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KIMBERLY SENIOR - Support Group for Men

With the “L” train rumbling by the Goodman Theatre and the rehearsal and summer program space overflowing with activity, it is a bit of a challenge to find a quiet, out-of-the-way location to have a conversation with Kimberly Senior, the extraordinarily gifted and much-in-demand director who is putting the final touches on the world premiere of Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men now in previews. Once we were safely tucked away in a corner of the actor's lounge, what came next was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about new play development, working with her long-time friend on the show and creating a collaborative atmosphere with top-tier actors and creative teams.

The cast of Support Group for Men includes Keith Kupferer, Ryan Kitley, Anthony Irons and Tommy Rivera-Vega whose characters are trying to sort out their lives. The comedy which began as a collaboration between Fairey and Senior in 2015, was presented as part of the New Stages development series at Goodman a year later. In keeping with a decision to remain current, the world premiere is set at a pivot point in 2017 between the Trump inauguration and the beginning of the #METOO movement. “It’s very much about how the world is changing faster than they’re able to keep up with it,” says Senior. And with support group names like Floating Squirrel, Running Buffalo, Sleeping Hawk and Silver Eagle, it sounds like it will be a rip-roaring Thursday night in Wrigleyville.

Kimberly Senior’s busy schedule includes the recent highly-acclaimed production of Buried Child at Writers Theatre, where she serves as resident director and an impressive roster of stage productions in Chicago at Goodman, Writers, Northlight, Steppenwolf, Next, Strawdog, Redtwist and in top regional theaters across the country. One of those new projects was Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced which originated in Chicago, moved on to Broadway and then several regional performances that were directed by Senior. Her work has been recognized by Columbia College for excellence in teaching, by TCG with the prestigious Alan Schneider Award and as a recipient of a Special Non-Equity Jeff Award for her Chicago career achievements as a trailblazer, champion and role model for emerging artists. She is most proud of her two kids and biggest fans, Noah and Delaney.

When asked what’s on the bucket list, it was not surprising that Kimberly Senior wants to go back to her roots and direct a musical – “… almost any musical.” She says, “Just sign me up!” Senior also would like to continue her foray into television, following the recent HBO debut of Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  

And then it all came back around to the other bucket she has been filling her entire career as a storyteller – plays that haven’t been written yet – and what it is at the center of a new project that clicks the creative spark for one of professional theater’s most sought-after directors. PODCAST

Finding the right project… “I've read many things that I think are wonderful, but that on some gut level is like metabolically, not maybe right for me. And so there is a click that happens. … I'm looking for work that is asking a question that it's trying to solve … actively wrestling with something that maybe I am also wrestling with. I'm less interested in doing things that I feel like I know everything about. So it's often the plays that I read that are most challenging and really mind-boggling and making me uncomfortable that I'm excited to dive in and collaborate with people on attempting to solve whatever is deep buried inside. There's like a little howl at the center of the play that I want to be able to unleash and then further share and solve that with the audience.”

What’s howling in Support Group for Men … “Well, what's howling at the center of Support Group for Men is the sense of loneliness and invisibility that we can often feel both in a world that's consumed with technology as people who are aging in a world that is rapidly changing from day to day, whether it is based on our current government or based on how so many social norms are changing. We're so divided in so many ways now in this fractured world. We are often feeling not seen by what is happening around us. And so Support Group For Men is attempting to wrestle with those feelings of invisibility."

It’s a comedy … “It's definitely a comedy and it's so much of a comedy … sometimes the way we deal with things that make us sad is by laughing. The experience of watching the play with the few audiences we've had so far and the deep belly laughs that are going on. It really opens you up to experience what is tender and poignant about the play in a way that you wouldn't if it was more of a drama. … It is very much about how the world is changing faster than they're able to keep up with it. … There are actually two young guys on the stage and they are also both wrestling with things … this is where we move into a conversation about masculinity and, we hear this phrase all the time now: ‘toxic masculinity’ and there is a real problem to solve in this world. We keep sort of blaming the way we are raising men, but we're not necessarily doing anything about it. This play is giving space for men to feel vulnerable, for men to talk about their feelings, for men to express their fears and concerns and to essentially abolish phrases like ‘Man Up’ which don’t seem to be helpful for anyone.”

