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Daniel Aukin on staging Joshua Harmon's Admissions
In Joshua Harmon's Admissions, set at a tony New England prep school, über-competitive senior Charlie (played by Ben Edelman) goes on a long rant. If you've seen any of Harmon's previous plays such as Bad Jews or Significant Other, this won't come as a surprise. The playwright has a penchant for crafting impulsive characters who explode with fervent opinions and emotions.
In contrast, director Daniel Aukin is soft-spoken and extremely thoughtful, but perhaps that's what makes him a complementary fit for Harmon's work. He helmed Bad Jews when it premiered Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company, and now he's staging Admissions at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. So what's his trick for navigating Harmon's most intense moments? To approach them musically rather than intellectually.
"When you have an actor like Ben, to some degree your job is to get out of the way," says Aukin. "When we did talk about it, we talked about it musically. It requires an awful long time for any actor to gain enough mastery over the material itself to begin to even have a conversation about how it's being performed, so it's a little like playing scales."
This technique -- of virtuosity through repetition instead of analysis -- is something Aukin learned from the late Sam Shepard, with whom he frequently worked (Heartless at Signature Theatre, Fool for Love on Broadway). "Sam was uninterested in any psychological conversation," Aukin recalls. "Rather than engage an actor's questions, he would say, 'Why don't you take another run at it?' and they would. It was really wonderful for me to see the trust he had that a great actor was going to find a line between the points they had questions about. That was more interesting than Sam telling them what he thought, even though he probably had a very clear and specific answer. Rather than give them that, which would close something off and have them hit a target, he was much more interested in them surprising him."
Aukin has been helping to conduct Admissions -- which explores how easily progressive ideals fall by the wayside when they conflict with personal ambition -- since its inception. Working closely with Harmon during the development process, he wanted to make sure the play's twists and turns weren't telegraphed. As the privileged characters reveal the ugly feelings hiding under their liberal facades, the audience's allegiances shift. And yet you can't just dismiss these people because Harmon writes them from a place of empathy. It's a hallmark of the playwright's work, and why Aukin (who's also directing Harmon's Skintight at Roundabout this May) loves their collaboration. "With all of the plays of Joshua's I've worked on, I feel like he writes from a very personal place in that the material is working something out for himself," Aukin says. "It's not an academic exercise. It's a very genuine personal exploration of questions he has."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman in Admissions. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.
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