“It was exhilarating and terrifying,” says director Moisés Kaufman about the chance to direct Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. “Exhilarating because it’s a play that changed my life in a way—it’s a play that made my life possible. At the same time it was terrifying; you don’t want to f*ck that one up.”
Kaufman first saw a touring production of Torch Song Trilogy while visiting San Francisco from his native Venezuela and was an awakening for the would-be playwright and director. Since then, Kaufman wrote the landmark work The Laramie Project (which he also directed Off-Broadway in 2000). The writer of Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, Gross Indecency: The Trails of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project and 33 Variations—the latter two of which he also directed—earned recognition immediately when he first made it to Broadway when he earned a Drama Desk nomination and a Tony nomination for the direction of his Main Stem debut I Am My Own Wife. His next Broadway outing, the transfer of 33 Variations, starring Jane Fonda, earned him a second Tony nomination—this time for his writing. He later directed Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Jessica Chastain in the 2012 revival of The Heiress.
Here, Kaufman talks about coming back to Broadway with Torch Song starring Michael Urie, how he chooses his projects, working with actors like Williams, and more.
Why he became a director:
“Well, I started as a director and then I found writing afterwards. The reason that I did that is because I'm interested in conducting the whole theatrical experience, the whole theatrical stage event.”
His directing principles:
“I don't think that I have an approach, per se. I think each text and each new idea poses its own challenges. If I have an approach it's to be open and to be available to the material. Both as a writer and as a director. [In choosing projects], something flips inside you that you don't, it's hard to describe, but you know that you want to do it as soon as possible. I like what Peter Brooks says about [his approach]; he says he starts with a hunch. And then the work with his collaborators, it's to flesh out that hunch. So I think that's me, too. The only thing I would add to that is that I'm a very visual person so that also comes into play.
“Like 33 Variations. Because it was something I could see from the word ‘go,’ I was able to execute. That was one where I had a hunch about this piece of music and then I created a whole play around it and then I did it in several places in the country and then I brought it in [to Broadway].”
With an actor in the rehearsal room:
“We're very very collaborative and we make things on our feet. Robin Williams was amazing because no matter what note you gave him there was always such enthusiasm. His reply to every note I gave him was always, ‘Oh that's wonderful, let me try that.’ That doesn't mean that at the end of the day that he agreed with every note or that he did every note, sometimes he would come back to me and say, ‘That didn't work so well, did it? I didn't like that so much,’ but the enthusiasm with which he took my notes got the best work out of me because he was so enthusiastic about our collaboration. When that happens it's not only great, it inspires you and becomes fun and it's really really wonderful.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“Nope. I can't think of one. [Laughs] I don't make any mistakes. I don't know what you're talking about. Everything comes out of my brain in perfect—it works perfectly already.”
A good decision he made that he learned from:
“Listening to the audience as they listen to the play is something you learn as a director, you become very keenly aware of what's going on in the house as it happens.
“I hope to be a conduit between the playwright's intentions and the audience. I hope to be the translator. As somebody from Venezuela and somebody whose mother is Spanish, I think about translating a lot. How do you make one language become another language? And I think the actor's job is a job of translation. You have to translate the ideas and the text of the playwrighting to a living breathing event on stage that the audience can then relate to. So I am the bridge between the playwright and the audience. And so that's why I said my job as a director is to always bring exhilaration to the author.”
About Torch Song:
“I was keenly aware that one of the reasons why the play worked so well is because there's so much humanity in it and so much truth to it and so much raw, unadulterated observation into the human condition. I wanted to make sure that our production was fruitful and that the beats in the production were truthful and were honest. That was something that I thought a lot about - how do we make what's happening on the stage so humanly true and so true to the text that it would live on the stage.
“My job was to make Harvey Fierstein exhilaratingly happy about the production. I knew that I would have succeeded if at the end of the day he was happy with the work. As a playwright myself, I am keenly aware of really trying to listen to the playwright on text and in person. Something happened which was very weird though. As a director when I work with playwrights, usually the conversation is can we cut this, cut that, part of my job is to edit the text. Here it was the opposite: I kept looking at the original script of the play and saying ‘Can we have this line back?’ because I love the script so much and he kept saying no. It was very funny.”
“I am going next to Berkeley Repertory Theatre to do a musical called Paradise Square. [In term’s who I’d like to work with], somebody that I really love is Stephen Karam. I think he's a genius. There are a lot of wonderful playwrights out there and wonderful actors so I don't know, but that's the first person that comes to mind. Tarell Alvin McCraney is another.”