INTERVIEW: Slowgirl's Anne Kauffman Takes a Direct Approach
The busy director discusses her work on Greg Pierce's play, Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, and Jenny Schwartz's Somewhere Fun.
She's currently represented by the LCT3 production of Greg Pierce's Slowgirl, running through August 5 at the Claire Tow Theatre, an intricately tense two-hander set in a Costa Rican jungle in which ex-pat Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek) finds his isolated life interrupted by the arrival of his teenage niece, Becky (Sarah Steele). TheaterMania recently spoke with Kauffman about her directing process, the joy of working with designers and playwrights, and the importance of casting.
THEATERMANIA: What's the first thing you do when you get a script?
ANNE KAUFFMAN: For me, one of the most important things to gather so I can really dig into a script, is getting a design team together. I sort of understand a play through design. I think designers are the best dramaturges.
TM: Did you envision a particular set when you first read Slowgirl or did that come when you met with set designer Rachel Hauck?
AK: It was interesting. She created something that I maybe I couldn't articulate but I felt, and that's what I think a good designer does through discussions. It's a kind of feeling and tone rather than an actual literal description. Rachel's really great at building something practical out of emotion.
TM: Did you always have Zeljko Ivanek in mind for the role of Sterling?
AK: Greg had him in mind pretty early on, and I've always admired his work. When we did a reading for Lincoln Center for them to decide whether or not they wanted to do it, we cast Zelijko. Greg was very excited about the idea, and after that reading it became clear that he was totally right for the role.
TM: But you found Sarah Steele after that first reading?
AK: She was someone we were also very interested in. We did a workshop while Greg was continuing to finesse the piece that we asked Sarah to be a part of. It became very clear that she was supposed to be Becky. It's a very difficult thing to find someone who can read as a teenager, but who has the acting chops that she has. She's 23 and not that far away from being a teenager herself. I think teenage girls onstage are maybe one of the hardest things to get right. I can't tell you why. It's a real mystery. It's astonishing the ear Greg has for that language.
TM: How did Detroit come to you?
AK: Lisa D'Amour and I are collaborators from way back. I directed two of her earlier plays with Clubbed Thumb back in the early 2000s. She gave me Detroit to read a while back -- before Steppenwolf's production -- and I immediately fell in love with it. The play wrestles with how the current state of our country (both economically and psychically) is taking its toll. When Lisa decided to take the New York premiere of it off-Broadway, I made it known that I wanted to do it to both Lisa and Tim at Playwrights Horizons. After a few discussions, we agreed that this would be a good idea and so the match was made.
TM: How has the development process differed from Slowgirl?
AK: Lisa's now had two productions of Detroit one in Chicago and one at the National in London, both directed by Austin Pendleton. So she's been through two very different processes with the same director and has learned a ton about the play even before she and I started to collaborate on it. Lisa has been futzing a bit with the ending of the play. She's is a very responsive artist in the room. She considers her work a living organism, so I wouldn't be surprised if she tweaks stuff based on what comes up in the rehearsal room. It wouldn't be anything fundamental to the story, but I know she's always thinking about what she's making in terms of the materials she has at hand and the audience who will ultimately see the work.
TM: Can you talk a little about the casting of Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer?
AK: I think they both have a great ability to take humor by the balls while plumbing the darkness of the piece. It's important that Ben and Mary (the couple the David and Amy play) feel like they're your average American couple: hard-working, well-meaning, and a little lost at the moment. Both Amy and David have the everyman quality about them, not to mention they're wildly talented.
AK: Jenny definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer. I think all writers are mysterious: how they think, where stuff gets generated, how they're perceiving their work during the rehearsal process. But Jenny is even more of an enigma than most. I think her work is so deeply intuitive that we communicate differently than I do with other collaborators. It's difficult to actually talk about the work in a logical way. It truly is stumbling in the dark, trusting that she and the text she creates will lead and letting go of any preconceived notion about the theatrical terrain. The only thing I can count on when working with Jenny is that to try and pin down anything is a foolish endeavor, and that I must let instinct dictate the next move rather than intellect.