“This artistic directorship is the gift I didn’t know I wanted,” director Anne Kauffman says. “It’s brought me back to my roots, and my love, and it’s opened up a new path for me.” Kauffman is talking about her new role at City Center’s Encores! Off-Center, where she was named artistic director this month. Kauffman had been co-artistic director with Jeanine Tesori for City Center’s summer 2018 season of revivals of Off-Broadway shows—which included Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for A New World, Michael Friedman’s Gone Missing, and Micki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope—but will now be fully in charge of programming for 2019, which also serves as the finale for City Center’s 75th anniversary season.
An acclaimed Off-Broadway director, Kauffman won Obie Awards in 2007 for directing The Thugs at Soho Rep and in 2015 for the sustained excellence of her direction. This year, she won both Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for directing Mary Jane at New York Theatre Workshop. Kauffman has also lent her director’s eye to Hundred Days and Belleville at New York Theatre Workshop, Marvin’s Room at the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway, A Life, Detroit, Maple and Vine, and Marjorie Prime at Playwrights Horizons, and Stunning and Slowgirl at LCT3.
She has directed across the country, including at Steppenwolf Theatre and Goodman Theatre in Chicago, South Coast Repertory in California, Williamstown Theatre Festival and American Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts, and Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut. To see one of Kauffman’s works is to delve deeper into the human experience; to meet Kauffman is an encounter with her low-maintenance persona balanced with her high standard.
Here, Kauffman spoke about her career, her approach to directing, her plans for Encores! Off-Center, and her future.
Why she became a director:
“I couldn’t sing or dance or act, but I did happen to be cast every once in a while in a college production. I’m the kind of person that if I have one task to do, I’m going to get bored, but if I’m responsible for a multitude of tasks, and weaving those things together and making a singular vision, that actually interests me. That’s what captured my imagination—the idea of being in control of it all. And I think even as a child, even though I always wanted to be an actor, the only way I could be an actor is if I was the one responsible for gathering the neighborhood children or getting my family to do what I wanted them to do so I could be the star. I had to organize that. I had to tell them what to do.”
Her directing principles:
“I am a control freak who has worked my entire life to loosen the grip, and part of what that loosening is is to know just enough about the piece when I walk into the first day of rehearsal not to have attached myself to any ideas. Obviously I have to have some ideas about the piece, and a lot of that happens through the design, which is a huge gateway to the piece for me. Before I step into the first day of rehearsal the design is done, so the metaphorical envelope for the piece has been created. But in terms of the particulars, I try to keep a very loose grip on that. Because I found when I was younger that if I plotted everything out before I got into rehearsal, or if I was committed to the way X, Y, and Z should go, I was not actually looking at what was in front of me and what I had gathered in the room. I was looking at something else. My eyes were on what was in the room but I wasn’t listening or really looking.
“And the other thing is that if my ideas didn’t work in the room, there was a process of mourning and releasing that took up energy and time that we just don’t have. So I feel very committed to the idea of the balance between knowing and not knowing, so I can create in the room with the actors and whoever is in the room, so we can have a live engagement. I’ve found it’s quite a successful process for me.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“We all say this—or most of us say this as directors—that it’s a dialogue, it’s a conversation. The conversation for me comes a little bit later. I try to block a piece pretty quickly, to knock something out pretty quickly, so that I can then start to dig in. I think of myself as a very collaborative person. I’m not someone who shuts anyone down. I think the first part of the process is, can we just make this physical? Most of it doesn’t stick, but I need something to hang the flesh on and begin the conversation. Oftentimes, if I ask an actor to do something and they want to have a conversation about it, sometimes I’ll engage in that conversation, but sometimes I’ll say that the quickest way for me to agree with you is for you to try this so we can throw it out. Because I’m someone who does a lot of drafts. I like actors who are open and have the facility to try a bunch of stuff and not attach themselves to it either. Instead of having a long conversation about it, let’s just see if it works, and if it doesn’t I’ll be the first one to say it doesn’t. I often say to writers, you got to sit in front of a computer, or like the old days crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash can, and you have a trash can full of paper. I need the same things. I really think of rehearsal as trial and error.”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“In the early days I was very concerned with my being an authority figure in the room. What that meant was that I dressed like a guy—I did anyway in life, but I was very aware that being an authority in the room also somehow had a masculine connotation, and I was going to somehow divorce myself from my personal experience, that who I am as a person was not of interest in the room and not the thing that should be at all in the room. And as I got older, I started to understand that bringing myself and who I actually am into the room was sort of the point of making work. That’s what I ask of the actors, of the designers, of everyone involved. As we all know, work is more interesting if it’s personal.
