Kiki Samko brings joy and fierce fun to a growing number of theatres in the Boston theatre community, but few performances have delighted and electrified quite like her C.B.’s Sister in Happy Medium Theatre Company’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead for which she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Play. In her interview, Kiki dishes about her love for sports and dance (which complement her work as a versatile performer); her deep connection with her character; and her upcoming production, which promises to be her best leading role yet—her wedding to Boston My Theatre favourite, Michael Underhill!
Kiki, it’s a pleasure to see you perform, and you were magnificent in Dog Sees God. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? What is your educational background and/or theatre training? What do you do in Boston?
Thank you for your kind words! It is an honor to be able to perform for Boston audiences, especially when I get to share the stage with such fantastic actors and friends, such as the cast of Dog Sees God.
I grew up in a tiny town on top of a mountain in Tennessee until I was about ten, when my family relocated to the Boston area where I have lived ever since. I attended Tufts University, where I studied Drama and English. I didn’t really start seriously acting until I went away to college. Before that, I was a jock and a very serious dancer and I didn’t really have time to pursue acting. I took drama class in high school, but I never did any of the school shows because of conflicts with sports practice and dance class. My parents are both college sports coaches (Dad, football, and Mom, swimming), so there was a lot of love of sport in my family. Not that I felt pressured in any way to choose one or the other—athletics or art—just that it was kind of unimaginable for me or any of my siblings not to participate in athletics.
After immersing myself in theatre at Tufts University, I spent a summer training at the Actors Movement Studio in New York, which totally changed my life. And that was when I realized that I needed, vitally, to be an actor. It was a physical theatre program, and it used a lot of techniques like Viewpoints and Williamson and Laban. It was so revitalizing. It changed my whole outlook on my life and my body, my mind and my health. And I knew that no matter what else I did and where else life took me, making art would absolutely have to be part of my life. Performing is like air to me.
Now, I work as an academic administrator at a university in Boston to support my theatre habit. I also serve as Artistic Associate with imaginary beasts, and as a board member with Happy Medium Theatre Company. These companies give so much to their performers in terms of artistic richness and a sense of community and creation. And I’m pursuing Personal Training Certification right now because I love working with my body so much. It’s such an amazing thing, the human body, and it’s really gratifying to experience it, not as an object to be viewed, but as an artistic and athletic tool that enables you to accomplish incredible things.
Talk to us about C.B.’s Sister. What is her story? What did you try to bring to the character? Why do you think that it resonated with audiences and critics? I mean, you were nominated and won an Eliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actress already for the role!
C.B.’s Sister, I always said through the whole process, is just the greatest character in that play. I mean, she’s this vulnerable, honest, naïve young woman, who is trying desperately to figure out how she fits into the world. She knows, I think, exactly who she is at her core, but she isn’t sure how to express that, and she isn’t sure why others aren’t picking up what she’s putting down. So, she keeps changing her external identity. But, at her core, she knows so purely who she is—and knows that it defies simple categorization like these other parts that she plays— and she feels so insecure about it because no one else around her knows who they are and because no one around her is accepting this beautiful gift of a person. And it’s sort of heartbreaking to see her suffer this constant rejection by her brother, who she clearly idolizes, and his friends, who she also has strong connections.
She has all of this ridiculous stuff that she’s doing, so it’s a really strong comic part—but she is also so open and so earnest that it’s a really poignant and heartbreaking part too. So, what I tried to bring to it was just a real sense of my own vulnerability. And I think that’s what people really connected. And the cast was very special, too—we have all worked together a number of times before, and to have that level of trust among ourselves really allowed for all to get to new places and make really amazing and personal discoveries that I think audiences really responded to.
And, gosh, the Eliot Norton Award was totally unexpected and humbling! The other two nominees in the category—Becca Lewis is just one of my favorite actresses to watch onstage, and Lizette Morris was our director and is a really subtle and heartbreaking performer. I was honestly shocked to win. But I’m glad that the work that I was doing seemed to resonate with people. During rehearsals, I felt such an honest and open connection to the work. So, I’m glad that my honest connection to the material was felt by those who saw it. I wasn’t sure they were, actually, because when my mom came to see the show, she was like, “Oh, Kik, good job! You were fun!” and then literally pushed me out of the way to shower praise on Mike (my fiancé, who played CB), saying, “Oh my God, Mike! You were amazing! You made me cry!!!” (and my mom does NOT cry). It was actually a very funny moment.
What were you like when you were in high school? What was it like to return to that “Kiki” to play C.B.’s Sister?
In many ways in high school, I was exactly the same person I am today, except way, way, way less confident. I’m sure a lot of my peers considered me to be the “weird” kid. I was a lot like C.B.’s Sister, in fact, in that I knew exactly who I was at my core—who I AM at my core!—but I had no idea how to be that person or how to connect with others as that person. I was deeply nerdy and cared way too much about my grades and was an intense perfectionist and very deeply insecure and lost and hopeless.
Honestly, it was scary to tap into that version of myself and to remember what it was like to be that unhappy and that insecure and that totally lost. But it was also empowering to experience those feelings again without having to put up the armor that I put up when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, and to just feel it and then to reflect on how far I’ve come in the past 10-12 years and celebrate that.
What is the most challenging thing about being an actress? What is the most rewarding?
I think the most challenging thing and the most rewarding thing are the same—you have the honor and the burden of relaying a vital truth. It feels like a great responsibility. And breaking through to that truth, whatever it is for you, can be extremely daunting and exhausting—mentally and physically—but when you get there, if you get there, it’s astonishing, especially if you can take an audience with you.
You’re also a gorgeous and expressive dancer! Can you tell us about your training, your work, and your dance interests?
My dance background is in classical ballet, which I trained in from 4 to 20 years old. I also got very into tap and studied lyrical jazz and jazz as well. I was a dance NUT growing up. And dance was really where I discovered my love of performance. I really felt at home when I danced. Dance, ballet especially, was my first true love. And it still informs my acting technique and process.
In college, I also got the chance to start dabbling in choreography, which was an amazing discovery for me. And I’ve felt so lucky to get to rediscover that love of dance and of movement and choreography with a few companies in town, who have really embraced my background and put it to work!
These days, my interests lie in contemporary dance and contact improv. I’m very interested in dance that subverts beauty—making movements that look like mistakes into something that is really interesting to look at, a new beautiful. And I love just experimenting with bodies in space—what shapes can an individual make? A duo? A trio? A dozen? There’s endless possibilities. And each person has their own quality of movement and, when you are working with actors and not dancers, as a choreographer, it is a real challenge and a real pleasure to discover those qualities and how they work together onstage.
Do you relate to any celebrity actresses? Do you look to any of them for inspiration?
I don’t know that I relate to any celebrity actresses, per se—my world and work seems removed from theirs in so many ways. But certainly I look to someone like Meryl Streep for inspiration. She’s had such a long and fruitful career and her performances are always spot-on and her public persona is really amazing as well. Or someone like Emma Thompson who is just a brilliant mind and talent and whose carriage is also really admirable. And then there’s Cherry Jones who worked at the A.R.T. when it was establishing itself as a repertory company—she’s someone whose career path I really value. And Kathleen Turner, whose performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Wilbur Theatre about 12 years ago shook me to my core and made me decide to pursue acting seriously. And her voice is so amazing—I could listen to her read a phone book! For these women, it seems to be about the craft first and foremost, which I appreciate and do relate.
You’re engaged to My Theatre favourite Michael Underhill! Talk about an awesome pairing. Can you tell us how you met? What was it like starring as his sister while you were dating?
