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BWW Interview: A Women's History Month Speical with Director Anne Kauffman of SMOKEFALL

Second in a series.

Smokefall, the Noah Haidle play running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through March 20, is a multigenerational family saga. But it's one in which twin-brother fetuses, dressed like a vaudevillian duo, pass the time before birth in their mother's womb discussing original sin, singing Sondheim and quoting Raging Bull. One in which an adolescent girl subsists on a diet of dirt and paint. And that same girl returns to her family's home 80-plus years after she ran away still looking like a teenager.

All of this happens under the direction of Anne Kauffman, who also directed the first productions of Smokefall at South Coast Repertory in Orange County, Calif., and Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2013 (the Goodman gave it an encore run the following year). Here in New York, Smokefall is produced by MCC Theater. A year ago MCC was also presenting a play Kauffman directed: Jennifer Haley's The Nether, which involves virtual-reality pedophilia. Earlier this season, at Playwrights Horizons, Kauffman directed Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison's drama featuring humans interacting with automaton-like replicants of their deceased loved ones--and eventually being replaced by their own replicants when they die. Clearly, onstage flights of fancy do not daunt this director. Remember God's Ear, with its disjointed dialogue and cast of characters that includes GI Joe and the Tooth Fairy? Kauffman directed that Jenny Schwartz opus at New Georges in 2007 and the Vineyard in '08.

Kauffman received an Obie award last spring for sustained excellence; the Obies had also honored her in 2007 for directing Adam Bock's The Thugs at Soho Rep. Her other off-Broadway credits include Clare Barron's You Got Older (a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Play last season); Amy Herzog's Belleville (ditto in 2013); This Wide Night, starring Edie Falco and Alison Pill; Harrison's Maple and Vine and Detroit by Lisa D'Amour, both at Playwrights Horizons; and Slowgirl and Stunning at LCT3. She's an artistic affiliate with several companies, among them New York Theatre Workshop, Soho Rep, New Georges and Clubbed Thumb, and she cofounded the Civilians with Steve Cosson and other former MFA classmates from the University of California San Diego.

Nominated three years in a row for a Barrymore, Kauffman won the Philadelphia theater award in 2010 for Becky Shaw and 2012 for Body Awareness (both at the Wilma Theater). She's also worked at such regional theaters as Yale Rep, Woolly Mammoth, Steppenwolf and Asolo Rep. Her next project after Smokefall will be The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, by Lorraine Hansberry, April 30-June 5 at the Goodman.

Kauffman has been announced as the director of Bock's new play A Life next season at Playwrights Horizons, and she's working on bringing a folk-rock opera by Abigail and Shaun Bengson called Hundred Days to New York, after helming it in San Francisco and Cincinnati. In the second of our Women's History Month interviews with female stage directors, Kauffman talks about her affinity for the language and metaphor of theater, the importance of set designers to her direction, and her ambivalence about making an issue out of gender.

Brian Hutchison and Zachary Quinto in Smokefall at MCC

What has it been like to return to Smokefall a few times over the past three years? The play has been something of a work in progress, hasn't it?
Noah's a very unique writer in that he's very alive and responsive to what's happening in the rehearsal room and the particular actors who are involved, so what's rewarding about this piece is that its objectives are vast and epic, what it's trying to tackle feels very epic, and it has a sort of ability to expand and contract with whoever's playing the roles. I've done [other] plays multiple times; this one feels like it had the most latitude to embrace its creators each production.
Smokefall is a challenging play for what needs to happen physically and stylistically. And also figuring out how these three acts relate to one another--how to have them be disparate, which I think they are stylistically, but to make it one story and to feel the continuity through all three acts, how to handle the style shifts and keep an emotional thread throughout. That's something we worked on at South Coast Rep.
That third part--which most people think of as the second act, because it's after the intermission, but we call the third act--has undergone countless drafts. That third act was under construction during South Coast, it found its legs a bit at the Goodman. For instance, the tying-together that Footnote [played at MCC by Zachary Quinto] becomes Johnny's son in the third act, and then you realize that he actually becomes Footnote--that happened at the Goodman; that wasn't the case in Orange County.

You've directed a number of plays with a surreal or otherworldly element. Is that just a coincidence, or are you especially drawn to these types of plays?
I think of them as language plays. Theatrical language. I'm attracted to plays that need the theater and belong only to the theater, and that oftentimes has to do with writers who are playing with language and creating a particular world with the language. The language dictates the rules of the world, the universe. I would call it metaphor. I think what the theater does better than any other visual medium is metaphor. I've always been very interested in writers who have a kind of mystery to them--something that makes me work a little hard and is compelling and mysterious...trying to get at the world from a slightly odd angle.

