A Conversation with Anne Kauffman
Written by Kelly Wallace
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Michelle Tse
May 16, 2016
During intermission at Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, everyone was having a conversation. Not the usual, “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” or “I’m going to get a drink” chatter that generally fills a lobby. As I stood near the doors, I heard a daughter ask her mother what the 60s were like for her, two friends debating their level of empathy for Sidney, and a woman telling a girlfriend about how deeply she understood, on a spiritual level, what Iris was going through in her marriage. The theater was full of vibrant, smart, diverse people engaging with the complicated characters they’d come to know during the first act. And the guiding hand that shaped the beautiful, naturalistic production, running at The Goodman through June 5th, is director Anne Kauffman.
Kelly Wallace: How did you come to be involved in this production with The Goodman?
Anne Kauffman: Well, I actually brought it to the Goodman because I’d been wanting to do it for ten years. I originally came into contact with it when I was an undergrad and I was an actress and I was looking for an audition monologue. You know those anthologies of audition monologues. Well I was looking through it and I found this monologue, the Iris monologue about her fear of auditioning. So that was my first encounter with the play. And then several years later, when I was working at NYU (teaching directing) one of my students wanted to do this play for her thesis. I was like, “Really, you want to do this play? It’s so creaky…what do you want to do this old thing for?” But she really wanted to do it and so the faculty agreed to let her. I was her mentor and I sat in and watched rehearsals and I was totally blown away. I was completely blown away. I was first and foremost blown away by the marriage at the center of it and then its immediacy and urgency in terms of the social and political climate. So I started talking to Joi Gresham, who is the Director and Trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, about doing this. I just fell in love with it. And so I started to pursue a production of it. And finally gave it to Bob [Falls] after Smokefall when we were talking about what we should do together next. And I said, “I really want to do this…” and he was like, “Great, let’s do it.”
KW: What made you feel like The Goodman was the right home for it?
AK: I feel like Bob and The Goodman are expansive thinkers. They’re interested in the epic, like 2666, and plays that are very ambitious in what they’re trying to do, who they’re trying to reach, what they’re trying to say. I feel like there’s a kind of large embrace that The Goodman has; they are interested in diverse voices and varying styles and eclectic subject matter so this felt like a really good fit in terms of that aesthetic. And also Bob was saying earlier at a board meeting, which I thought was kind of interesting, that he was interested in the lesser-known works of great writers. So, that seemed to be a little bit of a theme with Thornton Wilder this season, with The Matchmaker, and then I brought this to them. A Raisin in the Sun recently had its 50th birthday in 2009, and this had its 50th birthday in 2014. So all the stars aligned and here we are.
KW: You’ve worked in New York a lot too, what do you think the differences are between Chicago audiences and New York audiences?
AK: Oh gosh. It’s hard. I think that Chicago audiences come at things with their heart and New York audiences come to things with their brain. And neither one is better or worse. I think that they’re both necessary and ways of watching work. That’s where I’m at. That’s my very unprofessional opinion about it.
KW: How does doing this play today, in this political climate, affect your perception of the show and your process?
AK: Well, it’s really interesting. I think for awhile when I was passing this play around, people were really hesitant to do it because they felt like the issues being explored in it have been somehow resolved in our country. Unfortunately, recently these issues have raised their ugly heads once again. They sort of resurfaced; it’s all been underneath the surface for a while, and now we’re in a moment where all of this rumbling is actually erupting. Trump is really allowing the vitriol and things that have been buried for a while and never went away, that were just sublimated – he’s opening up the floodgates. It’s a little bit…it’s funny, I was reading the Carlyle interview that you did –which was really amazing – and he had said something about how it felt like The Purge, and it does. It has that kind of feel to it. We’re living in a time where gay marriage is…yes, we’ve made some strides, but there are still a lot of issues with sexuality and the fact that people can’t go into the bathroom they feel they have the right to go into, in this country, in this day. Definitely women – pay equity, and the struggle women have to gain the same access that men do…it’s still an issue. And we have a movement called Black Lives Matter, the fact that we actually need to have that in 2016 is pretty astonishing and reprehensible.
KW: Black Lives Matter is very close to my heart, I’ve demonstrated with them in New York quite a few times.
AK: Oh, that’s really cool.
KW: And the energy there in that movement, especially in the aftermath of Eric Garner, was transformative. It’s interesting because Lorraine Hansberry was so in favor of civil disobedience as a means of communication and protest. She’s pretty hard on white America when they don’t accept these kind of “radical” tactics.
