Alex Ates speaks with Whit MacLaughlin—the experimental theatermaker who ventured into the online realm before it became our norm—about the intersection between digital technology and live performance and pedagogy.
When I entered the space, it was unclear whether I was in a holistic healing office or a therapist’s waiting room. A handwritten note next to a jar suggested I pay as I wish and offered a Venmo name: JenniferLKwok.
Jennifer L. Kwok is Jen Kwok. Actor, musician, comedian, and now artistic healer. The artistic healing part is new. She’s not trained in healing arts. She heals with art. Or, at least, that’s her hope.
It all started with the death of Philando Castile. Then a guy who grabs women and bans refugees became the Republican nominee for president. Overwhelmed, Jen was emerging from a bout of depression brought on by personal grief following family deaths. She sought a new approach to her art. She hadn’t been performing for a while and didn’t know what was next.
One night, after a performance of her friend Leah Nanako Winkler’s play “Kentucky,” inspiration hit, and she began walking across Manhattan.
“I thought, ‘I’m just going to walk across town until I figure this out,’” said Jen. “By the time I got to Lexington I had this image where I’m in a room with a person and I’m singing just to that person. And I’m singing to them all the things that I would want anyone to know. I love just getting really deep with people. And I want to see who they are. I want to connect deeply. I was like, ‘How do I do this through music?’”
Once she discovered this path, Jen began developing “Songs for One,” in which she sings songs to individuals for 20-minute sessions. Jen frames the songs around three randomly dealt, specially hand-painted cards. Each card corresponds to a tune in her “Songs for One” repertoire. Participants may receive the songs however they wish—facing Jen, laying down, eyes closed or open. The result is a surprising blast of tenderness that sparks self-reflection.
The rainy day I visited Jen, enormous plate glass windows washed the room blue. No sooner had I drawn my cards from the deck than I was in tears. I wasn’t sobbing, but my vulnerability cracked the moment I sat on the cushion across from Jen and remained open until her final note.
Similar to a simple tarot reading, she tenderly asked me to consider the past, present, or future and focus on a topic of my choosing. Beyond that, there was no direction.
Jen sang two songs a cappella and one backed up with her trusty keytar, which sat next to us on the floor like a third person. She held my hands and tapped out a beat.
“Every single session is extremely different,” Jen said. “The songs take on different meaning with each person. Depending on how they react and my reaction to their reaction, I will adjust a song throughout. So some songs that may take on a very sad meaning for someone may take on very soothing meaning for someone else or a very empowering one for another person. Really, each 20 minutes that I spend with people is its own breathing living thing.”
Currently in its third incarnation, “Songs for One” takes place in Jen’s therapist’s office. It’s fitting because Jen’s therapist was the first person for whom Jen sang one on one. In fact, the piece originated because her therapist offered Jen a therapy session in exchange for singing a song. It’s been such a success Jen’s therapist gifted sessions to all of her clients.
“If you haven’t experienced it, it can seem sort of nebulous,” said Jen. “I originally did conceive it as a performance that could have healing elements. Doing it in this space, in particular, really ramped up the healing element of it. There’s just so much crying. The tissues are ready for your consumption. At the end of the day, my goal is to have some sort of spiritual connection, either with the person or the person, they, themselves. And it’s all with the music as a vehicle. I really feel like music—not that it’s a sneaky way to do it—but, for some people, seeing it as a performance might make it safer for them to experience their emotions.”
Jen said most people have positive reactions. They usually respond with gratitude. Some experience it as a lullaby. But others are more guarded. Jen solicits written feedback from participants, and sometimes she learns that the experience made them uncomfortable.
“A lot of people have said, ‘Did you know things about me?’” said Jen. “Or, ‘This fit exactly into what’s going on in my life right now.’ When people come in, it’s my goal to literally bathe them in love. To bathe them with sonic love and say, ‘It’s okay, whatever you feel.’”
In these uncertain times, there have been two prime directives from my friends and colleagues: resist and take care of yourself. Jen Kwok offers a special place for people to do the latter. Even under normal circumstances, it’s tough to find time to pause, reflect, and recharge. Jen’s subtle protest revives the spirit.
Make your appointment for “Songs for One”
Sun, Feb 26 from 12:40pm to 4:20pm
Sun, March 5 from 12:4pm to 4:20pm