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Kirsten Brandt: Director and Playwright. Also, Feminist.

March 23, 2010

A scene from 'nu'; Photographer: David Lee Cuthbert

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview (via Skype) with Kirsten Brandt—an award-winning director and playwright whose many credits include Splitting Infinity, Groundswell, and more recently, Little Women. I have to say, it was truly refreshing to meet someone with such passion and enthusiasm for her craft (especially at 10:30 in the morning!). The former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre discussed her early roots in theatre and the current state of feminism on stage. The following is an abridged transcript of our sit-down:

Kyle: How did you get into theatre?

Kirsten: I grew up in San Francisco, although I was born in San Diego but my mom really liked going to see theatre, and she was a single mom with three kids, I’m the middle child. And when I started showing her that I liked to do theatre… I would actually write plays for my dolls and perform them for her. I would write plays and make everyone memorize their lines; I was kind of directing at the age of six. And I started just doing theatre in school and when I went into college I went in as a psychology major because I didn’t think she’d let me be a theatre major. And when I told her I was switching to theatre, she was like ‘well, of course you are’. So she has been incredibly supportive of my vocation choice and I’m not sure if I would have done it if she wasn’t supportive of it.

So I went to college and did theatre at UC San Diego and did my junior year at the University of Birmingham England (I couldn’t understand a word anyone said, the accent was so thick I was terrified). And you know, I’ve just been doing theatre since. I think it’s the only thing I know how to do (laughs), which is scary—in this economy.

Kyle: But it is good that you have so many shows going on right now.

Kirsten: It’s a little frightening in this economy to be a freelance artist but… the economy isn’t going to get good for a while and it hasn’t gotten good. So you just have to trudge along.

I ended up running a company called Sledgehammer for six and a half years.

Kyle: Is Sledgehammer still going?

Kirsten: No, no, it’s dead. It died like three years after I left.

Kyle: After you left… but at least you know it wasn’t your fault!

Kirsten: Well, I took it over from two guys which was interesting—these two men started it and they were known as the bad boys of San Diego theatre, known for their misogyny and their disrespect of all authoritative figures. Their first press release that they ever put out was along the lines of ‘I hate fucking theatre so we’re going to take a sledgehammer to it’ and when I started and I directed a couple shows for them and worked for them, I realized they’re not really misogynist. They just kind of liked the persona of being these bad guys. So when I took over it was like ‘wow, a woman (I was twenty-five) is taking over Sledgehammer?’ All of a sudden Sledgehammer got this radical feminist hick to it, which it really kind of needed. It got more people into the door. I kept the aesthetic with my own flair but I really kind of pushed more female playwrights, more roles for women, and ran the company for years. It was just a couple years after I left; there was a series of unfortunate events that kind of led to its demise. It’s most unfortunate, but it happens. That company lasted for almost twenty years.

There’s something here that’s really important. Purely from a feminist perspective, I was interested in doing that play. From an aesthetic, artistic perspective, it didn’t push any boundaries, which is what I love to do, but I think getting those characters out there in a non-stereotypical form is really important. – On choosing to direct ‘Little Women’

Kyle: When you’re choosing which plays to direct then, do you look at the ones that have feminist themes or gender issues in them?

Kirsten: Well, two things have happened in my career at Sledgehammer because I was the artistic director I picked all the shows. I had an ensemble of actors that was completely split gender-wise, half female, half male but also different races, different ages. I really wanted meaty characters and I was kind of just looking at how many shows by women have I directed? And I realized that most of the pieces that I directed were written by women, unless I was doing Shakespeare or a classic. And even then, when I did Shakespeare—like I did a Richard III where it was set modern so why not just gender switch some of the characters? And I had Buckingham, you know, was a woman. Instead of Lord Grey, I had Lady Grey. I was able to do those kinds of things to give more roles and still do shows. Because I could pick those shows, they were always political in nature because I feel theatre should make you think; you should be entertained but it should also give you meat… so that you’re having dialogue about it over your drinks that night or the next couple days that it resonates with you.

