A Conversation with Director: Daniel Aukin
TS: Can you talk about how the script resonated for you personally and/or what you think the play is about?
DA: I was instantly struck by what a confident voice Josh has as a playwright. The strength of his writing was apparent just from reading a few pages. The play deals with the specifics of a very particular family and the legacy of the Holocaust on subsequent generations. Yet I would never call it an ‘issue play.’ It all feels very specific and pointed. He’s exploring many sides of a complicated issue. It deals with the legacy of history and how we live authentically in the present in relationship to the past. I also felt like it was a piece of writing—and you’d have to ask Josh if this is true—that the writer had to write, needed to write, and that he was using it to try to understand something for and about himself.
TS: How did you prepare for directing this play? Did you have to do research?
DA: I asked the playwright if there was anything I should read. I spend as much time with the text as possible without actually trying to figure too much out. I just read it over and over again and then have a lot of discussions. Talking about set design usually provokes a lot of questions about who these people are. As we start to talk about the space that the characters are living in, one question leads to another and it often becomes a very useful dramaturgical discussion about the play as a whole and how it’s operating, who these people are and how they live. Anything from income levels to how they dress.
TS: Will you talk about casting Bad Jews? What were you looking for from the actors specifically?
DA: If I go into casting with a fixed idea, I’m usually disabused of that fact. In my case, because I hadn’t been a part of previous readings, it was one of my first times hearing some of the text read aloud. You learn so much about the play. Auditions can be great opportunities to provoke all kinds of discussions with the playwright about the play. For example, if an actor brings something into the audition room and his or her attack on the role causes you to have a disagreement with the playwright, it becomes a way to get a clearer sense of what the play is. For me, casting for Bad Jews was blissfully difficult because there were many, many incredible actors who auditioned for it.
TS: Can you talk about choosing and collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself visually?
DA:, I know it’s a cliché, but the most important thing for me is that the design serves the play and gets out of the way. One of the considerations that we had when we were looking at floor plans of the apartment was: is it useful for there to be as much room as possible for the actors to move around in so that they can easily get from one section of the stage to another? Or is there greater value in there not being quite enough room for people to move around in, creating obstacles and difficulty? A lot of design meetings were spent talking about the family that bought this apartment and why they bought this apartment, how long they’ve had this apartment, what their income and socioeconomic background is, how they see this apartment and how it might be furnished to reflect all that. We looked at various moments in the play and tried to imagine how they might work in different configurations. A lot of it is moving little stick figures around thinking, Does this work? Is this good? And, inevitably, anytime you say yes to a choice, you’re saying no to at least a hundred other choices. You just hope and pray that the things you’re saying yes to are the things that are the most important for making something that has a fighting chance of really singing.
TS: Do you expect the script to change much?
DA: It’s possible it may change. You can think of a play a bit like a house and a house needs four supporting pillars. I feel like those supports are in place in this play and it does stand up. The story gets told very convincingly. When you get into a rehearsal situation, things can be revealed and sometimes opportunities arise that you didn’t anticipate. I’m not going into rehearsals imagining there’s going to be massive amounts of rewriting.
TS: Do you have a certain way in which you approach a writer when something isn’t working? It can be very sensitive, can’t it?
DA: It depends where the play is in its development. It depends on whether I’ve just been asked to read a play and give feedback or if it’s actually something that I’m going to direct. If I have the sense that something isn’t working, I point it out. I don’t think it’s necessary to be completely prescriptive. And I don’t think that it’s always about an opportunity to fix something that’s broken. Sometimes it’s something that I don’t understand. I might say, “I don’t understand this moment and it isn’t working for me and here’s why. Can you help me understand it better?” And sometimes the playwright will help me understand it and I’ll say, “Oh…oh! That’s really what they’re talking about.” And then that section that seemed problematic to me suddenly becomes understood. Or the playwright might say, “I agree.” And it might begin a conversation about rewriting.
TS: I want to talk about the contrast between the characters of Liam and Daphna. What do you think motivates them?
DA: I don’t know if Josh would agree with this, and it may be too simplistic, but one way to look at it is that they’re both people who are trying to live very conscious lives and that means completely different things to each of them. To Daphna, that means a wholesale immersion in, and living through, what she understands as the legacy of her religion, and, I think, the Holocaust. Daphna sees that as a deeply authentic way to live and to be a conscious human. I think Liam might say that a lot of those things are empty of value and not meaningful to him. To pay lip service to something that isn’t meaningful to him would be inauthentic. So, in his own way, he’s living an authentic life even though to Daphna that comes across as a wholesale rejection of her choices. As a director, I’m looking to validate all the characters in some way.
TS: What about the relationship between Daphna and Liam’s brother, Jonah—what is your take on that?
DA: I feel that however outrageous Daphna’s behavior is at times, she is struggling with the same issues that the character of Jonah is; and just as deeply. It’s just obnoxious to be around. And Jonah is a character who is somewhat easy to dismiss as not part of the main thrust of the piece. And when the audience learns that Jonah, who is somebody who seems somewhat peripheral, is actually right in the middle of all the same stuff, I think it’s amazing. In Josh’s writing, your opinion of the characters evolves and changes as the play goes on. By the end of the play, one must view them in a much more complex way than one did at the top. And that’s really exciting.
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