By Kevin Assam
Photo: Anca Gabriela Zosin

The Studios of Key West Board President Stephen Kitsakos is a theatre writer and librettist with 40 years in the performing arts. He was a contributing writer for The Sondheim Review and developed LGBTQ courses at SUNY New Paltz as a member of the Theatre Arts faculty for 15 years. Kitsakos recently helped debut Between Two Palms, an ongoing web series of intimate conversations with art and theater luminaries including Kate Burton, Tonya Pinkins, Reed Birney and Constance Shulman. Tickets are available through TSKW.org

Does the name Between Two Palms imply that we can rule out guests from tundra and less tropical destinations?

Those participating in the conversations between someone from the arts and culture world and a person who is part of The Studios family. We initially focused on participants from stage, television, and film. The arts include a wide and divergent population that employs the creative spirit. We will be including writers, especially those who are cultural historians, visual artists, and even those from the culinary arts. It doesn’t matter where they are — tundra or tropic — time zone or geographic location. Our webinar platforms allow access to all. The Studios is the tropical destination and we have the palm trees to prove it!

How intimate will each session be? Will participants be able to discuss relevant topics with featured speakers?

Each conversation invites a limited number of audience members through our streaming portal. While most of the conversation is between the artist and one of our Studios Artistic Associates, we allow time for audience members to propose a question when they register for the event. If it is selected, they are invited into the conversation.

Tell me about the hosts for this series.

Our conversations are grouped together and hosted by members of The Studios family. The first is theater director, Murphy Davis, one of our Artistic Associates. Our next host is Jeffrey Johnson, who currently serves as Board Chair of the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the U.S. We are just finishing organizing the second group of conversations and will start working on the next group shortly.

How was the lineup curated and were there clear choices to reflect the changing commercial and creative landscapes as a result of the pandemic?

We reached out to people we knew would be great conversationalists. Each has a connection to what is happening in the world today as it impacts their ability to practice their craft. Of course, all the conversations have not happened yet, but, for instance, Kate Burton, the acclaimed theater, TV and film actress is also a Professor of Dramatic Arts at USC. She talked about teaching her acting students via distance learning and the challenges of that. Tonya Pinkins, who featured [last] Wednesday, has been a social justice advocate for many years. She is an important voice in the Broadway for Black Lives Matter and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

Will these types of remote sessions ‘spoil’ us in that we become accustomed to ‘distance’ learning and entertainment and may not want to return to events of the pre-pandemic lifestyle?

A firm ‘no.’ It might cause rethinking and offer alternatives to creative endeavors. But it can never replace live performance. Theater art is ephemeral. It only exists as a live moment and interaction between spectator and performer. By definition, there is no stand-in for that.

Is that ‘good?’ Do we need to commit to virtual entertainment and learning for quite some time?

Yes, I think it is good. But not for the reason of enduring a pandemic. Virtual entertainment and distance learning offers The Studios a way to connect with those who don’t live here. Part of our mission is to empower artists to show us the world in new ways and use the arts to build friendships.

What was the greatest talk or “fireside chat” you ever participated in Key West?

I think my conversation with Italian filmmaker and screenwriter Marco Calvani after we screened his short film, The View from Up Here, starring Melissa Leo and Leila Bekhti. The film’s themes of islamophobia and ethnocentrism resonated because of my work as an opera librettist on an adaptation of a novel by Afghan-American, Khaled Hosseini. Calvani was one of [The Studios] Artists in Residence. He is scheduled to teach a number of distance classes on screenwriting and filmmaking for us this summer.

What was the funniest talk you’ve ever participated in Key West?

If you mean a non-interview in Key West then it must have been the night I was sitting at the bar at a fairly upscale restaurant having dinner. A man and his brother sat next to me and chatted me up. He started talking about his wife and the women in his life and then insisted on showing me photos on his phone of women’s genitalia. I said, firmly but pleasantly, it was unnecessary for him to share these with me. When I got up to leave he stood up, pulled me towards him and planted a huge kiss straight on my lips saying, “You’re the best looking thing I have seen in a long time.” Now, that’s funny.

Interview has been edited and condensed

For more information visit TSKW.org