An Interview with Anne Kauffman
Written by Victoria Myers
November 11th, 2014
“Were you able to see the peppers?” director Anne Kauffman asks us about You Got Older by Clare Barron, which is currently playing at HERE Arts Center, produced by Page 73. A theatrical world created by both space and language is a hallmark of Anne’s work—she’s become known as a director of contemporary language plays—and can even be evidenced through a discussion about a pepper. Her thoughts about how language lives in space are, not surprisingly, both fascinating and evocative. To tell you just a few of her accomplishments (and, really, there are many more), she’s won an Obie and has directed at some of the most exciting theatre companies in the city, like Playwrights Horizons (Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, Maple and Vine, and Detroit), LCT3 (Slowgirl and Stunning), New Georges, and coming soon, The Nether at MCC. She also has a great fondness for musical theatre and—not to spoil anything—a pretty great theory concerning The Wizard of Oz. Oh, and of course, we were able to see the peppers.
The use of space is really interesting in You Got Older. It goes from inside to out, and reality to fantasy. Could you tell us a little about how you approached the staging?
It’s really important to me that theatre is in a metaphorical space. For me, what theatre does really well is metaphor. We’ve all, as audience members, come to understand that a fake tree means a real tree on stage, but I’m more interested in not trying to represent reality on stage. In the theatre, what I’m interested in is that the worlds are created through the language. So I’m always interested in trying to create a space where the language is foregrounded. In addition to that, writers these days are usually writing plays with lots of locations, and from a practical standpoint that is difficult to do. But also, from an artistic standpoint it’s not as interesting to me to try and represent all of those places, so I try to find an envelope for the space. I always start by trying to find the central metaphor, and usually that’s an emotional metaphor or a tonal metaphor or an action metaphor, and then I delve out from there. For this particular space in You Got Older, the things that we were interested in were the fluidity of the scenes and the fact that we feel that Mae is in the middle of a fever dream. She’s in a really hard place in her life and she comes home to take care of her father, and there’s a sort of collapse of time and a very specific emotional space that she’s in. So, for us, having it in one room allows for things to transition seamlessly and keeps it sort of inside Mae’s head. When the set designer, Daniel Zimmerman, and I began talking, we talked about how Mae is coming home to a very specific regional space, which is Washington State. He started doing research and started finding out about grange halls. Grange halls are mostly western pieces of architecture, and what’s interesting about them is that they’re meeting halls and they’re multipurpose. Since they’re multiuse, they have strange little openings and outcroppings and stuff like that. We felt like that was a great envelope for the play since they could encompass something as public as a bar or a wedding party, but also have a more individualized feeling. So that became our surround for it. I’m noticing a lot in my work that I like to sort of puncture the membrane between exterior and interior—blur the lines between something that feels safe inside and something that’s exposed to the elements. It works really well with this play.
What do you think about the spaces for new plays? In New York it’s a lot of black boxes.
It is weird, isn’t it, that in New York City, there’s such a dearth of interesting spaces? I think some of these smaller theatre companies like Page 73 or Clubbed Thumb, what’s so thrilling about working with them, is that when they get a play they’re actually looking for a space that fits it. That’s why I’m so attracted to the pioneering spirits of these smaller theatre companies. I feel like you see a lot of work that tries to somehow escape the space, too. I think directors working now are very aware of the limitations of space, and you see a lot of conversations about how to bridge the gap between the audience and the space; is there a way of creatively lessening that space?
HERE works really well for You Got Older.
Yeah, I thought it was great, too. That space is really interesting because something Clare [Barron] wanted to work with, and I completely understand, is creating proximity when we wanted it, and then distance. I think that’s why that window [there’s a large window upstage that spans the width of the stage] and what’s behind it worked well; it gives a sense of distance.
It seems like this play in a proscenium arch would be a totally different experience.
It would be, because you want that porousness between the audience and the action.
A lot of contemporary plays use language very specifically, and we wanted to ask you about juxtaposition between the language and staging.
I think that the language does dictate the space. I’m really reliant on the language guiding me. I feel like a lot of the plays that I work with are very specific about how the plays are laid out on the page visually, and are very specific about their rhythm and their punctuation. I’m a real stickler about that. I think the playwrights I work with are very specific about those types of things. Like with Shakespeare, right? He’s given you direction within the language, and if there are a lot of O’s or several words with open vowels, then he’s expressing an emotional state of being. So, I feel like if we are dedicated to the text, and if we feel the rhythms of the text, we will feel where we need to be emotionally. That’s a little over-simplification, but that’s something I really believe in. It’s really important to me to find the emotional reality to it and the truth to it, and it’s not just rhythm and it’s not just pacing; we’re very centered on where a character is in a specific moment.
