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The new artistic director of Encores! Off-Center talks about her inaugural season
When Michael Friedman, the former artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center, invited his longtime collaborator and friend Anne Kauffman to direct Assassins two summers ago, neither one had any idea of the journey being set in motion. After Friedman died unexpectedly that September, Kauffman agreed to temporarily help Encores! Off-Center's founder, Jeanine Tesori, get through the next season. Then last fall, Kauffman was announced as the artistic director of the series, which revives underappreciated Off-Broadway musicals for limited-run, stripped-down stagings. Yet she can't recall exactly how that happened.
"It's so interesting -- I don't even think we had a conversation about whether I would continue," admits Kauffman. "We just started discussing what would happen this season. Honestly, this should not be. Michael should be here. I keep saying to his family, 'He's up there saying, 'What? Annie Kauffman? Not Annie!'"
Like Friedman, Kauffman was a founding member of investigative theatre company The Civilians, and she's built her career on directing new work, mostly plays (Mary Jane, Marjorie Prime, Stunning). While that may make her seem like an odd choice to lead a series devoted to vintage musicals, her fresh and innovative eyes are exactly what they need, and both Friedman and Tesori, who continues to serve as creative adviser, knew that. Instead of mounting museum pieces, Kauffman approaches the material as if it were new, looking for ways to make these often obscure old shows sing for a new generation.
This season, Encores! Off-Center's three productions -- Working: A Musical (June 26-29), Promenade (July 10-11) and Road Show (July 24-27) -- explore the evolution of the American Dream. The first is a collection of monologues and songs by multiple writers including Mary Rodgers, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor that was inspired by Studs Terkel's nonfiction book of the same name about blue-collar workers. It actually played briefly on Broadway in 1978, but has been revised and updated multiple times Off-Broadway over the decades, and now includes two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The show has a special place in Kauffman's heart, which is why she's directing it herself. "'Just a Housewife' from Working was my audition song for years as a teen, but that's not why I chose it," she says. "What appeals to me about it is its Civilians-esque structure. I'm a big fan of documentary theatre and yet, they're almost like the direct opposite of each other: musicals and documentaries. They feel like they couldn't be further apart genre-wise, so it's an interesting combination. I'm also super interested in what the working class looks like at this moment." To that end, new monologues have been inserted for this mounting, including multiple interviews with City Center employees in honor of the culture hub's 75th anniversary. Oscar winner Helen Hunt and Broadway regulars Christopher Jackson, Tracie Thoms, David Garrison and Andréa Burns star.
The rarely done Promenade, a 1969 musical written by avant-garde greats María Irene Fornés and Al Carmines, and Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show, which has had multiple names and iterations over the past 20 years, both came from Friedman. "There was a short list that Michael left behind that I made my way through," Kauffman says. Promenade, an absurdist romp about two fugitives and a servant who bilk the rich while on the run, "is a gem and so different from the original cast recording," she says. "Three cast members were out of town the day they did it so their songs weren't recorded. When I listened to it and I read it, I said, 'This is mad. I have to do this.' It's been a treasure hunt putting the show back together." Laurie Woolery of The Public Theater's Public Works program directs.
Road Show reunites Kauffman with Sondheim and Weidman, who also wrote Assassins. "I thought it would be great to work with them again, now as a full-blown adult!" she jokes. Loosely inspired by the story of real-life brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, played by Tony nominees Raúl Esparza and Brandon Uranowitz, Road Show chronicles their adventures during the Alaskan gold rush and Florida real estate boom as they try to make it in early 20th-century America. Kauffman tapped Will Davis to direct.
"I'm really enjoying giving opportunities to other artists," says Kauffman. "As a director, I can give opportunities to designers and actors, but to be able to assemble three different full creative companies, people whose work I admire, it's a great position to be in."
As a woman working in an industry with a gender parity problem, Kauffman is particularly keen to hire directors who aren't cisgender white men. "To hear Will Davis, a trans director in his thirties, talk to Stephen and John, who are from a different era and a different world artistically and aesthetically, is amazing," she says. "The way he is opening them up and the way that they are inspiring him, that's exciting to me. For Promenade, I was very interested in getting a person of color, specifically a Latinx person. I needed someone who would ground it, because putting crazy on crazy is like putting a banana on a banana. With highly theatrical or more expressionistic, antirealistic shows, their freak flags need to fly in a recognizable way. I went to see Laurie's work at Yale and I love what she's doing with Public Works. I was impressed with her ability to create narrative out of lyricism."
Two years ago, Kauffman was looking into getting into television. Running Encores! Off-Center wasn't something she was even considering. Now it's her dream job, even though she's sad it took a tragedy for all the pieces to fall into place. "You know, I'm middle-aged, I've been directing for many, many years now," she says. "I wanted something different, to get outside myself and learn a new skill. Musical theatre, which I did when I was young, found me again and there's a whole canon of work that I get to explore. Michael was a huge life changer for me -- even before getting this position. Our work with The Civilians and doing Assassins -- it's the show I almost turned down because I opened Marvin's Room and then had to be at City Center the next day. I should not have taken that job… but look what happened."
Top image: Andréa Burns, center, in Working: The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.