AK: That’s exactly right, that’s what this play is about. She’s trying to excite the white liberal into action. That’s what The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is all about.
KW: What is the heart of the play, for you? What excites you about it?
AK: I think the play is about commitment and engagement, and in order to do that you have to really understand who you are at your core, the revelation of your true self, and be honest with yourself. What I really really like about the play is that it’s not just a political statement, it’s a personal statement. This marriage is happening.
KW: The politics and the personal are so intertwined in this show.
AK: Absolutely. I keep thinking what’s happening is that Sidney has this young wife who is growing and changing right in front of his eyes and he’s still treating her the same way as he always has treated her and he not seeing the change. There’s a rupture that happened with him not being able to recognize the change and address the change. The same thing is happening in his world at that moment, the same thing is happening in our world. We’re very afraid of change and we don’t know how to adapt to change. It’s really crazy. Again, Donald Trump, wanting to send us back to the Dark Ages. For him, it’s not about change; it’s about going back to what it used to be. It’s oppressive. That’s what is exciting to me is that the political is being reflected in the personal, and in the marriage.
KW: Do you think it’s possible to separate the two completely?
AK: I think a lot of us are able to. I’ve always thought that a certain strata of society can very much separate the personal and political because they don’t have as much at stake, in terms of what laws are being passed. Meaning, there are certain people of a certain class in this country who can live a life unaffected by government policies. The first time I took notice of this was when I went to the Soviet Union when it was still the “Soviet Union.” I come from a very comfortable home and family – suburban Arizona, Jewish. And going to the Soviet Union and seeing how directly the government is mistreating its citizens, it’s like a 1:1 ratio there. It was very clear that the government was the parents who are treating the people, their children, poorly. And you could see it on the street. No one is exempt from it. In our country, there are people who can be exempt, not literally exempt, but they can certainly live in a world where they’re not looking it in the face.
KW: Gender issues come up a lot in this show, and in the world. It’s interesting because in theater, which you think of as such a liberal art form, or that the community is such a liberal group of people…but then you look at stats like 10.7% of works in the ’12-13 season on Broadway were written by women, gender parity in theater is not where it should be, even though audiences are 68% women. What has your experience with that been?
AK: This is a touchy issue. We talk about this all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that, and it’s true, you have this liberal art form, this accepting art form, and they’re treating their women not so well, which is exactly what Sidney is. He’s this liberal guy, who thinks of himself as a very experimental, avante garde, forward-thinking person who is ignoring his wife. I mean, it’s true the statistics don’t lie. For me personally, I think it’s dangerous to get caught up in it. I feel like I need to put my head down, and do the work, and I’ll be recognized, and that’s a little bit naive because I don’t think I actually have the access that guys do to certain things. I’m a little myopic when I put my head down and think, “This is actually great, I’m doing my work and I’m getting stuff…” and I look up and around me and I’m like, “Holy fuck.” We’re nowhere near where some of these dudes are. It is difficult to identify, it’s hard to say that if you don’t get a certain job, it’s because I’m a woman. So it’s hard to identify it specifically. And the last thing I’ll say is that this all changed for me when I got back from graduate school in the late 90s. I came back to New York and I was having an interview. I was being interviewed by Zelda Fichandler for a job at NYU. She said to me, “How’s it going?” I said, “Well, you know, it’s hard being a woman in this field.” And she looked at me and she was like, “What?” Zelda Fichandler, who basically started the regional theater movement in the 50s. She translated Russian documents in World War II. She built the Arena Stage, the NYU acting conservatory, she’s responsible for basically a huge movement in the theater. And for me, that was when I decided I’m going to do my work, do it well, hopefully, and be recognized. It’s a very complicated issue.
KW: You started as an actor…what made you switch to directing?
AK: I’m kind of a control freak, I think. I always was one growing up. I grew up in a family of six children and I was always organizing these little shows with the kids in the neighborhood. But I wanted to be a musical theater star, that was what I really wanted to be. I wasn’t very good. It became really evident in undergrad when I kept being cast as guys. It was because there weren’t a lot of guys in the drama department and they were like, “Well, what’re we gonna do with Annie? Just stick her in some breeches and whatever.” It became very apparent, I knew that I wasn’t good. Someone gave me a play to do in the dorm and so I did it and then I took a directing class and the guy who taught it, Michael Hackett, was like, “You’re a director.” So that’s how I came to it. Also, as an actor, not only was I not very good, I really checked out. When I was in a play and a director was telling me what to do I would sort of pay attention only when he told me what to do and then I would check out. I got bored. I didn’t have an idea of the whole play or any interest in figuring out where I am in the play. I’m actually, by nature, kind of a lazy person. So directing was the only thing that fully engaged all of my faculties in a way that I was interested in. It kept me excited. You’re responsible for so much, it was the only thing that would bring me out of what I think of as my laziness, to activate myself, to get me excited about something.
