Jessica Kubzansky: Going in the Right Direction

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Jessica Kubzansky admits that being one of the founding artistic directors at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena is the “hardest job” she’s ever had in her life.

Jessica Kubzansky

“Directing takes all my mind and heart when I’m doing it; so does artistic direction,” says the Boston native who shares the position with Michael Michetti. “There isn’t a lot left over. But, I love what I do. It’s my entire life.”

The hours are long, grinding and tedious, but for Kubzansky a successful production is well worth it. “The most thrilling and rewarding part is we created and continue to nurture and grow a place that makes art, and that is exciting to me,” says Kubzansky. “We try to do work that will give people a unique experience or, at least, it’s a re-envisioning of a work they do know. I always want the audience to have an experience they can’t have any place else. It’s about nurturing and growing thrilling art and artists.”

Currently Kubzansky is directing Tennessee Williams’ contentious play Camino Real, opening Feb. 12 at Boston Court.

Camino Real is described on the theater’s website as “a surreal walled-in city which becomes a kind of purgatory for the play’s myriad characters, famous figures from literature and history and those of Williams’ own invention. These lost souls, terrified of what lies beyond the wall–the Terra Incognita–struggle to escape their fate or make one last, meaningful connection. This contemporary, comic and heartbreaking flight of theatricality is Tennessee Williams at his most surprising.”

The use of “surprising” in the description must have some validity. When the play was first introduced on Broadway in 1953, several reviews and reports had critics and audiences alike not quite knowing what to make of it.

After all, Williams’ previous works, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo, were considered straightforward and not nearly as impenetrable.

Camino not only made the audience think, but Williams had ventured so far into a fantasy that theater’s normal suspension of disbelief seemed to be taken to extremes. That kind of hullabaloo gets Kubzansky’s creative juices flowing.

Tim Cummings and Marissa Chibas Brian Tichnell (background) all production photography by Ed Krieger

When she first read Camino Real years ago, she “was puzzled and found it bewildering but really beautiful. As I’ve grown up and become more sophisticated, I understand it more.”

A chance to stage it was like getting a feather in her director’s cap. “This is cool and weird,” she says. “Before I was a director I never thought I’d have a chance to direct it. It’s surreal theatricality.”Â  She thought she could bring something fresh to the material.

“I feel like I understand its guts, its insides,” explains Kubzansky, whose directorial mantra is, “It’s not my job to be popular; it’s just my job to make the play great.”

“People are bewildered by its inconsistencies and puzzlements,” she says of Camino Real. “I see into the heart of it. My goal is to illuminate that heart.” She speaks so ardently that her fascination with Camino Real is palpable.

“When I read the play again it moved me really profoundly,” she says. “It spoke to me completely. It’s a beautiful play about the terror we feel about that undiscovered country, that afterlife. People are terrified of the unknown — terrified they will stay in a purgatory rather than venture beyond those walls.

“I don’t think we’re good with dealing with death. We think of this as something that happens to other people instead of it being a part of life. There’s a brilliant theatrical lunacy to this play. Most people don’t think of that when they think of Tennessee Williams.”

When it’s all left on stage and Kubzansky has done all she can to bring Williams’ words to life, she hopes the audience will have a new appreciation and respect for the work. “I hope the audience comes away with a million things to think about,” says Kubzansky, who is single and lives in Los Angeles.

“I love that when the play was reviewed years ago, it was called the worst play written by the best playwright at the time. It’s all about the appreciation of the breadth and beauty of Tennessee. Even more, I hope this whole question of what it costs to be free versus what it costs to be in a cage, a prism of your own making, is somehow brought to the light. There is something so profound, beautiful and painful about that.”

Camino Real is a co-production with Kubzansky’s alma mater, CalArts. Boston Court, a non-profit, has had to do a co-production every year in order to have a four-show season. “The joy is we get to play with each other,” offers Kubzanzky. “This is our first collaboration with a school. I’m a CalArts grad and I’m the official champion.”

(foreground) Christopher Rivas and Lenny von Dohlen (background) Harley Ware, Brian Tichnell and Ashli Amari Adams

While studying and receiving an MFA in theater direction at CalArts (after undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins and Harvard), Kubzansky’s focus never veered to any other jobs in the theater such as acting, costumes, makeup or lighting. When she actually went to work, she came sans expectations. “I don’t think I was expecting anything. I just wanted to work. Theater was an addiction. When one play was over, I just went and got my next fix.”

There is no down time in her world. Kubzansky is always curious and looking for the next play that is creative, bold and daring enough for Boston Court.

“All good plays are like great mysteries that have to be solved,” says Kubzansky, who added that LA theater’s biggest challenge is that Angelenos don’t consider going to the theater a required activity. “I love wrestling a mystery to the ground. I love the interaction with a wide variety of the people who are required. Theater is such a village. It’s exciting to work with people. I’m a very collaborative director. I revere actors for their bravery and brilliance.”

It’s clear that Kubzansky is doing exactly what she wants and what she was meant to do.

“I’m one of those people who never had to wonder what color my parachute was,” she says. “I love the profound collective collaboration that goes into a play. It’s my job to ask for the most ridiculous, absurd of behaviors, romance, abuse and gaiety. I love that that’s my job.”

For Kubzansky, who directs four or five plays a year, theater is all consuming. Not only are there lots of opening nights and closings, but if she’s not directing a play, she’s about to, or she’s reading or consulting on another.

When she decides which plays she’ll direct, she has specific criteria. “I love language,” she says. “Poetry in the theater. People who are poets of language are exciting to me. I love things that require the collective imagination. I love plays that are talking about something profound at heart, that speak to the human condition. I’m attracted to plays that need me. Camino Real needs me. I don’t think Neil Simon needs me.”

In 2009 she did Hamlet at Theater 150 in Ojai. It’s a play she had wanted to direct for more than a decade. She says she wasn’t completely happy with her work but she came close. “Oscar Wilde said “˜a work of art is never finished, only abandoned,’” says Kubzansky. “I’ve had a transcendent joy that what was in my gut made it to the stage and translated for the audience. When it’s great it makes me happy. When I did Hamlet, I didn’t think it was perfect, but it had enough of my passion in it that opening night I started crying.”

Matthew Goodrich and Lenny von Dohlen

An admitted workaholic whose professional and personal schedule can sometimes get dizzying, Kubzansky teaches at UCLA.  She has received many awards and honors, among them the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theater.

She keeps pushing forward, because she doesn’t take lightly her ability to make a living doing what she loves. In fact, her only full-time gig outside of theater happened after graduating. She worked as a computer-marketing communications specialist.

She hated it but her parents, who wanted her to have a stable, secure job, were ecstatic. However, her parents’ joy was short-lived. Soon thereafter her boyfriend at the time submitted a play of hers to a theater group in Austin, Texas. She took the job of directing it, and she has never looked back.

Kubzansky eats, drinks and sleeps theater ““ and has no qualms about declaring so. “Even when the theater is at the most miserable, I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Camino Real, presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court and California Institute of the Arts School of Theater. Opens Feb. 12; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through March 13. Tickets: $32. Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; 626.683.6883 or bostoncourt.com.

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Darlene Donloe

Darlene Donloe

Darlene is a seasoned publicist and an entertainment and travel journalist whose work has appeared in People, Ebony, Essence, LA Watts Times, Los Angeles Sentinel, EMMY, The Hollywood Reporter, Rhythm & Business, Billboard, Grammy, BlackVoices.com and more.