Kirsten Brandt; Photographer: Ken Jacques

In working in the larger theatres I think there’s only been a handful of plays by women. One of them I picked. I was the associate artistic director at San Hose rep and was the big cheerleader for a play called Splitting Infinity by Jamie Pachino. It had three strong women roles, it’s a type of female character we haven’t seen, it was a women turning fifty who was an astro-physicist and her best friend’s a rabbi, and it’s all about God and relationships and science and does God exist and is there a God particle? And she’s an attractive woman—so you had an attractive astrophysicist. And I had to really fight to get that in the season. Even though we had Timothy Near, and she’s a woman who was the artistic director at the time. I was like ‘Timmy we have to do this play we don’t have any other women plays written by women or plays about the central female protagonist in our season. We have to do this play and I want to direct it because I really felt strongly about the issues in the play. So I was able to do that.

I think it’s really interesting, the lack of plays by women being done. I looked up about the Globe when you mentioned that in the email. It’s like finally.

Kyle: That actually shocked me. I had no idea that in their four hundred year history they had never had a female playwright.

Kirsten: That’s crazy!

Kyle: And just a couple of weeks ago.

Kirsten: In late 2008, a whole group of women playwrights—I hate to say women playwrights I like to just say playwrights, it doesn’t matter about the gender—a bunch of playwrights who happened to be women had a townhall meeting with the big artistic directors in New York. My friend Sarah Schulman (who’s a gay rights activist as well as a writer and playwright) helped to organize this thing and it was saying ‘hey look, less than 10% of all seasons have a female playwright. What is that about? Why aren’t you hiring women?’ And there were some really fascinating responses which is, most artistic directors are men and they just don’t get these plays by women. Andre Bishop, who runs Lincoln Centre, said ‘most artistic directors are men and they don’t relate to or connect to women as much as men’.

There’s only a handful of female artistic directors. And I didn’t really realize that was the case until after I left Sledgehammer because I was kind of living in my little bubble of ‘yeah, I’m going to do women’s plays etc’. But when I started looking at what the larger venues are doing and realizing there’s really only one play by women and sometimes none and when it comes to directors? You’re lucky if there’s one woman director in the season. In two theatres I directed in last year I was the only woman directing.

Kyle: On GAB, we were talking about the Academy Awards and the fact that it seems to be the same in the film industry as well where you only have a really small percentage of women that are directing, or doing any of the jobs in the production.

Kirsten: But look at Kathryn Bigelow. Here she wins… yay, the glass ceiling is finally… But what did she win for? She won for a film about war. She won for a film that men like. And which I find very fascinating. A lot of the criticism—I was also the literary manager and San Hose Rep—a lot of the plays I would come across, comments I would receive were that the ideas weren’t big enough if they were written by a woman. Well, what do you mean the ideas aren’t big enough? Well, it’s not political enough or it’s too domestic. But domestic issues are huge. Sam Shepard writes about domestic issues and yet you would never say that one of his plays was not big enough to fill a space. Yet when if a woman were to write a play like that, I wonder how it would be received. So I think that that’s a big issue. Women are being forced to write you know…

Kyle: The Hurt Locker?

Kirsten: Something that doesn’t speak from them.  I just directed this Ian Bruce play which was very volatile, with these three guys. And I went out for these post-show discussions and they were like [the audience], ‘we forgot that a woman directed this!’ And I said, well, what does that matter? I’m a director. I can direct this play. Men have been directing plays by women for centuries. Why can’t a woman direct a play by a man? And everyone’s like ‘oh, we didn’t realize it was directed by a woman’ and I said how does that change your perspective of the play? Most of the feedback I got was that it doesn’t, it’s just… kind of nice to know that a woman can pull this off. And I’m like well… there shouldn’t be a question that a woman can pull this off (but I didn’t want to attack these poor people who were trying to pay me a compliment).

