A Conversation with Kimberly Senior
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In Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, she imagines a world where a theatrical troupe called The Travelling Symphony travels the country, performing Shakespeare after a plague turned the United States into an abandoned dystopia. Should we ever find ourselves in that reality, Kimberly Senior is ready to roll her sleeves up and get on the road. With a firm belief in the enduring power of art and the absolute necessity of stories, she creates art that stimulates and inspires. Her latest project, directing Theresa Rebeck’s The Scene at Writers Theatre, opened on March 2nd. Much like some of her previous work, it asks the audience to grapple with a lot of tough questions about conscience, moral relativism, and the complexities of human relationships.
We sat down the night before opening to talk about the show, her commitment to parity, and what role art and artists will play in the current political climate.
Kelly Wallace: So let’s start with this show, The Scene. How are rehearsals and previews going?
Kimberly Senior: Good, it’s been such a great experience from top to bottom. The play, which was written ten years ago, is even more resonant today. It really deals with the idea of what happens if we live in a world without consequences – where meaninglessness is key, not giving a shit about anybody means you’re awesome, and selfishness is the top value. It’s harrowing. Then last week the playwright, Theresa Rebeck, came to town.We’ve known each other for a while. It’s our first time being in a room together. She has this amazing light and pushed us to work even more towards the things we were already doing. We’ve had five previews, so we’ve had five different audiences now. I was sitting behind these two women and at intermission one turns to the other and goes, “Oh my god, I love it!” And the other one goes, “Oh my god, I hate it.” And then they started talking away about that and I was like, Yes, yes, yes! Everyone identifies with a different character. It just feels really resonant. I wish I could stay in previews forever because I love working during the day, seeing the play manifest at night, changing things, being a fly on the wall.
KW: Most of the creative team for this show is female…
KS: It’s at least 60% women working on this show. And it’s a huge value of this theater. Not just gender parity, but racial parity. I want to start using the word parity more, because I believe it’s more about equality than about diversifying. It’s about how are we addressing these things and reflecting the world that we live in. Our world now looks like that optimistic Benetton commercial from the 80s. So, how are we putting that on our stages in our theaters? This theater is incredibly supportive of that mission and has also really made it their own mission. I think we all feel enriched by that.
KW: You’re the resident director here; you’ve directed here quite a bit. What do you like about Writers Theatre?
KS: My values and ethics are represented throughout the organization, and I love the audience here. They are brilliant. The people are passionate, and intelligent, and hungry to have intellectual conversations. They’re supportive of the work and the artists. Very few theaters give the opportunity for the artists to interact so much with the audience and I feel – maybe because it’s a small community – I get to know them. I recognize people here. I love the depth of experience that you get. I also feel like Writers is one of the places where their mission is the artist and the word, and that is true. I do some of my best work here.
KW: Talking about the Benetton commercial sort of world, I was thinking about that because your show has a cast that is…I believe there’s one white man in the cast?
KS: There’s no majority; we have four different races onstage.
KW: It doesn’t seem like any of the characters within the text are race-specific. My question is…one of the things that is frustrating is that the default in casting seems to be “cisgender, white” unless it’s specified otherwise. What do you think about how we can get out of that narrative? Whether it be race, gender identity, disability, etc.
KS: It’s interesting. I think it starts with our playwrights when they’re doing those casting breakdowns in the front of the script – make it so there isn’t a default. It can say “Kimberly, white female.” Starting to specify “white” could be one interesting way. I think that’s part of it, to make sure those things aren’t just givens. And when is it a necessity that a character be a certain race, gender, etc.? Of course, there are times that’s essential to the telling of the story. And then there are times where it really doesn’t matter. I remember a lot of the conversation five/six years ago was about how great it was that we had all these “gay” plays, which are plays about being gay. But, as it turns out, gay people also have parents and go to work and eat food…why is every single play with gay characters talking about the experience of being gay or about coming out?
KW: Yes, exactly! Literature is the same way. The story is always inherently about sexuality or coming out of the closet.
