Moisés Kaufman’s Game-Changing Theater

Thursday, December 14, 2017
In the 1990s, off-off Broadway was bubbling with all kinds of exciting new talent. But Moisés Kaufman and his troupe, Tectonic Theater Project, were in a class all by themselves. Fusing political outrage, scripts derived from interviews, and a daring theatricality, Tectonic corralled huge social and cultural forces and put them center stage. The company was formed by the writer-director and his partner, writer-producer Jeffrey LaHoste, in 1991 to foster critical thinking in audiences. Among their watershed works are The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and I Am My Own Wife. Each play deals with gay or trans rights in a unique and striking way. Over the years, Kaufman has also directed Jane Fonda on Broadway (in 33 Variations), continued to develop new work with Tectonic, and even received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama last year. What Should We Do?! caught up with the genteel and forthright Kaufman, whose latest directing gig is the acclaimed revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which Fierstein edited and retitled Torch Song. It just ended a sold-out, extended run at Second Stage Theatre on December 9. Everyone's waiting for whispers of a Broadway transfer to become reality. What Should We Do?!: You saw Torch Song Trilogy in San Francisco when you were young, right? Moisés Kaufman: It had such a big impact on me early on. Coming from an Orthodox Jewish community in Venezuela, there were so few role models. Seeing a play where there were four different types of gay people felt liberating and, in a way, made my life possible. I thought, Oh, I might be able to survive in the world. It was also impactful for me as a theater person. When I look at my body of work, whether it’s Gross Indecency or Laramie Project or I Am My Own Wife, I want to believe that there’s a lineage, a sense of continuation from other plays that deal with interesting human issues, but that they also take into account the political context in which they occur. WSWD: While directing the Torch Song revival, what surprised you about the play? Kaufman: Harvey [Fierstein] has edited beautifully. Usually, when you are working with a playwright, the conversation goes where you’re suggesting that they cut certain things, and they’re fighting you not to cut those things. This collaboration with Harvey was exactly the opposite; I kept asking him to bring back certain lines, and he would refuse. It was frustrating but very amusing to have the tables turned. WSWD: You mentioned Gross Indecency. It’s been 20 years since that was a hit off-Broadway. Any chance you’ll revive it? Kaufman: I’m eager to revisit that piece now, so yes. There’s nothing concrete, but I’ve been having conversations with my agent. WSWD: Three years ago, you married your longtime partner, Jeffrey LaHoste. What took so long? Kaufman: It wasn’t legal for a long time! And we already felt like we were married, so we didn’t really need the document. But when it became legal, I asked Jeffrey, “Would you marry me? It’s legal; we should do this.” And he said, “Let me ask our accountant.” WSWD: It feels like Fierstein was shining a light on the future with Torch Song. Gay marriage. Adoption of kids by same-sex couples. That sort of thing. Kaufman: When Tony Kushner wrote Homebody/Kabul, we had not yet gone to war in Afghanistan. And so many of the events in that play predict what was about to happen. I think sometimes artists are so connected to the culture in which they live that they can predict or prophesize. As you said, 30 years on, everything that Harvey predicted has come to pass. Sometimes a play or novel comes along that not only predicts what’s about to happen, but by showing us what’s possible, it ignites our imaginations. I’m fascinated with this idea of the theater as a place where you can test ideas that seem dangerous. WSWD: Like I Am My Own Wife. You directed that 14 years ago; it explored gender as fluid. Now trans conversations are happening everywhere. Kaufman: Yes, [I Am My Own Wife playwright] Doug Wright did the same thing: He kind of pointed the finger at something that was about to become part of our national discourse. I was very proud of it. It’s funny; I was sitting next to this Upper West Side lady with a mink at one performance, and she turns to her friend at the end and says, “You see? That’s exactly how it is for us older women.” WSWD: You started Tectonic Theater Project in the 1990s, and you did a lot of work in black-box theaters in the early years. Is there anything you miss about off-off Broadway? Kaufman: Tectonic is still very much continuing to develop new work. Our latest show was Uncommon Sense. It’s about life on the autism spectrum. So much of the most interesting theater right now is off-Broadway. Look at Mary Jane; what a magnificent piece. So much of Annie Baker’s work is off-Broadway. In fact, when I work in Broadway houses, I often feel stifled by the rules. WSWD: So President Obama was hanging a National Medal of Arts around your neck a year ago. Kaufman: I posted on Facebook recently. My God, how I miss that man. If the current abomination we have in the office had given it to me I would have rejected it. Awards are very complicated things, because the moment you begin wanting them, you’re fucked. But this one was a lifetime kind of thing, so it was good that he recognized Tectonic in his speech. Also, I just really loved that man. I loved his intelligence; I loved his decency; I loved his humanism.

WSWD: Was that your first time at the White House? Kaufman: I had been there once before. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard led to the 2009 Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and Obama invited Tectonic to come to the signing of the bill because of our work on The Laramie Project. When I saw him last year, I said, “I cannot tell you how many people come to me all the time and say that since you signed that bill their lives have changed.” And he said the funniest thing: “The thing is that you spend so much energy and political capital passing these things, and once you sign them you forget about them, so it’s so good to hear that it’s having an effect.” I mean, that bill has saved so many lives. WSWD: The Laramie Project goes on the short list of theater pieces that have actually changed the world for the better. Kaufman: On the good days, I believe that. WSWD: I’ve always thought, Why isn’t Moisés Kaufman running a theater in New York? I mean a space, a theater complex. I bet you’d be great. Kaufman: When I started Tectonic, I always said that we were not going to do a space, we were not going to do a season, and we were not going to do a subscription base: the three s’s. So if it takes us two years to write The Laramie Project, that’s what it takes. The philosophy behind the company has always been: be a laboratory that explores theatrical languages or theatrical forms and ideas that interest us. WSWD: What’s a perfect day for you and Jeffrey? Kaufman: Days that include rehearsal rooms are always better. We have a dog and a place in Hudson, so going there and sitting by the lake and reading. One thing we love to do is read different books. And I get to ask him questions about what he’s reading. My perfect day would be rehearsal, and then going at 4 p.m. to the lake and reading really good books.