Q&A with Anna Kohler

Anna Kohler (Senior Lecturer, MTA) spent a good portion of the Spring semester merrily knocking idols off pedestals. With comical derision, she toppled eminent poets Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and took a couple of her own heroes, Bresson and Matisse, down a peg in three recent productions.

In March, she directed Pullman, WA and The Appeal, two exciting and subversive plays by Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee, for the MIT Dramashop and Theater Arts in Little Kresge Theater. Kohler says, “These plays are about humor, letting go of preconceived ideas, and encouraging independent thinking.”

Pullman, WA confronts the culture of self-help gurus, TED Talks, fitness fanatics, and televangelists. In this disturbing yet funny play, characters challenge the notion that we need to “fix” ourselves in order to be better, happier, thinner or more successful. The actors forcefully delivered the countercultural message that we should just accept who we are and get on with things.

Young Jean Lee wrote The Appeal as a challenge to herself to tackle her least favorite subject – British Romantic poets. Rather than create another respectful biographical portrait, Lee transformed these revered poets into silly sybarites and skewered intellectualism itself in this irreverent comedy. The cast portrayed these literary icons with verve and impeccable comic timing.

This June, Kohler workshopped her new piece, Profound Little Beasts, in Rinaldi Theater, directed by Caleb Hammond. The show was a multimemdia, multisensory look at the relationship between painters and their models. Kohler, who had worked as an artist model at  La Grande Chaumière in Paris while a theater student, blended her own autobiographical recollections with historical accounts of Matisse’s models. Video clips from Bresson films, projections from Matisse paintings, as well as audio and aromatic elements, made the performance a true “sens-o-rama.”

In the following interview, Kohler shares details about the rehearsal process, Young Jean Lee’s visit to MIT, the crew’s technological feats, and some of the inspiration behind her latest work.

What led to your decision to bring these two plays by Young Jean Lee, Pullman, WA and The Appeal, to MIT?

First of all, I wanted to do something not in the traditional canon. I brought plays by John Jesurun, Young Jean Lee, Fiona Templeton, Elfriede Jelinek, and a few others, to work on with the students in the It’s Alive reading series. Three years ago, I started this semi-staged reading series called It’s Alive in order to have a simple forum to get the students to hear plays. I do about three or four readings per semester.

Some are more traditional. We did a complete reading of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with songs, where Evan Ziporyn played “Mack the Knife.” It was half students and half faculty and included John Harbison’s jazz singers. Also, I did a staged reading John Harbison’s version of The Great Gatsby, with John Harbison in one of the roles. It was so much fun. I collaborated with Global Studies, when the German Department brought over the new German playwright, Christopher Magnussen. It’s about getting everybody together and getting the students to work with professionals. It’s incredibly good for them.

We tried out these plays in this reading series, and the students seemed to have the most connection to these Young Jean plays. That was one of the main reasons to bring them to MIT. Plus, Dramashop had not done a play by an Asian playwright, or an Asian-American playwright or a woman playwright in a very long time, if ever.

Since a large portion of our student body is neither white nor European I felt that it was really important to bring another viewpoint here. Dramashop always works together with us on the play choice, and they really related to these works.

Are only MIT theater students invited to audition?

It goes beyond theater. Audition notices go to anyone who has ever seen anything on campus, if I’m not mistaken. Mostly, it is people who have either taken classes, or people who have worked with the theater groups before, who come to the audition because it is a lot of work.

Was there any double casting in the two plays?

No, I had a huge pool of actors to pick from. In particular, the women really turned out for me. The men are more wary of the more adventurous plays, but I had nearly 25 wonderful women audition. That’s part of the reason I cast Byron as a woman.

The Appeal was to be an over-the-top comedy; if it is offensive to some that these Romantic poets were being dealt with in this disrespectful way, that’s all the better. We have to take these icons off their pedestals in a setting like this, so everybody feels like they can strive to do something like these writers did. I don’t know how many students I have who say that they would never dare to write a poem, or they would never dare to dabble in language in any way, shape or form.

