Brian Kulick is an acclaimed American theater director who currently heads the Classic Stage Company as its Artistic Director. He has directed a number of plays at the Delacourt in Central Park for The Public Theater, including Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens, Pericles, A Dybbuk, and Kit Marlowe, and he has been the Creative Director of the Shakespeare Society of New York. His work has also graced the stages at Playwrights Horizons, NYTW, the Mark Taper Forum, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ACT, The McCarter Theatre, Trinity Repertory Company, and the Magic Theatre, among others. He has directed the world premiers of plays by Tony Kushner, Charles L. Mee Jr., Nilo Cruz, Han Ong, Kathleen Toland, David Grimand, and Anne Carson.
He has a B.A. from UCLA and a M.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon and was as an artist-in-residence at the Mark Taper Forum. He currently teaches in the theater program at Columbia University.
Kulick is so laid-back, friendly, and quick to laugh that it’s easy to forget that you’re sitting across from a true theater power player.
I tend to wonder where the ideas come from to begin with. Do you recall the earliest memories of theatrical experience that meant something to you?
You know, I get asked this sometimes and, in thinking about it, I realized that my first theatrical experiences were more family related. My grandfather was a jewelry salesman. We lived in Los Angeles and he would do business in New York and he would come back and have seen all these things called plays on this thing called Broadway. And he would be at the dinner table with us and he would reenact the entire play. His greatest performance was A Raisin in the Sun where he did everybody— the entire thing and all of the dialects and everything. And this is a guy who was a first generation immigrant from Odessa, Russia.
My other grandfather was a completely different individual. He was supposed to be a rabbi but it just didn’t work out. He became the manager of dime stores, Woolworths, all over the country, but he finally landed in Long Beach California. And even though he wasn’t a rabbi, we were visited all the time by cousins, relatives, friends and they would just come to his living room and it was a form of performance art/confession. He was a very interesting fellow and I realized what he taught me was how to be an audience, how to be a listener, how to be somebody that could hear someone else, and be with someone else and help someone else.
I think those were my first experiences. Of my one grandfather performing and my other grandfather being an audience member. I learned the sort of dialectic of theater through them.
When was the first time you actually went and saw a theater performance of some kind?
It wasn’t until I was in junior high school, I must have been fourteen or thereabouts. My aunt got me as a gift a ticket to go to the Mark Taper [Forum], which is the regional theater [where I grew up], so I started to go see plays there. Again, the whole family would go and they would argue about it afterwards. One of the biggest arguments was about a play we saw called Black Angel. It was about an SS officer who returns to the very town that he liquidated without changing his name (it’s based on historical fact), and you realize that he’s there to be discovered and he’s there to be martyred or killed or punished. This play started a HUGE argument between my uncles about how could an SS man be the positive subject of any play. The amount of anger and animosity was so strong that I thought, This is an interesting form that can elicit this much angst and trauma in and of itself and not onstage, but being brought back home…So I think it was that production, and how it subsequently impacted the dialogues my family had, that got me more interested in theater.
But when I went to college, I was more interested in doing film and television work. So I went to UCLA because they have a very strong film program. At the time, it was easier to become a theater major and then transfer into film. But I fell in love with the program, I fell in love with the teachers in the program, who were amazing, and I fell in love with Molière, Chekov and Shakespeare… And then that was it! At that point there was no turning back. [Laughs.]
At that point, did you know that you wanted to pursue theater as a career?
I didn’t think I would be able to do it as a career, it just seemed too impossible… And my family is a very practical family…
Right, the jeweler merchant and the dime store manager. How did they feel about your desire to go into the theater?
My family was always very supportive of what we wanted to do, as long as you had a Plan B.
And the Plan B was going to be something in a more practical vein?
Just teach – teach theater, just as long as you can make a living. When I graduated and I got a Masters I remember my father saying, “Bri, if you want to go back to school and learn something else,” – because I was starting out and assisting, and it takes a while – “If you want to take something else, I’ll pay for you to go back to school. What would you like to study?” “You know, I would love to do either history or philosophy…” My father looked at me and said, “Brian, only you could think of something stupider for a profession.”
[Laughs.] What he wanted you to say was law school.
Exactly, or a doctor… But my family was always very patient with all that stuff.
Let’s backtrack a little bit. You were at UCLA in the theater program and loving that world. Were you already on the directorial side? Was that always your inclination?
I think people have certain predilections or are predisposed to something. In my family, I would make things “better.” If the mood was uncomfortable in the family, I would crack a joke, you know? My job in the family was to mediate, to smooth things over so that everything would be okay and nice. And in a lot of ways, directing is that. I think when you gravitate towards the theater there are all these different roles that you can do and usually you find the one that was like what your family dynamic was. Mine was the fixer or the negotiator, or the pacifier.
