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Interview with Daniel Aukin

Interview with Daniel Aukin

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed director Daniel Aukin to discuss his work on Bad Jews.

Ted Sod: Would you tell us a little about yourself?

Daniel Aukin: I was born in London. My father, David Aukin, was Artistic Director of several theatres, including the Hampstead Theatre in London, and he also ran the Haymarket in Leicester, England. Later he ran The National Theatre with Richard Eyre. My mother, Nancy Meckler, is American and a theatre director. She has directed all over the UK and internationally. For about 20 years, she was the Artistic Director of the Shared Experience Theatre Company in London.

TS: How did you get involved with Bad Jews? Who approached you with the play?

DA: I was asked to read it and I thought it was an extremely personal, painful, and very funny piece of writing. At that point, Roundabout Underground had already committed to doing it. It just struck a huge chord for me. I first met with Josh at Robyn Goodman's office. She was there as well as Jill Rafson, the Literary Manager at Roundabout, and Josh Fiedler, Robyn's associate. We talked for a bit about the play and they told me about its development to date. They asked me some questions about it, how I responded to it. Then Josh and I went out and just had coffee and talked. That was really it. But as in all of these things, collaboration is a delicate thing and you just go with your gut.

TS: Can you talk about how the script resonated for you personally?

DA: I was instantly struck by what a confident voice Josh has as a playwright. The strength was apparent from the first 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 to try to understand something for and about himself.

TS: Can you talk about choosing and collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself visually?

DA: For this play it seemed like the most important thing was for design to get 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 it, how long they've had it, 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.

Interview with Daniel Aukin

Tracee Chimo (Daphna), Philip Ettinger (Jonah), Molly Ranson (Melody) and Michael Zegen (Liam) in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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 of it.

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 Jonah is; and just as deeply. It's just uncomfortable 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. And that's really exciting.

TS: What are the challenges of restaging the play in a larger space?

DA: Whenever something works, there's an aspect to its working-ness that is mysterious and not entirely planned or controlled. Moving Bad Jews from the space for which this production was originally conceived-the intimate 62-seat Roundabout Underground-into the much more expansive Laura Pels, provokes questions. Okay, we're in a new space with new demands, new strengths and new weaknesses. Bigger is sometimes better but not always. How do we hold on to what we perceive as the strengths from its jewel-box incarnation and invite it to sing in this new room? Do we keep everything the same? It turns out you can't. The rooms are just different. So, what do you keep? What do you jettison? What are the critical values of the piece? Of the room? Of the room and and the piece in conversation? Is the design for the larger space a hopeless clinging to elements that sang in a shoebox and will drown in this larger room? Are we holding on too tight to our darlings? Should the design approach start from scratch? How will the performances need to modulate to read in a different, larger, room? Should they? What is lost? What is gained?

Some part of me hopes that for many of the people who will see Bad Jews in both its Pels incarnation and at the Underground, any difference will be negligible. But know it is a translation. And if the translation is invisible, then maybe we will have done a good job. And it might be because we've done a lot of work to make it so. Or not. It's a bit of a mystery.

Bad Jews begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre September 19. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Theatre Company is a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to providing a nurturing artistic home for theatre artists at all stages of their careers where the widest possible audience can experience their work at affordable prices. Roundabout fulfills its mission each season through the revival of classic plays and musicals; development and production of new works by established playwrights and emerging writers; educational initiatives that enrich the lives of children and adults; and a subscription model and audience outreach programs that cultivate loyal audiences.