But it’s a question of what artistic directors are reading and what they want in their theatres and are they willing to take a risk on a female playwright that they don’t know. – On which plays are chosen to be a part of a season

Kyle: Do you think it’s the management? Does the management look to the audience and say ‘this is what the audience will buy’? Or does the management just think that this is the way things should be?

Kirsten: I think it’s twofold. I think right now there’s this giant fear in trying to do shows that have a certain name recognition.

Kyle: They think it’s safer to go with the named director.

Kirsten: Yeah, if I said Kelly Stuart would you know who she was? Or if I said Tennessee Williams, you’d be like oh Tennessee Williams that’s going to be quality theatre I’m going to go see that. So there is a lot of that going on. There are a lot of artistic directors that are willing to take the risk that I am fortunate enough to know. For the most part another big thing that’s been going on and the reason all these plays are being done is that they’re being done in New York and getting great reviews. And then they’re bringing the New York team up to direct them at other venues because it’s a sure hit. So that’s starting to happen a lot more at the really big theatres—they’re just transplanting something from New York. They’re not taking a risk on a new product—I hate to say product but when you’re talking business, it becomes product.

Those artistic directors that are trying to take the risk, I think are actually going to pull out of this recession really well because audiences don’t want to see The Glass Menagerie… again.

I also think that they all want that quirky comedy by a woman that’s funny. And I don’t think it’s being written because women are angry. Women have issues that they want to express… and to write a benign comedy? Sure, ok how is that going to alter things? And I think that some of the most provocative female playwrights right now, like Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage and Naomi Iizuka… these women are writing plays that have substance and meaning and are a little scary and are messing with form a little bit. And you don’t see a big regional theatre doing a play called Fucking A. Which is my favorite Suzan-Lori Parks play but they can’t put that out there. But Suzan-Lory Parks can win a Tony for a play about two men. Just like Kathryn Bigelow.

Kyle: I guess the mentality is that women can be part of the men’s theatre world but they have to kind of play by men’s rules.

Kirsten: Exactly. I think that following the structure that has been handed down for years is something that we want to mess with. I look at Kelly Stuart and Naomi Iizuka… they’re shifting the structure and that’s exciting but not really accepted because people go ‘wait wait wait, what are you doing? Stop’. So their plays are being done more on the avant-garde circuit. But I do think there’s a certain ‘play by our rules or get out’ and I think that for every couple steps forward we take, we’re also taking a step back. So Kathryn Bigelow broke the ceiling for film but we also took two steps back in that she won for a film that was male centered.

The Frankenstein Project; Photographer: David Lee Cuthbert

The meaty roles for women are either mother, whore, girlfriend, or wife… and they’re not this central factor they’re this blander character. I just did a reading of a play I really liked but in working with the play with the actors, the two females in the reading were like ‘there is no substance here; this whole character is right here on the surface and it just doesn’t dive as deep as the male characters. We are stereotypes of a type of woman’. And I said you’re absolutely right, you are, your characters are… oh, here’s the I-want-to-have-a-career woman and here’s the granola-crunchy-new-agey girl. But there’s no other depth to that.

In Splitting Infinity where I have this astrophysicist, I got some complaints from women saying ‘how could you have a woman like that on stage?’ And I was like what are you talking about? She’s fifty, she’s got a career—that’s what she wanted, she actually talks about making her choice. And they’re like well, how could you do a play where the woman chooses her career over a relationship? And I said because it happens everyday. We’re being asked to make a choice, men are not… but women are. We can’t be a superwoman. It’s a MYTH. I’m a mom and you can’t… you can try but it’s impossible. I think that women are so used to being pedestaled in plays as well. So it’s like here’s this superwoman that can have her job and have her career… and when it comes to seeing a woman they want to admire have character flaws? It’s like, what are you doing, that’s anti-feminist. No, it’s human! We do have character flaws.

