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Meet Mya Kelln: The ‘Hedda Gabler’ Director and King’s Student Debuting her First Off-West End Play this July. 

From Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city in the Canadian prairies, twenty-year-old Mya Kelln is a creative force to be reckoned with. Having made waves in King’s College London’s theatre scene over the past few years, Mya’s self-confessed drive to “push the boundaries of what it means to be a young artist” is clear to anyone who has watched one of her electric productions. 


This July, Kelln’s work moves beyond student theatre onto an off-West End stage, with her adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler running at The Bread and Roses Theatre from July 2nd-13th. I sat down with Mya to discuss her recent work, her budding career as a theatre director, and why Hedda Gabler might just be the one show you need to watch in London this week. 

“Moody, haunting and interpretive” are the three words Kelln would use to describe her current production of Hedda Gabler. The third word strikes me as vague, but Kelln clarifies that “this production relies heavily on the imagination of the audience, and I want the experience to be unique to everyone who comes and sees it. It’s a very elusive play. We are given only forty-eight hours of these characters' lives, but they are so deeply affected by their histories. We don’t really know what happened in their pasts, and I do not have the goal of ‘solving’ Hedda Gabler. Visually, I hope that how you see the drawing room is different than the person next to you. Conceptually, I hope that everyone comes to their own conclusions about the characters they see on stage, and why the events of Hedda Gabler are a product of the lives they have all once led.”


Mya articulates her vision powerfully; she refuses to be pigeonholed into one interpretation of the complex Ibsen text, instead taking an approach reminiscent of Olivier Award winning director Jamie Lloyd’s ambiguously-staged masterpieces. This is likely no coincidence, as Lloyd’s work has been influential for Kelln. She tells me “some of my biggest inspirations are revival directors Rebecca Frecknall and Jamie Lloyd. They both have an incredible eye for re-imaginings, and their work is always a unique interpretation of a beloved classic. As someone who wants to pursue revivals herself, seeing how these directors adapt and re-enchant some of my favourite plays encourages me to keep expanding my horizons.”

'Hedda Gabler' rehearsals. Photos by Elizabeth Grace.

The 13th Night Theatre Company, the production company that Kelln founded with longtime collaborator and Hedda Gabler star Eliza Cameron, describes the play on their Instagram account as “minimalist.” I press Mya on why she has chosen to strip Ibsen's text to its bare bones in her revival of the play, to which she gives the beautiful answer that “minimalist theatre has a really cool way of making you feel like you are reading a book.” Kelln's directorial vision shines through this vivid description, which she elaborates on: “This makes the whole experience more imaginative, and more unique to you as an individual. Naturally, with stripping away embellishments, the actors’ ability to tell you a story is left. Greater focus is on the dynamics, the tones, and the text, which coincides very well with Ibsen. Hedda Gabler—a play dealing with boredom and repressed desire—is fun to explore when working in a plain, clinically white set. In this, we’ve been able to use our few props to represent that repression.” 


Beyond the rich themes Kelln has already outlined, I ask what drew her to Hedda Gabler’s play text. Mya notes that it is the “powerful women” in Ibsen’s work that led her to Hedda. “Hedda is an absolute force,” Mya makes clear, “so the chance to build a world around her was something I could not pass. One of the most beautiful things about the play is how vivid each voice is. I especially find that with the characters of Hedda and Ejlert Lovborg. It is such a brilliant story, and I think it truly encapsulates all of Ibsen’s values in one show. The adaptation serves to make it resonate to all. There is a time period ambiguity with the play, so the adaptation makes the translation more universal.”


Mya tells me that her love for the play came shortly after she directed Ibsen’s Ghosts with Live Fully Productions in Saskatoon, so she was “already knee deep in Ibsen’s world of very powerful women” when she picked up Hedda Gabler’s story. On what keeps drawing her back to directing Ibsen’s work, Kelln comments that “Ibsen is timeless. There is something so real and human about his plays. Every character has an extraordinary complexity, which is exciting for both myself and the actors. Ibsen’s plays have always challenged contemporary society, making them consistently revolutionary. As a director, there is a drive to make these types of plays unique and refreshed. Balancing the heritage of Ibsen with the changing landscape of modern theatre has been a very formative challenge.”

Eliza Cameron as Hedda in 'Hedda Gabler' rehearsals. Photos by Elizabeth Grace.

This challenge has also been “a long time in the making,” and has changed form significantly since the first "dodgy scribble" in Kelln's notebook. Asking the young director about the pre-production process, I'm told that “the most fascinating part has been to see how the show’s concepts have developed. I began planning for this show in November, with only one dodgy scribble in my notebook to outline what I wanted for the final scene. Not totally sure why, but my early concepts followed a very urbanized, edgy vibe. That did not last long as I began a deep dive into the dynamic between Hedda Gabler and Ejlert Lovborg. A stripped back approach seemed more in line with what I was after. The picture created in my notebook scribble has survived, and it was so moving seeing it come to life as we went through the rehearsal process.”


“Beyond directing,” Mya also gives a shoutout to the sound design that she is “quite jazzed” to see in full swing. Every detail of the show seems to be meticulously devised with Ibsen’s text and Kelln’s character analysis in mind, and Mya tells me how the sound design is no exception. “Idealism and romanticization are some major themes, so I wanted to implement some romantic poetry into the audio. Due to the fact that Ibsen is the root of realism, it contrasts these values but accompanies a certain character very well.” 