Directing is an interesting job because it is all about assisting people – assisting an actor, a writer…it is just about, Oh, they are so in what they are doing and I am outside here, so if they ask, “Should I turn left or turn right?” I say, “Well, from my vantage point, turn right.” You know, you could be an objective person for them.
That’s an interesting way to describe it because you could also say that the director is the king of the world – instead of saying “you might turn right,” saying “you will turn right.”
Yes, there is certainly a school of directing that is: we’re going in this direction and everyone’s going to follow me. And it’s very famous, Orson Welles, you can name a list. I think most directors do break down into either companions or visionaries. In other words, a companion is someone who goes along with you and might be like a tour guide for actors, to say, “Oh did you see this over here in the text?” It’s someone who walks along with the artists and who says – “Oh, you forgot about this wonderful thing you left at home.”
And you feel more like a companion?
I think, as I’ve gotten older, that has been more and more what I’ve been interested in. As I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many extraordinary people— writers like Tony Kushner, or directors like George Wolfe or actors like Dianne Wiest, or John Turturro and now F Murray Abraham— and most of the time they have a tremendous impulse and it’s just about being somebody on the other side who can say, “Yeah I get that,” or, “Oh I don’t get that yet, and maybe you need to do X or Y to help me, or maybe you don’t want to help me, maybe it can stay mysterious, maybe it doesn’t have to be explained.” So, for me the role has been as an interlocker, it has been a dialogue.
You obviously learned all of this over time. But when you graduated from UCLA, what was the first step for you?
I ran quickly into graduate school! [Laughs.] Instantaneously, because the real world was just too frightening of a concept. My teacher at UCLA thought if I was going to do theater, I should be on the east coast. I’d never been in snow before.
So I was 21, in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon, and I turned out to be allergic to cold weather.
And you’re still here.
I’m still here and I have a cold all winter long, it’s just an ongoing process.
When I was in UCLA, there was a great program, taught by Michael McClain, the director of the program, and you learned exactly what to do. And when I went to Carnegie Mellon I worked with another amazing teacher, Mel Shapiro, who taught you how to break all those rules. It was easier for me to follow the rules than to break the rules, so it took a long time to really hone the idea of breaking the rules. But I have those two teachers’s voices in my head, one side on either ear: “You should do it this way,” and the other voice saying, “Then piss all over it.” [Laughs.]
So what was grad school like, besides the cold?
Grad school was very interesting because Carnegie at that time was filled with very extraordinary teachers, all professionals, who— and this happens in the theater all the time, so its not specific to Carnegie— these were teachers who at a moment in time, something sensational had happened in their career…and then not. And so, one of the lessons that you learned was not only craft, but how are you going to live with the fact that that you might be wildly successful and then not. And how will you deal with both of those, the successful, which could be equally damning and problematic, and the not. Because some of the teachers had not recovered from the not and were sort of taking it out on a generation…
So to me, there were two educations at Carnegie. One was breaking the rules and the other was how are you going to negotiate your life in such a way so that if your heart is broken you can still be a functioning, healthy person.
A huge lesson.
Yeah, and you don’t learn it.
But you’re made aware of it, at least.
You’re aware of it and then it happens to you, and then you go, “Oh, now I know why that person behaved the way they behaved or why that person started drinking or why this person…”
But my teacher, Mel Shapiro, was a very intuitive teacher. The program would change based on whatever Mel thought; there wasn’t a standard methodology, it was, “This is not working – let’s do this.” It was a very exciting place to be because depending on what Mel thought was working or not working it could just radically change. For me it was a very exciting time just to learn how to break rules, to learn that institutions should be flexible enough to make an immediate turn left if they need to.
And did you create a community there, of other people in the theater?
You know, the thing that’s interesting which I think is very, very true – and I think it’s true when you look at the interviews of a lot of the people that you’ve spoken to – is that the people who really help you are your peers. A designer, Mark Wendland, was going through the program at the time I was and so when we got out we were able to start working together. That was an absolutely invaluable relationship that continues to this day, some 26 or 27 years later.
Ironically enough, most of my relationships are more from undergraduate than they are from graduate school.
Oh, really? Why do you think that is?
UCLA attracts a lot of different people because it’s in Los Angeles, so my buddies were the guys that wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or a colleague was the guy that wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, Tim Robbins was a classmate of mine… So when I got out of school, I went back to the west coast and it was those friends who sort of helped me find ways to make ends meet, as I was trying to secure a play, a life in the theater.
