Just before rehearsals, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sat down with Director Moisés Kaufman to discuss his thoughts on The Common Pursuit.
Ted Sod: Is this the first time you’ll be directing at the Roundabout?
Moisés Kaufman: Yes.
Tell us a bit about where you were born and educated. How did you become a playwright and director?
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and I moved to the United States in 1987 to go to NYU to be an experimental theatre major. I was an actor in Venezuela for five years before I came to New York and decided to become a director and playwright. I started my work as a director; directing other people’s plays for about five years in New York and then I decided that some of the questions I was posing about theatre needed to be answered by writing my own text. So I wrote Gross Indecency in 1996.
Can you talk about the differences between directing and writing? What is it like to direct your own writing?
Lonely. That’s the hardest part; you don’t have a collaborator to bounce ideas off of. There is something similar about the job of the director and playwright; it’s about creating worlds on the stage, worlds that follow their own internal logic. My job as a director, when I’m working with a playwright other than myself, is to really understand what the playwright is trying to say and understand the world that is being created. So there is this collaboration that happens when you’re working with these brilliant minds that are trying to create these worlds on stage. Your job as director is to be a conduit and to really try and articulate what is in someone else’s heart and mind. Being a playwright is trying to keep thinking about what it is you’re interested in saying.
What attracted you to The Common Pursuit? Why did you choose to direct it?
There are some plays that once you see them, they always stay with you and you think this is a play I will want to do one day. Todd Haimes and I had been talking about The Common Pursuit for a long time and we both love the play. He called and said, “What about now, this year, do you want to do it?” I jumped at the opportunity because it’s one of those plays, although it’s only 20 years old,that feels like a classic to me. It deals with some very large issues in a very personal way. In a way it feels Shakespearean and in another way it feels like the movie The Big Chill. There is something epic, something very personal, and intimate about the play. It covers twenty years in the lives of a group of friends; when you’re in college you make these big connections that will be with you for the rest of your life. In the story, we follow this group of friends who start a literary magazine. They want to create a thing of beauty, and the play follows the course of the next two decades and what happens to the lives of these idealistic youths. The minutia of life interferes and intervenes; it is that minutia where life exists. What happens when they have to compromise and what can they live with and what can they not live with? Also, what happens to them as a group? I was telling one of the designers that I think of this play as a love story among these six people. They meet when they are very young and they have the same ideals and ambitions for things and then over the next twenty years you see what happens to the group. How the love they feel for each other changes—some fall away and some stay. In that sense, the play is personal and epic at the same time. There is something very moving about that, especially for those of us who are in theatre. We do theatre because we want to bring a bit of beauty or insight into the world, but then what happens to the work when life intervenes?
The cast of 'The Common Pursuit'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012
Do you think it will be hard for an American audience to relate to these characters? They’re from a somewhat rarified world.
I would hope not. I don’t think so because the characters are so real and so well drawn.
Can you talk about what you were looking for in casting the play? What traits do you need from the actors?
There is a lot of beautiful language in the text, so the actors need to be able to handle language really well. This play is about relationships among these six people so I’m looking for actors who are really good at listening and who are good at relating to others on stage. Sometimes you find wonderful actors who unfortunately act alone and I think one thing that will be important for this cast will be to become an ensemble and a group of people that really listen to each other.
I’m interested in the casting of Marigold. I’ve been reading about the play and, of course, some people take issue with her portrayal by the playwright, Simon Gray; but I think she finds herself during the course of the action. Would you agree?
I do. I also think that Simon Gray was keenly aware when he was writing that role that he would need an incredibly strong actress because she’s a little bit of a cipher. But she is the wisest person in that room. She understands things before anybody else. In that sense, she is making a statement in a world of men and how men behave with each other.
Kristen Bush and Josh Cooke in 'The Common Pursuit'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012
I’ve been reading about the revival in London in 2008 and a word that comes up regarding the portrayal of the character of Marigold is “misogynistic.” I don’t feel that way. She ultimately realizes she’s not in a good relationship…
And it changes her life.