Tom Bloom and Taylor Richardson in MCC's Smokefall

Did you begin your career with such a predilection, or has it developed as you've been working as a director?
In one way or another I've always been attracted to that. When I first started out as a director, I was very attracted to the Russian symbolists and the Eastern European writers who were writing after World War II and trying to express the chaos of that postwar society in kind of odd ways. Brecht is an example, and Havel. I think of these writers as poets, really. So yeah, it's something I was attracted to early on. I would argue that many directors who start out in the theater are mainly interested in works that belong fully in the theater. I was a teacher for a long time at Playwrights Horizons, and I noticed that young people--myself included when I was young--are attracted to very challenging texts that utilize a director's imagination. In a way these texts demand a director's participation more than realistic plays, and so you become a kind of co-author. That's very attractive, and I think I never grew out of that--the youthful desire to co-author.

Did you also have a youthful desire to act before you turned to directing?
I was still acting while I was in college. I fully moved to directing when I moved to New York in the early '90s, after I graduated from college. I had this great professor in undergrad who told me I was a director, and that was strangely empowering. I took a class with him, and I think the way I talked about the work and engaged in the class he identified that as a director's brain. I needed that outside validation to set me on that course--to really commit to that course.
I loved acting, but I wasn't a very good actor. I also noticed that I checked out: If I was only responsible for a small piece of the puzzle, I wasn't as interested. I think the task of being responsible for all the moving parts kept my entire brain engaged. Directing plays allows me to enter other cultures and ideas; I learn about the world through that, and if I'm not fully engaged, I'm not engaged. It's sort of an all-or-nothing thing with me--it's an odd disposition that I have.

Kauffman (right) with playwright Jenny Schwartz when
she directed Schwartz's Somewhere Fun in 2013

You obviously have a good relationship with certain playwrights, since you've directed their plays multiple times. What's at the heart of such collaborations?
I do love working with a playwright more than once. It's a relationship like any other--friendship or marriage: The longer you work with them, the more of a shorthand you create, and a kind of efficiency, because you're not "courting" each other anymore. Instead of just trying to put your best foot forward, you can get to things quite quickly in a longer relationship. What I particularly like about some of these playwrights--Jenny Schwartz or Amy Herzog, for instance--is I really feel like a full partner with them. They know certain things about their work, but there's also a good amount about their work that they don't understand, so I am an equal partner and my imagination can take us to the next level--rather than working with a playwright who's prescriptive and I'm just trying to meet their vision. With my successful collaborations, we don't know what the vision is and we're sort of stumbling in the dark together and creating something together. That certainly also happened with Clare Barron on You Got Older. That for me is what feels like not only a successful collaboration but a fulfilling one.

Do you start to formulate your vision for a play the first time you read it?
I would say my first collaboration with a set designer is when I start to really visualize the play. I'm very dependent on that designer, and I often feel like my preproduction work happens in design meetings, and I find good set designers to be amazing dramaturges and problem solvers and askers of the most important questions. So that collaboration is key to the development of the vision for the play.

Ben Rosenfield, Sophia Anne Caruso and Merritt Wever in The Nether

Could you share specific details about how a set designer has contributed in this way?
Laura Jellinek is one of my favorite collaborators; she's worked with me on Marjorie Prime and Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra and The Nether. [In] The Nether there's these two worlds, and we had to figure out what the integration of the two worlds might be--how they're done separately and how they come together--and it started to occur to us, it felt important to us, that we weren't ever able to fully indulge in the fantasy world. That the story's being told from the interrogation room, and the longing that these characters have for that alternate universe is just that--a longing--and so we only get to peek into it, so the audience has a sense of the desire to be fully immersed in that world and never really have the opportunity to be fully immersed in that world. So that was a story that we created together.

Lisa Emery, Lois Smith and Noah Bean in Marjorie Prime

The other thing is, we discuss a lot--and this happened with Marjorie Prime, too, [which is] oddly similar in terms of the futuristic nature they both have--what is the world outside at this moment in time? That's always a question that we as directors and designers have to ask: What's outside of these walls, and how does that impact the interior? In The Nether, it's important to tell you that if there's more and more time being spent on the Internet and our present world is deteriorating and being forgotten, this interrogation room is a building that's being repurposed because its former use is no longer necessary because we're just abandoning the physical world. With Marjorie Prime, it felt like we have to travel from, maybe, 65 years in the future--which is where we are at the beginning--to even further into the future. The very end scene is hundreds of years after all the humans are gone--what that world has become. In a similar way we determined that at the end of Marjorie Prime all the trappings of things that help us live--like a kitchen, where you actually eat food or store food--are no longer necessary because these primes don't eat. At the end of Marjorie Prime the kitchen has disappeared, it's just the walls--like, the shell of what the humans left behind and not the interior. Which is kind of like what the primes are: like, the reflection of [the body] without the blood that needs tending to.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, which you're getting ready to direct at the Goodman, will be a change of pace, as it's not only an older play but a naturalistic one.
It's a play I've wanted to do for the past eight years and have finally found a home for it. It's a play that, I think, has found its relevance again. It's really about commitment, both in a marriage and socially and politically. If the American Dream was something Lorraine Hansberry was exploring for African-Americans in A Raisin in the Sun, this is the part of the American Dream that Americans are responsible for--committing ourselves to causes, both personal and political. There's only one black person in the play, and that black person passes for white. It opened to very mixed reviews and mixed reactions [the play ran for just three months in its 1964-65 Broadway debut and closed in less than a week when it was revived in the '70s]. No one could understand why she was writing a play with white people in it. Being a black woman writer, both of those things were of equal importance in terms of her identity and very [important] in how she was accepted and not accepted into her generation and her culture.

