An Interview with Kimberly Senior

Written by Victoria Myers

September 3rd, 2014

“Hold on a minute. Let’s just take this in,” director Kimberly Senior tells us as a large pack of dogs (with their dog-walker) pass us on their morning stroll. Taking in the world—and how one relates to the world—was a recurring theme in our conversation. We loved discussing with her the way one’s engagement with the present, past, and future affects art (and we think you’ll love it too). It’s no wonder that Kimberly is at the helm of the thought provoking and Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, which starts performances on Broadway on September 27th. She also directed the off-Broadway and Chicago productions of Disgraced, which gives her a fascinating and unique perspective on new play development and playwright-director collaboration. Kimberly is based in Chicago and is an artistic associate at Northlight Theatre, Next Theatre, Strawdog Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists, where she has amassed a diverse body of work, and in New York City you might have caught her recent production of The Who and The What at LCT3. We’re really excited to give all of you a chance to take in her views (yes, we circled back) and then we recommend you go for a walk and see what you notice.

(i.) Present

You’re just starting rehearsing Disgraced on Broadway. Although it was done last winter at LCT3, it’s a new production, right? 
Right. It’s not a move. This show is now on its fourth incarnation and each production has been its own. I’ve directed three of the four; I didn’t direct the production in London. The [first] production in Chicago was produced by a company called American Theatre Company, and then LCT3 wanted to do the play, and they were like, “We’re doing a brand new production.” They came to Chicago, they saw my work, and I got hired to do that production. No other element was the same—all new actors, all new designers. There was some talk, at the time, about possibly moving that production, but that didn’t happen. And now our current producer wanted to do this commercial Broadway production. Although there is an actor that’s the same from Lincoln Center and I am the same from these other two productions, there’s an actor from the London production, (which I didn’t direct) and there’s new actors and all new designers. And we’re still working on the play. I’ve been hired each time and Ayad [Akhtar, the playwright] and I are approaching it like a brand new production of the play.

The LCT3 production was a hit. Does that make this production come with extra pressure? 
I think it brings extra joy. I feel like it’s making me more present in the room. I don’t have to start at the beginning—I know the beginning. And it means that I get to go deeper with the material and deeper with my relationship with the playwright. Deeper in every direction. Because of the critical success of the production I’m like, “Oh great, people already think they like this play,” so now I’m going to wow them with how it’s even better.

It frees you up?
Yes, I feel like it’s freeing. I feel very supported. I’m directing a play that’s written by my best friend and that I’m in my third production of. There are some people in the room who I know and love, and the rest were handpicked by me. I’m working with producers who I’ve known for three years—I’ve earned their trust and they’ve earned mine—and we have this amazing rapport. I know we’re all here with the same goal. It’s happening in the most beautiful theatre that New York theatre has to offer. And opening at a great moment—three years to the day that I met the playwright. What more could I ask for? I’m in far more terrifying situations most of the time.

(ii.) Space

LCT3 is a very intimate space. What’s it like going from that to preparing for a large Broadway house?
What’s great about the Lyceum is the way the theatre is feels really intimate. There are 900 seats, but it’s totally focused down on the stage—it’s like a lens—it closes in the space so it gives the feel of a fly on the wall. It’s this great voyeuristic perspective of the stage. At LCT3 you’re in a 110 seat, jewel-box theatre where you’re like, “I’m in the room.” At they Lyceum you feel dangerously close, like watching through someone’s window and like, “What if they take their clothes off? ” It has an am-I-supposed-to-be-looking kind of feeling. I think where the intimacy lies is that what’s being laid bare on the stage is so revealing and private that I hope that we feel—instead of in the room with them—like we maybe shouldn’t be looking, but we are compelled to look. So I kind of want to use the intimacy in a different way. Yes, the story is intimate and personal, but it’s also explosive. These are heightened moments. These are life and death stakes.

