Kyle Jozsa has done almost everything a man his age could do. He’s played high school football, traveled on foot across the Appalachian Trail and served as an Eagle Scout. He started his own theater company right out of high school and got married before he was 25.
He acts, he directs, and he produces his own shows. Teaching at a summer theater camp with the Akron Center for Art, Music, and Performance is only his day job. He is stereotypically an over-achiever, but that is where all the stereotypes end.
When he takes the stage for monologues and storytelling, it is absolutely electric, for performer and observer, and he dives into the moment with a zen, next-level focus.
I was supposed to meet with him at noon, and as usual I was running late. I don’t usually worry about that, but I want to find the perfect place to sit and wait for Kyle. I wanted to watch him make an entrance. Actors always make an entrance, right?
I walk into the cafe and look around for Kyle, but I don’t see him right away. The cool air is perfumed with the scent of roasted coffee and fresh pastries. I scan the room for the right place to set up shop. The music overhead is loud, as are the conversations going on in the room. Will I be able to hear him over so many people talking at the same time? I doubt it.
I stare at the two men by the front window. They glare back at me. I look over at the round tables across the room. All of them were full, except one. The only open table being barely big enough for one person, I realize I have to take this interview out to the park across the street.
I look around for Kyle, wondering what’s keeping him. When I realize that he’s the young man waiting for his coffee at the counter, I’m surprised. He looks so much different than the older, sterner looking man I had watched perform on stage last week.
I’m happy to find that he has no qualms about going somewhere else. Kyle asks for his coffee in a to-go cup and we walk outside, which turns out to be an excellent decision. A public walk down to the park affords us a level of intimacy we would not have achieved in the shop.
From TJ to theater company founder
As we walk away from the coffee shop, I’m struck by how Kyle is a person who is and isn’t who he seems to be. If you were to see him walking down the street, his back curved under the weight of his backpack, his feet dusty from walking, his clothes unremarkable in their generic form, you could easily mistake him for a college student. If it weren’t for his long hair and full beard, you might even mistake him for a local high-schooler.
We choose a table as far away from foot traffic as possible and settle down to continue our conversation. He smiles at me as we set our things down. It was the kind of smile that melts hearts, boyish and innocent.
As a child, due to a plurality of Kyles in his school, he was given the nickname TJ. I ask him about that boy, and if there was a differences between Kyle and his alter ego.
“I sort of feel like the answer is yes… I was becoming me, but I was more the jock, the athlete,” he says. “I was still in theater, but coming into my own. I didn’t know myself that well yet, and the reason I ended up going back to Kyle was, well I went to this training at the Double Edge Theater.”
He pauses. A green bug lands on him as he speaks and he gently flicks it off. He gives me another one of his smiles and leans in closer, as if he were about to share a secret with me.
“One of the things they asked us to do was to give our name as a gift, and I tried with TJ but it didn’t work. It didn’t ring true to me, so the next day I tried giving Kyle, and all of the sudden all these emotions and all these associations popped into my head that I think I (had) buried since I was in third grade.”
He nods his head in agreement, perhaps unconsciously, with himself.
“I had this opportunity going into Double Edge; I was going to be around 50 new people. I could call myself whatever. I said ‘hey, I’m Kyle.”
I had wrongly assumed that he had changed his name for artistic reasons. A lot of actors do, but I was wrong.
“Everyone has done a really good job of adjusting back, except for my mom,” he adds. “She is like the one person, and I’m like, ‘You’re the one who gave me the name Kyle, and now you can’t call me Kyle.’”
Separating yourself from the story
The person sitting across from me has a very different demeanor than the person I have seen on stage. I expect him to be more economical with his words, and less eager to answer my questions. Instead, he is open and honest, and it emboldens me. I ask him about the differences between being a storyteller and being himself.
“I think it’s from practice. I’ve found that there’s a certain kind of energy and persona that you need to put on as the performer in order to grab their attention. I think there still needs to be truth in it.”
He winces. His hands come up and he starts moving his fingers through the air, as if untying a knot.
“That might be me maybe pressing too hard… Not being as truthful as I can be in the moment. A really important aspect of our work is to find the truth. But, I do feel like when you’re on stage there is some kind of quality there, there is some kind of energy that is required of you that in a typical kind of conversation isn’t as intense.”
He lowers his hands and rests them on the table. I ask him about his storytelling, how he manages to remove himself from the story as a person and how he became a character in the story.
“That is through the discipline, through the repetition of telling the story, of experiencing the story with so many other people. At this point I’ve told those stories to lots and lots of people.
“With the story of The Jersey Devil, I have that text so down that I can just go into my head and just be. I can imagine it in front of myself instead of just remembering the words.
“With acting you have partners… My partner in that moment (in storytelling) is you guys, the audience. If I am able to see the story in my head, the text is so ingrained and in my whole being at this point, I can just start to imagine it and the words come. I let things change based on the audience and what I am seeing in my head. That is the work of the storyteller.”
He brings his hands closer together. He moves them slowly, more deliberately. He opens his palms, as if to offer me something concrete.
“As an actor it really is about your partner work and about being genuine in the moment and responding to the moment. Your imagination should be there, but it gets more complex because, if my imagination is one place and yours is in another place, you have to find the links. Otherwise it will be broken. Otherwise it won’t be real.”
The wind breaks in and I can barely hear him. I move my microphone closer to him, hoping I may be able to record what I can’t hear. This motion was enough to break his train of thought.
Spiritual approach to acting
I read that Kyle utilized a spiritual approach to acting. With influences like Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, from the alternative theater scene and The Ecology Workshop, his method of acting seemed different to what most of us were taught in grade school. I ask him to elaborate.
