Interview conducted in October 2014 and transcribed by Danny Devlin, PhD Candidate, University of Kansas.
Eric Rosen is the artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, in Kansas City, MO. The theatre is attached to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I had the opportunity to interview Rosen by phone on the morning of October 16th, 2014. Rosen was awarded his undergraduate degree from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and went right from his undergraduate program into the MA/PhD program in Performance Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. Rosen completed his course work in 1995, and finished his dissertation in 1999. In between, Rosen founded the influential and well-known LGBTQ theatre company About Face Theatre in Chicago in 1995. He wrote his dissertation, entitled About Face: Case Studies in Theory, Aesthetics, Politics and Performance Practice, on the history of gay theatre, gender and queer theory, and how About Face’s work reflected queer theories and history through their creative work. This conflation of theory and practice would turn into a lifelong fusion for Rosen, between rigorous academic understanding, and high-quality theatre making. Between 1999 and 2003, Rosen continued to teach occasionally, lecturing and adjuncting at Northwestern and University of Chicago to “fill in the cracks”, but within five years, running About Face became a full time job. In 2008, Rosen left Chicago for Kansas City, and the position of Artistic Director at Kansas City Rep, where he is dual-appointed as the Hall Family Foundation Teaching Professor of Theatre at UMKC.
As we spoke, I noted that there didn’t seem to be much separation between his academic interests and his artistic work. “I really thought I was training to be an academic and in the meantime doing theater because I liked it, and have always done it,” he replied, “and then when About Face started, it just took off so fast – much faster than any of us who started it thought it would – and became a really full time job within five years. And so…I can go onto the job market and try to find an academic job somewhere, outside of a major theatre city, or I can keep building my career here in Chicago, which seems like it’s going really well.”
I asked him what took him directly from his undergraduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill to the graduate program at Northwestern. “Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed, and placed the blame on his professors. “Honestly, I had wonderful, incredible professors at North Carolina who had all come from Northwestern. My undergraduate education was really, really incredible, and those professors started introducing me to Northwestern people, and by the time I graduated, I was offered a fellowship, and it was that…or go wait tables. I wasn’t thinking ‘gosh. What a great thing at 21 to start a PhD program.’ I got three years in and thought ‘if I had known how hard this was going to be, I would have taken a couple of years off.’ But thankfully I didn’t, because if I had taken a couple of years off, I would have started a theatre company…theatre was always calling me, and that was always what I really wanted to do, and I got that education early, and that was very fortunate for me.”
I asked him about the difficulty of going ABD, and balancing the responsibilities of the dissertation against the necessity to live, all while launching a brand new theatre company. “Yeah,” he replied. He followed with an understated, “it was a crazy four years,” and later said that, while he was doing his performance work with About Face, and while the company was gaining success, “I didn’t do a single academic thing for three years when we were starting… I was lying awake, in a state of constant anxiety, like ‘How am I ever going to write a dissertation?” He paused, and laughed. “Every now and then, I still have horrible nightmares: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t started my dissertation.” I told Rosen I was having the same experience – recurring nightmares about never finishing my dissertation - being ABD myself. “Like any kind of major ritual in life, in retrospect [the dissertation] seems so easy… you watch people agonize over it for years. It’s best just to run and get it done.”
Rosen said that he had to withdraw from the academic portion of his life, “just because the professional theatre world” maintains a radically different schedule from the academy. “I taught at Northwestern as an adjunct and a guest lecturer, until about 2003, taught at University of Chicago for a couple of – about a year - …so, you know, filling in the gaps. I was teaching, but I’ve never even applied for a full time academic job. I stopped going to conferences…”
Still, Rosen is happy to be working within an academic setting again at KC Rep and through UMKC, saying that he felt connected to the university and the training program, but noted that “in no way is my role academic or professorial. It really is allowing students to access the highest level of professional theatre as part of their training, but not the purpose of their training.” Although he was invested in his academic work, Rosen reported always knowing that theatrical practice held a stronger allure for him than academic work.
“In school we kind of split off into the people who made theatre and performances and the people who wrote about theatre and performances,” he told me. “By my second year in grad school, it was really clear whose ambitions really were to mark work… it was certainly frowned upon when I would take directing courses over theory courses …there was a question of why we were in a program training us to be scholars when, by my third year, it was really evident, that at the very best I would be a scholar-practitioner, and that I was much more interested in practice than more academic pursuits…but the training was the same.”
Rosen said that the academic and theoretical training at Northwestern colored his practice, and continues to exercise a profound influence on him today, in all areas of his work. “It’s so much a part of how I think, and how I write, and how I administer, and how I think about education and how I think about theatre,” he explained.
About Face was an opportunity for Rosen to put his theoretical work into practice. “Our mission was to focus on new plays about queer stuff. What we were about was in response to Angels in America …we saw, in the post-AIDS literature moment, a seriousness of intent about gay theatre that had historically been more about protecting a marginalized community… theatre becoming a place where theatre was aggressively tackling culture and trying to change it, with a distinctly political agenda. At the same time, it was achieving that extremely high levels of artistry and rigorous innovation and that was really at the heart of what About Face was about…a very unified aesthetic and political impulse to reach broad and diverse audiences by specifically speaking about the particularities of LGBTQ experience. And that remains the mission of the company to this day.”
