Director Thomas Kail loves working with writers. "I have a great passion for working on new material," he explained. While Kail is best known for his collaborations with younger writers like 33-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), his latest project, Family Furniture (which makes its world premiere at the Flea Theater this month) is penned by A.R. Gurney (Love Letters), who recently turned 83. "We were in the same college class, as you can imagine," Kail quipped when asked about the origins of their relationship.
TheaterMania spoke to Kail about Family Furniture and his latest project with Miranda, The Hamilton Mixtape, a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton (of $10-bill fame). While the show is still very much in development, it has already received a presidential audience and is one of the most-anticipated new American musicals. Before he dives headfirst into that, Kail is taking some time off to direct a world premiere play by an American stage legend who is 47 years his senior. Naturally, Kail doesn't seem fazed.
What is Family Furniture?
It takes place in 1952. It's about a young man who is halfway through college. He comes home for the summer and finds out that his mother is having an affair. It's basically about this young man's reckoning with a summer that he thought was going to be one thing and ends up being something quite different. It's about the transition from adolescence into adulthood. It's about seeing your parents as human beings with cracks and flaws.
What drew you to this project?
A.R. Gurney was my way in. There was a gentleman by the name of Gilbert Parker who is his former agent. Gilbert went to Wesleyan University, where I went. Gilbert was class of 1948. I was class of 1999. We had a few years in between us. He represented Pete [Gurney is known to his friends as "Pete"] for many years. I'd gotten to know Pete socially. He sent me a different play about a year ago and he wanted me to direct a reading. We did the reading and discovered afterward that maybe the play was part of an evening of one-acts. He started writing something that was about a family in a world he knew, set back in time. It outstripped the other play and that new play became Family Furniture.
So it was a roundabout journey.
It's a testament to him as a playwright that we started with a reading of a play that takes place in 1995 and he came all the way around to come up with this other idea. He would send me some new pages every month and say, "Hey, do you think there's something here?"
Is that willingness to take an axe to one's work and rebuild it a rare quality in playwrights?
I've been fortunate to work with a lot of people who are most interested in the best idea winning. Ego doesn't get in the way. The fact that Gurney has had the career that he has had, that he's written as many plays as he has and still has the energy and fervor to go and do it, is nothing short of inspiring. It makes it a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning when I know that he's willing to come to work like that. Then my job is to do the same. Pete has great respect for people who work hard. He doesn't sit up there (where he could be) and say, "This is true because I said it." He's right down there on the floor, turning to me after every scene and asking if it works, seeing if he can go in there and make it better. It's been very exciting to be around.
Has your age difference had an effect on your collaboration?
It's just there. It's inherent in our relationship. We're talking about a time period that he lived through. Meanwhile, my parents are even younger than the youngest [character at the time of] this play. There are certain things that are transcendent, however, like the fact that there's no playbook for becoming an adult. There's no manual you read at 21 and you get it. You have to learn as you go and as you get older you start to realize that your parents had to do the same thing. This is something that he's exploring with great humor and insight.
What's going on with The Hamilton Mixtape?
I've never heard of it...
We're just continuing to write. We had a very productive summer and got a chance to try out a fair amount of the material up at New York Stage and Film. We're now forging deeper into act two and figuring out the plan, not only for the architecture of the show, but where and when it can exist. All of that is in process. We're just plugging away, trying to make the next song better than the one before.
What did you learn from the reading at New York Stage and Film?
We learned that the story we're trying to tell works on its own terms. The challenge of doing something based on a real figure is not just making it (And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened...) It's trying to tell a story that seems relevant and has its own natural momentum and emotion. The opportunity to put it in front of people allowed us to see what stuck. It was also lovely to get a chance to get away from the rather mundane things we have to deal with just to get through the day and go up to a place where all you have to do is work on the show. It's not about where you're going to eat and do your laundry. You just go there and work. Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I all lived together for the week. So we got to spend twenty hours a day diving back into this.
Alexander Hamilton's Federalism was, in large part, about a belief in the need to consolidate debt. What would Hamilton say about the recent (and forthcoming) debt ceiling drama in Washington?
I'll put it this way: There might be a song in the show that speaks to it with more eloquence than I ever could. Stay tuned.
You were an American history major at Wesleyan. Do you find yourself most attracted to stories about American history, like The Hamilton Mixtape?
I can finally let my thesis advisor know that I'm doing something that he'll approve of! I'm interested in how stories are told and passed down. We learn about these things in school. Whether it is middle school, high school, or college, teaching it is a kind of performance for that professor. There's something thrilling about what Lin has tapped into: It embraces his own experience and the fact that he has found a kindred spirit in Alexander Hamilton, born in the 1750s. It's a reminder that these things we're living through, the debt ceiling included, have all happened before. The world of 1952 is as interesting to me as 1776. I like being able to go into any community or time period and try to tell it with some integrity. It's been fun to work on the two projects simultaneously.
Watch Thomas Kail talk about Family Furniture at The Flea Theater in the video below: