An Interview with Adrienne Campbell-Holt

Written by Victoria Myers
September 15th, 2014

If you’re ever at a party with people who say theatre is just for old people, one of the first people you should point them towards is director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who is Founding Artistic Director of Colt Coeur. Colt Coeur is dedicated to producing shows for a new generation of theatregoers. Their latest production, Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel, which is directed by Adrienne, is no exception. Adrienne has also directed at venues all over the country, including Dorset Theatre Festival, South Coast Rep, American Conservatory Theatre, and New Georges (just to name a few). She met with us after the opening night of Dry Land (fun fact: the play received a rave in The New York Times) and shared her fascinating and thoughtful views on how women are represented on stage, and creating stories for a contemporary audience—and a few other things! So, really, the next time one of your friends starts complaining that theatre isn’t for them (and we all have That Friend) tell them to check out Adrienne’s work and her thoughts on the theatre—we bet she’ll convince That Friend to buy a ticket.

(i.) Present

You just started performances of Dry Land. Among other things, it’s a play about female friendship. Could you tell us a little about that?
One of the playwrights that I really admire, Alice Tuan, when she heard the play read aloud at Ojai Playwrights Conference, described it as the first time she’d ever heard a play about female existentialism. I still often feel like, even when a play has strong female characters, the characters are in service of a male oriented plot, or may be pivotal but things are in relation to men. The thing I love about this play—because it’s set in a female locker room—is that it’s really sort of a sacred female space. I think teen friendship is a particular moment when we are really finding our identities and trying different personas on, and often our friendships reflect who we want to be and not necessarily who we are yet. And so it allows the women to explore who they are, not only as reflected through their friendship, but what they see themselves as. And because they’re going through a major event in the play, I think there’s an expectation that the event sort of defines their lives, and it’s very important to me that, in this case, this event—the abortion—is a part of their life, but there is life after it. I think with the incredible female writers and directors that are active, it’s exciting to begin to tell these female stories and put them at the forefront and not make them in service of other male stories.

Teenage girls are talked about a lot, but it’s amazing how few stories are really from their perspective and give them agency. 
I couldn’t agree more. It’s also rare to have the playwright [Ruby Rae Spiegel] be so connected to the age of the characters. She’s a couple of years older than the characters, and younger than most of the actresses in the play. So she has a unique, fresh, muscle memory of what it felt like to be that age. So I love that fact. And often teenage girls are so sexualized, or they’re such extreme caricatures like “the cheerleader,” “the nerdy girl,” “the goth girl,” and we’re all so much more. So Ruby and I were very communicative with the cast and the designers that we wanted to engage with all the contradictions that we inhabit. There’s quite a bit of tension in these characters—they’re not just one thing.

(ii.) Reproductive Rights

The play also deals with abortion. It’s something we surprisingly don’t see a lot. Why was it important to you to produce and direct a play dealing with that topic at Colt Coeur
Yes, I don’t know of any other play that engages so honestly with the experience of abortion. It’s obviously a hot button issue right now. And it’s shocking. There was a recent New York Times article about Women on Web. It’s an organization that helps distribute birth control, the morning after pill, and the abortion pill globally, but it’s harder in the United States to get the abortion pill than in Mexico or other Catholic countries. A mother in Pennsylvania is in jail right now for trying to help her daughter’s friend get the abortion pill. I feel like it is ludicrous that most of the government that is criminalizing this process are men who have no personal experience with abortion or reproduction, or sort of responsibility for conception. And the element of live theatre—by sitting in a room together and sharing the experience communally—requires that we engage. It’s like every person who goes to see this play is watching real people go through the steps. The men in the audience have spoken to me about how illuminating it’s been to have exposure to something they felt like they had no access to or right to even ask the women in their lives, who may have had experience with abortion, because it’s still a bit taboo. I mean the conversation around abortion really has not come that far in the years since it’s been legalized. That’s really shocking, and so I hope that this play will help people engage.

It’s shocking that in 2014 in a liberal city like New York, in a medium like theatre, it’s a subject that doesn’t get engaged with very often.
Right. We see all kinds of violence in theatre. There’s plenty of rape in theatre, but for some reason abortion is too taboo. There’s too much shame around women’s bodies—there shouldn’t be any shame. There shouldn’t be shame around your period. There shouldn’t be shame around contraception or abortion. There’s a crazy gender bias there.