He looks at me for a second, seemingly weighing his answer. As if on cue, the wind dies down.
His face relaxes. He rests his arms and speaks quickly.
“Our work is more than just creating a show. It’s also for me. It is as if it is my meditation. I am diving deeper into myself with each and every rehearsal, each and every training sequence that we do. I am trying to uncover truths about myself. I am trying to be genuine. I am trying to learn how respond in a non-habitual way. To me all these things are tied directly to me as a spiritual being.
“Acting is like, like…” He breaks eye contact with me, finds what he is going to say, smiles and then leans in closer.
“The rehearsal hall is my church, so to speak. That’s where I go every day to try to… To meditate with myself. I’m dancing with myself trying to figure things out, and I’m able to take anything that is wrong in my life and put that into the rehearsal and use it to create something.
“That is really my goal, what I want to teach others.” His smile fades as he continues. “They don’t have to be spiritual, but that same idea, of taking anything that is going on in your life and using that in your craft and your art, a lot of great actors do that already, but I want to teach (it to) children.”
I had watched Kyle as he told stories to a group of children at a North Hill event. His command of his young audience had impressed me. Not only did he have their full attention, he had them so fully immersed in the story that they acted out the parts he gave them without hesitation.
As good as he was with those kids, I wondered why he would want to work with children when there were more than enough adults who would gladly pay whatever sum he asked of them for the very same experiences.
“I enjoy being in the imagination and the world of the child because they are so open — there aren’t all these blocks that you have to go through. Right away, if I introduce a game, if I introduce an idea, if I have a sheet and I make it a cape, they see it. They see it as the cape. They don’t need more explanation; they don’t need to break down more and more barriers.
“I try and submerge myself in their world. I loved being their full-time preschool teacher, because every day we got to go out into the playground or be in the classroom during free time and I would get to become a character.
“I still had to be the caretaker, but it’s like I got to be a character and just play. Through the play I can see them learning. I can identify to their parents… I really like the opportunity of seeing children grow.
“I feel like I can be a little less serious with children. With the adults I feel like I put on this serious face, ‘alright, this is the training’. With the kids it’s ‘alright, we’re playing.’ I think you should have that with the adults, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the stigma of (being) adults.
“Going back to the Kyle/TJ thing, I think that when I went back to the name Kyle. It’s like I accessed all my childhood. It was a direct path back to my childhood.”
He moves away from me, breaking the confidentiality pose we had adopted while we talked. I took this as an opportunity to move on to less heady stuff. Kyle, along with Benjamin Rexroad and the rest of the crew from Wandering Aesthetics Theatre, do a lot to promote and encourage the artistic community in Akron through events such as the Electric Pressure Cooker, an anything goes open mic-night, their Boiling Point alternative play readings, and their Full Circle Story Telling events.
There are these recurring themes in what they do: They showcase and promote talent; they encourage critical thinking and creativity; they encourage the retention of history and the healing of self through inclusive storytelling, encouraging the less talented or less capable of performers to push themselves past their limitations; and they do all this for almost nothing.
This is a de facto production company masquerading as a theater company, and it works for the citizens of Akron. You would think that their product would reflect the cost, but this is Wandering Aesthetics, and the people who make it work are passionate about the people that they work with. They call many of the singers, musicians, and artist they interact with, their friends.
I asked Kyle how it is that one group of people, one company, can do so much for so many with so little and still be able to exist. Altruistic intentions aside, we all need to eat, we all need to pay our rent. How can he do all this, produce, act, direct, teach, and mentor adults and children from all walks of life, and still manage to pay the bills?
“Why do it for free? As theater makers it is our responsibility to create the world we want to live in, to offer new opportunities, new potentialities, to what kind of society we are in right now and want to live in. For Benji and I, we don’t want money to be a barrier, we don’t think that’s fair… For us money should never be a barrier, ever.”
His face suddenly animates. He raises his hands palms up. His speech quickens and his voice rises to be heard over the buffeting of the wind.
“We don’t necessarily want to capitalize just for the sake of capitalizing. I feel like we are a little thick-headed sometimes, because we aren’t making any money, really. The thing is we don’t care about the money.”
He waves away a flying bug almost without a thought.
“We think that it is more important to provide free services, quality events to give Akron artists and arts users alike the opportunity to be a part of these events, these moments that they can’t find anywhere else.”
The bug flies around again and tries to land on him. He ignores it.
“For our shows we have $15 tickets, but it’s always pay what you can. Which means that if you can pay zero dollars we don’t care, we want you to come see the show. We don’t care. It’s more important that you come to be a part of the experience than to miss out because you don’t have the money. And the only thing that is difficult about that is that people feel a little weird about coming to a show and going, ‘I can’t give you anything’.’ That is a pride thing; it’s a stigma thing that we have to work through.
“I’ve grown so much as a storyteller over the last couple of years, and it’s been because of the audience more than anything else. More than money for sure. It’s because all these audiences. That is why the EP Cooker has been so important to me. I’ve been able to use it, use the audience’s engagement.
“Jersey Devil was the very first story I told at the EP Cooker. I told it last February 2014 and immediately I got a response that I incorporated into myself.
“We’ve obviously chosen to do these events… I love the Boiling Point, will we always have it? I don’t know. I don’t know if we can have four events every month and teach and do the rehearsals, the four-hour rehearsals we want to do.”
We make small talk as we walk back to our cars. He has a play-reading to get ready for, and I have some serious notes to read over. I drive away, but as I pass him I see that he is already occupied looking through something. As busy as Kyle is he seems to be perpetually ready to do just about anything.