Acclaimed Chicago-based director Kimberly Senior, who recently helmed the world and Broadway premieres of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, makes her Goodman Theatre debut with Rapture, Blister, Burn.
The comedy examines the very different lives of former graduate school friends as they reunite after a 10-year estrangement. Before beginning rehearsals, Senior spoke with OnStage editor Michael Mellini about the play’s commentary on gender issues and her own experiences with reunions.
Michael Mellini: Are you excited to direct your first production at the Goodman?
Kimberly Senior: I’ve always dreamed of working at the Goodman and have been working for 20 years trying to make this happen. The Goodman belongs to our city, so getting to be a part of the theater definitely brings me joy.
(L to R) Director Kimberly Senior and Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard) in rehearsal for Rapture Blister Burn by Gina Gionfriddo
MM: The play includes references to feminist theorists like Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly and presents a variety of conversations about women’s roles in modern society. Why do you think feminism is still such a hotly debated topic in 2015?
KS: There’s still gender inequality. Women still earn 71 cents to a man’s dollar. I’m frequently in a position of authority as a director, mother and teacher. Qualities that come naturally to me in those roles can be challenging for women to possess, even in 2015. When I exhibit leadership qualities a man might exhibit and be applauded for, or if I tell somebody to do something, I may be thought of as domineering. It’s complex. Yes, it’s like “could we be done talking about all this already?” I’d love to be done talking about it. But the play explores more than feminism. It focuses on where do we go from here? What can we do when we see two extreme manifestations in women? I love thinking of [play characters] Catherine and Gwen as the same woman who made completely different choices. I feel like I’m both of them. I’m a mother of two kids with a house in Evanston, but I was also just in New York directing a play. Am I trying to have it all? Can you have it all? I love the show’s dialogue about that because we have to be present in our own lives. For so long women have been trying to fulfill the expectations of others and the impossible expectations we place on ourselves. In our house we say to my kids, “Just go be you.” I believe that when women start subscribing to the notion of “just go be you,” we will progress a lot further.
MM: Will the play resonate with audiences who may not have a deep knowledge of various women’s movements?
KS: The play is hilarious; it’s not just a play about women. Audiences should come in with an open mind. You’ll find you have shifting allegiances with the characters. You’ll be on one character’s side and then suddenly switch to another. Plays like this are really fun. They make you look inside of yourself and that’s a fun wrestle to have while at the theater. It will definitely cause a lot of debate as audiences are leaving the show.
(L to R) Director Kimberly Senior, Robin Weigert (Catherine Croll) and Mark L. Montgomery (Don Harper) in rehearsal for Rapture Blister Burn
MM: Have you had any unusual interactions with people from your past similar to the experience of the characters in the play?
KS: There have been many, though I may be part of the last generation when people didn’t stay connected through Facebook. I’ve encountered people again and it’s amazing because that situation holds a mirror up to yourself. There’s an instant comfort because you think, “This person really knows me.” The intimacy is remarkable, but there are also assumptions because you don’t actually know each other in the present. People from your past can remind you of who you thought you were going to be, and the gap between who you were in the past and who you become is often vast. I used to be an avid journal writer. Sometimes when I read those journals, I get sad because I wonder, “Where is that girl?” I’m not disappointed with the person I’ve become, but there’s definitely a difference between the person I was then and who I am now. When you encounter people from your past, you’re also encountering yourself from your past. It’s like when you go to your parents’ home you may act like an idiot because you were one growing up. When the characters in this play reconnect, they think they have permission to behave like teenagers again. I have friends I behave so badly with when we get together. We act in ways grown-ups are not supposed to act, but it feels so good!
MM: Did you receive any insights into the show from playwright Gina Gionfriddo?
KS: I had lunch with Gina recently and told her how this play has really allowed me to express myself. She’s wonderful. Where she started with the play and where it ended up are really different places. She originally wanted to write a play about porn, but it didn’t end up being a very good play. She has the wisdom and knowledge of a few productions of the show under her belt now. I feel very lucky to be able to have an open dialogue with her. Every show is a world premiere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing King Lear or Hedda Gabler. It’s the first time this particular audience in this particular moment has gotten together to watch this particular play. That’s what live theater is every night.