On June 24, 2017, Anne Kauffman spoke about Marvin’s Room with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. An edited transcript follows (There are spoilers below).
Ted Sod: Anne was born and reared in Phoenix, Arizona, and she is one of six children. She was educated on the West Coast in California for both undergraduate and graduate school. Anne, while you were at undergrad school, a teacher said to you, “You’re a director; how does it feel to be a director?” Will you talk about how it felt to be validated by him?
Anne Kauffman: That happened during my first couple of years in college. As Ted said, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, in a very protective family. Going to college away from home, many of us experience that confusion where you don’t know who the hell you are. I had such a strong upbringing and I learned so much in college by being exposed to many different people, I was actually very destabilized. It truly has taken me until now to get myself together. So, at that particular point in my life, when someone from outside my family saw me objectively and suggested I was good at something – something that I actually wanted to do -- it was really empowering. I think if he didn’t say that to me, I may not have continued on this path. I think we’re so fragile at that time in our lives, throwing things against the wall and seeing if they’ll stick.
TS: In graduate school, Les Waters, the director, had an influence on you. Will you tell us how that manifested?
AK: I don’t know if everyone knows who Les Waters is; he is a British director. He is fantastic. He’s done a bunch of things in New York City. He directed Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at Second Stage -- The Christians at Playwrights Horizons -- and he’s worked a lot with Caryl Churchill. I took a lot of time off before I went to graduate school because I decided I needed to have more life experience. I had been in school forever. Les was very specific about wanting students who had lived a bit. He was actually a new teacher and he treated me like a colleague -- which was a new experience for me. I learned a lot about collaboration working with him. He put himself on my level; we looked at a problem side by side rather than as mentor and mentee. It was unnerving at first, but I was able to realize that there is no right or wrong when it comes to being an artist – a director is collaboratively trying to figure something out. You fumble around in the dark for a while. You can have a lot of experience in the field, but some of the problems you encounter are always going to be the same.
TS: Wasn’t it through him that you became familiar with the type of work you ultimately brought here and did with The Civilians?
AK: Les Waters worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London, and there was a company called Joint Stock which they formed with Max Stafford-Clark, Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and a lot of artists that many of you would recognize. They created work through an interview process. There are a number of Caryl Churchill plays that were actually created through this Joint Stock process. My colleague Steve Cosson and I were schooled in this process in graduate school. Les taught a class on Joint Stock and we were very taken with the method. Steve decided he wanted to start a company here in New York City, so we could make work using that same process. We picked a topic; we interviewed a number of people about it; and then we developed a show.
TS: When I interviewed you for the Marvin’s Room playgoers guide, you said it’s ironic that you were making your debut on Broadway with a revival, because you’ve directed so many new plays. You said one of the things that you miss about not working on a new play is having the playwright in the room with you.
AK: I feel like I really know Scott McPherson. I didn’t know him when he was alive -- he passed away in 1993 -- but I feel like I know him because his sensibility reminds me of the circle of friends I had when I first moved to New York. Marvin’s Room was originally produced in Chicago. Scott and his partner, Danny Sotomayor, lived in Chicago. After the show opened at the Goodman Theatre there, it was brought to Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and then to Playwrights Horizons in New York City in 1991, which is when I moved to New York. I didn’t see the play at that time, thank God, because I’m very impressionable. But I like to say that Scott and I both came to New York in 1991 and we’re making our Broadway debut together these many years later. I feel like I grew up on his particular brand of absurdism and realism and how elegant he is at interweaving comedy and tragedy. What I love about his language is that it is very funny, and it feels somewhat absurd, but how far from reality is it really? You get such a strong sense of Scott’s perspective on the world. I think a lot of people see this play through the lens of AIDS. The play’s themes of mortality happened to coincide with a very particular moment in history in our country. His perspective on the spectrum of life and death never seemed so far away from each other. The play is a celebration of the interweaving of both. I do think that in this country we are very afraid of illness, becoming older, dying, and the prospect of what is going to happen to us. Caregiving is a very tricky concept in this country. I think it’s not something that is celebrated in the way that it should be, and I think Scott celebrates it in this play.
TS: Was there a time when you thought, I really want to ask Scott this particular question? Was there a moment when you needed to commune with him if he were still alive?
AK: What is great about a good playwright is that they put a map on the page. Whenever I got lost, I’d go back inside the script and ask, “Why did he choose this word rather than that word? Why is the period here rather than there?” It’s illuminating, and it helped me feel like he was there with me. I feel like I have his sensibility; I feel very close to him. But, having said that, it is always really nice to have a living playwright in the room to add another dimension to the discovery process.
TS: So many directors tell me that their process with the playwright is to ask a million questions to get inside the play, so that they can understand it as fully as possible. Sometimes I don’t even know if the playwright knows what they’ve created.
AK: Well, if they’re good they don’t. They’re writing unconsciously, and they’re writing from a part of themselves that doesn’t completely understand what they’re writing. I completely agree.
TS: You have a remarkable cast and I would like you to talk about what you were looking for in the audition process. Scott Ellis, who is Associate Artistic Director here, always says, “I wanted to find people I wanted to spend eight weeks with. It’s really very intense working on a play together.” It seems to me that you needed very specific skills from the actors you cast. Is that true?