Working with Ellen Fairey … “Ellen and I date back to the mid-90s knowing one another. This is actually the first time we are working together as a writer and director, but we've been friends for a very long time … so much of our friendship has been very centered on our love of Chicago and the zeitgeist that surrounds this fabulous town. In 2015, Ellen and I went out to the Ojai Playwrights Conference in gorgeous Ojai, California. We had a two-week workshop of the play. … thinking back to the summer of 2015, we were in a very different place then we are now in the summer of 2018. So, a lot of changes were made before we brought it to New Stages at the Goodman in 2016. And that process was fantastic because here we had four weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of performances and we really got the opportunity to dig deep into the characters who became much more richly evolved and complex. We were able to unearth their backstories and how they are connected. We were able to really make specific what it is that they are afraid of. We also were able to understand how their fears were being solved or taken care of and what does it really mean to support someone. … Moving to the production we have now, we've decided to set the play in 2017, six months after Donald Trump's inauguration and right before the #MeToo movement. So, it's in a very specific place and time and that's definitely affected a lot of the changes that we've worked on. We also have changed a couple of the characters pretty intensely and a lot based on who the actors are that are playing them. Ellen has an amazing ability to collaborate not only with me as her director but also with the actors. She really likes to hear their voices and she very much writes to them.”

Floating Squirrel and the rest of the Support Group … “(Keith Kupferer) is so fantastic and I’m just sitting here laughing thinking about his tremendous performance. Keith is a really big guy … thinking of him as a floating squirrel is just an automatically hilarious thing. … These are their support group names. They are an idealized version of oneself in many ways. And so the idea of being something that moves swiftly and lightly and maybe sees himself as someone kind of tiny is this idealized notion of who he could possibly be. Anthony Irons is playing Dell who is also known as Running Buffalo … who feels maybe a little held down in life and there's an unbridled, boundless joy to his idealized version of himself. Ryan Kitley is Sleeping Hawk who in his idealized version has a tremendous center of himself, a grandeur and an ability to see everything. Tommy Rivera-Vega plays Kev and his character's name is Silver Eagle … there is something that is shiny and American and slick about him. The newest member of the support group, played by Jeff Kurzy (Alex), is Falling Fox … ‘foxes have red hair’ … and he also has fallen down in the play.”

Developing projects at Goodman Theatre … “...there's a wonderful sense of being in the nest here, of being held, of being seen and acknowledged for the work that I'm doing and really the work - also, the play, but also the work - and that's a wonderful thing. It's so necessary for the future of American theater. I've now been doing this for a while, but I've had several shows where I've gotten to take more than one stab at it, more than one pass. And some of these decisions have in theaters over the past 30 years of the American regional theater, like rehearsal schedules growing shorter and the time to really live with a thing has not been really attended to. And I know a lot of that is financial and we could have a whole other podcast about that. But what's wonderful about the process here at the Goodman is that Ellen and I, obviously from our time before the Goodman, but even thinking about New Stages, we had a full eight months up until New Stages to work together on it. Then we had the New Stages experience. Then between New Stages and now we've been back here for readings, for conversations, for continued work on the script. So, we have immersed ourselves in this. We have been able to really bring something to audiences that is textured and nuanced … even though today we're about to go put in a couple of new lines, they are earned changes that really make sense and are responsive to the process that we've had, which has been so deep and so rich.  … every play needs something different and the Goodman really acknowledges that.”

The Bucket List … “I really want to direct a musical - whoever is listening!  My background was as a musical theater performer and it's so much of what has made me a human being in so many ways. I love the idea of all of those moving parts. I'm a huge collaborator nerd and would love to even get more people in the room to work with. I love sharing that. So, like really almost any musical. You just sign me up. I'll do it! That's definitely on my bucket list. I'm also interested in my foray into television. I directed an HBO special last year called Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide and that was a piece that started in development with Chris … we actually did do it on the stage and then eventually made it for television. And I'm really excited about what the lens provides, the director's role and having a little bit more control over what it is you see as an audience member. … and because so much of the work I'm doing is new work, it's plays that haven't been written yet."

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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