KW: When you direct a show like this, when you start the rehearsal process and start working with actors and putting the pieces together…do you find it helpful to talk to the cast about the outside, real life issues or is it more useful to you to stick close to the text and keep it in the bubble of the show?
AK: That’s a very good question. I don’t think I ever talked to the cast; I mean, we all agreed that the play is important to do right now but we actually, all of us, went inside the play. We have a great dramaturg team, so we all immersed ourselves in 1964. I think that the more we immersed ourselves in 1964 and the more expansive our knowledge became, just by being in that world, the parallels became really apparent. But we never said, “Oh, that’s like today!” We were just living inside of that world.
KW: As you said, you grew up in Arizona in a fairly comfortable environment. What’s it like to come at this as a white woman from a comfortable background, to look at something that touches on race, and privilege, and all those things?
AK: It’s funny because what I like about it, and why I think it’s interesting to have a woman direct it is because it’s Lorraine Hansberry, it’s a woman’s point of view so in a way that’s why I think I’m very attached to Iris. I think she’s the person with the most evident journey in the play from the beginning to the end. And I happen to be a white liberal, so having to take apart the play and understand all the different points of view and to identify where the white liberals’ blind spots are, was a really interesting process. It’s been really incredible. Joi Gresham has come into rehearsal, one of our understudies is very well-versed in the civil rights movement, so it’s been an education. There are so many different points of view, so many different kinds of people in the play, it’s really a community. It’s a motley crew of people. We’ve got politicians, we’ve got artists, we’ve got activists, we’ve got actors. It felt like my way of educating myself about where Lorraine Hansberry was coming from, to be in dialogue with this play.
KW: You’ve done a lot of new work, and then you come to a show like this that’s from the past. What’re the differences for you in coming back to a piece like this and doing something new?
AK: Since I’m exploring this piece for the first time, and we’re working with several different versions of the play, and again we have the dramaturgs, we have Joi, so in a way…it feels like a new play. We just changed where the intermission is, so it tells a very different story now. The major difference for me is, well, first, there’s a responsibility that feels different. I feel like this is a play that has been done, it’s had a rocky past, I think it’s so important for our communities to see this play, to access Lorraine Hansberry through this particular vantage point and to hear what she had to say and how it’s relevant today. So I feel a responsibility there. Of course I feel a responsibility for new work too, but it’s a different thing. What’s really interesting is I don’t actually have a playwright in the room, so I can and need to answer for myself. I’m so used to the collaboration and asking if something works, or a playwright telling me, “No, we can’t do that.” What’s nice is it feels like it’s all me. It’s generative in terms of the world, and that it’s totally my responsibility.
KW: Who are some of your favorite female playwrights? What other plays are you drawn to?
AK: Lillian Hellman. Contemporary ones…Anne Washburn, Jenny Schwartz, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Sarah Gancher, Sarah Gubbins. Oh god, there’s a million. A bunch of people. Tracy Scott Wilson, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Claire Barron, Lynn Nottage, Quiara Alegria Hudes.
KW: What plays did you feel like made you gravitate towards theater? What specifically about live theater is it that you’re drawn to?
AK: I grew up on musicals! All the greats. Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate, The Wizard of Oz. I mean, those are the things I grew up on. And what’s so great about musicals is that they’re inherently not realistic. They’re really not realistic. So you’re entering another world, and I was always very drawn to these other worlds. As I got older, I got very interested in Eastern European writers who were very, very dark. They were coming out of World War II and so had very desolate points of view on humankind. It’s very stripped down; it’s a very different kind of theatricality. It’s very raw; it’s very real. It’s a really strange journey that I’ve had because then for a while, I was sort of known as the weird new play director in New York. It’s funny because growing up I was much more interested in linear narratives and these musicals, but wait, now that I’m thinking about it out loud, I’m like…of course, there’s nothing weirder than a musical, actually, when you think about it.
KW: You have to go in with an inherent suspension of disbelief that other art forms don’t require.
AK: Exactly. I think that’s really true.