On how the audience reception to a play may vary with the gender of the production team: I think it depends on how the theatre markets it. Little Women was a new adaptation by a woman, directed by a woman and they really played up the fact that it was this girl team. Although the light designer and the sound designer and the set designer were all men, that was kind of not played up. I think it depends on how the theatre pushes it and pitches it. Usually, if it’s a play by a woman, and they are very male heavy, they’ll pump up the marketing that it’s a woman playwright, the woman director… and if they’re doing a play that they’re not sure what it’s saying about women and to have a woman direct it, it’s automatically a feminist production.

So it’s a complicated web. You try to do work that you feel strongly represents women and yet you can get attacked by the feminists for it. And I’m a feminist and I’m like why are you attacking me for doing this play just because I’m showing that this woman has faults and at a point in the play you actually really don’t like the choice she makes? Would you say that about Richard III? Would you say that about Hamlet?

I don’t know if the audience is aware that it’s a female director, a female playwright. What they are aware of is the representation on stage. And if it’s predominantly male and if the female characters are flat, they’re not going to be satisfied, I feel. But I’m just a little director out here in California (laughs).

Kirsten: I have done some very misogynistic things on stage but because I’m a girl I can get away with it. It’s really strange. I actually did a show, and I did it to make a point, actually a feminist statement but it was very misogynistic. And people were like ‘wow, that’s so cool’. But I was making a point about misogyny and the fact that we accept it even when it’s done by a woman and you guys are accepting this.

Kyle: What was it actually that you did?

Kirsten: It was in a show (like ten years ago) and there were a whole series of factors that culminated in the men winning and we were trying to make this statement that there’s no way to beat down the patriarchy. And I guess because I’m a woman doing it, it ended up being a feminist take but it was the end of the play and we had the men sort of win and all the women, who were fierce and powerful, went ‘I want to be pretty!’ and started prancing around like runway models and I think if a man had directed that he would’ve gotten slammed by the female critics. But because I directed that, and it’s directed by a woman they went ‘oh she’s making a feminist statement’. And yeah okay, I was making a feminist statement but I did something incredibly misogynistic on stage. And if you didn’t know it was directed by a woman, which was what I was hoping, they’d be (gasps) horrified that here the god Apollo kind of took the Furies and made them his hoes basically… that they would be appalled. But it kind of backfired in that they went ‘oh, Kirsten’s making a statement about women being able to be powerful even when they’re beautiful’ and I’m like no, I’m making a statement that you can’t combat patriarchy and if this had been directed by my predecessor, you would have been like ‘oh my god, that’s awful!’.

Kirsten Brandt just directed a successful run of Little Women which had its closing performance last week. She serves as the Associate Artistic Director of Vox Nova Theatre Company and is a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

4 Comments
  1. Roxanne Samer permalink*
    March 23, 2010 2:20 pm

    Kyle, what a great interview! I’m so glad to hear someone like Kirsten Brandt agree with me about the Hurt Locker–it’s a bummer that while our society is starting to recognize women’s achievements in the arts, their work has to be of a certain ilk & appeal to male audience if it wants such accreditation. It was also interesting to hear Brandt speak to how plays are both marketed and received in relation to the gender of the author/director. The idea that misogyny is quirky or complex when perpetrated by a female director is totally absurd–it seems to demonstrate how so often feminist critics–myself included–make the mistake of conflating the gender of the maker with the politics of the piece. I feel as if, in order to avoid this tendency, we must demand careful criticality of ourselves!

  2. March 23, 2010 7:12 pm

    Thanks Roxanne. I’ve definitely made the mistake of associating gender of the maker to politics as well.

    I was talking to a friend the other day about Mad Men and whether or not knowing that the majority of the writing staff is made up of women would lead one to believe that the show is deliberately trying to make a feminist point (as the misogyny is abundant). On the other hand, the abundant misogyny could just taken to be an accurate portrayal of the times and gender might not have anything to do with it. I would think the immediate reaction of a lot of people would be to say the first one, which admittedly is an easy fallacy to make. So I wouldn’t really know if there’s a right way of analyzing in general but you’re right, we really need to be careful.

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