It’s interesting to be in a theatre that’s old and historic while doing a piece that deals with the effects of history. 
That’s like a whole other layer on it, right? There’s a meta level that you can think about: the structure of Broadway and what theatre in America has been. I can’t talk about the play without talking about my beaming pride that the first play written by a Pakistani- American writer to be on Broadway, featuring a leading character played by someone of Southeast Asian descent, where it’s not a play about South Asians, is a play that I’m directing. I just think, “How are we advancing the conversation in the American theatre?” When will we see women in roles that aren’t about being women? How hard it is to find a scene between two women when they’re not talking about men? That’s nearly impossible. And when are we going to start making plays that feature homosexual characters that aren’t talking about being gay? Where we see them going out to eat and struggling with their parents and trying to find a job? And I think that’s what this play is doing. Yes, it has an African-American woman, Jewish man, white woman, and two South Asian men in it. And, yes, issues of race, ethnicity, and religion come up, but there are also issues of love and marriage and work and identity that extend beyond how I feel a lot of those niche cultures get marginalized. We’re able to see a universality to the play that I think is really surprising and exciting.

And a good type of play to have on Broadway.
And we need to. I think this is so, so thrilling. And I just hope it paves the way for more writers to have the courage to say, “You can write about something that you thought could only be performed in a basement in Astoria.” And now it’s going to be on the big stage because people want to have this conversation.

(iii.) Intimacy

The characters in Disgraced say some things that are controversial and that might provoke an audience. It’s definitely going to make them think. When staging a play like that, how do you incorporate how the audience listens into your staging?
It’s a carefully constructed play in that way, and in the way that the humor works and the way that the bombs get dropped. How the play is paced is something that I feel lucky that I’ve had a little bit more time working on it, and I’ve gotten to see an audience experience it. I actually think the wonderful thing about the play is shocking things are said by people you think you’d never agree with in a million years, but the compassion it invokes is heart stopping. You’re like, “Wow, I should hate this person,” But you’re like, “I love them and I get why they did it. And I see myself in them and I forgive them and I forgive me. And it’s okay.” And now we can move forward because this has been revealed. Now let’s make way for new topography, for a new conversation, and a new America, now that we’ve admitted these things. I think what’s cool about this play is that we’re never directing the politics of a play. We’re never crafting the politics—we’re crafting the human story, and the politics are often a result. The news tells us what to think, for better or worse, but our art just raises the question. I am not prescribing a takeaway. We’re not saying you have to think or feel this thing. It’s just bubbling up the questions.

You’ve worked multiple times with Ayad Akhtar. 
This is our fifth production together.

What do you think can be gained from a long-standing writer-director collaboration? 
I’ve worked with other playwrights more than once, but I feel that with Ayad and I… we’re a yin and a yang situation—he’s a man, I’m a woman, he’s a Muslim, I’m a Jew, he’s tall, I’m short, he’s bald, I have hair. We have enough opposites that provide a great tension, and then there are enough things that are the same. I feel like what we’ve been able to do is develop a language and a shorthand. One of the places where he and I first connected was that both of us just want to make plays that aren’t boring. We’re both like, “Audiences aren’t dying. We’re killing them by making boring theatre. It’s our job to keep them engaged. So how are we going to do that?” He and I share this, maybe Aristotle knew what he was talking about, let’s look back at what he was saying made a great play; let’s look back at the Greeks. Let’s look back at Shakespeare. Let’s look at the rich history that we’ve come from. We’re text people, so we’re like how do we use those tools to tell a dynamic, contemporary story?

