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Q&A with Boston Court co-AD, Jessica Kubzansky

February 19, 2010

Last year, Jessica Kubzansky directed Mauritius at the Pasadena Playhouse, Courting Vampires at Boston Court, and a long-awaited version of Hamlet at the Ojai Shakespeare Festival. I wondered what happened in her personal life that mirrored some of the themes she found in these works?

“My mother died in September, 2008, and that was my last parent, so we were dividing up her house. Mauritius is a play about sisters talking about who has the right to an inheritance. It’s also about vicious stamp collectors and other things.” 

Kubzansky is enamored of playwright Theresa Rebek. “I think she has written a perfectly crafted piece of theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse was a lovely place to work, so everything about that project was really a joy.

“We also remounted at the LA Philharmonic a project I had done with Brian Davidson, which is a theatricalization of Esa Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which is a tribute to the Frank Gehry building. We did this for the Toyota Symphonies for Youth.” Kubzansky was forced outside of her comfort zone. “We did this really gorgeous, thrillingly half-hour piece inside the Disney Concert Hall, with a 120-piece orchestra, dancers, and puppeteers, all around the hall, not just on stage. It’s the story about a boy who has to go on a perilous journey of the imagination in order to bring back some music.”

 Laura Schellhardt’s Courting Vampires also triggered personal reflection in Kubzansky.  “It’s a meditation about death,” she says, “and about an older, uptight sister, whose younger, very vibrant sister contracts a fatal blood disease. The older sister tries to put the vampire, who infected her younger sister, on trial for his life. And in many ways it could be a metaphor for how you punish someone who’s given someone you love AIDS. It was a play about burying things you cannot handle; how we as human beings deal with unbearable grief, love, revenge.”

The other highlight of this past year, she tells me, was directing a passion project of her life – Hamlet. “I did this at Theatre 150 with the astonishing Leo Marks in Ojai. It came very close to everything I wanted to do with that story. I think it may be the most brilliant play ever written, so to get my hands on it with such an incredible actor, was more fulfilling than I can say.” It also inspired Gates McFadden to tap Kubzansky for Tree, which Jessica directed at [Inside] the Ford.

 Kubzansky’s affiliation with Pasadena’s Boston Court as co-artistic director with Michael Michetti allows her to work elsewhere, when the timing’s right. “I am ridiculously blessed,” she says. “Michael and I share the job. We have a rule that one of us always needs to be around. When we’re both around, that’s even better. Michael, for example, just directed Carousel at Reprise.” The two are symbiotic. “We work really well together. We’re simpatico without being the same person. Generally, this is a singular job, so to have a partner who’s on your side and wants to solve the same problems – that’s a really beautiful thing.” 

Given the recent indefinite loss of the Pasadena Playhouse, I asked what Boston Court needs to do in the coming season to ensure success. “Well, we love to do plays that promote the cultural conversation. A big part of our mission is to support and nurture new plays and do new play development. One of our own goals is to find ways to allow us to do more things to help new plays get nurtured – more play readings, more developmental workshops. We also want to keep reaching out to the Pasadena community, bringing people into the house. 

“One of the most interesting things about Boston Court is our unique situation in that we started from the ground up. We didn’t have an audience that we had to please. So, now, we try to do plays that most people have never heard of. We do re-envision a classic once a year. We want people to know that, even if they don’t know the title, they’re going to have a real yummy, challenging, thrilling time in the theatre.” 

And how has attendance been? “The economy has challenged everybody. I think we’re grateful that we’re still here. We don’t have full houses every night. Really, it very much depends on the play. Eric Whitacre’s Paradise Lost filled the house every night – people drive from Denver to see it. I think every theatre’s biggest challenge is how to get the audience in the door and, to be honest, the death of so many arts writers and arts venues. Most small and medium sized theatres can’t afford to buy an ad in the LA Times every week, so who promotes awareness? That’s the ongoing challenge of the age.”

 Boston Court’s marketing department is Brian Polak, the guy behind Facebook updates and Twitter tweets. Kubzansky says Boston Court doesn’t do print anymore, except for season postcards. Their newsletter’s online. “We pride ourselves on doing plays that are discussable, that make you think. We have LiveWired, plus really discounted tickets for young urbanites, panel discussions that, for example, talk about the prison system as it relates to Oedipus El Rey [opening later this month]. We are constantly trying to make this be a place where people can come and hang out.”

 Some of the bigger houses count on well known actors to help fill seats. It’s not that way at Boston Court. “The thing about the Theatre at Boston Court is that we look like a million bucks, but we don’t have a million bucks. We are a 99 seat house inside a very beautiful facility. So we don’t have the wherewithal to give a star the kind of perks he or she might need. I also don’t think we want to be dependent on that. We don’t want people to come only because so-and-so’s going to be in the play. It’d be great to have Kate Blanchett in a play here, if she’d like to do one, that would be an incredible thrill and, believe me, we’d market the hell out of that.

“I think that as soon as you teach your audience to look for stars, you send the wrong message.” That said, Kubzansky adds, “But if someone of major repute wants to work here, thrilled to have’em!”

 What’s the state of theatre today in southern California? Kubzansky thought for a moment. “There is a vast community here who ought to love theatre who are just not engaged. I don’t know if they’re just not aware of it. In New York, everybody thinks going to the theatre is the thing to do on a Saturday night. Here, so few think that. All those people who work in film, in theory, are story-tellers too. In theory, they would enjoy seeing a theatrical performance, and I can’t tell if it’s because their lives are so busy and they’re so exhausted that they just go home and say ‘meh’, or they think theatre is the wussy, girlie thing to do. But so many of the writers on TV these days are playwrights – they started in the theatre. Look at Julie Hebert who wrote Tree – she’s a writer and producer on NUMB3RS. Her friends came to see that, you can bet.” 

Boston Court’s preparing for the National New Play Network World Premiere, Oedipus El Rey, by Luis Alfaro and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera. Previews through February 26; runs February 27-March 28, 2010.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 12:12 am

    Hey Steve – great stuff here. Was just guided to your site by Kyle Wilson. Don’t know if you’re familiar with us at Bitter Lemons but come on by and take a look. We’re doing our best to bring the LA theatre Community together in our own way. If you like please add us to your blogroll. I’ll do the same in our Hood. And please, comment any time. Relentlessly yours, Colin Mitchell

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