One of the things that we’re really interested in is how theatre is different than literature; it’s not English class, and looking for the correct answer. We think that’s interesting in terms of new play development.
I guess that’s why I like doing new plays, because what you have guiding you is the playwright’s vision and what the playwright is trying to say, but how you do that… I mean Clare is a perfect example of that. She’s very intelligent and has very strong opinions and strong passions about what she has to say, but she’s also very aware that this is not literature; this is something that has to live and breathe on stage and has to communicate to an audience, it has to live in actors’ mouths, and it has to relate spatially. So I think that it’s really important, and the reason I like doing new plays is that you’re basically saying, “We don’t know what this is.” You’re doing it for the first time. New plays free me up to make something up with the playwright. What I’m saying about Clare, and a few other playwrights I’ve worked with, is that as theatre artists, the playwrights need to be in the room—with the limitations or specific talents of the actors or the limitations of production values—so we are all making this together, so it’s a very malleable piece. And good playwrights, I think, are responding to what’s actually happening in the room and can kind of adjust things given the givens in the room. It’s very important to me to get up on our feet as soon as possible, because it’s one thing to be at the table and be analyzing the emotion and analyzing it as a piece of literature, but once people are moving across a stage, it has a whole other dimension, and if you ignore that you’ve wasted a lot of time trying to figure stuff out when it’s not in 3D.
In new play development, there are so many readings and workshops. How do you find the balance in not over-working something that just needs to be up on its feet?
I don’t actually get things up on their feet in workshops. There’s a specific level you can get to in a workshop, and I think I now have a pretty good idea of what I should accomplish in a workshop, and then what needs to happen in production. So I conserve energy, in a way, and get something to a certain place before we go full out. I think that plays are finished in production. They’re not finished in workshops.
How do you know when something has been workshopped enough?
I feel like if we can get to a certain place in a workshop where we understand what’s happening, we have a sense of the relationships in the play, clarity of what’s happening, and an understanding of where something is going. I think the mistake is trying to finish the play in a workshop. And it also depends on the relationship with the writer. It depends on the playwright and the producing organization. I’m usually doing workshops now with organizations that are pretty interested in the piece, and they’re looking to get it to a certain place in a workshop before they commit to it, and that’s a whole other dimension to it.
What do you think could be improved upon in the development process?
I think being able to not think in terms of 29 hours [an AEA contract] or these structures that are set up by unions and that theatres have to do because of unions and money. I do think that workshops of plays need to be created around who the playwright is and what the play needs, and not be stuck in this one way of thinking about it. I think it’s hard for mid-sized to larger theatres to do that. I think that kind of work is being done by really small theatres that don’t have a lot of resources, but are able then, somehow, to be flexible in how they set up workshop structures.
What attracts you to a new play?
It’s become more and more mysterious to me as I’ve gotten older. Initially, there has to be some inherent theatricality to it. I wish I could say that I only did plays that only belong in the theatre—that couldn’t be a movie or television show—it’s not the case. I’ve done some of those kinds of pieces too. I feel like I’m attracted to rigor in terms of text and language, and that can be in a hyper-realistic play and not just a language play. I’m very attracted to specific writers who are interested in that type of rigor. And lately, it’s subject matter. I’m more and more interested in what it’s like to get older and the struggles that we have in this country as we get older. I’m also more interested in more epic landscapes in terms of writers who are shooting beyond the scope of a family drama and are trying to engage larger questions. So it’s a smattering. In the past six months, I’ve been reading a lot of plays—and a lot of plays that are quite good—but I’m at a place where if I don’t really feel something personally and something that I’m trying to explore in my own life—or something totally foreign to me that I want to learn about—than I’m not really interested. I’m really lucky at this point to be able to do that, to be able to choose.
There’s some great stuff happening on TV that’s actually really theatrical. How do you think that affects theatre?
Well, I still think theatre has the hold on the metaphor and the language. I’m trying to get into television, and I really want to direct television—I think it’s an incredible medium right now. But I think theatre still has a hold on metaphor and language. What I find so thrilling about theatre is that there’s a physical limitation of the space—you have this stage and this audience. In television, you can move to this and that location. There’s something thrilling to me about having to make a world inside something with very strict architectural limitations.
People always talk about directors working with playwrights, but we’re also curious about the process of working with actors. What’s your process like for that? How do you balance actors with different processes?
Well, I have to tell you, I’m pretty kamikaze about stuff. I used to do a lot of pre-production stuff. Now my design process is my pre-production, so I can come into the room just like five minutes ahead of the actors, so I can kind of get a sense of who they are. If I get attached to an idea, it’s going to take me a long time to detach myself to the idea, and that would waste time. It’s the same thing I tell playwrights; you have to come in and be alive to what’s happening in the room. So I don’t have any method. I think I’m good at reading people and recognizing that their process might be different than hers or his. Then, I feel like I just try to start speaking their language. There are some actors that I’ll go up to and talk to privately, and some actors that I can give notes to everyone in the same room. I am very selective about which notes I give when based on understanding how much that person is able to take in at that moment. But I used to tell my students—there are a lot of don’ts like, “don’t do line readings”—my feeling is, if that’s the way an actor receives something, then do it. Anything you can do to get that actor to where you want that actor to be, then do it.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
It’s funny, I feel very visual even though when I’m reading a play I don’t automatically picture things. You know, a lot of directors see everything, and I don’t. I don’t always have pictures in my head. Installation art and visual art really affects me because of the use of space. I think I’m slightly spatially retarded— I have a really difficult time with directions and trying to figure out where I am—so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how space is activated. So I’m very into looking at visual art and architecture because of the use of space. It just happens to be the thing I’m obsessed with.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Well I used to read fairy tales as a child. I was obsessed with Grimm’s but also there was the Red Fairy Tale Book and the Green Fairy Tale Book. They were these huge tomes of fairytales that were like Grimm’s—they weren’t Disney-fied. I was sort of obsessed with those as a child.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I was really obsessed with Maria Tallchief and Anna Pavlova, who were ballerinas. I had a lot of prima ballerina heroes. And then my seventh grade social studies teacher was a huge hero of mine. She was quite theatrical. She really approached various lessons in unorthodox ways—having us write plays about different decades. So she was a heroine. Also, my chorus teacher was a big heroine of mine, because I wanted to be a musical theatre star. My chorus teacher was very strict and very disciplined and expected great things of us, and so I grew up very much wanting to impress her.
Ballet is interesting in regards to space and theatricality.
And a lot of the ballets are these twisted fairytales. I guess I just liked the extreme physicality of it and its consequent beauty. There’s something so rigorous about it and so painful about it and so difficult and arduous, and yet the result is so elegant and beautiful. And I think that had a big impact on me; that you work so hard at something and then it looks effortless.
It’s interesting in terms of femininity.
And the crazy torturous practice of going up on your toes… I think there must be something about me that likes suffering that gives way to beauty. I think that’s something that’s very intriguing to me.
And musical theatre is very theatrical and can also be a way to explore big emotions and experiences.
I kind of grew up on musicals. My hero—well, maybe someone I wanted to marry—was Fred Astaire. I grew up on musicals and all the old movie musicals. I love them. I have no desire to do those musicals, but I do have great desire to do a musical. It’s like the height of theatricality. It is the most theatrical thing. And opera. I compare every show I do to The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz houses every theatrical structure ever. It’s perfect.
What are your top five favorite movie musicals?
1. The Wizard of Oz
3. My Fair Lady
4. Singin’ in the Rain
5. A Chorus Line
What was the first moment you felt like, “I’m a director?”
I was in college, and I was taking my first directing class, and my teacher said, “How does it feel to be a director?” I didn’t dare believe that was actually something that was happening. So that’s when I felt it—when he told me I was.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
Has that happened yet? I feel like there are certain moments I feel like I’m an adult, but, for the most part, I’m still trying to figure it out.
Did you have any female mentors in directing? Or did you have to carve your own path?
I’ll tell you a story that kind of changed my life, and not immediately, but in the subsequent years. When Zelda Fichandler was the head of NYU Grad Acting, I’d just come back from graduate school and I was interviewing for a job, and we were talking, and she asked me how it was going and I said, “You know, it’s really hard being a woman director.” And she just looked at me and said, “Why?” It was a huge lesson for me. Here’s this woman who basically started the regional theatre movement, started Arena Stage, she translated Russian documents during the Second World War, she basically started NYU Grad Acting, and basically forged training programs in this country. So I thought to myself, “Right, it is hard to be a woman director, but you don’t say that to Zelda Fichandler, who basically paved the way for all of us.” And it was at that point I decided, “Alright, I’m not going to complain anymore. I’m going to keep my head down, do good work, and hopefully be recognized for it.” All of those statistics are true; I think it’s important that it’s brought to the fore. I feel, personally, that I just need to put my head down and do the work. And I do think people doing good work are being recognized. I think there’s a glass ceiling—Broadway, obviously, which will be slowly broken down. I want to be hired because I’m good, and not because I’m a woman.
