Interview with Director Anne Kauffman
What are some of the elements of Becky Shaw that drew you to it?
I find the characters in Becky Shaw incredibly delightful and extremely slippery. Each one, in their own way, is reprehensible but impossible to dismiss. One of the first things I look for in a play are characters who are complex and contradictory, characters whose intentions are not easily defined. And, these characters are full of contradictions, they're mysterious and brash and vulnerable and outrageous. Their desires and demands and philosophies drive the plot instead of the plot driving them, and for me, that's thrilling theater.
You mentioned both dioramas and paper dolls as being inspirations for the set design you worked to create with Mimi Lien--how do these things inform the world of Becky Shaw that you're creating?
Gina's inspiration for this play are 19th century novels such as Vanity Fair. These are novels about women and class, and I was trying to remember how, as a child, I was introduced to class, and how we recognize class in the United States. In our country, class is mostly defined by the haves and the have nots. Yes, 'royalty' of sorts does exist in this country, but really, it's driven mostly by economics and access. So, I was thinking a lot about accoutrements rather than blood-lines. In a way, stuff is the most visible sign of economic status in this country. We all start out naked and adorn ourselves, which is where the paper doll idea came from. The diorama is an extension of the paper doll idea in a way. I was very drawn to a permanent exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum when I was a child. There was a room that had tiny dioramas of drawing rooms from different Western European countries from 17th to the 20th century. These drawing rooms were furnished according to a particular socio-economic reality. The boxes were all the same, but the way they were adorned differed drastically and I was absolutely mesmerized by the sumptuousness or blandness of each environment. The dioramas were behind glass and there was a brass bar at about ankle height for small children to stand on to peer in. I could never get enough of that exhibit, I wanted to climb inside the worlds and live there, but was always kept at arms length from the rooms due to the barrier of glass and the labels with the relevant information about a particular room placed beneath the scene. I like this idea for Becky Shaw; I was intrigued by the idea that we might observe the unfolding of this drama inside categorized rooms as though it were a kind of social experiment.
Generational differences about love, intimacy, honesty and relationships are a big subject in Becky Shaw, how have these ideas influenced your approach to the play?
When I was growing up, my parents used to respond to the various struggles I would endure by telling me that in a few years' time, this or that incident would no longer matter, that in the grand scheme of things I would come to find that my issue de jour was insignificant. Of course they were absolutely right, but I felt, in a way, that what I was going through at the moment wasn't helped by talk of a future "in retrospect" attitude because I was experiencing whatever it was right now. So, I'm interested in the disconnect between stumbling around in the dark and experiential wisdom, and each character navigates the gap between these varying perspectives.
You have mentioned that the flow and tempo of the dialogue in Becky Shaw bears similarities to some movies from the 40s, are there any particular movies that spring to mind and what similarities do you see?
Yes, I think of His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and All About Eve. These movies employ a kind of banter that you don't get as much in our contemporary entertainment. There's a battle of the wits between Suzanna and Max, and between Susan and Max which mirrors the language and humor of these 1930s and '40s movies. The characters know each other so well, and know specifically where to drive the knife in which is both terrifying and extremely funny. There's also a sense that Max and Suzanna are equals on the level of intellect and class. Max even refers to this in the text. This parallels, for instance The Philadelphia Story where it is clear that Katharine Hepburn can't, in fact, end up with Jimmy Stewart; he's of a different class, has a different world view. Order is restored when, at the end, Katharine Hepburn re-marries Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart goes back to his photographer girlfriend. Everyone is paired with his/her appropriate partner, and all is once again right in the world.
In His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell is both attracted to and repelled by Cary Grant's crass and crazy life as a reporter in the highly charged and chaotic world of New York City. She longs for quiet, sanity and a 'normal' domestic life and becomes engaged to a mid-western gentleman who, it seems, will rescue her by taking her to the suburbs. What we come to learn is that she doesn't really want this. Cary Grant and this way of life is in her blood and she can't help but get back together with him and continue her life as a journalist. I see Suzanna seeking a similar goal for sanity. She feels she's surrounded by people bereft of emotion and so seeks out a man with a bleeding heart. Andrew is not as edgy or witty or slick as Max, but he provides Suzanna with what she sees lacking in her own life. The twist here, of course, is that Suzanna means it, and fights tooth and nail to hold on to her own sweet and gentle alternative guy.
How did you become a director?
Well I used to act. In fact, my real dream was to become a musical theater star. But, it became apparent that I couldn't sing, dance OR act, so...that was that. In college, I began to direct. I was really drawn to the challenge of putting all of the pieces together, of being in charge of the overall production. It's something that never ever gets old. I've never felt like, "Oh, well, I've been down THIS road before, I'll just use this template and do what I did last time." I don't think there are very many professions that demand that you come at each project like a beginner. I happen to like being dropped into the deep end and learning to swim at the beginning of each process.
What do you feel the climate is today for female directors entering the profession?
Oh gosh. I'm sure it's much better than it was twenty years ago, and I'm sure it's got some ways to go before women in the profession are satisfied. I have to admit, this is a subject I don't spend too much time thinking about or discussing only because I feel that by doing so, I get distracted from actually doing the work that will eventually open doors for myself and other women directors. I'm sure my colleagues would consider me naive or in denial, but I tend to think that the work will speak for itself, and that the number of doors that open for me is commensurate with the quality of work and the degree of professionalism I offer.
You've worked with a number of emerging playwrights in the last few years (David Adjmi, Jordan Harrison, Adam Bock), do you see any themes cropping up in their works that signal a shift in thinking about theatre and it's role in society, common themes, or even a larger shift in the thinking of Americans in general?
Well, honestly, you couldn't have picked three more disparate writers! But you are right, there is something that unites them. They are all interested in keeping theater vital and contemporary and they are doing so by experimenting with form and language, experimenting with how the story gets told. Now, this is not a new idea, of course. Writers have been experimenting with language and form forever. The difference, it seems to me, is that these writers appeal to larger audiences. Their work is getting done in small and large theaters. I have a couple of theories about why this is. One factor, I believe, is that the graduate programs in writing have the benefit of master playwrights such as Paula Vogel, Mac Wellman and Erik Ehn at the helm. These mentors have paved the way for our generation and are instilling a more elastic approach to playwriting. The number of writers who study under them is growing. It's an exciting time for new plays since there are so many extraordinary playwrights today whose writing appeals to audiences with both mainstream and experimental tastes. The second factor might be that playwrights today need to have a better sense of the business side of things. Artists have to be savvy not only in this economy, but in a world that is increasingly dominated by the internet and less interested in live performance. So there's a new kind of dialogue happening where the playwright is taking more responsibility with getting his or her work out there and presented in the way it needs to be in order to be competitive.