Is that because the Romantic poets set the bar so high?

Sometimes it’s because they were told they were not any good in languages. They came here because they’re scientists. Many teachers on their paths may have discouraged them from trying. I take it as one of my tasks to show them that it is not so, and that especially with associative writing, they can do a lot of interesting things.

Can you talk about the use of technology in the plays? In Pullman, WA, you have actors on stage interact with actors on TV monitors, underscoring how messages perpetuated in the media affect real life. In The Appeal, Jeff Disko (portraying a literature professor) delivers the opening monologue, a funny and irreverent piece of specious scholarship, as a televised lecture on Romanticism. The sets are large-scale projections of 19th-century landscape paintings and grand animated interiors. Does the playwright specify this use of technology? In general, how much information is in the stage directions?

Most of it is not in the stage direction. There are some instances of very clear stage directions that need to be followed. For example, in The Appeal, you have whole scenes that are nothing but stage directions, like the country walk. For this scene, I had no interest in rebuilding a Romantic landscape out of any materials other than the projections. The scene is making fun of these poets’ artificial idea of landscape. So, it has to be placed in an artificial visual form, like those paintings. In Pullman, WA, there were fewer stage directions.

Young Jean — as she said when she came to our performance — does not like to use technology at all. A number of playwrights I know are not interested in technology because they often find that the word is not brought forward as well as when it’s simply said by people. Young Jean uses technology very rarely, but because there was a deep reason for the chair to be replaced with this monitor, she was pleased with the choice.

The Appeal, MIT Dramashop, directed by Anna Kohler, 2015. Photo: Sara Brown.
The Appeal, MIT Dramashop, directed by Anna Kohler, 2015. Photo: Sara Brown.

There was one scene I particularly loved for its physical comedy. The actress playing Dorothy (Majdolene Khweis ‘15) was massaging Wordsworth (Rahul Chawla, G) on the shoulders, while discussing something upsetting. As she was getting more perturbed, the massage was becoming increasingly unpleasant. She was terrific, and his reaction was great. Did the actors figure this bit out, or was it your directorial hand?

That was definitely me; that’s my slightly askew sense of humor. It seemed to be a clear choice at that moment, seeing the two of them. I’m also very interested in the traditional theater form, commedia dell’arte. I’m taking lessons in commedia right now with Christopher Bayes, a professor at Yale whom I know from New York. He’s wonderful. I’ve taken a few classes with him, and I’m interested in taking commedia into some kind of future form. There are so many interesting aspects to it. It is really the root of all musical theater. It was the first theatrical form — after the Greeks, which is a whole different story — which employed music on stage. It is the forerunner of operettas and musicals. I’m interested in teaching it for my musical theater class. A lot of the things that were happening in this show were based in my research of commedia.

Did Young Jean come to the rehearsal when she came to MIT?

She only came to the show. I was very proud of the Dramashop, as a student organization, for bringing her up. We only had her here for opening night and the public discussion afterwards. They felt empowered by making that happen.

Young Jean was generous in talking to them about how the plays were a personal confrontation with failure. The students had seen them as confronting something eternal. There were a few eye openers for them. She told them that when she finished writing these two plays, she didn’t consider them any good. One of the students went up to her and said, “You’re not being good to yourself; these are really good plays.” How perfect is that?

You conceived of the projections for the sets, which must have been a tremendous amount of work for the tech crew. 

The idea was mine, but I could never ever have executed it without an excellent tech crew. We are so lucky that over the past few years, in addition to the Director of Design, Sara Brown, we’ve been able to bring in a few people who are extremely qualified, like Bozkurt Karasu, who worked with the Wooster Group for many years. He’s really at the cutting edge of how to use media on stage. I could never have done it without him, Sara and Kent Barrett, who provided the lighting. You have to light shows with projection in a very special way, so it doesn’t hit the screen. I could never have done it without this crew.

