Spotlight on Heidi Van


Note: as of June 2011, this article will be published in the July 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

“I was always interested in live theatre, because it was magical to me.” So says Heidi Van, actor, director, producer, and curator of the Fishtank Performance Studio. “My mother was involved in a children’s theatre production with the Junior League in Kansas City, Kan. For years, every year they would do this show. And so she would be in it or she’d direct it, but she’d always take me with her, especially when I was young, and I’d just sit there and sometimes I’d be like an animal or a tree, but I was always involved in the production.”

Van went to St. Mary College in Leavenworth, studying history, political science, and theatre. She then went on to study at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California. This was to have a major impact on her life. It’s where the kernels of the idea of the Fishtank started.”[It] further refined my vision and basically what I do now: creating new material, working in ensembles, and stuff like that. Making my own work — that’s where I learned that.”

In fact, she directly credits Dell’Arte for providing the name. “At Dell’Arte, there was this residence called the Fish Bowl, and it was this big retail shop that they turned into an apartment, and it had this huge window, and this girl Dawn lived in it.”

Van continues the story. “There’s those big windows in the front, so we called it the Fishtank. It’s just like that. I like to think of it as that things are breathing and happening and being created in there. It has its own environment, because of the people who are involved. But it did just come from those windows and just looking in, kind of looking in on the process. We don’t really hide process there a lot, so you see all the nuts and bolts of a play there.”

The idea of the Fishtank came about in a backwards way, according to Van. “I was doing a show with Corrie Van Ausdal at the Coterie, and we were doing Atypical Boy together, and we were sitting next to each other in the dressing room, and one day, she just looked at me and she was like, ‘Do you want to go in with me on this space?’ And I was like, ‘Okay.'”

Van laughs at the story now, but continues, “That’s how it happened. So everything kind of went backwards. But as we’re sitting there and like painting it and figuring it out, we just came up with goals that we wanted the space to have. Like we wanted it to be a playground, we wanted it to be a place for people to either create or work or have classes or make new work, but in primarily for that, for people to create and perform.

“So, like I said, it went backwards, because there was a space and no specific plan. But I think it worked out great, because I’ve learned over two years what works and what doesn’t work. I do have to get more organized — you know, I resist being organized, but it’s like, you know what, to make this work, it has to be. And I love it.

July 2011 KC Stage cover: photo by Bob Compton
July 2011 KC Stage cover: photo by Bob Compton

“The location is managed by David Ford, and the space where the Fishtank houses three other studios as well. “I really like to keep that idea that this is a studio,” she says. “It’s a performing arts gallery. It is what it is. It’s not more.”

The space, which Van readily acknowledges is tiny, has inspired the people who have ended up producing projects there. “The size and scope {of the project} has to be appropriate to this space so that it will really be successful,” Van says. “There have been people who have proposed things that I’m like, ‘That’s not going to work. Yes, I would love to see that happen, but it probably won’t be the most successful in this space.’ At the beginning, we had all these confinements about what could be produced in there. But then, Jeff Church using it for Thrill Me and utilizing it in the round opened up a lot of people to different ideas.”

It helps that the Fishtank has a group of resident artists that also utilize the space for their own projects, comprised of David Wayne Reed, Lisa Cordes, Damian Torres-Botello, Peter Lawless, Rhiannon Birdsall, Daniel Eichenbaum, and Jeremy Lillig. Not to mention her own company, HYBRID, which is run with Crystal Gould.

HYBRID came about from her work in 2007 with Arts in Prison, creating programs for at-risk youth. She left the desk job but was kept on in a teaching capacity. “What we do is we go into residential treatment centers. I work with a girl’s group on probation, and we utilize playwriting, creative writing, and theatre techniques to kind of create team building and trust. The goal is also to write a play and have them perform it. Sometimes, it’s really hard, and it’s a great thing that the process is more important to me than the product, because they get so much out of the process.”

HYBRID, however, doesn’t do just that — in fact, it’s HYBRID that’s doing the show at the Fringe Festival this year. “I try once a year to produce something on my own of my vision,” Van says, “because most often, I’m producing or co-producing other people’s work.”

The play, “Rubble”, was inspired by the Joplin tornado. Van, who is co-creating the piece with Coleman Crenshaw, says that goes once again back to part of why she created the Fishtank.

“My passion is to create original works that are kind of reflective of current events that are happening in society and the society that we’re living in,” Van says. “I’m really inspired by time and place — like what is happening now in Kansas City or what is happening now in the Midwest or what is happening now in the world news. Those are the things that motivate me.” The tornado in Joplin got her thinking about other natural disasters that have taken place recently, mixed in with the end of the world prophecies that were being talked about, and “all these really weird things that the Earth does and how we as humans respond to it and how we deal with it. So it’s also dealing with the tragedy of the situation and finding hope.”

Van calls the play a window play, as it’s performed in the window of the Fishtank on the sidewalk. So, there’s an outside play of things happening on the street and on the sidewalk, and another play that happens inside the window. “They’re both very different from each other and presented in very different styles, so I’m excited that we have that all worked out,” she says with a grin.

Van is excited about her place in life. “I really am all three — I’m an actor, I’m a creator, and I’m a producer. In the beginning of my career, I kind of mixed all of them, but now I choose to separate them.”

If she could go back in time and give herself one piece of advice, Van is quick to supply motivation. “The one thing I would tell myself is to attack my ideas. Follow my gut. I know that early in my career, I had a lot of things I wanted to do, and put reasons in front of me why they weren’t possible. But we live in such a great community that I would’ve said, ‘Do it, Heidi.’ I wish I would’ve started doing what I’m doing now earlier, because I would have been on a faster learning track and each time I create something or produce something, I learn. I’m learning how to do it more efficiently, how to do it better. If I wouldn’t have been so hesitant earlier, it would’ve been like, ‘Just do it, Heidi.'”

“Rubble” will be part of the sixth Fringe Festival, and more information can be found at either the Fringe’s or on the Fishtank’s website. Most of this article came from the interview with Heidi Van on the Stage Savvy podcast episode 5.

Correction: apparently, I can’t do math: this is the SEVENTH year for the Fringe Festival.

Leave a Reply