After that moment with Zelda, did that attitude take time to sink in?
This is a very competitive field, and I feel very unhappy if I’m looking around and thinking who gets that and who gets that. I mean, it’s true, and my temper flares from time to time. But it just makes me unhappy and I feel I get paralyzed. So for me, it was a combination of that event and kind of taking care of myself. So when that stuff flares up, I honestly just try to put my head down and work. I compare my career and what I do to hiking. If I see a peak way up there, I can’t hike and look at the peak. I have to look and put one step in front of the other.
It’s interesting where those inner resources come from.
You know, the other thing that’s really difficult about being a director, in general, is that it’s a really lonely profession. And slowly, I’ve started to make other friends who are directors and who are really supportive. And a lot of women directors who are friends of mine. I feel like when I have those moments of feeling that, I can share it with my community of directors who have also, at one time or the other, felt like that or feel it at the same time. That’s been really helpful.
Do you feel like there’s more pressure to succeed and less room for failure?
I don’t feel that. I don’t think it’s because it’s not there, but because I don’t let myself feel that. When I first started out, I used to dress like a man and go into a room and sort of de-sex myself so people would see me as an authority figure. What I realized was that by doing that, I was ignoring a huge part of myself, and the work was not very personal. So that’s now been eschewed and I’m more connected to the work. I do think it’s true, objectively, that male directors who have had huge failures are fine and have come backs, but it’s not something I feel pressure about.
Do you feel like your behavior is more discussed in the rehearsal room?
When I was younger, I used to be very aware of how I was; I was sort of looking at myself directing. Now I’m wholly myself in the room. Again, all of this is probably true, but I feel like I’m a certain kind of director and I have a certain kind of personality in the room, and that’s what people are looking at, and not necessarily woman or man, but I could be very ignorant of all of that and choose not to [see it]. And it feels good just to be me. I also feel like, in a way, and maybe this is naive, but I’ve been around for a long time now, so people know me and so they just see me as Annie.
You mentioned earlier that you like working on things that are about more than just a family drama. We’ve noticed that plays by and about women are usually not received by critics as being about big things. They’re seen as being literal and about plot.
I might be coming at it from a different perspective, but looking at the same thing. I think putting a female protagonist out there in the world is a very difficult thing to do and have it be fleshed out. For it not to seem reductive, there has to be a lot of care in a way there doesn’t have to be if it’s a man. Maybe because I’m a woman, I feel like a lot of representations of us are not complex. It’s hard sometimes for me to watch female protagonist. And it might be because the tradition is the male protagonist as philosopher, and all of these books where there are the very complex male protagonists. I think it’s a difficult thing to do. I think we’re much more mysterious than we know, and I think to represent that complexity that we have, somehow, it’s just more difficult to do.
We interviewed Romola Garai a few weeks ago and she spoke about playing, for a lack of a better term, a strong female character, and how in rehearsal there were discussions about likability that would not have happened if she were a man. But to get the audience to receive the character, those were conversations they needed to have.
I think what you just said—the strong female character—that is what is our downfall. I think somehow, people are aware that if there’s a woman at the center then there’s something they need to prove with this woman being at the center. And that’s just boring.
That a woman has to be worthy of being at the center of a story.
And then the character becomes boring to me. I’m about to do a play called The Nether where there’s a female lead. It’s tricky, because the playwright Jennifer Haley and I are very aware that [if] played incorrectly, this character could come across as pedantic and moralizing. So, we’ve cast that role very carefully, with somebody who has the depth and contradictory nature to ensure that this character’s journey is a complex and fractured one, the way it was written. Neither Jen nor I are interested in a flawless she-woman who saves the day.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think, in terms of the artists, we should just put our heads down and do good work and the work will be recognized. I’d say to producers, to actually look at the work and the work for what it is, rather than assuming something. Actually look at the work. Don’t look at the names. It is changing. Not in huge strides, but it’s changing. There’s a woman writing a book on female directors, and I just talked to her on the phone and she’d talked to so many people, and that’s really exciting.