At first it seemed impossible that such a large-sized projection could actually happen in Little Kresge Theater because that space is so flat and so low. It was only through Bozzy’s and my experimentation with the stage setup that we found out how we could do it. Thankfully, he’s one of my collaborators on Profound Little Beasts.

Is there a tech track for the theater students?

Yes, we just got a proper major. It’s really exciting, and I think that most of our major students will come to us because they can find a combination of acting and technology that they won’t necessarily find in other places.

I have to commend the actors for holding their own against the technology. Often, technology can upstage the actors. How did working with monitors and intangible sets impact the rehearsal process?

When you come from the Wooster Group, like I did and Bozzy did, you learn not to upstage the actors. Liz, the Director for the Wooster Group, warns, “If there’s a monitor on stage, people will look at that.” You have to weigh very carefully how you balance actors against technology. They have to grow together.

One reason Young Jean refrains from using technology is that to direct your words well, you have to allow the technology to be in the room from the beginning. It is a different rehearsal process because it demands the actors understand the words faster. You can’t spend all your time figuring out psychology when there are the technical aspects to figure out too.

You are in production right now for Profound Little Beasts. Can you tell us about this piece?

It’s about painters’ models and the relationship of the painter Matisse to his models. It is also about aging. There is a young woman who plays my younger self. For this work, we filmed each other like a painter would look at the forms of the body to compare the changes that happen to all women. It’s about the beauty of women too.

I have a great love for the painter Matisse. There was a period of time when I would passionately copy his work. When I moved to Paris, where I first studied avant-garde theater after having gone to a very traditional conservatory in Salzburg, Austria, I worked as an artist model in order to subsidize my studies. I modeled at La Grande Chaumière, which is the oldest painting academy in Paris. It started to become a big part of my life to sit there for painters, and I started to think about the philosophy behind it. I had some incredible experiences sitting for these painters. I became their Matisse and Renoir model. When they wanted to study those painters, they called me.

I found a parallel philosophy to my ideas about acting and modeling in Bresson’s writing about models. He wrote a very important book called Notes of a Cinematographer. It’s like everything about acting is in this little book, which is almost written like aphorisms. What he wrote in that book influences a lot of my teaching.

Bresson films, like Au Hasard Balthazar about a donkey’s love for his young owner, are also part of my piece. So, there’s this film material coming in and also Matisse’s history. I’m working with a lot of ideas about different models’ relationships to him. Unfortunately none of Matisse’s models were good in reporting about him. Madame Lydia, who was his main model, just writes what an incredibly great guy he is, which is quite frankly not interesting.

I’m the playwright and performer, and Caleb Hammond, a New York-based artist, who just started to work here, is the director. We’re working on making the show a complete art experience — a wraparound sens-o-rama of images, smells and sounds. We’re using a sound technique called ASMR, which triggers sensory experiences with aural stimulation. Given the fact that Matisse had such a rich Mediterranean life, and was such a man of the senses, we are working with some perfumers to include a lot of aromas. There’s also belly dancing to celebrate his Moroccan theme.

The whole thing in the end is going to be something that is a completely new theatrical performance experience. I always straddle the world of theater & the world of performance, as I’m interested in bringing theater closer to the world of visual art. Generally, in America, theater is seen as something much more literary — staged words. In other parts of the world, and to my mind, and the minds of experimental theater makers, words are not necessarily the point of departure. My theater is meant to be much more suggestive. And I hope that it will build an audience that’s much more interested in thinking for themselves. That way it can be more of a personal experience.

I have to thank the Council for the Arts for helping me financially with this project.

Five of the students you directed in Pullman, WA and The Appeal were new to the stage. Did any of these newcomers say what the experience was like for them?

Yes, they were incredibly happy. Such an incredibly strong community is formed, and it’s different from a sports team because you are not supposed to “succeed.” You’re not supposed to win a prize. You’re not supposed to come out first. That’s not what it’s all about. My strongest goal is to build an ensemble with these students. They go deeper with their collaborators than they would in anything else, which makes them very happy.

Posted on June 29, 2015 by Sharon Lacey