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A Conversation with Director: Daniel Aukin

A Conversation with Director: Daniel Aukin

Before rehearsals began, 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 England and internationally. For about 20 years, she has been the Artistic Director of the Shared Experience Theatre Company in London.

TS: Did you know you wanted to be a director from an early age?

DA: It was buried if it was there at all. I was at the theatre a lot because my parents worked in it, but I did very little acting and theatre in high school. I ended up going to college in the United States. I went to the University of Chicago and found myself directing my first semester. There was no theatre major per se, but there was a vibrant student-run theatre organization. Because it was student-run, none of it was tied in academically. I was able to direct much more than might be typical at a school where there is a theatre department, where sometimes, I understand, it can be a few years before you get a shot.

TS: Did you come to New York immediately after finishing school in Chicago?

DA: I went from Chicago to Austin, Texas and started a theatre company there called Physical Plant with Steve Moore and Mike Martin. Austin rocks. A year later, I came to New York and had various jobs and temped and read movie scripts and tried to make a living, but by then I did know I wanted to be a theatre director.

TS: Was that in the 1990s?

 Yes, it was in the mid-nineties. I was a resident director at Jim Simpson’s Flea Theatre close to when it was starting. At the time, there was a thriving theatre and performance scene on the Lower East Side around this organization called Todo Con Nada. Todo Con Nada was like a year-round festival, and it was run by this visionary, Aaron Beall. Aaron made it very possible for people to do work there without losing huge amounts of money. It was one of the few places where you could perform something and they just took the money from the first few tickets sold every night and everything else was yours. You couldn’t really make any money, but you weren’t losing money either. That was my first experience self-producing in New York.

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.

TS: Where did you conduct your first meeting with Josh Harmon, the playwright? Did you know right away that you would be good collaborators?

DA: I still don’t know, but I have every intention and expectation that we will be. Our meeting was arranged at Robyn Goodman’s office. She was there as well as Jill Rafson, the Literary Manager at Roundabout, and Josh Fiedler, who is Robyn’s associate. So I met Josh in a group setting. We talked for a bit about the play and they told me about its path 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 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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