We’re always interested in the effect that one medium has on another. We mentioned intimacy before, and people engage with TV and film in a very intimate way. How do you think the way people engage with those mediums affects their idea of intimacy in the theatre? 
I think about this a lot. Film and television feel like really public mediums that you experience really privately. Especially television. You can watch TV naked. The experience of viewing theatre is incredibly public. Yet, the intimacy of a live form is really private. And so I think we just have this amazing conversation of the public vs. the private. I think there’s something about experiencing a play with strangers in the dark; there’s an anonymity that’s afforded you. You know, people talk about living in New York and how it’s the most anonymous city in the world even though you have zero privacy. I don’t have a conclusion here, but I do think there’s something that’s fascinating about the way we experience something and how far we’ll go… maybe to avoid public experience? Like I’m sitting next to a stranger so, in order to shut them out, I have to more intimately engage with what’s happening on stage. There’s a lot about public and private space that I think is happening in the way we interact with these mediums. Also about how we view art. I can remember going to see the Mona Lisa and being really bummed out about it. First of all, why is it so small? In my mind, because it’s so epic in its place in history, it was huge. And then that there’s like a hundred people I had to elbow through to look at it. I thought, “My experience looking at this in a book was actually a lot more intimate because I got to be alone with it.” Then there are other works of art where you’re like caught by it. At the Whitney Biennial in the spring, there were moments when I’d be caught by a piece of art, and I’d be the only one standing there. It was like this art and me, we just totally got naked and it was amazing. So there is a kind of ecstatic or erotic experience that we can have with our art, and I think it has to do with public vs. private space, voyeurism, exhibitionism…

(iv.) New Plays

You’ve worked on a number of new plays. What do you feel the director’s role is in new play development?
I believe every play is a new play. I directed Hedda Gabler this past winter, and the first day of rehearsal I said, “So, here we are to do the world premiere of Hedda Gabler by some guy named Henrik Ibsen.” And I start there, because we’re creating something that’s live, and every day is a world premiere. Every new audience that gathers to watch the play, it’s a world premiere play presented for the very first time. And what does that mean with new play development? It means that we always have to remember that the audience is hearing this story for the first time. So, that means when I first read a play, whether it’s old or new, I think about what stood out to me, what shocked me, what surprised me, what made me laugh, what made me cry, what made no sense to me, what were those red flag moments? You don’t want to take that away from an audience when you get your intimate knowledge of that play, which is the danger in new play development. Once you understand how the machine works, because you have the playwright sitting next to you and you’re able to really talk about the mechanism, you lose that naiveté with the play. So I’m like: How can I continue to work on this play so the audience can get a crush on it and fall more deeply in love with it? How do I work on this play so the surprises remain fresh and we don’t over-explain and don’t answer everything? And that’s why I start by saying it’s the same way I’d work on Ibsen—by trusting that the play is good. We might need to massage or adjust things to help with that audience experience—to help with that live, visceral, delicious first interaction—we’re there to tease out the [play’s] best qualities.

We have a theatre culture where we develop plays much more than we produce them. From your perspective, what’s something that could be improved upon in the play development process that would get more plays on stage?
It’s tough. I’ve been making theatre professionally for twenty years. I feel like twenty years ago is when people were like, “Who’s going to develop new plays?” So why we are a theatre development culture grew out of a really earnest space in the American theatre of people saying, “We need to nurture the next generation of playwrights. What are ways to do that? Workshops and readings.” And now we’re like, “Wait, that’s all we do.” With Ayad and I, what has been unique—and if there was a way for this to happen [for others] it would be great—is that, both of the plays that we’ve developed, we’ve gotten first and second and now third productions. We have a world premiere-itis in this country where the play premieres, and then it’s like deflowered. And no one understands that you get better at it the more you do it. I know a lot of companies now are doing rolling world premieres, and I think it’s such a beautiful idea. Like what did we learn from that full run of that production that we can now move into our next one? I think more institutions in our country need to partner where they’re all committed to the same voice, and we’re committed to deepening and enriching something through production rather than just through development.

(v.) American Theatre

You’re based in Chicago. We’ve heard the theatre scene there is different than New York. How do you think that affected your artistic development?

There is more space, there’s more money, and there’s more time. Without those pressures, you’re able to take the space you need to make something. In Chicago, there are 150 theatre companies at any given moment, and more than half of them are doing new work. It’s just easier there. What I love about Chicago is that you’re allowed to make a big mess and fail, and then do another play—no one is going to hold that against you. Everyone will be like, “Good for you!” In Chicago there’s a lot of permission—it’s a very supportive community—because of the space and time and less financial constraints. Because people live in homes that they can afford and that are comfortable, and they come to work a little happier. You have to come out fighting in New York, and I think that’s good for your art too. This year I will have spent five months in New York and seven months in Chicago, and it will have been a year of much fruit. That’s a really exciting way to live.