When you finished graduate school, you went back west?
Mel [Shapiro] wrote a letter for me because he was good friends with Gordon Davidson who ran the Mark Taper Forum – which was the place that I first saw theater. Gordon ended up hiring me part-time, then full-time, to be an artist-in-residence at the Mark Taper Forum. But there was a period in time where my friends who were all in the film business would get me jobs, like reading scripts for Jane Fonda – a lot of script reading – that would help pay the rent. Between what the Taper could pay a visiting artist and this extracurricular work, I was able to sort of float for a little bit.
Reading a script for Jane Fonda, what else did you do?
[Laughs.] I was given anything that they just didn’t know what to do with. My job was to read that.
And evaluate it?
And evaluate it, write like a three-page report. So Jane Fonda came into the office and she said, “I really like your reports, I never want to do any of those projects, but you capture them very well.” [Laughs.]
I was working for Gordon as an assistant, and assisting is always filled with odd things that you have to do. One of the things was that Gordon was directing opera and he needed a dog. This was Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. He needed a dog that didn’t bark. It turned out that my roommate at the time had a dog that didn’t bark. We took it in, the orchestra played, it got the job.
So, one day I’m rushing to get the dog to work and I’m late, so I’m on the freeway in the diamond lane and I get pulled over. The policemen in L.A. always say, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” And I said, “I don’t know, why?” And he said, “Because you’re in the diamond lane and the diamond lane is for two passengers.” And I said, “I have a passenger.” And I pointed in back to the dog. The dog is [he makes panting, dog-breathing sounds] in the back. And the officer says, “It has to be work related.” And I said, “It is work-related, I’m taking him to work.” And the policeman said, “What is the dog’s job?” And I said, “He is in the opera.” And the cop says, “OK, the dog does a couple bars of Aida or I write a ticket.”
[Laughs.] That’s good. That’s good, for a cop.
Yeah, so I would do jobs like that. I got to drive a Soviet cosmonaut. I picked him up from the airport.
Because we were doing some play that had something to do with science, and one of the speakers was going to be this cosmonaut who had been up in space. This is still when the Soviet Union existed. So I had to pick up this cosmonaut, his translator and their attaché who was to make sure that they did everything properly. And I’m trying to fit everybody in, because I thought I was just picking up a cosmonaut.
So I’m driving them and the translator goes, “Can we please to make to Hollywood sign? Must we see Hollywood sign.” And the cosmonaut says to the translator, “You see Hollywood sign, you get sparkles in eyes, you never come home.” This is the conversation. [Laughs.]
So, a lot of jobs like that.
One day, Gordon turned around and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, uh, “I’m assisting you.” He said “I know that, what else are you doing?” and I said, “Well that’s about it.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you take all the people who are understudies and make something with them, just make something – what do you want to make?” And I said, “Well, there’s a Marivaux play…” And he said, “Great! I don’t know what that is, but great, go do that!” So I took eight people into a room, I was given three weeks of rehearsal and then I presented it for the staff of the Taper and Gordon liked it and he said, “Okay, let’s do that on our second stage.” And that was that.
But then they couldn’t afford to keep me on anymore, but they would always give me two or three jobs while I was freelancing. They’d give me a job doing dramaturgy or assisting or directing in their new plays festivals. So I always knew that I had at least one or two paying jobs from the Taper while I was trying to do other stuff.
But having done that [first] show gave me a seal of approval. “Oh, well, the guy did something at the Mark Taper Forum, so he couldn’t be too bad.”
What was the living like for you during this time?
I was living with two roommates from my UCLA days. We were living near the Fairfax area in one of those little houses that are like World War II 1940’s duplex. The kind of place that Philip Marlowe would go and find some dead body, you know what I mean? It was one of those types of places, with the smell of Eucalyptus, all the trappings of Los Angeles…
What was the sort of day-to-day existence like?
To me now, in retrospect, I don’t know how I was able to pay the rent. There was this period of time, seven years I think, where it was like, “How did I make rent every month?” You know? Just somehow between reading these scripts or delivering Gordon the dog or what have you, there would be enough there.
But there was a community of all of us that were just starting out, most of my friends were starting out in film and television, so my memory of that period in time was just going to different people’s places and doing potluck, having a party here, having a party there, and just making ends meet.
That sounds familiar…
I do remember that this was a time in my life of a lot of fast food. In Los Angeles, there are all these drive-thrus and I just remember constantly being so harried that I would pay my money and I would drive away and I would be like a half hour to my destination and realize that I forgot to get the food.
