Director Anne Kauffman Hopes to Open Up Conversation Around Death With ‘Wakey, Wakey’

Anne Kauffman, director of 'Wakey, Wakey at A.C.T. Photo by Tess Mayer

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon called Anne Kauffman to ask if she would direct Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno, she was thrilled. She not only had a long friendship and working relationship with MacKinnon, but also a deep desire to work on one of Eno’s plays. She describes herself as “a big fan” of his work—high praise from a director who regularly works with Amy Herzog, Jordan Harrison and The Bengsons.

“I was very, very interested in how this is like an anti-play,” Kauffman said. “Will Eno is sort of a non-cynical Samuel Beckett. He has a way of really putting a microscope up to humanity and looking at all of its flaws, but also its huge capacity for joy. And I think that this combination is crucial at this moment.”

We had the opportunity to talk right before the holidays, while Kauffman was at Berkeley Repertory Theatre directing Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s latest play. We covered everything from death and dying, to what it’s like to work with Tony Hale.

Danielle Mohlman: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Wakey, Wakey deals pretty explicitly with death and what happens—or doesn’t happen—after we die. How do you tap into that as you prepare to go into rehearsals with this play?

Anne Kauffman: I’m middle-aged and I’ve dealt with the death of one parent. And the death of that parent had a significant impact on the choices I made in terms of work in the ensuing years. As my little sister said about losing my mom, “I feel like I’m forever changed.” And I’ll never be able to go back and look at the world in the same way. Not that it’s always sadness, but there’s a fundamental change. And I also think when you deal with sick parents—and you deal with death around you—that you start to realize that this country is very unwilling to look death in the eye. We sort of sweep it under the rug. And, in fact, it needs to be taken out and examined and celebrated, the way we celebrate birth in this country. So for me, Wakey, Wakey feels like a step in the direction of opening that conversation up.

Oh, for sure. And I don’t know if this is an explicit link in your work, but I fell in love with Hundred Days about a year ago and that play also deals with death and the fears surrounding it.

Yeah, and I feel like in both pieces we deal with the inevitability. The idea of resisting it or fearing it—there’s something about the inevitability of death that forces you to shift your perspective on it.

Actor Tony Hale who stars in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

You’ve said before that you’re really drawn to plays that mess around with language. Is that something you’ve latched onto with Wakey, Wakey as well?

Oh yeah. For sure. I think that Will Eno is one of the best language playwrights we have. And I think what’s so incredible about him is the mundanity of his poetry. He doesn’t put together words to aspire to something lyrical. He actually takes words and puts them together in certain chains to open up new meaning—like pedestrian discovery. His poetry has these instantaneous and ephemeral flights of beauty that land right back in the mundane pieces that he’s put together.

I don’t know how else to say it. It’s like this inspiration in the pedestrian. Or finding the profound in this certain combination of images that he puts together. And it makes me feel like “Oh. I can do this.” Not that I can write this, but that this duty is within my grasp. I own this duty too—and it’s made of me.

Oh, I love that. How did you come to the decision to cast Tony Hale? I imagine you don’t approach directing any differently when someone is a household name, but do you think at all about how fans of his work might be surprised by this play?

I think what’s so extraordinary about Tony is that he’s a Beckett clown for the 21st century. And it’s a perfect match because of that. The greatest comedians have a really deep understanding of pain and the profound. It feels completely and utterly matched. It seems extraordinary that Will [Eno] didn’t write it for him.

Tony Hale in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. directed by Anne Kauffman. Photo by Kevin Berne

I don’t know Tony that well. We were able to meet up a few months ago in New York for breakfast. And I felt a real kinship, a real affinity with him. I feel like, you know, we’re of a certain age. I keep saying that, but Will is too, and there is something very profound about middle age. And I feel really connected to the way Tony talks about the play, the way Tony talks about his life. It feels like a conversation, rather than a making of a theatre piece. And that’s the thing I’m so looking forward to in terms of this one person show. 

To be honest, it’s not normally a thing I gravitate towards, but it does have an extraordinarily different feel because it’s basically you and the actor having a conversation with the playwright and with the themes. And then we bring that conversation in front of an audience. It’s very intimate.

I know your work takes you all over the country. What are you most looking forward to about being at A.C.T.?

I’m friends with Pam [MacKinnon] and I adore her—I think the world of her. And I’ve always loved A.C.T. I actually went there. In 1988, I was in their summer training congress, when I wanted to be an actor. So I’ve trained there, I went to undergrad at Stanford, and I have lots of friends and family in the area. This is really a homecoming of sorts. My mom is from San Francisco, my dad is from the peninsula. It just holds a lot of meaning. And I have a really strong connection to it, from my childhood through college. It really is a second home for me.

Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno runs January 23 to February 16 at American Conservatory Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.