Anne Kauffman: Riding the Language
Writers forging their way into quirky new territory are her cup of tea
By Justin Boyd
If New York is the epicenter of new plays in America, then near the center of that center stands director Anne Kauffman. Her longstanding relationships with writers like Adam Bock, Anne Washburn and Jordan Harrison have made her the beneficiary, champion and foremost interpreter of a type of new work that has recently lit up the New York scene and is slowly but surely gaining the attention of theatres across the country.
Kauffman, 39, describes these playwrights as “neo-realists,” and the term fits. Despite their stylistic differences, her collaborators use poetic language and nontraditional structure to abstract the theatrical experience just enough to make a play’s world slightly strange—and, therefore, mysterious and engaging. We recognize ourselves on stage, but in a funhouse mode that can be hilarious, disturbing, curious, frustrating, delightful, sad or any of the above.
“I like plays that bleed through the seams,” Kauffman says. “I’m not interested in slick. I like plays where there’s air in there that’s not necessarily accounted for.”
Kauffman’s recent career momentum parallels the burgeoning interest in the playwrights with whom she works.
“I’m really happy that she’s been able to ride the wave of these playwrights—and vice versa—because they so need each other,” says Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New York City’s New Georges, which produced the critically acclaimed premiere of Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear this past May, with Kauffman directing. “The work is so exciting,” Bernfield allows, “but the work isn’t going to get any farther if it’s directed by people who don’t understand it.”
That understanding is largely about trusting the language and following it until structure, meaning and motivation reveal themselves, Kauffman says, rather than trying to decipher everything up front. “I think it’s about riding the language—you follow the language, you follow the rhythm, and that’s where a lot of the meaning is,” she says. “It also feels very real. We don’t plan every word we say—stuff just comes out and we follow behind it. I’ve always thought that that’s an interesting thing to watch on stage, not being on top of language, but actually being one step behind.”
This was the case with God’s Ear, in which the language—rife with sentence fragments, stymied thoughts and poetic streams of clichés—highlighted the shattered world of a family that had just lost a child. The temptation early in the rehearsal process was to search for literal, line-by-line meaning in the characters’ words, Kauffman says. But imposing those boundaries on the lines would not only have ascribed an inappropriate self-awareness and self-control to the characters, but would have wrecked the metaphorical nature of the play’s language. With the characters’ struggle to communicate preserved, the play was a heart-wrenching depiction of a world where words had lost their power to change the bleak reality of the characters’ lives. In Kauffman’s Soho Repertory production last fall of Adam Bock’s The Thugs—in an even greater abandonment of reliance on literal meaning—sections of dialogue were whispered and incomprehensible to the audience.
In many of the plays Kauffman directs, however, language is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Despite the poetry and oddity of the presentation, the goal is still emotional resonance in a recognizable world. A major part of Kauffman’s talent, her collaborators say, is her ability to define physical and psychological context without stifling a play’s linguistic momentum.
“What she does is sort of make a concrete world where the language dances along, but doesn’t actually separate from the world,” says Bock, whose The Thugs won both him and Kauffman Obie awards. “This can be hard in language-heavy work, to have it not suddenly just be spoken. What she does is marry the language to action really well.”
This is no accident, Kauffman says. Physicalizing a play—putting it into three-dimensional space—is a prerequisite for her comprehension of the text. “I don’t understand a play until it’s up on its feet,” she says. “In fact, I don’t feel like I can read plays and make comments on them before I hear them or get them up. I need to see it in three dimensions before I can see what the hell it is.”
Kauffman’s process starts with the writer-director conversation, a back-and-forth where she gets to know the play from the writer’s perspective. “An important part of the process for her is to make sure that the conversation with the playwright is very rich and that she ‘gets it,’” Bernfield says.
One of Kauffman’s greatest strengths in these conversations is her lack of an agenda, says Washburn, whose relationship with Kauffman dates back to 1999 and includes a collaboration on the development of 2004’s The Ladies (for the Civilians in New York), a metatheatrical meditation on the historical legacy of four dictators’ wives. Kauffman meets new material on its own terms, Washburn says. “She’s completely about what the play wants to do. She’s interested in the work itself, and in the ways she can foster its own aims and ambitions, rather than any that she might bring to the table.”
This includes preserving the parts of a script whose purpose or effect isn’t immediately—or potentially ever—clear. With The Thugs, “She trusted a bunch of things that were quite odd and went with them,” Bock says. “She’s not afraid of the odd.” (An entire scene in the Soho Rep production, for instance, was comprised of an empty office—a fluorescent bulb blew, a cell phone went off, then blackout.)
Openness to a play’s quirks and the playwright’s prerogatives, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for spinelessness, Kauffman cautions, an assertion that’s supported by the writers. “There have been times when the playwright dictates too much,” Kauffman points out. “I have to be careful and make sure that I’m actually bringing something to the process—that the playwright is listening to what I’m saying.”
In rehearsal, Kauffman’s need to see a play becomes immediately apparent. “I think what I’ve started to learn recently is that to get up on your feet as soon as possible is really important, especially with language plays that are highly rhythmic, because the behavior and movement totally affects the rhythm,” the director says. “Learning it one way at the table fucks us up because it may be a completely different rhythm when you’re up on your feet.”
For The Thugs, “we didn’t even have a table read,” Bock confirms. “Anne got it on its feet right away and started working everything at once, so we worked spatially and vocally and musically, all of them together.”
This immediate immersion in all levels of performance can be intimidating for actors who want to decipher words’ meaning and define relationships before playing the language, Kauffman acknowledges. “It’s scary, but you can’t be careful with this stuff—you have to dive into the deep end.” She asserts that this approach actually engages and empowers actors more than standard rehearsal procedures do. “Actors begin to understand in three dimensions and can contribute to the process much more wholly and productively than me just telling them what to do every second.”
This collaborative spirit in rehearsal extends not only to playwrights (who are allowed and even encouraged to talk to the actors) but also to designers—Kauffman sometimes challenges them with directives to create “something funny” (the solitary ringing cell phone in The Thugs) or a set that’s “alive” (the cavernous, soundstage-like set of God’s Ear).
“She allows people to make big choices and then chooses, rather than pushing them only in one direction,” Bock says.
Kauffman’s current project is the premiere of Ann Marie Healy’s Have You Seen Steve Steven?, running through Oct. 6 in New York City, a production of the playwrights’ collective 13P. She heads to Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., to direct John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt in December, then to Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to direct the premiere of David Adjmi’s Stunning.
Though she’s fielding more offers these days to direct plays by established writers, working with innovative newcomers is too exciting for her to abandon it, she says. “For me the perfect collaboration is discovering the play together—charting new territory,” she avows. “I’m sort of on a crusade. These texts need to be mainstream theatre. These plays need to be what American theatre is.”
Justin Boyd is a 2006-07 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation.