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Marvin’s Room: Interview with Anne Kauffman

Posted on: July 20th, 2017 by Ted Sod

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Anne Kauffman: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. I was one of six children and I often say that my theatrical chops came from trying to get attention from my family. I went to school in California for both undergrad and graduate school; two different universities, but I was an actor in undergrad -- a bad actor as it turned out. I was cast a lot as guys and it became very clear to me that I wasn’t destined for the stage because of my acting talent. I took a class in directing and my teacher, Michael Hackett, said to me, “You’re a director.” I learned quite a bit from Michael and he sat me down one day and said, “What are you going to do now that you know you are a director?” It was really moving that he validated me in that way. Ultimately, I decided to move to New York in the early ‘90s when Marvin’s Room debuted off-Broadway. I did not see it, but I was very aware of it. I like to say that Marvin’s Room and I came to the city at the same time and we are now making our Broadway debut together. I was an intern at Circle Rep before it closed its doors. I interned in their literary office in 1988 and then I worked for David Esbjornson at Classic Stage Company, where I was his resident assistant director.

TS: How did you get involved with The Civilians?

AK: I went to graduate school at UCSD and our mentor there, Les Waters, was part of Joint Stock at the Royal Court in London and in that company were Max Stafford-Clark, Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker, among others. Joint Stock created interview-based work. Les taught a class in it and one of my classmates, Steve Cosson really took to the method as a way of creating work.  We started The Civilians upon coming back to New York in 1999/2000.

TS: Why did you choose to direct Scott McPherson’s play Marvins Room?  What do you think this play is about?

AK: It is interesting that I’m making my Broadway debut with a revival and not a new play.  I’m a new-play director who does weird new plays.  But, David Binder and Sharon Karmazin optioned the play and David brought it to me. And actually, it has the elements that I traffic in as a new-play director; it has the absurdity and the kind of humanity that is in my wheelhouse and it is a stranger play than people give it credit for. I think it’s quite revolutionary in its own way. It’s unfortunate that I never got to meet Scott McPherson, who died not long after the play debuted in New York. Not only do I miss having the playwright in the room, but by all accounts, he was a startling human. I’ve been speaking with Jim Bagley, who is the Literary Executor for the play, and I feel as though I’m beginning to know Scott through him and learning what he cared about and how his sense of humor, which is dark and very confrontational, functions. The play is about facing illness, caregiving, the labyrinthian medical establishment, and what it means to be in a family. What those relationships and responsibilities are. Scott’s not being coy about any of these things, he’s facing them head on and he does it with a great sense of humor. His humor is what complicates the world in a really beautiful way.

TS: Do you see the play as contemporary or a period piece or doesn’t it really matter?

AK: I think that what it’s grappling with is contemporary. It’s some of the details like what’s available medically and…well…smoking indoors (that I refused to part with!) that put the action in a particular decade. But what Scott was talking about will forever be contemporary because we live in a culture that does not value caregiving and does not pay attention to or want to confront illness, aging or death. In this country, those things are very neatly swept under the rug. This play exposes those issues and treats them with respect. The play values and celebrates the act of caregiving and celebrates our responsibility to one another -- rather than trying to shut it away in a dark room.

TS: Will you give us some insight into your process as a director? What kind of research did you have to do?

AK: My way into any play is through the design -- through the set design really – and, so, the set designer is my most important collaborator. I don’t understand the play until I understand what the space is and I don’t mean “is it a kitchen?” I mean, what is the psychic space? What is the metaphor that most accurately expresses or captures the engine of the play? We have to address not only what the play is about, but what the metaphor is that encapsulates it.  We examine who these characters are within the space, what are their comings and goings? I know that sounds pedestrian, but it is actually very illuminating when you’re trying to figure out where someone is physically coming from and where someone is physically going. For instance, in this play, there are a lot of locations. My collaborator on this set is Laura Jellinek and what was important to us was finding the envelope of the play. When the audience walks into the theater, what is the tone? What is the mood? What do we want to communicate? And then within that, if we do the envelope well, the interior machinations of going from space to space and how characters move from one location to another should follow with fluidity and ease. And the mechanism that we use to get from place to place has dramaturgical value. Laura and I approached this play as an absurdist journey through the medical establishment. For Bessie, it’s a journey from caregiving to being taken care of. I think that Scott wrote the very first scene as a vaudeville to illuminate the idea that the byzantine medical establishment is a confusing and ridiculous entity. We start the play as a vaudeville downstage in one and then the curtain lifts and we see Bessie’s home and on stage left there’s a turntable and with each revolve of that turntable, we switch locations. That turntable ends up being a carousel at Disney World. So what you realize is that Bessie’s life, within the span of the play, has been this circular and somewhat disorienting ride-like journey.

Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: I’m curious how you understand the relationship between Bessie and her sister Lee?

AK: I have very deep relationships with my sisters. It is very difficult for me to understand how sisters could not be close because I’m so dependent on mine. I think that within families, children take on certain responsibilities and they are labeled from a very young age. What kind of person are we in our family’s dynamic? Are we the black sheep? Are we someone who’s a really good student? Someone who’s maternal or someone who is a rebel? I feel like I’m the rebel in my family. Although we aren’t fractious like the two sisters in Marvin’s Room, I understand that family is the most wonderful and the most heinous source of who we are as individuals. It gives us everything. It writes our history into the future. I think the thing that the sisters in Marvin’s Room are striving for is redefinition and a chance to reconfigure their relationship. One of the things that’s important about the play is that the audience not jump to the conclusion that Bessie has sacrificed herself, that she has taken herself out of the world to take care of her father, Marvin, and her aunt Ruth. It would be reductive to decide that Bessie’s reality was Plan Z and not Plan A. I certainly think Lee judges Bessie in that way. And I think Bessie sees Lee as a fuck up and someone who is shirking responsibility -- but Lee has her own family who she’s trying to be responsible for. I’m trying not to view Bessie as someone who is just taking care of her family or Lee as someone who has abandoned her family. I want to relook at their individual actions, not as negative choices, but as things that are fulfilling and right for who these women are.

TS: Let’s talk about casting. What traits did you need in the actors?

AK: I think that this play is trafficking in and articulates the need for generosity and that we all need to model that behavior. So, I was looking for actors who have reputations for being generous. There’s so much to explore in this play. We all need to give this play the kind of exploration it deserves and I often find if I’m getting resistance from an actor, it denies the company from going as deeply as it can.  And this is just too important of a play to settle for a surface reading.  What the play is saying about this culture and what we need from one another requires actors who are giving.

TS: Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to direct and how do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

AK: I would say you’ve just got to do it. You have to do it whenever you can. Get your friends together and work on your craft. You have to put stuff up wherever and whenever. It can be just two chairs in your living room, but figure it out so that you start to understand what you’re interested in and what your voice is. Then you can worry about your career.

I feel very clear nowadays that when I’m attracted to a play, it’s because  it usually includes real questions I have about my life. What inspires me are the questions I have about how to move forward in this country right now. And I seek out work that is an exploration in answering those questions.


Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.



Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room, Upstage


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