He’s my favorite, too! Mike and I met doing Dream of Life: the Impossible Theatre of Federico Garcia Lorca in 2009 with imaginary beasts. It was Mike’s first professional show outside of college, and he didn’t want to ruin things by making a move during rehearsal—so he waited until opening night! And we quickly became inseparable. We just get each other on a level that is beyond. We speak the same language, have the same vocabulary, and are both really driven and hardworking people. I never thought I would ever date an actor, but now I can’t imagine having a partner who doesn’t live that part of life with me. We’ve had the pleasure of working on over 25 productions together since we met. I feel really lucky that we get to spend all that time together doing what we both love.
Playing his sister while we were dating—I thought it would be weird. But really, it wasn’t. We found that the parts and the honesty in them and our connection was very real, I think. Mike and I have a strong romantic bond, but we also just have a strong bond. And I think that was what came through onstage, that genuine and deep connection. And it was great to have him as a scene partner and to talk through the work outside of the show. But the brother/sister relationship, we were able to leave onstage and not take home with us.
You have a wonderful laugh. What always makes you laugh, besides Michael (yes, we know he’s cute)?
Thank you! I love to laugh!
My family makes me laugh, they are just all weird, quirky screwballs and we have about a million inside jokes and vocabulary words. I love them so much. I am one of four siblings (an older sister and two younger brothers), and my siblings’ and parents’ favorite pastime is making fun of me. We joke that’s the only reason the whole family ever gets together—because they all have making fun of me in common. I love them so much.
And puns, and wordplay, and witticisms. And really bad jokes. And physical comedy. And odd, quirky, offbeat humor. I’m the girl at the theatre laughing when no one else is, during really quiet moments.
Are there any companies in Boston with which you want to work? Are there any dream roles or productions for you?
I love working in Boston. The fringe companies here are all really exciting and I’d be happy to work with any of them. I would also love to work with the larger houses in town.
As far as dream roles go, I’d love to play opposite my fiancé, Mike, in a role where we are romantically involved. Another show I’m dying to do is a two-person play called David’s Red-haired Death. it’s by Sherry Kramer, and it’s written for two women. I’d love to have a production where the two women each learned both parts and switched off throughout the run. Talk about a cool challenge.
But the work that I’m most interested in creating is ensemble-devised physical theatre, so the dream, really, is to keep exploring and playing with my collaborators to make new and exciting pieces or to take rarely performed pieces and bring them to stage in new, inventive ways.
Are you currently reading any books? If not, what kinds of books interest you? Do you have a favourite?
Currently, I’m reading Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf. My favorite books are those with really rich prose. Also, volumes of poetry. I am a total bookworm and love reading, but also I can be kind of snobby about my literary choices.
What is the hardest thing that someone has asked you to do? How did you respond?
I’m terrible at making decisions because I always try to find the good in everything, so the hardest thing anyone has ever asked me to do is make a choice! (Not onstage—I’m typically unencumbered when it comes to making character choices). I generally respond by going back and forth, over and over the options, until I am forced to make a decision and then I apologize about forty-three times to the thing that I did not choose.
You found a genie in a bottle. What are your three wishes?
Oh, this is tough! The obvious answer is to wish success for my friends and family and self, but I don’t really know that genies can grant those kinds of wishes. So, I think I’d wish for a renewed interest in the arts across cultures; abundant, appropriate rehearsal space for small theatre companies in Boston; and unlimited closet space for my ever-growing wardrobe.
Do you have any upcoming project or productions?
My upcoming production is my wedding! I’m taking a small break from the stage to produce the most personal theatrical production of my life to date. Seriously, I am thinking of the wedding as a big production—coming up with a concept and then finding the right “design elements” to support it. So, my next scheduled productions won’t be until the fall, when I’ll likely be performing with a few different companies.
In the meantime, I’ll be doing work backstage to support the productions of my two companies, imaginary beasts and Happy Medium Theatre. imaginary beasts will present Moliere’s Lovers’ Quarrels, performing March 28–April 19, 2014 at the Boston Center for the Arts, and Happy Medium Theatre will do Israel Horovitz’s Lebensraum playing at The Factory Theatre from May 5 – 23, 2014.
Do you have anything that you wish to tell our readers?
Support the arts! I’m sure, as readers of this site, you already do. So, thank you!