Daniel Kitson’s show Keep is about the agony and ecstasy of the objects in his life. I’m not saying the show was made just for me, but maybe I am.
After 18 years in one place, I moved apartments this year. It was stressful, emotional, and exhausting. I had no choice but to finally confront all the things I’ve held onto in my life—an unrelenting mountain of my past that had to be tossed out or packed up and carried forward.
While my move is behind me, Keep brought up my own dynamic with things. I once moved cross-country, back and forth, with a box labeled “Sentimental Shoes and David Sedaris” which I never opened.
I have never been a minimalist and it’s hard for me to let go of the objects that feel imbued with meaning and history. For many years all this stuff served a purpose–a sense of presence, existence, and reality. Yet, these are not all boxes of happy memories. The truth is far messier and harder to wrestle with. The past is as complicated as anything, and all the more so as you age and reflect back on it with distance or growth. Keeping things is sometimes harder than you realize.
“I feel this responsibility to objects.”—Daniel Kitson
In this show, Kitson intends to catalog all the things he possesses. In the telling of the story, he cannot help but also inadvertently face down his past, being unnerved along the way.
He has written down all the items in his house on index cards. A looming card catalog sits on stage before us. Each drawer in the catalog represents a room in his house filled with things. He plans to read out all these cards, drawer by drawer. The drawer listing all the items in his garden includes individual cards that say brick, brick, brick, brick, brick…He had a dispute with a builder and now he has a lot of bricks.
As with many Kitson shows, its origins do not always indicate the direction it will go.
Fear not, it’s not just a pile of bricks.
Truth, memory, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and one’s limited perspective on one’s own life is deeply embedded in Keep. It is about the past, its place in our present, and the reconciliation of the two, though it’s not a peaceable intersection.
“How do you bring the past with you?”—Daniel Kitson
Kitson actually starts the show with an administrative announcement where he lets people know he will be just reading cards so some people may want to leave. He’s had some aggressive walkouts before. A few people do walk out. For those who stay, they are rewarded with a Kitson story that is back on formula in many ways.
As he begins to read from the card catalog drawers, he does not get very far. He keeps discovering cards that are backwards and scribblings on them which he thinks might be old story ideas he abandoned. They momentarily distract him from his card-reading rhythm as he’s trying to get through “the list.”
With each distraction comes an aside, or a reflection on his life, a memory of the object and the meaning that comes from remembering or forgetting. But the distractions start to pile up. The list gets abandoned and Kitson wants to get to the bottom what is going on with these mysterious cards.
In my apartment purge, I discovered objects that vividly reminded me of a person, place, or event. But then there are names I didn’t even recognize. I pieced together a torn-up note from a boy and I stared at the signature. I could not even picture his face. Why did I tear it up? More importantly, why did I save this?
“If you keep it long enough, it will start to make you sad.” —Daniel Kitson
I came across writings about me from teachers, advisers, doctors, and family. Reading what other people said about me, I did not see myself:
My high school art history teacher: “Nicole. Nicole. Nicole. I was warned that you were a handful before this class started.”
What?! How do I not remember this? Can I legitimately get upset over this 25 years later? She goes on to say a million nice things about me. But this is what I fixate on and republish here. Because I cannot believe it. Was this true? HANDFUL!
Elementary school report card: “Nicole Displays Normal Acuity, Balance, and Coordination in Gym Activities.”
Lies. I have never had any physical coordination in my life.
Are these actually truths about myself?
And there are boxes I still cannot open. They suck the life out of me. Back on the shelf they go.
With Keep, Kitson finally drops his relentless use of audio in his performances. He gets back to being a man at a table trying to tell a story while derailing his own story at the same time.
It’s the deconstruction and dissolution of the show that is ultimately the show here and this is my favorite aspect of Kitson’s work. He can hold two seemingly disparate strands together each functioning and commenting on the other. Somehow their proximity and intersection illuminate something about life. He lays the path for where this will all end but with his rapid-fire delivery, colorful turns of phrase, and improvisational crowd work it’s often hard to keep up with his narrative sleight-of-hand work.
UK critics really took this particular show to task. Their complaints mirrored my own about other Kitson shows. The last couple I’ve seen have been predictable or shallow—underwritten and overstructured. The old Kitson “bag of tricks” left us without much mystery and earned only a shrug in the denouement.
His foray into complicated sound work allowed his monologues to become “dialogues” but he was still talking to himself (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively). They never bloomed into something greater. His navel-gazing used to expand out, bringing us all into the fold. These shows were closed loops. They started to feel false.
While Keep has its fair share of self-involvement, it is keenly aware of it. Moreover, it pushes out ever so slightly towards something new.
“It’s my stuff to deal with.”—Daniel Kitson
Two years ago, Kitson was questioned/challenged about his knowing and repeated use of a racial epithet in a stand-up show. I saw a work-in-progress of this show, but at the time I saw it he was trying to argue he was the “good guy” because he was taught not to use that word, while enjoying the naughtiness of employing the word. It was part of a larger show wrestling with being a cis straight white man and his growing understanding/recognition of what this means in the world.
As he parses the objects in Keep, there is an undercurrent of that consideration here too. He’s been trying to figure out who he is as someone who has done harm to others, benefited from privilege, and is changing as he ages. But he tries to distinguish himself from narcissists and frauds, while discussing his home which is “a museum of me for me, with an entertaining cognitive dissonance.
He talks about old recordings of his performances and watching a younger version of himself. He laughs at his years of living life with an optimism of “romantic possibility.” And now “this is it.” He struggles to reconcile the beliefs he once had, which he no longer recognizes as views he once possessed.
Keep allows him a story structure to explore this disconnect with the echoes of his past self. Like my own journey into the past, the confrontation with “you” of another time can be rattling. In Keep, while the show has laughs aplenty and thoughtful recollections, it chips away at a certain foundation Kitson has previously built.
For some audience members, this may still be too much mishegoss, which is not worth the convoluted journey. But I found myself laughing more freely than I have with his other shows He feels looser and more playful than in recent shows where the necessity of maintaining focus to play against the pre-recorded bits restrained him. But most importantly, the sharper edge here is refreshing. This is not actually a darling show with a whimsical center. This show has a little bite to it. It’s not a cookie full of arsenic, but let’s say an Oreo with a bitter lemon filling.
He’s always been self-deprecating but this show gets closer to actual self-criticism (towards his created stage persona). While it comes late in the day, it’s there: the tiniest admission that maybe Daniel Kitson (stage character, not the person) is maybe not the “good guy” he thought he was. In a storytelling universe he’s built of romanticized lonely men and women seeking connection with quirky charm and warmth, this chilling shift reverberates.
It’s finding the box at the back of your closet filled with skeletons you did not even remember putting there.
It might not really be the creative pivot in Kitson’s work I’ve been waiting for, but it’s a welcome nudge in an unexpected direction. A brisk breeze of something bracingly honest.
Daniel. Daniel. Daniel. You are a handful.
The show comes to St. Ann’s Warehouse December 4th-19th.