Brooke Bloom and Reed Birney in You Got Older

What have your affiliations with various off-Broadway companies meant to your career?
New Georges and Clubbed Thumb are really the companies responsible for giving me my first productions in New York that got seen. I'm devoted to these companies because of that. The nimbleness that these smaller companies have because they're not beholden to a subscriber base and [thus] have a flexibility...they're also the people doing what I would call the experimental work. And they've always done that--they embrace that, or it's their mission statement. The other smaller company that I feel very devoted to is P73, which has the same nimbleness [she directed You Got Older and 2009's Sixty Miles to Silver Lake for Page 73]. What I also think is great about New Georges and Clubbed Thumb--and New York Theatre Workshop as well--is this interest in young directors. That's something that's pathetically lacking in this city, and even in this country. I always tell my assistants or people just starting out, "These are the places that are going to give you those chances." And it's not a small thing that those are the companies that are interested in women directors, too. At Clubbed Thumb, Ken Russ Schmoll and I and Maria Striar started this directing fellowship this year, a partnership with Playwrights Horizons Theater School. We're very interested in cultivating young directors, specifically for the kind of work that Clubbed Thumb does, very theatrical work.

Now that you've brought it up, let's talk about women and directing, and whether there needs to be more of it...?
I feel so very tortured about this question. It's a very tricky thing for me. I feel like it's a very real issue; I also feel very conflicted about how to quote-unquote "solve" it. I'll tell you a story that's a formative story for me about women directors. When I first came back from grad school, late '90s, I had an interview with Zelda Fichandler to do a play at NYU. We were sitting there and she said, "How's it going?" And I said, "You know, it's really difficult being a woman director." And she looked at me and said, "What are you talking about?" Zelda Fichandler basically started the regional theater movement, right? Arena Stage, and she was the head of NYU's acting program for a long time, she translated Russian documents in World War II--I mean, this was not a woman who let her womanhood stand in her way. It was just a real lesson for me: Put my head down, do good work, and I'll be recognized. And to a certain extent that's actually happened. But I feel like I've become reengaged with this issue as I'm trying to get into directing television. The stats in the television world are notoriously bad, and there's a lot of activism in Hollywood to rectify that. So I feel like, weirdly, it's caused me to become an insurgent again, as Sidney Brustein says in this play that I'm about to do.
I was thinking this morning--knowing I was going to talk to you--the very fact of Women's History Month is a sign that we haven't reached any kind of integration. I feel the same way with Black History Month. We're ghettoized, in a way--that we're "given" by the culture a month to celebrate. It's a double-edged sword, right? I do think it's important; I'm not quite so sure how to go about it. There was that New York Times article a couple of years ago about women directors, and I have to say I felt a little dirty participating in it, because by participating in it I was acknowledging--I was embracing--the fact that we're not fully integrated citizens. So you can see I'm really, really conflicted. I think of it as an issue; I just don't know what the best way to go about rectifying it is.

Have you had experiences where you suspected you were treated differently than a male director would be?
I've had issues with some actors, but I never, ever go to that place. Someone else always has to say to me, "You think it's because you're a woman?" And I'm like, "Oh, right, maybe." It's not a go-to for me, and I can't really tell if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I don't really go to that place. I would imagine, when I allow myself to think about it, that there's probably opportunities that I haven't gotten, or even been considered [for]. I also feel like sometimes if an opportunity isn't afforded to me [possibly because of gender], it is vague and I feel unable to substantiate these hunches. When I do go to there, it feels like an excuse, like I'm hiding behind that. Whether that's true, I don't know. I want to take responsibility as a person, and not sort of shuffle it off as being a woman. There's a certain amount of self-respect in that realm--that I expect people to see me as a person and as a director and not necessarily my gender first.

Have you seen progress in this regard from your generation to the new generation of theater artists?
I've found that in the theater world there's a lot of gender discussion and sensitivity. Not just men and women but transgender--there's a spectrum now that is on the forefront of conversations of gender in the theater. That's complicated, in an interesting way. There are more women directors and writers coming up through the ranks, and I find that I'm really drawn to the young women directors' work and their writing. Again, this is sort of a thing where I'm like, "Oh, right, these are women," but I'm not necessarily thinking in that way [to favor them]. There are more [women artists], and I don't think it's easy yet, but it's easier. And it's easier for my generation given the Zelda Fichandlers of the world and the generation before me. There's work to be done, but it's easing.

To read the inaugural interview in this series, with Her Requiem director Kate Whoriskey, click here. And check back next week for our interview with Susan Stroman!

Photo credits: Smokefall: Joan Marcus (2); The Nether, You Got Older: Jenny Anderson (2); Marjorie Prime: Jeremy Daniel; with Schwartz: Walter McBride

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