I told Rosen that his work with About Face sounded like the use of academic theory as a framework for creative production, and he agreed. “Yeah, and that’s what the decision was about, to try to show that making art – the actual practice – was rigorously engaged scholarship, and had a different kind of impact, and the history of what gay theatre has done to American political practices is enormous.” Rosen’s practice of rigorously engaged scholarship extended into all of the work About Face produced, with a certain intensity of feeling about the politics of the art form. “The history of what gay theatre has done to American political practices is enormous… The creation of a kind of dignity and visibility [from Angels in America] was really what About Face was following on the heels of, and we were saying, ‘okay, let’s be rowdy,’… Let’s take on some of the challenging things…not cheerleading…but stuff that examined extremely complicated and deeply human lives.”
Rosen discussed the rise and growth of About Face Theatre, from a “small store front” to producing the world premiere of I Am My Own Wife, and major projects by Mary Zimmerman, Frank Galati and Moises Kaufman. However, the work he remains most proud of was the About Face Youth Theatre, “which was and still is a program for the most at-risk and marginal LGBT kids in Chicago, finding a place to create with some of the best theatre people we could find, stories and plays about their lives based on their own writing, based on their own stories, and it became an example of a kind of an engaged performance ethnography, in which the point was ‘these lives are happening in real time, in front of us, and these performers are people whose lives are being described.’ So we’re turning kids who are supposed to be the most marginal into agents…in their lives, and the lives of their communities.”
Still, the work with About Face did not come without a cost. “A bitter pill we have to swallow in academics is that in the theatre you’re always at the beginning…the indignity I felt in 1995 after, you know, finishing my course work…of having to wait tables for eight years to support myself while I tried to run a theatre and write a dissertation, you know, and assistant direct, and do internships.” However, Rosen notes that theatre’s collaborative nature makes that bitter pill easier to swallow. “Theatre is so collaborative, that often the people who sweep the floors one day, a year later will be the person writing the play.”
I told Rosen that it sounded like his success stemmed from his drive to make his own opportunities. “Definitely,” he agreed, and our conversation shifted towards discussing graduate studies in theatre. “When I talk to young graduate students…if you want to be in the field, there are a bunch of roads you can take. You can have a career like mine… if there had been a tenure track job open in 1995 that I could have got, maybe I would have done that, instead. But it never seemed like a good idea to get a PhD in performance studies if what I was looking for was long-term job security.” I laughed at this. “There weren’t that many jobs then, and there aren’t that many jobs now,” he said. Another rueful laugh, this time from both of us “But I think being trained academically and artistically as people who want to write, direct or produce, is really invaluable.”
This became a recurring theme in the remainder of our conversation, and Rosen suggested the most successful artists are the ones who adapt to opportunities they create for themselves. From this, he drew an analogy to the academic field. “The way we’re wired in the academy,” Rosen told me, “is to think about a series of seemingly inconsequential steps that will lead to an unanticipated outcome, is really like anybody who is doing theatre. We’re always looking for opportunities to say or make something that will matter, and that is a great way to start a career.”
I asked Rosen what skills a PhD student in performance studies or theatre should be cultivating. Rosen argued that networking and staying involved in the theatre community was vital, and that doctoral programs ought to be requiring their students to be assistant directing, dramaturging, or even simply observing rehearsal. “I would argue that you double the chance of success by staying connected to the theatre world...And I think if someone is interested in writing about directors, one should be an assistant director a lot. If someone is interested in writing about playwrights, you should be interning at the O’Neill or Sundance, being around theatre people…you can’t get in the theatre if you’re not around the theatre…and I think we kind of forget that.
Rosen strongly encouraged graduate students to simply reach out to theatres, to offer services and attend whatever social function they can. “There are some of the best people in the country, if not the world, making work here [in KC] and graduate students who never even meet them, and who don't even come to the opening night party... So I wish that every doctoral program in which people are going to write about actual performance practice…should really have to go, participate, assist, dramaturg,” he said, “do whatever it takes to build a second set of professional contacts so that they can move back and forth fluidly from academic jobs…the most successful academics in theatre practice in professional training programs know they have to do both,” practice and scholarship. “You’re not getting a PhD in English,” Rosen argued, “you’re getting a PhD in theatre, which is a practice, and you need to understand the practice and be inside it as much as possible. “
I noted that Rosen’s advice was especially sound given the numerous job postings in the field that require mastery of varieties of practice and theory. “One of the reasons people are going to have to have practical experience,” he answered, “is that they have to justify these programs, and by not being able to teach from experience acting, directing, playwriting, dramaturgy, anything that students at the undergraduate level are going to need or want training in – how can you teach that if you’ve never done it? How can you be an exceptional teacher? The whole field is shuddering under the weight of these graduate programs producing so many graduate students that the pressure to be exceptional has never been higher… there are other ways to be exceptional.”
“The only way you’re going to write [a book about practice] is if you’re inside the process,” he said, “and that book is going to be a lot more interesting and more widely read, and a lot more academically appreciated than a distance study of ensemble based improvisational technique, for example. I would rather read the first book than the second one.”
Another recurring theme that developed subtly during our interview, without ever being explicitly stated was the importance of the cohort. Numerous times, Rosen mentioned in passing folks he had worked with or knew who had also gone through the program at Northwestern, including Mary Zimmerman, Frank Galati, Martha Lavey, Jessica Thebus, and Derek Goldman. I understood this index of references to be a sign of the importance of making and maintaining your relationship with your institution and with the people you surround yourself with.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Rosen if he had any final words of advice for graduate students heading onto the job market. “Remember what first attracted you to the theatre,” he suggested. “Remember what you loved about theatre, the collaboration, working together, instead of tearing apart. Remember why you fell in love with theatre in the first place.”