AK: First of all, I think Scott Ellis is absolutely right. I need to know if the actors are willing to collaborate and to listen and to push forward. If there are blocks in the rehearsal room -- meaning if there’s a lot of resistance -- we don’t get very far. I knew with this company of actors that they were going to dive in head first and be very open and engaged in experimenting with everything. I think that the particular kind of actor needed for the tone of this play is very specific; they have to be comedians with huge hearts and their understanding of the humanity in the play is very important. Both qualities are necessary, so you can have those moments of laughter and then deeply felt pain. We all know that comedy is the flip side of tragedy, etc. For example, Celia Weston playing Aunt Ruth in the scene where she’s talking about not telling Marvin that Bessie is gone and how she ignores the nurse – what is so extraordinary about that is that it’s funny, but we also feel Ruth’s inability to confront Marvin and tell him something that would absolutely crush him. That sort of comedy and tragedy juxtaposed is what is required of the actors in this play.
TS: There is something quite profound in this play when Lili Taylor’s character Bessie says “I’ve been so lucky to have loved so much.” That is a moment that just lands in such a marvelous way because it is filled with wisdom.
AK: For us, it was a real discovery for Bessie. It’s something that she is puzzling out as she has this moment of real weakness. She sees the end may be near and the arc of her life flashes back to her. In rehearsal, it felt like that moment was an enriching discovery for the character.
TS: Especially in a culture that emphasizes being first, all about yourself, making the most of every opportunity and taking as opposed to giving. This play also says a lot about our responsibility to our families.
AK: I have four sisters and a brother. The idea of family in this play is very important to me. In many of our families, the way our parents and siblings regard us helps to define the role we play in that family. You sometimes get stuck in your role. When you come home, you are almost calcified in that role. What is so extraordinary about Scott’s play is how he dramatizes our ability to break out of these roles. We see Lee slowly become the comfort-giver rather than the comfort-receiver. Lee really steps up and Bessie allows Lee to take care of her. Families are where so many of our behavioral patterns begin and I really love this idea of family being a mutable, living, generous thing that can shift.
TS: One of the wonderful things in this play is the budding relationship between Bessie and her nephew Hank. You can see that they both need each other: she not only wants him to take the bone marrow test, she sincerely wants to know more about him and he craves the attention. I have a niece and nephew and I find that sometimes that dynamic is so different from the dynamic between parents and their children.
AK: Absolutely. Out of six children, I’m the only one who doesn’t have children. I am very close with my nieces and nephews and it’s just a different relationship. My curiosity with my nieces and nephews is very pure -- I have no agenda with them; it’s pure love and curiosity. I feel my nieces and nephews actually gravitating toward me because I am pressure-free, and they can tell me things they can’t tell their parents. I love this relationship of blood that has no real pressure or responsibility.
TS: I read a New York Times interview with you, Lili, Janeane and Celia, and you said something to the effect of, “I don’t walk into the rehearsal room saying this is what it’s going to be. I want to make discoveries about the play together.” Can you talk a bit about those discoveries and that process?
AK: When I was a younger director, I felt like I had to plan everything out, and that I had to know everything to the nth degree. Theatre is a very collaborative, live art form, and what I realized was that when I would come into a rehearsal room and just sort of dictate, I wasn’t really paying attention to who I cast, the chemistry, the group of personalities, the contributions that the actors themselves could make. When I discovered that something that I had pre-planned so diligently wasn’t working, it was very destabilizing for me. It took me a long time to come back around to fix a moment, because it was so hard to unclench my fists from it. As I get older and busier, I tend to leave myself big gaps. I’ll know what the play means to me and then we all make discoveries in rehearsal. I think that one of the biggest preproduction processes that I engage with is the set design; when I’m working on the set design, that’s when I really dig into the play. It’s enormously helpful. I have incredible design collaborators. I learn more about the play through its physical manifestation and what the space means metaphorically. I always have to start from a place of metaphor with a space. Laura Jellinek, the set designer, and I wanted to see the play through Bessie’s eyes and the ridiculous journey through her medical experience. The turntable, which is kind of a carnivalesque carousel, becomes concrete in Disney World; it reflects her crazy ride from the time that she’s diagnosed with leukemia till the end of the play. Again, the turntable is practical in terms of getting from space to space, but then it also became deeply metaphorical for the absurd journey that she takes.
TS: I’ve heard directors say time and time again, that the stage in this theatre has its own challenges, because it is so wide.
AK: It’s really wide, yes.
TS: Especially for something that wants intimacy. That’s another thing I loved about your production, how naturally the actors are projecting. It never feels like they’re pushing. You really do feel like you’re eavesdropping. Was that difficult to accomplish?
AK: Yes, sound in here is very tricky.
Audience Member #1: I absolutely loved Marvin’s Room. My question is about Hank. To me, he is coming back for a sacrifice. I’m wondering what you think the motivation for him coming back is?
AK: Oh, that’s interesting. You think he is coming back to sacrifice himself for Lee?
Audience Member #1: Right, because I think he would be better off by himself.