Hedda Gabler is the first production by the production company that Mya co-founded with Eliza Cameron, who also stars as Hedda in this adaptation. On how this team formed, Mya notes that “Eliza and I have been longtime collaborators, as we have worked together with the King’s Shakespeare Co. for two seasons. The idea of Hedda came before the company, as I was looking for a means to direct the show. The opportunity to get involved in ambitious work is something we felt emerging artists need, so we approached the Bread and Roses with the idea of Hedda Gabler as the 13th Night Theatre Company.” Kelln also addresses the Shakespeare-inspired name, pointing out that “the company name came from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which was how Eliza and I met. We felt that 13 encapsulated a progression or next steps, so that’s how we came to be.”

'Hedda Gabler' rehearsals. Photos by Elizabeth Grace.

The ethos of Kelln and Cameron’s theatre company promises to be ambitious; “ultimately, we would like to be a home base for emerging artists who want to learn through doing. Part of our commitment is to produce works that are famously known to be difficult, like Hedda Gabler, to really push the boundaries of what it means to be a young artist. The long term goal is to amass a collective to share these ideas, and who want to face challenging pieces of theatre head on.”


With all this creative ambition, one might suppose that Kelln had always wanted to be a theatre director. But Mya tells me that was “not particularly” the case. “Growing up, theatre was not a very big part of my life until high school. In fact, music came first. I owe my first exposure to theatre to my high school band teacher. I started playing in the pit orchestra of my school’s musicals, which made me fall in love with theatre. I became fascinated by how shows run, and all the moving parts that go into making a production. My interest kept growing until I wrote my first play in my senior year, which I then had the pleasure of directing.”


Despite Mya’s slow-burn love affair with the performance medium, she “always loved storytelling, whether that was writing, reading, chatting with friends, or taking hours to summarize the book I just read to my dad while we walked our dogs. Theatre made me realize that directing was my favourite way of telling stories. My very first show brought this realization to light, and I felt the need to pursue it further."


Growing up in Canada and having directed a number of productions in Saskatoon, I wonder what drew Mya to London for university. “I came to London looking for a new adventure," she explains. "I loved the idea of studying history in a place that was so rich in culture. The arts are everywhere here. London has an incredible appreciation for theatre, which absolutely motivated me to continue directing. Just being in a big city that had theatre at its doorstep was incredible (yay for student discounts!). Getting the chance to see the world’s most incredible productions - often right after leaving class - influenced me greatly. The more I saw, the more I learned, which helped me understand and hone what I wanted to put into my own productions.” 

Promotional content from @13thnighttheatreco on Instagram.

One of those inspirational pieces of theatre was “Jamie Lloyd’s recent production of Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy, which Mya found to be “astounding.” Kelln continues, “it was one of the greatest pieces of theatre I have ever seen. It was unlike anything I’ve watched in the past, and changed the way I thought of minimalist theatre.” The city now holds a special place in Mya’s heart, and she “intend[s] to direct in London, whether that is immediately after my history degree or not - I love it here and hope to make it a home one day.”


The fondness Mya bears for the English capital comes not only from the theatre she has seen around London, but from the student productions Kelln led at King’s College London and the community of friends she made here. Out of the numerous productions Kelln directed with King's Shakespeare Company and King's Opera Society, I pressure Mya into picking a favourite. Kelln stresses that “it's tough, but if I had to choose, Cymbeline has a very special place in my heart. There was something about the energy of the cast that was unlike anything I have ever had. Rehearsals were full of laughter, encouragement, and camaraderie, which are qualities I hold in high value in the rehearsal room. Something special happened with that show, everyone involved radiated so much talent and passion. Safe to say we closed that production with very, very full hearts." In my review of Kelln's Cymbeline, I noted that "Kelln undeniably beats to her own bold directorial drum, but never loses sight of Shakespeare’s rhythm," and the passion described in the rehearsal room makes it clear why her adaptation of the Shakespearean classic was such a success.


Mya’s “standout memory” from Cymbeline “was having to walk our set and props from my accommodation in Aldgate to our theatre for our get in. Our transport plans fell through, so desperate times called for desperate measures. Seventeen students hauling ancient roman set pieces and stage weaponry by hand in Central London on a Saturday morning was certainly a task—and warranted some strange looks. Nonetheless, spirits were high."

Eliza Cameron and Lani Perry in Mya Kelln's 'Cymbeline'. Photos by Elizabeth Grace.

However, as a deviation from the plays that Kelln has become skilled at reviving, a collaboration with King’s Opera Society saw her tackle directing Purcell's Dido and Aeneas earlier this year. I'm curious if this presented any difficulties, but Mya concludes that the performance “was a blast, I really enjoyed getting my hands on opera.” She admits that the production did provide obstacles, and “the biggest challenge was working with a chorus on a very small stage.” But this challenge also allowed experimentation for Kelln, as she tells me “it was a lot more movement-based with the chorus, leading me to experiment with more abstract, stylized staging. It was something I’ve never done, so it was a very fun challenge.”  


While Kelln’s “focus is on plays at the moment,” she reveals she “would be very keen to revisit opera—or even try a musical—in the future.” As an audience member, however, Kelln is one of many who are “really looking forward to the Donmar Warehouse’s recently announced production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It’s one of my favourites and I’m looking forward to how Tim Sheader brings a cabaret musical to life.” 


Although Hedda Gabler has barely begun, I dare to ask Kelln what’s next for her. Kelln reveals that “after Hedda, my attention is turning to the Floyd Theatre one-act festival back in my home city. Some amazing young actors and first-time directors are bringing to life some locally-written work, so I look forward to helping it come into fruition, albeit remotely. For my own projects, I am keen to revisit some Shakespeare, and have an idea for a new adaptation for 13th Night!"


Kelln promises exciting future projects worth keeping an eye out for, but for now you can catch Hedda Gabler at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham, running 2-13 July, 2024. Tickets are available here.



 

Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor, as part of her ongoing interview series, Backstage Spotlight.

With thanks to Mya G. Kelln for her time and considered responses during our conversation.

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