We found it interesting that it’s been called a financially risky subject for theatre.
It’s outrageous to me that so many large institutionalized theatres were scared to do this play because it was too [financially] risky—and they have so much more money than us. And because we are a small, scrappy company, we have had to always produce very fiscally conservatively. I believe in high production values and take design really seriously. We have beautiful productions, but we can’t just throw money into the wind. So it was a bit shameful to me that the other institutions were a bit scared when they have so much more money and we’re so small. But also, I guess, that does give us a bit of freedom because we don’t have overhead, and because our theatre rental isn’t $20,000 a week, so it’s more possible to take risks. And I also just knew that the play was so amazing—it’s not really a risk—but I didn’t know what the response would be.

Have you found it to be positive?
Very positive.

(iii.) Mentors

The playwright is very young and you’re working with young actors. What’s that like?
I love working with young writers and actors. My boyfriend was saying last night, at the opening night party, that it feels like I’m sort of their mentor. There’s also a group of seven young female interns who are working on the show, and they make a cameo in the play. The producer and the associate producer are young women. So I have about fifteen women under 30 who are part of my daily life. I love them all, and I feel great responsibility to not only engage professionally with them, but help them figure out what they want to do. I feel lucky for the people who mentored me when I was an intern and working at different theatre companies. I also feel like, even though they’re really young, I learn so much from them. Ruby is a genius and she has so much wisdom beyond her years. It’s unbelievable. And the cast as well—they have really interesting backgrounds and bring a lot to the table. I’m learning so much from them too.

We’ve been talking a lot about how behavior is learned, especially how to act professionally and in a rehearsal room. And it’s important that women have models for that. 
I feel very lucky because I came up through the ballet world, and in the ballet world there’s incredible discipline. There’s a great appreciation for silence and for watching and observing with great acuity. I also had the great fortune of assisting a few directors who I really felt inspired by, and some of those were really from very different backgrounds like Liz LeCompte of the Wooster Group, Anne Kaufman, and Alex Timbers. I also was an actor, so I’d spent basically fifteen years acting in different rehearsal rooms, working with different directors, and studying them. I knew all along that I was planning on shifting into directing, but I liked learning by being an actor. Some of my former assistants are doing so well and I’m so proud of them, and I see the things that they’ve internalized. There are many things that are important to learn when you’re starting out in theatre, and I actually think the most important is entrepreneurialism in a young director or theatre-maker, especially if you’re interested in a less traditional or non-commercial route.

(iv.) Choices

As artistic director, how do you pick what shows Colt Coeur produces and does readings of?
We have a series called Play Hotel. We call it Play Hotel because we spend a week with the play and with that same sort of hospitality feeling of a hotel—we really try to make it casual and fun. Play Hotel culminates in these readings, which are aimed to feel more like salons than a traditional reading. We do workshops of about six plays and we produce about one or two a year. The first two productions we did were created from scratch as a company, and that’s one of my favorite ways to work, but because the company members have become more successful in the four years since we’ve started the company and have more responsibilities they’re a lot less available. So the timeline for a project from gestation to development to production used to be four to six months, and now it’s over a year because people have less time, and we still don’t really have enough money. We had a meeting a couple of weeks ago choosing plays for this festival of readings and there were a few interns there. I’d had them read the four plays that we’d previously produced and they got to read a bunch of the submitted plays and be part of the evaluation and they were like, “What makes a Colt Coeur play a Colt Coeur play?” And I was like, “Well, what do you guys see?” And they were like, “Definitely strong female characters!” The plays often have a dark sense of humor but some real hilarity. And plays that are about this moment in our lives. Most of the company is late twenties to late thirties and we feel interested in telling stories that we’re uniquely able to tell—so coming of age stories, not just the sense of adolescence, but how your identity evolves in your twenties and thirties, and dealing with the struggle between career and love. I also am really into genre plays, so one of our plays is a Sci-Fi play. I’d say, for our reading series, we pick the plays where we’re interested in a writer and we want to start the chemistry test of working together. Sometimes we’re really excited about a specific play that we might want to produce. But when we’re working with a writer for the first time, the goal, ideally, is to develop something from scratch with them.

(v.) Intimacy

Intimacy is mentioned as part of Colt Coeur’s mission statement. That’s a concept that we’re interested in. Especially how that might be evolving in theatre, given the way people interact with film and TV. How do you think these other mediums affect theatrical intimacy? 
It’s been really incredible to see TV writing become so strong. I didn’t grow up with a TV, but I certainly fetishized TV just like every other kid in America and developed an interest in what was part of the cultural zeitgeist. But it wasn’t really until shows like Friday Night Lights and The Wire and deep character driven, polyphonic structured, ensemble shows started calling to me that I obsessively started watching TV. I’ve always loved film, and my work is very influenced by [director] Cassavetes and the way he made movies; the personal history he had with the actors he was working with, and a kind of improvisation that’s a part of those scripts, and the deep collaboration that can come out of knowing people deeply and working in a house together. At the same time, what I think is special about theatre is that it’s a completely different experience to watch something live. I want to make the type of theatre that can only happen and be so effective because it is happening live. There’s a moment in Dry Land where we see a character sitting on a bench and we really only see her back, so we’re watching her body language. Her back starts to heave a little bit because she’s weeping and she’s watching a video. We’re watching the video, but even more we’re watching her reaction to the video and her reflection on the surface of the television. There’s a body on screen as well, but what I feel is the more powerful of those two simultaneous moments is the body on stage. Because of my dance background I feel like so much is communicated physically. I’m obsessed with transitions and continuing the storytelling through transitions. I get really into it with the actors—like how your shoulders are, even if we’re seeing you from behind, or how your head is and what you’re thinking about, even as you’re walking out of a scene in fairly low light. I added a sequence at the beginning of Dry Land of the dry land exercises swimmers do, and it’s this montage set to rock-and-roll lighting of bodies and sounds in space. I think it’s one of the unique relationships theatre can have with an audience—like we’re going to communicate with you all of these different ways—it’s not naturalistic, and yet we derive meaning from it.

Right. It’s a very unique experience. 
Sometimes in plays I use a bit of haze, because I feel like it’s hard to go from everyday life to the theatre, and how we want [an audience] to be open emotionally. You’re going to enter a different world, but just one minute ago you were on your cell phone and stressed out. I want to really turn that off and draw you in close. I try to integrate elements of sound and lighting and choreography to really help theatricalize the story. Often many of the scenes are hyper-real, but it’s very different than watching them on a screen because they’re so close to you.

We’ve been talking a lot about spaces and how not all spaces are right for all shows, and how sometimes there aren’t a lot of flexible spaces in New York. 
There’s a big miss, I think, in the commercial theatre enterprise to think that bigger is better. The scale of Broadway theatres is so non-human. I think many shows have been successful at bringing the audience in—there are incredible ways—but I love working in intimate spaces. I freelance for theatres throughout the year and am working in huge spaces and that’s great too, but it’s very special to work in this intimate way. And I really don’t choose the space until I know what the show is, and that flexibility is so helpful. Different plays lend themselves to different spaces and I love doing immersive, environmental designs.

(vi.) Directing

What is your process like for picking projects to direct?
I think one of the most important things for me, when I’m choosing whether to work on a project or not, is there has to be something really fresh about it. It has to be telling a story I haven’t told before and haven’t seen before. Or has really fresh dialogue, or be exploring a world that I haven’t seen produced on stage. I like bouncing between new plays and non-new plays. On world premieres, you feel this incredible responsibility to the playwright and realizing the playwright’s vision—it’s very much a co-vision—and on second or third productions the playwright is not involved, so there’s more agency on the part of the director, so it’s fun to feel that experimental quality.

Do you have a dream cultural collaboration?
So many. One of my favorite writers is Anne Carson, and I made a short film adaptation of Autobiography of Red. I would love to make a theatrical piece with her and… who should compose it? CocoRosie. I also want to do a bilingual, site-specific production of Life is a Dream set in contemporary New York City. That’s a goal.

Who are your top five favorite female theatre artists?

1. Ariane Mnouchkine
2. Pina Bausch
3. Ruth Draper
4. Young Jean Lee
5. Annie Baker

(vii.) Economics

You used Kickstarter to help produce this production. How do you think changes in technology have made it easier to produce theatre in NYC? 
I love the Kickstarter platform and Indiegogo and all of these new crowd-sourcing funding platforms. It’s so depressing to me that so much theatre is created by people that come from a homogenous community, and I think it should be a much wider collection of people from all different backgrounds, especially socio-economically. And it’s a travesty that theatre pays so little that it’s very hard to stay in the theatre without having some other type of income. On the Equity Showcase Code you don’t have to pay the actors very much at all, but I don’t believe in that either. I don’t believe it’s okay to pay the professional actors we work with less than a living wage. So the key to that is doing more fundraising. And it’s very grassroots fundraising. Our average donation is $100, but fortunately, we reach a lot of people and we’ve been lucky to have some well-known people participate in the [fundraising] videos that help us reach more people. People know Eric Bogosian’s name. People know Celia Keenan-Bolger’s name. It’s so meaningful to have that support from those people that [audiences] trust. And it’s been really fun to shoot these Kickstarter campaigns and be creative with them. And, in terms of audiences, I also believe in keeping ticket prices really low and giving tickets to the students that we work with in our free education program. So we give away a lot of tickets to students and their families and are constantly doing artists discounts.

Do you think female voices are adversely affected by the financial restraints of theatre?
There are so many talented female directors doing great work. I imagine we’re losing quite a few talented women who want to start families, because I think that time in our lives makes us feel like we should have more stability. And men and gay men have less need to deal with that at a certain time; there’s not as much tied to a biological clock. I definitely see great directors I know taking academic jobs and leaving New York in order to start a family. Or taking associate artistic director positions at institutions because they want that stability. But I think the larger problem is the whole structure of compensation in the theatre is so fucked. People who work on new plays—like 80% of the work you do is for free—that’s just so crazy that you can be so busy working on so many projects and not be getting paid a dollar. In contrast to that opinion, I think women tend to have incredible resourcefulness and creativity and ingenuity, and I know so many great peers who are cobbling together an existence, but are able to prioritize directing opportunities.

(viii.) Stories

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I have really vivid memories of my mom reading Charlotte’s Web to me while I was in the bathtub when I was like six. She was reading a part and it was making me cry, but I was aware that because I was wet she couldn’t tell I was crying. Then I went under water and was still crying but I was thinking about, “Do the tears still come out if you’re under water?” It was a very sensory experience, and something about that cocoon space and hearing her read that story out loud that I was so connected to.

When did you first feel like a grownup?
When I was seven I was in the hospital, and it was really serious and there was a chance I was going to die. I could tell my parents were very scared. And I felt like a grownup because I knew that they were both scared that I could see that they were scared for me, and so I acted like I was fine to help take care of them. So I really felt like a grownup since it was a moment of really wanting to take care of my parents.

(ix.) Representation

We noticed that your company has produced a number of works by women. Is that important to you? 
It is important to me. I think I really choose the plays that I’m most excited about, and I think because I really love strong female characters, those plays maybe tend to have female playwrights. Right now I feel like it’s really important that we have more diversity in the company and more diversity in the playwrights we’re producing, so I’m really working on that. I did not have to consciously try to produce plays by women—just the best plays that I found in the last three years were by women.

Do you ever feel pressure to present yourself a certain way, especially in terms of femininity, in order to be taken seriously?
Oh God, yes. This fascinating thing has happened to me on multiple opening nights, which is the last two productions I directed were all-male casts. One was a new play called Reunion by Greg Moss at South Coast Rep that was about three men at their 25th high school reunion, and the second one was Red [by John Logan] about Mark Rothko. At both opening nights, the Board Members and community of administrators at the theatre had a sort of [attitude of], “You did this? How did you do it? It was so muscular. You’re adorable.” And that is so frustrating. And so crazy—because, of course, I did it with my brain. I think because I’m sort of young looking and petite there’s a sense of, “Are you the assistant? Are you helping out?” And male actors will flirt with me sometimes and I’ll be like, “No, I’m the director.” It’s perhaps made me be a little more guarded and I’m very conscious of… I never wear anything that’s flirty or revealing. That’s annoying to have to think about because, you know, great [male] directors dress like slobs and that wouldn’t be acceptable for me. A lot of the great directors are larger men physically—tall or portly—and I think there’s such a strange thing that happens like, “Oh, they have bigger ideas,” and it’s so shallow. My dad recently gave me the book The Quiet that’s this amazing book about the power that comes from introverts. So many of my favorite theatre artists are women, and they are owning and embracing their femininity and their strength—and their quiet strength even—I love that Annie Baker won the Pulitzer. Things like that are helpful.

Colt Coeur is doing a festival of plays by women. Could you tell us a little about it?
We’re doing a festival called #ParityPlaysFest very much inspired by The Kilroy’s listDry Land was on The Kilroy list—several of the playwrights we’ve collaborated with in the past are featured on the list—but we also feel like it’s important to keep producing other playwrights. So this is four new plays by women and directed by women. The readings will happen on the set of Dry Land on the 15th, 22nd, and 24th. All the info is on our site. I’m so excited because it’s plays by Kate Robin, Emily Feldman, Melissa Ross, and Kaitlin Schuster. And those are all free readings.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre? 
I would like to encourage all of the theatre artists that are creating characters, costuming characters, directing actors, producing, and marketing plays to delve deeper when they’re thinking about the female characters that they present on stage. And to not fall into the easy caricatures we all recognize and, for a long time, have been asked to accept. Instead, explore the dynamism of women in the characters they’re writing, the actors they’re casting, and the way they’re advertising their productions.

You can follow Adrienne on Twitter: @adriennecolt and Instagram: @adriennech.