KS: As opposed to a story with someone who just happens to be gay, right. I think within the LGBT world things are starting to get better, and now we’re moving into this landscape of queer, gender non-conforming, and trans…how do we tell those stories? I think that we’re attempting to keep pace with how those stories are being told in the public eye as well. Though, obviously, it’s been in the private world since the beginning of time.
KW: I think of something like Moonlight. It’s not about being gay. It’s not a coming out story. It’s not about sexuality. It’s just about a life, where he happens to be gay.
KS: It was amazing. And we’re also talking about identity and how do we all walk around and claim our identity? I don’t want to be removed from being called female. I lead from that place, I am that place. But it isn’t all I am. I have days where I’m like, “Am I the worst because I’m this cisgendered straight woman? Does that make me terrible?” And the answer is, I’m not the enemy. But for the former majority, the former default, they need to name their identity as well. I don’t have to always say who I am, but I should. I think that’s helpful. Playwrights writing stories about what it means to be in the world as a person is helpful. I don’t wake up every day and think, “Wow, what is it like to be a half-Arab/Jewish woman, mother, freelance theater director living in the world?” We don’t wake up with those questions, so our stories shouldn’t always have to be about them.
KW: Right, well, that’s what you are. It’s your lived experience, you don’t necessarily spend every day thinking about it. One thing that I think we struggle with is including all of it, the intersectionality, and how all of it fits together…
KS: I love that idea of lived experience. We have to acknowledge that this is the only skin I’ve ever been in. To be able to be candid about saying, I don’t know what your experience is. You’re a whole different person taking up a whole different space in the world than I am. So I need to open myself up to hear from you, to not make assumptions about you. We need to be open and ready to listen to somebody else’s lived experience and be ready to claim terrific, wonderful ownership of our own lived experience. I hope that’s where we’re going; it’s become an imperative now because some people are being denied their voice.
KW: Do you feel like being an artist is different now, in this political climate? Do you feel a different responsibility?
KS: Yes. When you go back through history, one of the first targeted groups in totalitarian regimes are the artists. I guess we’re a threat. I think with being something that could be dangerous, with being something that could be weaponized, understanding that it’s a privilege – it’s a responsibility. I guess we are now speaking on behalf of everyone. I think it’s important to think about the stories we’re telling. A friend of mine, who is a fantastic writer, has written a beautiful play that’s about two different couples and the decision to have a baby. Which is a totally real experience that a lot of people go through. It’s so well-written, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking. It draws from experience I’ve had in my life. I’m very connected to it and it means something to me, so I said to him, “There’s just only twelve months in the year. And I can only do so many projects. So I can’t work on this right now, because there are some other stories that I think I have to push to the front of my queue that are speaking more to this specific moment. Your play is every moment.”
I’m also very interested right now in a generational conversation that I’m finding myself feeling challenged to have. I’m gonna be 44 soon and I’m just acknowledging that I’m not part of the same generation that 20 year olds are in. I grew up in a different way. I have different vocabulary. I have different levels of understanding. I think talking about “non-binary,” “gender nonconforming” – that’s language I want to understand.
KW: I think a lot of people feel that way. That they want to be an ally, they want to be there to help…
KS: But they don’t know how. To be an ally, you have to have vocabulary to be able to engage. And I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing. That’s just an example of a way that I feel like I need to catch up. So I’m interested in stories that are accessing the generational divide of mutually well-intentioned people and where those conversations go wrong. I think it’s really interesting, explosive theater. And then what happens to us going forward. I think it could open up a vein to help people to start talking. A mother could say to her daughter, I don’t get it. It’s not because I’m a jerk, or your enemy. Help me.
KW: When you think about what we were saying about artists being targeted, funding for arts programs potentially going away…how would you explain to someone why they should invest in the arts?
