When Anne Kauffman was 13, all she wanted was to be a Broadway star. "I played Eliza Doolittle in eighth grade," she says, recalling the hours she spent listening to cast recordings: "Into the Woods…Evita…A Chorus Line was major." After her eighth grade graduation, her father took her on a big trip to New York, where they saw a Broadway show every night (Kauffman grew up with five siblings in Phoenix). "I remember crying myself to sleep during that trip, because I just really wanted to be onstage."
That's a dream that will likely remain unfulfilled — Kauffman claims she can neither sing nor dance — but New York has a strange way of transforming our initial dreams into new ones that we might not have considered before. While Kauffman still hasn't performed on a Broadway stage, that doesn't mean her presence isn't felt there: She is currently directing the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room at the American Airlines Theatre. Although this marks her Broadway directorial debut, it follows a decade as one of downtown's foremost shepherds of new plays.
She has made her career staging new works by some of the most exciting playwrights working in America, including Jenny Schwartz, Jordan Harrison, and Anne Washburn. These plays challenge conventional notions of drama through the creative use of language, something Kauffman has proven she knows how to stage. "A producer friend recently said to me, 'You downtown guys don't have the money for spectacle, so you have to create worlds with language,'" Kauffman shares. "That's where I live."
That was certainly true in God's Ear, Jenny Schwartz's 2007 play about a couple dealing with the loss of a child. In the show, an extended monologue reaches ludicrous heights as a wife seeks to reassure her husband by bombarding him with clichés: "And we'll cross that bridge. And bridge that gap. And bear that cross. And cross that t." Under Kauffman's rhythmically attuned direction (and as performed by Christina Kirk), this moment had the strangely exhilarating feeling of watching a depressive nail an Olympic uneven bars routine.
Kauffman works just as affectively with silence, though: She recently received her second Drama Desk nomination for her direction of Adam Bock's A Life, which featured four minutes of the most riveting theater of the year — even though no one was speaking or moving. "Our sound designer, Mikhail Fiksel, was so amazing," she beams, discussing the process of deciding just how much of a story the creatives wanted to reveal through sound in those four minutes. In that scene, Tony winner David Hyde Pierce sat onstage the whole time, perfectly still. "He actually trained himself to breathe in a way that is barely noticeable," Kauffman gushes. "He's an extraordinary actor and technician." Pierce was also nominated for a Drama Desk for his unnerving performance.
The plays Kauffman is most attracted to have an air of mystery, with elements that remain unexplained even after the show is over. Kauffman thinks that may have something to do with her love of Russian literature. "I was a Slavic literature major in college," she says, mentioning her particular affinity for the works of Nikolai Gogol. "Gogol writes about behavior that doesn't follow any kind of logic, but is very human," she explains, adding, "I find it comforting that there are things that are inexplicable. That feels like an affirmation that I'm not living my life the right way or the wrong way, because the 'correct' way is unknowable."
That's an attitude that meshes particularly well with Marvin's Room, a play about the random nature of illness and the complicated choices we have to make around that. It tells the story of Bessie (Lili Taylor), a woman with leukemia who looks to her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), for a potential bone marrow transplant.
Kauffman is best known for her work with living playwrights on world premieres, which would make this revival by a dead playwright (McPherson died of AIDS in 1992) seem like an odd choice for her Broadway debut. In the absence of a playwright to consult, Kauffman has relied on a close read of the text. "I feel like he's very much a presence in the room, because we're always engaging with his structure and word choice," she shares about the rehearsal process.
As soon as Marvin's Room opens, Kauffman goes straight into rehearsal for one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the summer: the Encores! Off-Center presentation of Assassins. An all-star cast will perform Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical about the people who have killed (or attempted to kill) U.S. presidents. "Merrily We Roll Along was all I listened to when I first moved to New York," she explains. "How could I turn this down? It feels like an embarrassment of riches." Considering Sondheim's legendary lyrical specificity and Kauffman's attention to language, it promises to be an exciting match.
This may not be the way 13-year-old Anne Kauffman imagined she would arrive on Broadway, but she's undeniably there (and she's working with Sondheim). Where her career goes from here is anyone's guess, but Kauffman isn't sweating the details of her trajectory too much. "I'm very invested in the unknown," she says. "It relaxes me." Considering how many new American plays are aiming for Broadway these days, though, we hope she sticks around for a while.