We’re interested in this idea of The American Theatre. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but we don’t know if anyone actually knows what it means. Does working in Chicago, in the Midwest, affect your views on what the American theatre is?
I think you’re right—I don’t think there is such a thing as The American Theatre. I think until America understands what it is as a nation, it can’t have a national theatre. We are too diverse in our needs right now and what stories need to be told. I would hope that the American theatre is a theatre that is screaming to tell the stories of its people—as diverse and many and complex as they are. Are we doing that? I don’t know. Is Disgraced helping to do that? I think so.

(vi.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
There are so many things! My memory is that it was Ferdinand the Bull. That book by Munro Leaf. It’s this kids’ book. Basically, it’s about this bull and the pageantry of bull fighting. That was the first thing I was struck by. It’s really thrilling and exciting, and they’re getting the bulls all ready, and they can’t find Ferdinand, who’s the biggest, most gorgeous, handsome bull of all, ecause he’s sitting in a field smelling flowers. And so it taught me about character, surprise, and about how things aren’t always what they seem. I was two years old, but it’s a story that has really stayed with me, and I feel like I still rely on the tools of that story.

Who were your heroes growing up? 
My grandpa. He was a theatre manager and a theatre lover and a terrific man. My parents. I feel like a lot of my heroes were things I discovered on my own. And writers like—and it’s so tragic that I’m about to name like twenty men—Phillip Roth, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky. Discovering Russian writers (all men). Discovering Lorca. The Spanish writers (all men). Neruda. Reading Siddhartha. These books were my heroes. I’m such a reader. Seeing art. I never went to grad school and I never assisted anybody, so other ways that people find mentors, I didn’t get mentors that way. So I feel I’ve kind of gathered my influences in my peers and in my children—I have these amazing kids (that’s not growing up, but they’re my heroes).

What are your top five books? 
1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky
3. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. Anaïs Nin: A Biography by Deirdre Bair

(vii.) Culture

How do you think other areas of culture influence your work?
Everything is 360 degrees. Absolutely everything. To distraction, I cannot stop absorbing and listening to music—there is not a type of music that I do not love and dive into and draw reference from—and reading and poetry and dance and opera. You have to enter the stage full. You have to enter a process full. We have to draw from the world around us. That’s our number one source material. In a way, it’s why I’m kind of glad I didn’t go to grad school, because I feel like I might have, for a moment, lost some of that—although I would have gained something else. I have this kind of little kid joy. And, something that I’m trying to give myself permission for, is it’s okay to just walk and listen to music and let yourself be inspired. I’m a really avid fitness person. I do yoga seven days a week and I try to run two or three times a week, and it’s in those spaces that the other thoughts get to come in. We’re so lucky to be alive, and I don’t ever want to lose that.

You have to be out in the world so you have something to say about it.
You must be out in the world. And that’s also why teaching has been so amazing for me because it is really easy to lose touch with stuff. I need my students to be like, “Have you heard of this band?” and me being like, “No, Spotify me it.” I want to know about it and that will inform something else that I do. And then I’m like, “You know what this reminds me of…? I bet they were inspired by this artist that I listened to…” And how do we keep that conversation going generationally? How do we see these influences? Why are we always trying to make our history disappear? Why not draw from that?
Do you know the Liz Phair album Exile in Guyville?

[An awkward pause] No.
It was a huge part of my life, and this is an assignment: go listen to this album from beginning to end, in order. You need to go do that. That album was super seminal for me and really important. The other day, a friend sent me an article about how it’s been twenty years since the album came out and said, “I just listened to it from beginning to end, I highly recommend it.” And I did it. I’m a different person now than when I first interacted with it, so now my relationship to it is different and deeper and more meaningful. There’s something about what happens when we revisit things when we have changed, and you feel different now, yet it still moves you. I’m interested in that interaction.

(viii.) Risk

When did you first feel like a grown up?
Never. There was a passage in becoming a mom, but that was more of a realization that my parents aren’t grown-ups because I don’t feel like a grown-up—so does that mean that they’ve never been grown ups? So never. But I do pay most of my bills on time.

What is your relationship like with risk?
I think that most people in my life are terrified I won’t make it till the end of the day because I’m a total risk-taker. Why not? We got one spin, right? That’s my relationship to risk: we have one spin. I also love making plays that take place in living rooms where people love each other, and I think there’s a lot of risk in that. There’s a lot of risk in vulnerability. I’m going to tie this into a woman thing now because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Please do. We’re always interested in women things. 
For many years I tried to hide things that were called essentially feminine or female about myself. Like, I’m really proud of the fact that I can drink most men I know under the table, since that felt like a skill that was important to acquire to be heard. And I was like, “I’m not going to live my life according to my feelings, because those are female, and no one will listen to me if I feel things deeply.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute, you can’t be an artist if you don’t fucking feel things deeply.” Men [in the arts] have been trying for centuries to feel the way women feel, so that they can access what we’re doing. I made this shift to being like, what would it be like to walk through life feeling vulnerable and emotional and sensitive all day long? And, suddenly, that’s when I noticed the leaf on the ground and I want to hug a stranger. Maybe there’s a tremendous bravery in vulnerability. And maybe there’s a tremendous bravery and risk in loving another person. There’s no strength without fragility. Once I opened my heart up to using what is essentially feminine about myself in my work, there was suddenly a rich, vast treasure chest that I had never used before, and it’s been kind of amazing.

(ix) Representation

You mentioned not having mentors from not going to grad school. How did that affect you? Especially in a field where there are many more men than women.
I found a lot of my mentors in leaders of institutions that I worked in. Martha Lavey, who I think is pretty much the most awesome woman on earth, she’s the artistic director of Steppenwolf, and I worked there. Martha was like an accidental mentor to me. I’d listen to her address large groups of people, and I was so moved by how smart she was about what she was talking about and think, “I’ve never heard anyone say it quite that way.” And I’d read what she’d write about plays, and watch her interact with artists. And so, though it wasn’t her sitting down with me for a weekly coffee, I feel like watching her be a leader—and how she was as a female leader in the world—was really inspiring to me and gave me a lot of courage. A lot of what my work in Chicago has been, has been about mentorship and trying to knock down or nudge open doors that might have been closed to women before. That’s the legacy that’s more important to me than my art. How do these opportunities become available to you? Because the regional theatre is built on alliances, and so how do we broaden what those alliances are?

Did you feel a pressure to dress in a certain way in order to get taken seriously? Less feminine? 
I own a lot of boots. I didn’t start wearing make-up until like two years ago. I walked around in cowboy boots and jeans and wanted to be tough. And now I’m like, “I’m sorry if my boobs distract you from being able to listen to what I have to say about the play. That’s your problem, not mine.”

Do you feel like your behavior might be discussed or viewed differently?
Yes. If I’m assertive I’m being a bitch, whereas a man is a leader. But also, when a woman asks questions she’s thought of as insecure, and when a man asks questions he’s exploring something. So it’s like what way am I supposed to be? I’m unclear as to how I’m supposed to speak? But I think it’s getting better. I think change is happening. I think where we’re moving is a place where we’re embraced for being different, and that our differences are strengths. It’s okay to be a girl. Girls are awesome. And girls are not boys. And I don’t want to be a boy. I’m really happy to be me. And I think I can direct a great play as me. And I think I can be a great parent as me. Women are awesome, and the world is starting to understand that we don’t have to be male to be equal.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Listen—to each other, and to yourself. Just be you. I wish I’d spent way more time just being me. And that’s what I’m trying to do now, but also to listen to others, because not all women are the same. There’s no way to address the needs of all women. We’re all different. We can’t bring about equality by addressing “women” because we’re all different and multi-faceted.

You can follow Kimberly on Twitter: @SeniorKimberly and Instagram: @kvsenior.