KS: Well, it’s the opposite end of the threat thing. If we’re a threat, we must have a power to have a voice. In a culture where the media isn’t invited into the White House…we have to rely on our artists to get the story out. Theater began as a news source. Artists would travel from town to town and put on shows about what was happening in these different towns. That’s important – that we are a way to keep different perspectives alive. We’re a way to create representation. And we have to do better. I know a lot of artists who grew up in red states. And after the election, I knew a lot of artists who would say, I grew up in Alabama. I have to go back there and make theater with those people. They have things to say, they have voices. How do we support greater representation on our stages, how do we support all these voices in our country? The arts are a great way to do that. You’re angry? Let’s send some theater to your town and help your story be told. That’s what I would say. It is an amazing opportunity to create community and create dialogue. In theater, there’s a shared experience of going to the theater together. When communities are dying, when we’re all on our devices, it’s one of the few places left where you can come together in a non-partisan way and be with people who are different than you. When you go to a church, there’s a shared system of belief, a religious organization. When you come to the theater, you don’t know who you’re gonna be sitting next to.
KW: The power of art or culture is empathy — seeing other human beings, even if they’re fictional characters, for some reason, does something for people.
KS: Because it’s just a step away enough. If you’re talking, it becomes personal. I think sometimes people feel a little attacked when they don’t understand something. The great news is if you take away our funding, we don’t need much. We have all these historical stories about theater companies and plays that existed in the ghettos during the Holocaust and we have wonderful stories that grow out of marginalized communities. What more evidence do we need that theater has to exist? When people are in their last, most desperate moments and everything is taken away from them, the power of stories is the thing that has survived again and again and again. All of our religious texts are stories of survival. There’s not one religious text that isn’t about a marginalized people. They’re all coming from this place of forces working against them. What do you do? You create stories, you write them down, you pass them on. You can take away our funding but you can’t take that away. You can’t kill us.
KW: Thinking about your work on Disgraced…I think the quote was that it was a “powder keg of identity politics.” Now we hear that phrase a lot in the mainstream political world…
KS: The experience of working on that play over five years has been really interesting. The world caught up to the play. Ayad [Akhtar, the playwright] and I talked about this the last time we worked on it together. Lines resonate in a different way. A lot of Amir’s hostility in his rants are things that when he said in 2011-2012, people hadn’t heard that language before around Islam. Now…Trump is saying that stuff, so the audience would laugh at it now, whereas in 2012 they were horrified by it. But now they recognize and know what it is. It’s kind of amazing.
KW: If you had to describe Chicago theater to a New Yorker, what would you say?
KS: There are short and long answers to that. A lot of it is about economics. Everything is so expensive in New York, as you know, so that means that to be able to live as an artist there is more complicated. To be able to produce is more complicated. Here, there’s just a lot more space, a lot more time, and in a way there’s more money because the cost of living is so much less. So there’s a lot of freedom. There’s a lot of risk-taking that happens because it can. I love the New York community in very different way. There’s a great standard of excellence, there’s an ambition and a drive and a pace…my metabolism makes sense there. It’s also easier to have a community here in Chicago. Everybody drives and hangs out at each other’s houses because people have houses you can hang out in.It just changes the conversation. My friends who I make plays with, we’ve grown up together here in a way. There’s a great sense of community here. There’s no anonymity here. And there definitely is anonymity in New York. There’s pros and cons.
In some places it feels like non-equity equals non-professional. Like, union status equals a certain level of professionalism. Which isn’t wrong, but here in Chicago there is a huge, thriving non-equity community. Which goes back to economics. You can work for free and have your daytime job and still make theater. I was able to cut my teeth on dozens of productions. I think I’ve directed something like 140 productions professionally. I couldn’t have done that living in New York. I was able to do that here because there are a breadth of companies that are producing on a low budget.
KW: There’s just so much here in terms of smaller theater companies…
KS: I can make a play above a Mexican restaurant and increase my skill set and put in my Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hours” and experiment. The crossover between highly experienced artists working alongside novices happens a lot in this community and there’s a lot of mentorship, both accidental and intentional. I think that’s really special. It’s a result of the fact that there are so many artists making so much work at so many different levels. Then there’s the other thing, which is…in L.A., there’s always the chance that you might get film or TV. In New York, there’s always that chance the show is going to go to Broadway. Here…I mean, those chances exist, but not in the same way.
KW: As a director, you did not go the “traditional” path with getting an MFA…
KS: I didn’t get a grad degree, I didn’t assist anybody.