[Laughs.] And the money that you did have, what did you spend it on? What was your luxury?
Books. I remember there was a collected edition of A thousand and One Nights, a very beautiful, four-volume edition, and I would go to Book Soup, like every week, and I would just look at this edition. And then finally I just went, “I’m just gonna buy it.” I think I had to pull in a couple of other books to pay the rent for that month.
I like to read, so I would just go get rid of a whole bunch of books in order to get a whole bunch of new books.
There is that divide that begins to happen where you’re pawning books to pay rent and some of your friends have lives that are going in completely different directions. Sometimes there can be bitterness and I wonder, were you ever frustrated with your situation?
Most of my friends were in film and television and I was doing this thing in Los Angeles that was weird to them – with the exception of Tim Robbins who always was interested in theater. But a lot of my friends, their careers took off immediately when they got out of school. My memory was it created anxiety in me.
But I was in a different world, a world that had a different metabolic rate, it just wasn’t going to work like that. And I think they were relieved that it was different. I pretty much had different rules, so no one felt bad for me or competitive with me because I was just doing this weird, other thing.
I think my friends took concern. They would help me get jobs. They were always looking out for me, and there was always this older brother or older sister who was like, you know, “Let’s help Brian,” that sort of thing. So my friends were pretty generous in that respect.
And when did you make your way back to the east coast?
Well, it was in slow stages. Many years ago, the New York Theater Workshop would select three young directors and they would present their work and they would open, and you would apply for this. I applied and I ended up doing that. That was my first time back on the east coast and I did this play called The Illusion that Tony Kushner did the translation for, and that’s how I met Tony. It went really, really well.
But the idea of New York felt insane. At least in LA I had friends. I didn’t know anyone in New York, I don’t have any family in New York, so I thought, “I can’t go here!” So I immediately went back [to Los Angeles].
Then a colleague, Oskar Eustis who now runs the Public, got a to run the Trinity Rep – which is in Rhode Island – so he asked me to come and be the Associate Director. So that got me to the east coast. I went and during that period in time, Tony Kushner, who was a very kind advocate, kept saying to George Wolfe, who was running the Public, “You should hire Brian for something. You should hire Brian for something.”
That’s a good advocate to have.
Yeah, it doesn’t hurt to have the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Angels in America in your corner. I was doing a show in Cincinnati and George’s mother lived in Kentucky, so George thought, “I could kill two birds with one stone: make Tony shut up and visit my mom.” So he went to see a show I did, an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, or something like that. He went and then he hired me to do a show in the park [Central Park] – because the director that was going to do it, he had to do the musical, The Titanic.
Directing a show at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park, that’s a pretty gig to get.
Yeah, it was pretty wild. They gave me this show, Timon of Athens. I had never read it before and I went and did it and it went well and George, even before the reviews came out, came up to me and said, “You know, if you want to work for me, you know if you want to work here, you can work here, you want a job? You want a job?”
I was taken aback by this and I said “Ok, sure, why not?” So he offered me a job as an Associate at the Public, and so I said to Oskar Eustis, you know, “I’m going to go because it’s New York,” this sort of thing. I don’t think Oskar’s ever forgiven me for it. And so I went, because I couldn’t go to New York without a job, and George gave me a job.
All of a sudden, coming in at that level, you get a whole different kind of footing. To be able to go put on shows in that huge, iconic space, that must have changed things completely for you.
I’m very lucky with people like Ann Bogart and George Wolfe and Tony Kushner and Oscar Eustis who have been immensely helpful to me throughout my professional life, but I sometimes feel, that even though I had significant experiences, it’s those early formative [relationships]… My family and my extended friends are all still in LA. By the time I landed in New York, I must have been 35 or something like that. The formative relationships I forged are still there [in Los Angeles]. Even though I can go out to dinner and hang out with amazing people, it’s different. It’s that thing that happens when you’re young, when you share your dreams and your aspirations and your fears with your peers. So with me, I’ve always felt like I’m, in a way, an exile.
No thoughts of going back to Los Angeles?
When I go back with my wife, we go and we stay at a friend’s place and the birds chirp, you know morning light in Southern California is very beautiful, especially in the summer time, and I wake up in bed and my wife will turn to me and say, “And we left Los Angeles because?…” But there’s no theater work in LA – this is the city, this is a theater city, and Seattle is a theater city, Chicago is a theater city, Minneapolis is a theater city. Los Angeles is a film city. It does theater and it does very good theater, but there’s not enough there to do.