Exactly. What about the character Humphry, who in my mind is a repressed homosexual, how do you relate to that character?
I think he’s rather open with the people in his group. I think there is something about the time and place in which he lives that created lies like that. Without trying to give anything away, if you look at the trajectory of that character in the play it has much more to do with his lie than with his sexual orientation. I think what I find interesting is how open he is with everybody in that group about who he is. There are several really strong remarks about who he is and what he’s doing. What I love about it, is that nobody in the play really discusses it, everybody loves him and has the same relationship with him. I think, in that sense, it feels like a very contemporary play.
What kind of research do you have to do with a play like this?
For a play like this, you really try to understand the time period and where it takes place; you try to understand the characters. I studied Gray’s other plays. With a living playwright, you try to understand the world that they’re trying to create onstage. With a playwright who is no longer with us, you read everything he’s ever written so you can understand what he was trying to talk about, what he was interested in, the things that inspired and moved him and what he was curious about, so that when you get into the rehearsal room, you have an understanding of his body of work. You have a sense of what he was trying to articulate. I think that more than anything is important.
Gray wrote quite a bit about academia, true?
Yes, and there is this fascinating book he wrote while he was working on The Common Pursuit entitled An Unnatural Pursuit. When Harold Pinter was directing the original production, Gray wrote a diary of what it was like to work on the play. It is a blog of sorts of the 1984 production and it’s a wonderful document to have access to.
Would you talk about collaborating with your design team? You’ve worked with these people quite often, correct?
Yes. I’m working with Derek McLane (sets), David Lander (lights) and Clint Ramos (costumes).
Tell us about the visual world of this play. How will it manifest itself?
What’s wonderful about working with these designers is that there is a shorthand because we’ve worked with each other for so long—you don’t have to really articulate what it is we need from each other. There’s a lot of work going on, but there is also a lot of reminiscing about our school days, which really allows us to get to know each other better. In terms of the visual world of the play, we talked a lot about how to articulate visually that the play moves from utopist plans of what’s possible to the gritty reality of what’s doable. We ask ourselves, “How does it work visually when you’re talking about a play about people who believe in ideas?”
The cast of 'The Common Pursuit'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012
I’m curious about the role of poetry in this play. The character of Stuart believes that poetry is absolutely vital to human existence. Do you have a special relationship to poetry?
I’ve always believed that poetry is one of our highest forms of knowledge. I think there was a scientist that said, “Science is finally able to prove what the poets have known all along.” I think there is something moving and true about that.
I also wanted to talk to you about running a theatre company. Tectonic is a company that you devised and it has been around at least 15 years or longer…
Will you talk about what that company means to you and what your plans are for it?
For me Tectonic has always been a laboratory of new work. We developed The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife and 33 Variations, so it’s a place for us to dream.
I’ve been telling people that I think it is time for a revival of Gross Indecency. Do you feel that way?
I’ve been hearing that a lot recently. I’m not sure I want to do a revival.
Is it hard to return to a piece that you’ve already done?
A little bit.
What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to direct?
Get in a room and just start directing. When the Tectonic Theatre Project began, we started in the basement of a church and we made a deal with the church that we would clean the church if they let us have the space downstairs. The only way to become a director is by directing. Do the work that really speaks to you. I feel like a lot of young directors talk a lot about a career and that’s important; but whenever I’ve tried to think about my career, I’ve always ended up making the wrong decisions. However, when I do a play that I love and I try to do it in a way that is truthful and legitimate and with some integrity, then the career projects itself.
Is there a scene in the play or a line that is special to you?
Well, there’s a line that I’m going to paraphrase but it’s: “What is it that we’re going to bring to the world?” That’s the line that made me want to do the play.
The Common Pursuit plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through July 29, 2012. For more information, click here.
Related Categories: 2011-2012 Season
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