KW: You walk in and you have to immediately accept, for example, that singing is dialogue from the very beginning.
AK: Right, it’s absurd!
KW: The show talks about idealism and the way we look at people and the ways that people can disappoint us or not disappoint us. How do you feel like political idealism has evolved between the world of this play and where we are now? In an election year where people talk about compromise and the lesser of two evils, is idealism a luxury?
AK: You know, this election season generates such a cynicism. And I feel like we’re at a very cynical point in our history. I do feel like there’s a lot of succumbing to the issues. We’re not actually solving them right now. It’s a difficult thing to figure out how to solve. And then you think about Lorraine’s time, where there was a lot of political activity, but then I think she would say that her generation and what was going on then, that they had a lot of cynicism too and I would say the same thing. I actually think not much has changed. What I mean is, I feel like the ratio of idealistic to cynical people probably has not changed. I think this is what I feel like Lorraine Hansberry was trying to say in a way with this play, and what she felt was so important to her, was that we cannot be subsumed by our cynicism. We cannot be subsumed by our failure. We cannot give over to not being able to solve these issues. We cannot acquiesce. Period. She believes that even though there’s a lot of darkness, there are a lot of issues, a lot of problems, a lot of conflicts, she believes in humanity. She believes in humanity triumphing. That’s what I find so moving about the play. Inside the play, there’s a duality. There’s David, there’s Sidney. David is absorbed in the existentialist, the absurdist, “there’s nothing we can do, so let’s give up and acquiesce to the darkness as human beings.” Sidney, weirdly, is the most positive cynic I’ve ever encountered. So the argument is what’s the path we want to take, and Lorraine was having it at her time too. Do not give into thinking we can’t do anything about. We’re all in the same boat. Yes, there’s a lot of darkness and cruelty and human beings are capable of terrible, terrible things but we’re also capable of really great things. I think that remains today. I feel like that’s where we’re at.
KW: Lorraine was such a political person. Do you consider yourself to be a political person?
AK: No! That’s the thing, I’m really not. How I align with Lorraine is that these plays are tools. These plays are a weapon. These plays are meant to provoke. I feel like, for me, I’m more interested in going inside of them and educating myself. I haven’t marched in years. I haven’t been involved. Her way was writing these plays, my way is directing them and sharing them with people. That’s my political act, my political act is directing, not marching on the street.
KW: What was your biggest challenge coming at this play?
AK: Stylistically, this is a tricky play. Lorraine was playing with a lot of different styles, so trying to figure out how to approach that was very tricky. I know when I first wanted to do it, I thought I would have to convince people that this was actually a relevant piece of writing. I felt like that was my chore, that it was going to be crazy to make it clear that it’s relevant, but that challenge has become the easiest thing. I didn’t have to really do anything, unfortunately, to have it resonate so deeply with audiences.
KW: For audiences, seeing a show like this will, hopefully, start a conversation for them. Do you listen to the audience reaction?
AK: It depends on the day. I really do like to eavesdrop. I think it’s important to hear how people are interpreting the story and sometimes I will actually outright say, “This moment, what did it mean to you?” I do canvas the audience sometimes to make sure that the story I want to be telling is actually coming through.
KW: Do you read reviews and listen to critics, or is it the audience you’re most interested in hearing from?
AK: Critics…I mean, you want them to like the show. I’m much more interested in how audiences are responding to it and receiving it. Unfortunately, after a review comes out, that’s the way the audience sees it. It’s nice to get to them before they’re being told how to react to something.
KW: Well, there’s a lack of diversity in criticism too. So when you put such weight on a review, sometimes you don’t realize that you’re only getting a certain point of view, a certain type of person who comes into that job.
AK: That’s totally right. And you know, the critics don’t do what they used to do. Critics were actually supposed to contextualize art. Contextualize the plays. Their role wasn’t to say see it or don’t come see it. Their role was to put it in the larger context of our art form, which is sadly, sadly missing these days. I actually think that some of our critics have no idea about theater history. So they criticize something without realizing the etymology of it, the antecedents to it. So yes, it’s very problematic. The diversity and what it’s come to.
KW: We don’t necessarily have a Frank Rich or a Brooks Atkinson. There’s this storied history of theatrical criticism, and you see what we have now; it’s a different world.
