Bigger Than Us
For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you realized that you wanted to pursue being a freelance director as a career?
Kimberly Senior: It’s been an evolution. In 1997 I founded Collaboraction Theatre Company. We had a company meeting one night that lasted hours. I realized that I wasn’t running the meeting as an artistic leader—I was much more interested in facilitating all the voices, helping each member find agency; and I realized then that the democratic process wasn’t getting anything done.
The best parts of being a freelance director are being able to work so many different places and interact with so many different staffs, audiences, and artists. The question has always been for me: Where can I have the most impact? I’ve always been obsessed with travel and I think working as a freelance director has made me feel like I’m visiting different countries. It’s such an apt metaphor for the work. Each theater has such a distinct flavor and part of the puzzle is navigating each theater’s “map.”
I’ve always loved so many different types of theatre. One of the reasons I landed in Chicago was that there was a density of theatrical experience. I wanted to devour it all. Being freelance gives me the opportunity to push my boundaries with many different types of theaters and audiences. I joke that I’m a “high end carnie”: I’ve got boxes that I send from town to town, and wherever I land, I unpack my tent and Ferris wheel. But that nomadic life style feels good to me. I certainly bring my energy from town to town but also really feed on what’s already there. I engage constantly with: How is the conversation different with this audience? How does each institution function?
TCG: What is one piece of advice you wish you had received at the start of your career that you would like to pass on to early-career directors?
KS: Careers are long! I was at a board dinner at Lincoln Center Theater a few years ago. Jack O’Brien was being honored that evening and gave a brief speech. He’s had such a long and rich career and is over thirty years older than I am. Listening to him that night—his passion, his energy, his dynamism—was so inspiring! I want to feel that way about my work well into my 70s. Freelancing has its terrifying moments, to be sure, (where is my next job? How will I pay my bills? Will I ever see my children again?) but it’s also exciting how often we get to begin again or start something new. I’m equally terrified and exhilarated by every first rehearsal and it is precisely that feeling that I want to put in a bottle. It’s my adrenaline rush!
I wish I had spent more time cultivating my “human” self—whether with travel, or hobbies, or time with friends and family. The great news is that you don’t age out of directing plays and the more life experience you bring to the work, the better. I’ve directed over 100 plays over the past 20 years and I still get nervous like it’s the first day at a new school before every rehearsal. We might get “better” at the work, or have more facility and nimbleness with the work because of experience, but that heart and energy feels like the first time every time.
TCG: What is one conversation you would like to have with other freelance directors to address an obstacle facing the directing profession? What would you say to other directors about this issue?
KS: A few years ago I reached out to a bunch of directors in the Chicago area. My suggestion being that we start a discussion group, gets together for snacks and drinks, and chat every few months. We’ve done a pretty good job at keeping it up amongst 20 or so working directors! The obstacle is that directors get so isolated—we don’t have the chance to interact with one another like actors do, or even like designers do. We need to interact with one another more, swap stories, seek advice, and share resources. We need to talk about plays! And bounce ideas off of one another. The other big issue for me is one of mentorship. Sometimes the work feels so scarce that we don’t have the chance to raise one another up. But I think there’s enough pie to share, as it were. We need to look to the generation in front of us for inspiration and lead the next generation by providing opportunities and connections. We need to see each other’s work and discuss it. Let us hold open the door more often than quickly slamming it shut behind us, no matter how hard it was for us to open it in the first place.
TCG: What was a moment in your career as a freelance director where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally?
KS: Robert Henri, in the tremendous book The Art Spirit says: "To come in contact with a truly wonderful work of art causes a tremendous revolution to occur in you.”
And that’s what Disgraced has done for me and for all of us lucky enough to come in contact with it— as both the audience and as creators on the stage. The experience of directing seven productions of Disgraced in five different cities while the play is also happening in dozens of other theaters has been remarkable. I am often asked how it is possible that I am still working on the play. But since my first interaction with the play in October 2011 up until now, the world has changed so much. The artists working on the play have changed, and I too have changed. I must be vigilant to continue to acknowledge and re-evaluate the context in which the work is being produced. Yes. We are back in rehearsal. Yes. We are revisiting old questions, but we are also finding new ones. The content of the play and its intense conversation feels like it’s bubbling under the national consciousness. It’s particularly relevant in an election year. I love knowing that in so many places these questions of identity and tribalism, loyalty and ambition, are being discussed at dinner tables, in lobbies, and on the train. It’s energizing to see the power of storytelling and seeing the trials of human behavior playing out beyond the boundaries of the theater. In my most optimistic moments I think the play is uniting us—it’s a national book club that gives us a place to begin the conversation. There are some pretty terrifying issues exposed in the play. Having the opportunity to collaborate with so many different artists and audiences surrounding it has been by far the most rewarding gift in my life. It’s the stuff you dream of. It’s bigger than all of us.
Kimberly Senior: New York—Disgraced (Broadway), The Who and The What, Disgraced (LCT3). Chicago— Disgraced; Rapture, Blister, Burn (Goodman); Marjorie Prime, Diary of Anne Frank, Hedda Gabler, The Letters (Writers); Discord, 4000 Miles, The Whipping Man (Northlight); Want, The North Plan (Steppenwolf); My Name is Asher Lev, All My Sons, Dolly West's Kitchen (TimeLine); among others. Regional—Sex with Strangers (Geffen); Disgraced (Berkeley Rep, Seattle Rep, Mark Taper Forum); The Who and The What (La Jolla Playhouse); Little Gem (City Theatre); among others. Kimberly received the 2016 Special Non-Equity Jeff Citation. She was a 2013 Finalist for SDCF Joe A. Callaway and Zelda Fichandler Awards.
TOP: Disgraced, Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, NYC. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2014
SECOND: Kimberly Senior and cast during rehearsals. Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
HEADSHOT: photo by Brandon Dahlquist