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Ken Rus Schmoll and Anne Kauffman don't agree on how they met. He cites a post-performance chat at The Ladies, the 2004 Anne Washburn show about dictators' wives that Kauffman helmed. She recalls a rooftop party after Cause for Alarm, a Jenny Schwartz play he directed in the 2002 New York Fringe Festival. "I muscled my way through the crowd to meet you," she reminds Schmoll during a recent coffee date. "You don't remember that?" Schmoll does not, though he does recall, "I thought you were really scary and intimidating." "No!" insists Kauffman, "I thought you were scary and intimidating. You were very tall and silent."
In the years since that first fearsome encounter (whenever and wherever it occurred), Kauffman and Schmoll have become the go-to directors for a certain kind of new play—adventurous, lyrical, and difficult. They've worked with many of the same playwrights: Washburn, Schwartz, Jordan Harrison, Anne Marie Healy, etc. When the artistic director position at Soho Rep became available in 2006, Kauffman and Schmoll applied to run the theater—together. "Neither of us had the balls to do it by ourselves," says Kauffman.
They didn't get the job, apparently something of a relief. (It went to Sarah Benson, whom both directors praise for her commitment to new plays.) But the close friendship they forged during the selection process remained. "It's rare to have found someone so simpatico," says Schmoll. "I have a lot of friends who are directors," Kauffman explains, "but most of my conversations with them are bitching about the industry. Ken's the only director that I would really talk about the art with." Lately, they've been talking about the Kauffman-directed Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, a Dan LeFranc play now running at Soho Rep, and Schmoll's production of Telephone, a Foundry Theatre show starting February 6 at the Cherry Lane.
For all that purported similarity of temperament, Schmoll and Kauffman have developed distinct styles: His productions often seem meditative, hers more antic. He likes to spend several days discussing the script with the actors; she likes to begin blocking almost immediately. In plays like Washburn's The Internationalist and Erin Courtney's Demon Baby, Schmoll summons remarkably specific and fearless performances from his actors. Kauffman tackles scripts like Adam Bock's The Thugs and Schwartz's God's Ear with great imagination and a real gift for integrating design elements. Washburn, who has worked with each playwright, says, "They both enjoy the challenge of being perplexed by a script and of having to discover its world. Ken likes to proceed forward in an almost tender and rather mysterious way; Anne keeps the room loose and active."
That's a particular challenge in Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, a show set entirely in the front seat of a car, which follows a divorced father and his son as they drive to the father's new apartment. And Schmoll will have to call on considerable patience and tenderness for Telephone, a triptych adapted by poet Ariana Reines from Avital Ronell's philosophical tome, The Telephone Book. The first part concerns Alexander Graham Bell, the second a patient of Jung's, and the third is a sequence of phone conversations between lovers.
These shows are both Off-Broadway, a comparative rarity for the directors, who typically work Off-Off. Indeed, despite the excellent reviews and occasional awards they've earned, they make only the most marginal living out of theater. Directing a new play, which can consume months, pays as little as $200 and rarely more than $2,000. Kauffman supplements her income with teaching; Schmoll does freelance editing. They describe earnings approaching $30,000 as "a really good year."
Dismal pay, laughable budgets, truncated rehearsal periods, and the constant danger of losing actors to more remunerative work—at least they have each other.