Sometimes I sort of feel like when I was a kid and I played a lot of chess and the big thing was not to play speed chess because it would ruin you as a chess player. New York is speed chess, all of it. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a musical, if you’re doing Broadway, it’s just speed chess. So I feel a little bit like I’ve ruined myself by trying to stay here, because it’s fast and it’s furious and you don’t have that time to stop and to plan as one should. I think when you compare a lot of American theater to world theater, there’s a reason why we’re not often in the same league.
To me the best theater in New York City is the off, off, off, off Broadway theater, it’s theater like the Wooster group or Elevator Repair Service, or Collapsible Giraffe or Big Dance, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma… That’s the best theater I think in New York, because that isn’t speed chess – they are taking seven months to make something, you know, and it shows.
Looking back a little bit, can you think of some turning point that was important to you?
When I was in Los Angeles, a friend of mine came to me and said, “Peter Brook is working at the L.A. Arts festival, would you like to meet him?” And I said no, because I didn’t want to meet an idol, I thought I would be disappointed and stuff. So I said, “Would you do me a favor – tell him a little bit about me, and ask him what his advice would be for me.” Because it turns out Peter Brook had given advice for some friends of mine that had been really insightful. So my friend came back to me, and she said “So Peter says that you should not turn down any work – it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s in a garage, if it’s good, people will hear about it, it’s a small community and work breeds work.”
At the time, I was deciding weather or not I was going to do a production of A Christmas Carol. I’m a Jewish kid, I don’t know A Christmas Carol. I thought, “Okay, Peter Brook says I should do A Christmas Carol, I’m taking a freaking Christmas Carol.” I took the job and it turned out that one of the people on the board ran Long Beach Opera, which is a very avant garde, chi chi Opera company. And because I did that little cockamamie thing, I ended up getting to do five operas back to back and they were like Carmen…
A very different category from A Christmas Carol.
And also just big. I was dealing with big budgets, big casts, and had I said no to that, I would not have been able to do that, which meant that when George Wolfe said to me, “Okay go do Timon,” [at the Delacourt in Central Park] I wouldn’t have had the experience of moving a lot of people around very quickly to get that done. So I guess one of the lessons is, you just never know what is going to prepare you for these moments.
So I agree with Mr. Brook. Just work, you do the work and it will lead to what it leads to. And I think it’s absolutely true, when you do something of significance and if it’s good, the New York Times will know about it two days later. That’s the magic of this field.
Would you say that would be your advice for young, theatrical types?
I think in theater it’s a ten-year commitment. There are certainly people that come out of school and they hit it right away, but for most mortals, it’s a ten-year proposition, a ten-year investment.
And I think the only thing you need is passion. You know, the remuneration is not money, it’s something else. My life is theater, I operate without a net. I have no other skill set whatsoever, I barely have a skill set in theater. I remember the first time I was in an interview and they said, “Well after you do the show, what are you going to do next?” And I said, “Well, I have no idea.” And they said, “Well, are you going to temp?” I said, “Well, I can’t type…” And they said, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said, “I DON’T KNOW!” The only thing I knew was that this was all…
That’s not very good advice.
That takes a lot of courage though. Would you say you were courageous or would you say that you had sleepless nights about what was going to happen next week?
Oh, totally sleepless nights. But I have sleepless nights now, even though I sort of know what I’m doing next week [Laughs].
Now I teach at Columbia and what I tell my students is, it’s ten years. And over those ten years, it will become clear to you what it is you want to do, even if, ten years from now, it’s: I don’t want to do this anymore. But it takes ten years to sort of start to get your work known, start to know who you are in your work. Start to realize, is this really rewarding?
It’s dangerous, and a scary proposition.
Yes, but that’s what your twenties are about. I think your twenties should be about exploring. I think you end up regretting it if you don’t use your twenties to gamble.
Did you have any moments when you felt that you were going to give up, when you felt a kind of panic?
Oh yeah, so many times, so many times. I remember, I was riding in a subway and I was really thinking, “This is it, I’m not going to do this anymore.” And in the subway was an old friend from UCLA who I hadn’t seen in ages and she was working for HBO, advertising for HBO, and we just started talking. And I thought, you know, maybe its time to go to HBO. And the next day my friend Tim Robbins called me and said, “Why don’t you come out and do something in Los Angeles?” Had he not called, I think I would have called my friend and said, “I think I’m ready to go to HBO,” and then called it a day. Tim called and he has a theater company in L.A. so he said come and do whatever you want!
That’s a pretty good proposition.
Yeah. What has kept me going are friends like Tony [Kushner] or Tim [Robbins] or Ed Solomon. It’s those early friendships that create the net so when you do fall, the fall doesn’t hurt so much.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist.