artist.
Kiser now lives in a yurt on Hastings Avenue with a friend’s energetic dog. Outside her yurt, in what she describes as a used-car lot, Kiser has a large horse trailer she is transforming into a mobile performance studio. Kiser’s In Yurt Studio concerts will begin soon after “Woyzeck” finishes its run at the end of October. The next transformation in Kiser’s artistic journey is still unknown. However, one thing is certain: The curiosity of her audience will keep this performer ever inspired.