Anne Kauffman is a prolific and highly-regarded theater director with credits around the country. She won an OBIE award for her production of The Thugs by Adam Bock at Soho Rep. Recent directing credits include God’s Ear at The Vineyard, Stunning at Woolly Mammoth in D.C and the Duke Theater in NYC, Communist Dracula Pageant at the American Repertory Theater, Six Degrees of Separation at the Williamstown Theater Festival, This Wide Night (with Edie Falco and Allison Pill) with Naked Angels, and other projects at Manhattan Theater Club, CSC, The Vineyard, The Public, American Conservatory Theater, The Guthrie, and the Sundance Institute. She is a founding member of one of the most beloved theater companies in NYC, The Civilians. She works on the directing faculty at NYU in the Playwrights Horizons Theater Studio and received her MFA in directing from UCSD.
The Village Voice called her one of the top “Go-to” downtown theater directors in NYC for “adventurous, lyrical, and difficult” plays. She is also, full disclosure, one of the most approachable, funny, and supportive people around.
Were you a theater kid in high school or did you come to it later on?
Even though I always somehow knew in my bones I’d be in the theater in some capacity, I didn’t do it in high school. I took the athletic/government route, you know: cheerleader, tennis team, student council. I think part of it was that I had a lot of sisters ahead of me who did all that stuff too, and I sort of blindly followed them! But I did go to a theater summer school between my junior and senior year in high school, which put me squarely on the road.
Did you major in theater as an undergrad?
Yes, I did, but because my parents were horrified by that, I also majored in Slavic Languages and Lit. Since then I can’t thank them enough. I think it’s very important to study things other than theater in undergrad. I also discovered I was a director and not an actor during that time. I kept getting cast as men and started to wonder why, and then when I did get cast as a lady I realized I became easily bored during rehearsal; my mind just wandered and, although I loved performing, the process wasn’t so interesting to me. This is ironic now since I’m all about the process, but I think it’s because for me directing is all-consuming, my mind can’t wander. I’m responsible for everything. The thing is: I’m kind of a lazy person (evidenced by my experience as an actor) and really, directing, the challenge of it, the comprehensiveness of it is the one thing that seduces me out of my laziness.
After you graduated college, did you find work in the theatre right away or did you take other day jobs?
I tried to do something entirely different when I graduated just to see if I could. So I stayed in San Francisco and worked for a human rights organization for a year. I think really I was avoiding the whole NY thing as long as I could. I was extremely nervous to come here. I thought maybe I’d try Boston or DC. But I finally bit the bullet and came.
So how did NY treat you when you arrived?
I did a bunch of internships and was a house manager for money. I did internships with places where there might be the opportunity of directing, you know, as a kind of reciprocal agreement. “I work for free and you give me the space and some resources to do my own work.” So I got to direct a show at Classic Stage Company, at Circle Rep, and at this tiny theater called Alice’s Fourth Floor. The reciprocity deal worked.
And then I did a lot of assisting during that time, too. I worked in places that didn’t pay the assistants. I never got into the Broadway assisting thing, which I really would have liked to, but I just never had the presence of mind to really pursue it. I think I was (and probably still am) very naive. So I stuck to the Off-Broadway non-profits in my assisting work. And I continued to house manage for money and temp a lot when I could.
What convinced you to apply for grad school in directing?
I’d had enough of scraping together my own self-produced work and really wanted to focus on the craft. I’d made great connections in New York, but thought I should really get away and come back to the city a director, rather than an [Assistant Director]. Lots of people advised me not to go, didn’t think I needed it since I’d already been “working” in NY. But I thought it was important to a) get out of New York and really find a laboratory for myself and b) go to a place where I could work in a variety of different spaces. And UCSD provided that. We worked in the La Jolla Playhouse Theaters, one huge proscenium, one large thrust, and then a flexible space. We also worked with the Playhouse’s Shop since their season was over the summer and ours was fall and winter and got to take full advantage of their professional technicians. So it was a very good training opportunity.
So would you say you had a very positive grad school experience?
I did. It really broadened my taste and my aesthetic [and] it was a crucial step in my development as a director. I made a lot of close artistic friends with whom I’m still collaborating today. And I’m realizing more and more that it’s the last place where I got truly honest criticism of my work. There’s no real forum for that once you’re out. I mean, yes, producers and artistic directors discuss the work with you, but it’s hard to distinguish their true response from a certain agenda they may have. I had a great faculty [at UCSD] whom I trusted implicitly, and from whom I knew I could learn a ton. And I did.
I went through a horrible depression during my last year – a true crisis of confidence that threw me for a loop for probably two and a half years beyond grad school. And I think it was because I was truly challenged, truly truly challenged, and questioning everything. Including myself. Because in school the process was pure; it was unmitigated work. It was intense but crucial if I was going to break through my own limitations.
Did you move back to New York directly after grad school?
Yes, I moved back since I’d been here for four years previous to grad school. But I was really nervous to come back because I was determined to return as a director, not to take any A.D work. So it took a while to get work.
It seems with directing, as with any other theatre profession, you have to take steps through some tenuous hierarchy if you actually want to make a living doing it. What did you learn about the directing “game” in terms of taking the right steps out of grad school?
Oh, I don’t think I was really aware of the “game.” Or maybe I was but certainly didn’t know how to “play” it. I scrambled and took anything and everything that was offered, and really had to make a vow not to A.D anymore. But that was about as savvy as I have ever been. I suppose I tried to find a way of affiliating myself with various theaters I was interested in working with. So I did the Soho Writer/Director’s Lab, and I was a part of New Georges and Clubbed Thumb [ed note: all well regarded Off-Broadway theaters]. I knew I liked the work that these smaller theaters were doing and I recognized that those were the places that would likely hire me, and eventually they did. I firmly believe that if you do the work that you love, you will eventually be recognized and be able to build a career with potential longevity.
Was this about the time you co-founded your company?
I co-founded the Civilians with other UCSD-ers and began to generate work with them. Again, it was the stuff I was really interested in, and I think the show that finally got me some recognition was The Ladies – a show I did with Anne Washburn and The Civilians. This was a project I was truly passionate about and it gathered some interest and energy around it because of that passion.
Nowadays you always seem to be working on an exciting new project somewhere in the world. Would you say you feel comfortable now in terms of knowing you’re going to have some kind of project on the horizon?
Yes, I do. And I feel very lucky. I’ve been working as a director for almost 20 years! There was no fast track for me. The relationships with playwrights and theaters have been slowly building for all that time. And for me, that kind of long-term cultivation has created some deep roots and those roots are now bearing fruit. There are a lot of projects on my plate that I’m excited about and I’m hoping that the time and energy I have put into these relationships will allow me to continue pursuing these projects far into the future.
Any advice for young directors just starting out in the city?
See everything you can. Get to know which directors you admire and try to work with them. If you can volunteer at a theater somewhere, in the Lit department, or wherever, do it. Make yourself indispensable and put yourself in a place where tons of theater artists pass through on a regular basis. Assistant direct. When you’ve got something on in the city [that people can see] be obnoxious about telling people about it. Be a nag, be a nag, be a nag. That is one thing I never did and I regret it. Playwrights have a property they can send around, actors can audition, but the only way directors can peddle their wares is by doing the work and having people see it. It’s the challenge of being a theater director. And that’s why it’s important to make connections, work for people for free or whatever. They feel obligated to come! And they should!
Interview by Lucas Kavner