Gazing out over downtown Oklahoma City, Kelly Kerwin professes her love of parking garages.
Yes, parking garages.
“Parking garages have been one of my favorite places to get a view of a city … since I was 17. This is one of them; I won’t tell you exactly which one. But I will encourage you to think of parking garages as a place to go upwards and stand on the top and have a look, because oftentimes, there’s a great view,” Kerwin said, pushing back her dark hair against the Oklahoma wind sweeping across the flat rooftop.
“That is why we’re here right now, because this is one of our stops — one of many — on the tour that is ‘Of a Mind: Oklahoma City.'”
The new artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, Kerwin is part of the creative team for “Of a Mind: Oklahoma City,” the third and final title on the regional professional theater’s spring 2022 “Reboot Season.” Kerwin and her collaborators — who hail from OKC, New York City, New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland — have been working for weeks to create an immersive guided audio tour exploring her new home’s urban core.
“It’s not just of the city: It’s a guided tour of yourself, and a guided tour of being in a group,” said Hugh Farrell, one of the co-creators of the experience.
What can people expect from ‘Of a Mind: OKC?’
The collective audio journey sets off April 30 with select dates continuing Thursdays-Sundays through May 29.
“‘Of a Mind: Oklahoma City’ endeavors to highlight beautiful parts of Oklahoma that you often might walk by and not notice. … You will get out (of it), I would say, nearly a mile of walking. You will see places that you might not be used to seeing. There will be some surprises along the way,” Kerwin said.
“Then, on a deeper level, there will be strangers among you that will likely become people you connect with via the guided mindfulness journey that is part of the tour. You will also learn some secrets and exciting stories that have been contributed to us from a lot of people we’ve interviewed from various parts of Oklahoma City.”
The third title Kerwin has programmed for Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre — or OKC Rep — “Of a Mind: OKC” has some key commonalities with more traditional theater experiences. There will be a specific showtimes, with each guided audio tour limited to 30 ticketholders.
“They will be asked to bring their smartphone and headphones, and we will give them instructions of how to access the audio. So, there will be a curtain time: There will be a moment where everybody starts and the audio will begin, so all 30 people will hear the same thing at once. They’ll be guided by a narrator … and we will also have some ushers along the way so no one will ever get lost,” Kerwin explained.
The “lobby” for the experience will be in Kerr Park, where attendees will gather prior to setting off across part of downtown OKC.
“Throughout the journey you’ll hear the the narrator discuss different tools of mindfulness that we hope people will be encouraged to undergo. … They will hear music that has been composed specifically for this tour. And they’ll hear some amazing different sound effects, perhaps like this grackle that is behind me, or sounds of the streetcar,” Kerwin said, pointing out a noisy bird sitting atop a light pole on the parking garage roof.
“So, it’ll be a whole sonic walk that everyone experiences together, but it’s also the story of what makes Oklahoma City special.”
Who is working on ‘Of a Mind: OKC?’
To develop “Of a Mind: OKC,” Kerwin gathered a far-flung team of a collaborators, including some she has worked with for years and others she’s met since moving to Oklahoma last year.
The creative team includes co-creator Emily Zemba, a New York playwright originally from Connecticut; sound designer Tyler Kieffer, who hails from New Orleans but is based in New York City; composer Kevin McNamara, an Irishman who is also a music therapist; and co-creator Farrell, a Dubliner who leads with Kieffer an artist collective called Listen and Breathe.
“For a long time we’ve been at this kind of work, but now this is the first time we’ve really all come together to make it for Oklahoma. Tyler and I’ve been making work under the name Listen and Breathe for about six or seven years; this is the fourth show we have (done) in this style,” Farrell said. “Then with Kelly and Emily, we all went to grad school together.”
As students at Yale University, they started a theatrical endeavor that inspired future efforts like “Of a Mind”: fake tours.
“Most colleges and universities, but especially Yale, there are tours where tourists or prospective students will come and meet with a tour guide and tour Yale. So, we would have a fake tour guide begin the tour as if it was a real Yale tour. And then it would start to get pretty surreal, get absurd, get funny, get strange, get theatrical,” Kerwin recalled with a laugh.
Although those tours from their grad school days mixed fact and fiction, “Of a Mind: OKC” is about exploring actual overlooked places and telling real stories from Oklahomans.
“We really like to sort of immerse ourselves in a place and hear what story is being told instead of trying to slap our own on top of it. So, a big part of this is going around and interviewing people,” Kieffer said, sitting at a table in Kerr Park. “The way we do that is with what’s called binaural microphones: They’re microphones in the ears that give a more three-dimensional sound picture. So, when you’re listening back to these interviews, it’ll sound like the person is sitting across the table from you.”
How have Oklahoma experiences shaped ‘Of a Mind: OKC?’
As the collaborators crossed Robert S. Kerr Avenue, they marveled over OKC’s vast public spaces even in the middle of downtown.
“In New York, you just can’t get away from people: You pass hundreds and hundreds of people on your half-hour commute to work. Here, you might pass five in the early morning — and every one of them says ‘Hello,'” Zemba said.
“I feel like our role is to sort of reflect back to people what they’re giving us. There’s been a lot of conversation about neighborliness … and I feel like we’ve received that sort of love. So, it’s easy to give it back in the form of this audio tour by reflecting back all these stories and these ideas about what it means to be in Oklahoma City. … But we’re seeing things for the first time, which allows us to walk down a weird alley and say, ‘Well, this is cool, what’s back here?'”
As the composer, McNamara said his role is to create music to be an “emotional guide” for the experience.
“Music can help us to feel particular ways in particular times,” said McNamara, who joined the group after he and Farrell became neighbors in Dublin. “We’ve come over here to make the actual piece itself because we’re inspired … by different people, by different surroundings, by different smells, sights, the sounds of the birds here, even the sounds of the people, the trucks, the trains that are constantly going by. … All this inspires you in different ways than what’s in, say, the last place we did this, beside the sea in Ireland.”
“A large part of the show has to do with embodiment … so some of the work that we’re doing with Hui is to kind of expand the horizon of how we can embody our audience and what ways we can move them around town,” Farrell said.
“There’s more, but I don’t want to give it away.”
From touring the Oklahoma City National Memorial to peeking into hidden nooks and crannies, working on “Of a Mind: OKC” has helped Kerwin get to know her new home.
“One thing we learned is that the shield that is on the (state) flag is real; the Oklahoma History Center has it … and it’s fascinating. We’ve talked to folks from different Native American tribes, so we’ve learned what was here before Oklahoma City, before the Land Run, based on their ancestry,” she said.
“We’ve gone to almost every district we know about to have meals, because the food is really good, but to also get a sense of the different cultures that are within Oklahoma City. … There’s a lot that Oklahoma City has to offer: There’s a lot of things to do, the food’s really great, and the people are just increasingly friendly.”
‘OF A MIND: OKLAHOMA CITY’
When: April 30-May 29.
Where: Starts in Kerr Park, 102 Robert S Kerr Ave., downtown Oklahoma City.
Tickets and information: https://www.okcrep.org/of-a-mind-oklahoma-city.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Repertory Theater goes off road with audio tour ‘Of a Mind: OKC’