Grief, Joy, Identity, Community: Britt Karhoff’s ‘Still Wonder Full’

Photo by Jazzy Photo

Grief, says visual and performing artist Britt Karhoff, is a public display of a person’s most intimate feelings. In her new solo show, Still Wonder Full, Karhoff explores how her grief following a late-term abortion of a wanted pregnancy, along with the elation and burdens of new motherhood, were perceived by her community and contributed to a major shift in her identity. I sat down with Karhoff in her South Seattle home to talk about the ambitious project, which combines her original choreography, visual art, music and text, and premieres June 1 at Georgetown’s BASE: Experimental Art & Space.

Still Wonder Full grew from your short solo work Wonder Full, which premiered at On the Boards as part of 2016’s NW New Works Festival. That show packed a big emotional punch, combining your message with entertaining performance art. Why did you decide to create an evening-length work out of a successful short?
I made that first piece in 2016 during the height of the #shoutyourabortion movement. I’d had two abortions in my life, one in my younger life and one due to medical reasons in 2015, and it was time to tell my story. When I was grieving the loss of that much-wanted pregnancy while pregnant with my daughter Neli, I realized that we as a society have the tendency to flatten out life events, to say “You lost a baby, that’s so tragic,” and then “You had a baby that’s amazing!” as entirely separate events. For me, both of these events, along with my wedding and buying a house and weaving in my career to these new parts of my life, were all just pieces of a bigger and sometimes absurd human experience. Although the loss of the pregnancy in 2015 was painful, it brought me closer to my community, my partner and my family and affected my personal growth so much that I didn’t look on it as a singular tragedy. After making and performing Wonder Full was all over, I still had more to say.

How do you expand and illustrate those themes of grief and identity in Still Wonder Full?
I added more weight to the lighter and sillier aspects of sadness and trauma. Maybe it’s having a toddler now that gives me this perspective, but this show incorporates heavy lessons and images with lighter moods because the whole journey of being human just seems absurd sometimes. I wanted my storytelling in Still Wonder Full to feel potent and specific enough that my audience can grasp the personal aspects of my experiences, but I also don’t want to shout at them, “I was scared! My mother said this to me on the phone! Here’s how everyone reacted!”

This show maintains a general tone about conflict that I think everyone will be able to relate to, even if they can’t identify with the experience of being pregnant and knowing that your baby is in danger. Having a bit of detail about me in the storyline makes the story about me, but if I can make the storyline a bit out of reach, my hope is that the work will speak to people in a visceral and personal way. Dance on its own can be too abstract for a lot of people so I use text to provide some focus, but I don’t rely on it to tell the story.

You did all the songwriting, singing, choreography, dancing, set design and art-making for this piece. Why did you make it a totally solo work?
Performing solo is a lot easier logistically for me at this point in my life. I have my own schedule and only myself to hold accountable. I can wake up in the middle of the night and go to the studio to work on something when my mind is spinning. And this piece feels like it has to be solo because it explores themes of loneliness and what goes on in our heads when we receive news that is so huge we don’t know what to do with it. With motherhood and childbirth, although there is this huge community, it’s actually a very singular experience. I labor, I do this enormous task all on my own, and while I was rehearsing this piece I realized that my biggest question, in life and in the piece, was “How do I solve the problem of having to do this all by myself?” So I made the piece illustrate that: I made the piece, I even carry the set onstage in front of the audience and assemble it myself. I do it all by myself. I did collaborate with some amazing artists though!

How did those collaborations work within the solo framework?
I wrote the songs and the text but worked with sound engineer Nico Tower to mix it all together. I sing them myself in the show. I worked with designer Faith Berry to come up with the set and overall visual design. Lighting designer Marnie Cummings will help bring it all to life. The choreography process was really interesting. I frequently would just sit in the studio at BASE or Open Flight and listen to music and wait for my body to respond to the music and then I’d turn that into some of the choreography, but I also worked with an understudy, Calie Swedberg. When I was creating Wonder Full for On the Boards I got to the point where I was too pregnant to dance, so I’d teach Calie the choreography so I could keep messing with the timing and delivery of the performance. It’s really helpful to look at my solo choreography this way, from the audience’s perspective, so I spend a lot of time watching videos of my rehearsals. And I’m now going through a lot of the rehearsal processes in front of friends and other artists to build on their feedback.

Still Wonder Full runs June 1–3 at BASE: Experimental & Arts Space