AK: I think that something happens at Disney World for everyone. Not just because Bessie faints and everyone has to come to her aid. Because Hank and Bessie start to form a relationship, I think Hank is ready to reach out to his mother…and Lee, having witnessed the relationship, wants to start over with Hank as well. So, at the top of the scene, when Lee and Hank are sitting on the bench together I think there is a real effort on both their parts to reach one another. I think their chemistry is volatile, we watch them try to control their regular impulses with each other. When Hank carries Bessie in the following scene, I think that action -- from my point of view -- solidifies the change in his behavior. Hank says in an earlier scene, “I wish I were someplace else” and Bessie says, “Well, why aren’t you then?” What I think happens is that Hank’s idea of what that someplace else is morphs; he gets there physically and then he realizes that someplace else is actually back with his family starting a new chapter. Hank and Lee have a long way to go, but I think Hank really just doesn’t want to leave Bessie or Marvin, and really wants to make a connection with Lee.
TS: While watching today, I got the feeling that he was stepping up in a paternal way when he tells Charlie, “You have to study, why are you doing badly in school?” Obviously, Charlie is smart. I sensed that Hank is ready to take on some kind of responsibility.
Audience Member #2: My question is about the father, Marvin, and what kind of work you did when talking about who he is. Also, who plays Marvin so beautifully, and are those sounds he makes recorded or are they improvised?
TS: Carman Lacivita plays him, right?
AK: Carman, yes, and he plays Bob and he plays the guy in the gopher or dog suit at Disney World. We spent a lot of time talking about who Marvin was to these two sisters. It is so easy to project onto Marvin the idea that he was the perfect father. We were very interested in the relationship that each of the sisters had with him before he fell ill, so we explored that history with the them and with Ruth. It is a very detailed back story that we have. And how his relationship with each daughter differs. In his compromised state, the state we now see him in, we came up with this idea of a man who has his wits about him, but he just doesn’t have the ability to communicate. We think that Ruth and Bessie know exactly what he is saying. And they are right. I think the distance between who Marvin was to each sister and his current state is a point of real interest for each of them. I think their musing about his younger virile days speaks to their desire to be taken care of again.
TS: You get a little glimpse of how he might have treated his daughters when the two sisters are talking about the carny worker Bessie was involved with. They talk about how their Dad would’ve hated that.
AK: Yes, we think he was strict and a military man.
TS: Is Ruth related on his side? Or the mother’s side? Do we know that?
AK: It’s not in the script, but I always thought Ruth and Marvin are blood related.
Audience Member #3: There is a scene where Lee talks to Hank about how Hank was being hurt by his father. It happened very quickly, but maybe that explains why Hank is the way he is. Was I imagining it?
AK: You were not imagining it at all. That’s exactly right. What is so beautiful, again, about what Scott has written, as far as I’m concerned, is that you understand that Lee’s guilt is contributing to the combative relationship between her and Hank. Information about the abuse that seems to have happened comes out very quickly and then Ruth and Charlie enter and Hank is left with this piece of information to sort out on his own.
Audience Member #3: So when Charlie came along, Lee’s husband was still there?
AK: When Charlie came along, Lee says, “I wanted to stop this and I threw him out.” Which is an intense admission to make to your other son – she basically says, “I wanted to save Charlie, but I ignored what was happening to you.”
Audience Member #4: As a director, do you move on to a new project when this opens, or are you still very much involved with the entire run of the play?
AK: There’s a certain point in the rehearsal process right before we open that we call “freezing the show,” and we’re headed toward that moment. Once opening happens, I disappear. I don’t disappear fully; I’ll come and watch and give notes, but technically, I’m onto the next project and the cast and crew take it and run with it.
TS: The stage manager pretty much takes over, correct?
AK: Yes, our stage manager Barclay Stiff will keep watch over the production. Barclay is one of my favorite kinds of stage managers because he’s got a director’s eye -- so when I give a note, he understands where it is coming from and how it is supposed to manifest. With someone like him, I have a real partner in the maintenance of the process.
TS: Anne, do you want to tell the audience what you’re in rehearsal for now and what’s happening at New York Theatre Workshop next season?
AK: Sure, at Encores!, I’m directing Assassins next.
TS: And then you are directing a play that you did at Yale recently that is coming to town – correct?
AK: Yes, I’m directing a play by Amy Herzog. She wrote 4000 Miles and Belleville. We’re working on her new play called Mary Jane and we’re going to be at New York Theatre Workshop this fall.
Audience Member #5: Did you have any problems finding the comedy from the dialogue?
TS: So, you’re asking her how she went about doing that or if there was a challenge in doing that?
Audience Member #5: Was it a challenge to do that?
AK: Directors are completely reliant on the actors’ understanding of what is funny about a line, but also, at a certain point during the process, we take every line apart and it becomes deeply unfunny for a very long time. And then, there’s structure and rhythm that helps. A good playwright like Scott really understands rhythm. I think the challenge is finding and sticking to the playwright’s rhythms. A comedy is a machine of sorts that a good playwright builds and if you give into it, it is enormously helpful in guiding the comedy.
Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Marvin's Room