“A ‘mistake’ is maybe too strong a word, but it was a perception that I had to disprove in order to make the work richer. I didn’t have that as a conscious ‘I have to recognize myself as a woman to make the work better.’ I think that as I got older and more confident, I could really be myself in the room and not play someone else in the room, and I noticed that the work was richer, and my collaborations were richer, because what I was asking of the actors I was also asking of myself.”
A good decision she made that she learned from:
“The one that I say a lot is that there’s always a real balance to strike between working at the table and getting up on your feet. Plays are three-dimensional, and I work with a lot of writers who are rhythmic, the physicality and the language can’t be separated. It’s one of the scariest things to get up from the table—the transition from the table to infinite space is a tricky one. But I challenged myself to allow both things to happen simultaneously, and I think it really changed my practice, understanding that.”
About Encores! Off-Center:
“When Arlene Shuler, the president and C.E.O. of City Center, came to me last season and asked me to do this, I thought she was out of her mind, because I’m not a musical theatre person. Also there was a time when I toyed with the idea of being an artistic director and decided against it. I thought it was not for me because I wanted to be eclectic in the way I went about my career, and felt that I didn’t want to necessarily have to abide by one constituency. So there was the rejection of that at first.
“But previous to that —’m going backward in time—[former] Encores! Off-Center artistic director Michael Friedman [who died in September 2017 at age 41] had asked me to do Assassins the summer before this, and it was an incredibly restorative process for me. It was a short process, but it was working with City Center, which has such a great history and has under its roof its own eclectic past, and working with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, which was extraordinary, and with a topnotch cast [including Steven Pasquale, Victoria Clark, Alex Brightman, Shuler Hensley] who knew exactly what they were doing and were able to deliver this extraordinary piece in such a short period of time. And everyone was open to the ideas I had for the re-imagining of this piece. Everything conspired to make this one of the most special experiences I’ve had.
“And I’m going backward still. When I was growing up, I was a musical theatre fanatic. I wanted to be a musical theatre star—but [as I mentioned before,] I couldn’t sing or dance or act, so my dreams were dashed pretty early on. I didn’t quite leave young adulthood before I realized that wasn’t going to happen. And my path—my career—sort of led me down the road of new plays, particularly strange new plays, more experimental new plays, or odd new plays. I really got quite far away from the musical theatre dreams of my childhood.
“So it’s fascinating to me that here I am back in this world in a different capacity, because I’m a producer (an artistic director and a producer—a creative producer for sure) not singing or acting or dancing in a musical but bringing collaborators together, interesting collaborators, to take these musicals to the stage in new configurations. That was very appealing to me. I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with Jeanine Tesori this past year, and I learned an enormous amount from her, being in the environment that she creates, from her incredible talent and breadth of knowledge. The way that she treats artists and gets the best work out of them has been an incredible learning experience for me. I loved it. As I’m staunchly in middle age now, I kept asking myself what’s the next thing, what’s the next thing, what’s the next thing for me. All this conspired to deliver the answer to me.
“There’s a learning curve I’m still on, and it’s a learning curve I desire to be on. It’s a subject matter that I’m interested in delving into and learning more about. It’s a rejuvenative kind of thing for me to do. I really have no business doing it. I really know nothing about musical theatre. But I think my passion for the work, my passion for directors and writers, is for me a very delicious, worthwhile venture. The good thing about City Center [is that] people are very generous with wanting to educate me, and I’m doing a deep dive into the canon, and the works that are not in the canon that I feel should be, such as Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which we did this summer. It absolutely needs to be in the canon.
“And that’s a little bit part of my mission—to find these great works which for some reason history has not allowed to come to the fore. And I have my own tastes too. And I have a community of people to bounce ideas off. I imagine I’m doing it much like any artistic director. He or she has a group of trusted advisers and artists he or she wants to work with, and develops a season. And this season is the 75th anniversary of City Center—so that’s also a guiding principle.”
“You’ve caught me at a very interesting time. My goal at Encores! Off-Center is to dedicate myself to an in-depth education in the American musical theatre. But also, as a mainly Off-Broadway director, I don’t make very much money. So I am also dedicated to finding situations where I don’t have to direct a million shows a year. In my entire career, I’ve been very lucky that I get to choose, that I’ve had a say in what I choose to do. But I feel that as we get older as directors, in order to deepen and widen, we need space to think, if we’re going to contribute to our industry in a meaningful way, so that we’re not factories. We need to have that breadth of thought, which also includes advocacy for directors, for emerging directors, for mid-career directors, not just shows. Because it’s all about the health of our industry.
“With Encores! Off-Center I’m being paid a fee, and that helps me. I’m also a resident director at the Roundabout Theatre. Getting a salary allows me to do some deep thinking and not just react all the time. I’m really hoping that the American theatre continues to be brave and to experiment with content and form and be a place that people look to for what’s happening next in the art form.”