AK: I don’t know if you read Joseph Papp’s biography, which is so amazing that he called up a critic and told him you have to get your ass back here and you have to re-review this, and the critic was like…okay. The same thing happened with this show. There were a couple critics who came back after panning it and re-engaged with it and changed their minds. What we do, it’s sad that it’s still happening, but Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun and she was celebrated as a black voice. And then she writes a play about white people. There’s only one black person and he passes for white. So the critics come and they’re looking through these lenses and it’s so crazy for them, they come expecting something. They expect her to stay in the box they created for her, the black culture box.
KW: She’s been criticized, in this work, for not representing the African-American experience.
AK: Exactly. And we still have that, as a problem. We don’t let black writers write outside their culture. White people can write about anyone’s culture. So we’re still in that place where that’s happening.
KW: It’s that same problem of white stories or men’s stories are universal, but it’s always a qualifier for other people. She’s a female playwright, she’s an African-American playwright, you’re attached to a label.
AK: And that’s part of the issue that I have talking about women and all that. The New York Times did this piece on female directors and got a bunch of us together and did it. I was actually bummed I said yes to it because the fact that we need to have an article about it means we’re ghettoized. That’s part of my conflict with this issue. If we really give into it, then we’re saying that we’re a ghettoized community. That’s the tricky balance.
KW: We don’t do that to white men, we don’t interview them asking them to talk about the white male experience.
KW: What do you think Lorraine would think if she came into the world now? Would she be horrified, excited?
AK: I think she’d be horrified. But I was watching the video for “Formation” recently and I thought…oh my god, she and Beyoncé would be best buds. I feel like she would love Beyoncé. Holy shit, that video totally blew me away. I didn’t realize, was there some controversy about it?
KW: Well, there was this reaction to it about this idea that somehow by celebrating black culture she was inciting racial conflict, or that she was inciting violence against police by referencing the Black Lives Matter movement. People saw it as aggressive instead of celebratory.
AK: And even so, what if? What if it is a criticism? I think that Lorraine and Beyoncé would be best friends. It’s really sad to me that she didn’t live to meet her. But I do think she’d be horrified. Don’t you?
KW: I do. I think she would be on the street in Ferguson.
AK: Oh my god, yeah. And then she would criticize Black Lives Matter because it wouldn’t be exactly what she thought when she first joined, or it wasn’t exactly what she wanted it to be. She was a very singular, specific, opinionated, and complex person.
KW: And she would be right to say that even that movement has it’s problems. I remember going to the protests and there would be TV cameras, and it would always be these young, white college kids jumping in front of the camera to explain why they were there, instead of saying this isn’t my microphone, this isn’t my place.
KW: Where do you want to see us in five years, ten years? Where should theater be going?
AK: That’s such a good question. Well, I definitely think there needs to be a diversity of voices, and diversity of how to tell a story. We’re still kind of stuck in modern drama and not contemporary drama. I feel like the theater has a responsibility to show its audiences the gray area and contradictions and complexity. We don’t get that in our lives; we have to make these decisions. Politicians are so black and white, and we’re scared to acknowledge the gray area. I think it’s very important that we, working in this art form, address that. To do that, it’s not just a straight narrative, it’s a diversity of style. One thing I will say, I’m very interested in plays that are language heavy, that experiment with language. That’s what theater does best. Language creates the world, unlike TV or film where sets create the world, it’s actually the language in the theater… So I really want us to listen again, in a new way.
Anne Kauffman returns to Goodman Theatre, where she previously directed Smokefall in both the 2014/2015 and 2013/2014 Seasons. Ms. Kauffman is an Obie Award–winning director whose production highlights include You Got Older with P73; The Nether at MCC; Somewhere Fun at Vineyard Theatre; Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, Detroit and Maple and Vine at Playwrights Horizons; Belleville at New York Theatre Workshop, Yale Repertory Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Tales from My Parents’ Divorce at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and The Flea Theater; This Wide Night at Naked Angels; Becky Shaw, Cherokee and Body Awareness at The Wilma Theater; Slowgirl and Stunning at LCT3; Sixty Miles to Silver Lake with Page 73 Productions at Soho Rep; God’s Ear at Vineyard Theatre and New Georges; The Thugs at Soho Rep and the musical 100 Days at Z Space. Ms. Kauffman is a recipient of the Joan and Joseph F. Cullman Award for Extraordinary Creativity, the Alan Schneider Director Award and several Barrymore awards. She is a Program Associate with Sundance Theater Institute, a New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspect, a member of Soho Rep’s Artistic Council, on the New Georges’ Kitchen Cabinet, an alumna of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the Drama League, a founding member of the Civilians and an associate artist with Clubbed Thumb with whom she created the CT Directing Fellowship.