KW: I know it’s hard to say if it was better or not…
KS: I don’t know any other way. Everybody has a different path. My path isn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to assist a bunch of people and do fellowships and go to grad school. I was planning on all those things; I think those things are great. I ended up being in this town and one thing lead to another and suddenly I was like, Well, I can’t go to grad school next year because I already have four shows that I’m doing. I also worked in the administrative offices at Steppenwolf Theatre for a very long time. I think what was cool for me was my day job was at Steppenwolf, so I got to work at this big, high-functioning professional institution. I learned, just by being around, about writing grants and marketing and being around those conversations while I was making my own art with spit and duct tape at night. Getting to have that balance was a tremendous kind of grad school for me. And as it turns out, I’m a really big nerd who reads all the time anyway. I start director’s groups and we all get together and exchange books…it’s like I’m still in grad school! It’s a very long degree.
I think one of the challenging things for people in the arts is that we always have to be beginning. It doesn’t matter how many plays I’ve directed because the next time I walk into a room for the first rehearsal, it will be the first rehearsal of that play with those actors at that theater…you have to start over every time. It has to be okay for you to feel terrified constantly.
KW: As you said, you teach too, what’s that like?
KS: All I want is to be in the classroom. It’s the best. Part of it is, like we were talking about earlier with the generational conversation, I have to be around people who have new ideas. It’s the future of the American theater that I’m teaching, I want to hear from them. What stories do they want to tell? What are they excited about? What are their conversations? I remember trying to teach my kids how to tie their shoes. It was so hard for me to explain how to do it because you do it without thinking. A lot of the things we do in our work, whatever your job is, you do without thinking. Teaching makes you rewind and pull apart your process and your thinking. I think that is really important. I’m constantly reinventing the way that I approach work and I think it’s because I’m constantly getting new feedback and a lot of that is from students There’s a kind of think-tank approach. I mean, I’m not teaching math. There’s not a finite answer.
KW: It’s not definite in the way math is.
KS: Right, that’s why I’m like, You can’t do anything wrong in this class except be a jerk, not show up, not get your work done, or be unkind to people. But you can’t be wrong.
KW: You have this mentor role as an educator, and you’re a parent…what do you feel is important to be teaching kids and students right now?
KS: We’ve touched on a lot of the things, but I think it’s guided by a passionate curiosity about others and the world around you. A very big thing is about agency and ownership and breaking down a lot of our coded behavior that we have. Something I’m personally working on is speaking in declarative sentences. Removing the word “just” and “sorry” and “kind of”…
KW: “Just” is such a big one.
KS: And the word does nothing. Removing “I guess,” “sort of” – removing that language from my speech, from my emails. “Would it be possible if…?” “Does that make sense…?”
KW: “If that’s okay with you…”
KS: There’s a sense of ownership that I’m trying to teach. You have a point of view and it’s yours and it comes from your lived experience and from your perspective and it is of equal value as the person next to you. I’m trying to do that for myself and help others do that. I think there’s something about finding our own power, coupled with passionate curiosity. I’m really trying to remove anger or victim mentality. Not, “you can’t,” but “I can.” I’m trying to change that language.
KW: Where do you feel like theater is going? Where do you want it to go in the next five to ten years? Where do you want to see us?
KS: I would like theater to keep pace with the world around us. It’s exciting and terrifying that we don’t know what’s to come. I would hope that our theater is brave enough to ask the hard questions and stand up for itself and the stories that need to be told. Theater should be a safe space to explore. The things we shouldn’t say and do in real life, we should do in the theater, so then we can talk about them. I don’t think all of our theater should be nice and rosy and all of us holding hands and hugging and kissing. That’s not what the world looks like. And I know it’s hard for somebody to have to play Hitler or a serial killer, but those things exist and I think if we put them onstage and we’re not afraid of showing those things and we talk about them, we can go and heal outside in the world. We can heal ourselves. I believe every act of theater is a political act by being a publicly witnessed event. How do we stay with our politics, how do we keep pace with the important stories being told? Have plays about what it means to be seen in the world. How are we activating the issues around us through tremendous humanity and empathy and passionate curiosity?