Director Anne Kauffman on Wakey, Wakey

By Hannah Clague

“The world is a complicated place,” says Anne Kauffman, “and directing theater is my way of facing that.” In two decades working in the American theater, the New York–based director has been unafraid to tackle weighty subjects. In addition to her work on and off Broadway, the Obie Award–winning Kauffman directed Hundred Days at Z Space in 2014, a musical that also tackles universal explorations of humanity. Kauffman returns to A.C.T., where she led an MFA Program production of Steve Gooch’s uncompromising drama Female Transport in 2005.

What excites you about Wakey, Wakey?
Growing up in the theater, we’re all taught the Aristotelian way of looking at plays: there’s a beginning, middle, and end. It’s this beautiful arc and all the moments of the play add up to one thing. Each scene is built to take us one step in the direction of the final conclusion. Real life is not shaped that way, and neither is Wakey, Wakey. It’s messing with the arc.

It’s so different from other plays I’ve directed. It is a great experiment—it’s not a play how we understand plays. There’s something comforting in the knowledge that real life is not as sculpted as traditional playwriting makes it out to be. Instead of one moment leading to another, Will’s plays are like free association. Life is free association, and somehow its ultimate design is more beautiful.

Wakey, Wakey director Anne Kauffman. Photo by Tess Mayer.

You’ve known Will Eno for many years. How are you and Will working to prepare the audience for this new kind of theatrical experience?
Will had the desire to make a piece that came before the main event, and somehow got us into the mindset for Wakey, Wakey. We were tossing a few things around, and one thing that we were interested in was the woman who appears for a brief moment of time in Wakey, Wakey. She appears at an important place in the piece, and so it felt important that we meet her in a different context. From there, we developed this idea into the first part of the show, which became the companion play.

What did the process of creating the companion play look like?
Will and I visited A.C.T. last spring to develop the companion play with the third-year A.C.T. MFA students who make up its cast, Dinah Berkeley, LeRoy S. Graham III, Emma Van Lare, and Jeff Wittekiend. For me, these workshops were all about getting my head inside the play. The first and second pieces feature the same character and they’re connected in Will Eno’s brain, but they are not connected temporally, materially, or spatially. So we needed to figure out how they live together. I’m very much an “in the room” kind of person—I always need a dialogue—so working with the MFA actors in the workshop helped us to figure this out.

We were testing tone. Will is tricky tonally, so we were thinking, “What is the touch that we want, how heavy-handed should we be?” It was fun to play with the actors and explore different approaches.

Actor Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, A.C.T. Costume Director Jessie Amoroso, and MFA third-years Dinah Berkeley, LeRoy S. Graham III, and Emma Van Lare
at the first rehearsal for Wakey, Wakey. Photo by Simon Hodgson.

How do you tackle that as a director?
Directing this play is about getting out of the way of Eno’s language, rather than prescribing what it means—you have to tread lightly on his words. For example, if I say, “I’m sad,” and then act like I’m sad at the same time, it sinks the line. It’s much more moving when there’s dissonance between the language and the way it’s acted, when there’s an unknowingness.

What’s infinitely interesting in theater is watching people who don’t know, who are lost. Who don’t know what they’re saying, who don’t know what’s about to happen, who are always slightly behind the eight ball. That’s what drama is, constantly trying to catch up. And that’s infinitely watchable because it feels so real.

How do you want the audience to feel after Wakey, Wakey?
I want the audience to fall in love with this character and never want him to go away. I want them to be very sad if something bad were to happen to him. I want them to be comforted by his lack of understanding of the world, because they feel that way too. I want them to be able to laugh and feel superior to him, and then watch as he subverts that superiority and pulls the rug out from underneath them. But I really want them to hope they never have to leave the theater. That’s what I want.

This interview is excerpted from the Wakey, Wakey issue of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here. Wakey, Wakey is onstage at the Geary starting January 23. Click here for tickets!

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