Director Annie Tippe discusses career paths, learning curves and working with Harvard students on the TDM production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away.
By Jake Stepansky '17
Meeting director Annie Tippe was terrifying and thrilling. Terrifying because she has achieved tremendous professional success at the age of 29. Thrilling because she has achieved tremendous professional success at the age of 29. I first saw Tippe’s work when she directed Ghost Quartet at American Repertory Theater’s Club OBERON in 2015. Since then, she has been named the director-in-residence at boundary-breaking company Ars Nova. Tippe will direct the spring 2017 Theatre, Dance & Media production – Caryl Churchill’s Far Away – in Farkas Hall during Harvard's ARTS FIRST festival. The play, which runs from April 26-30 and features Enosa Ogbeide ’20, Connor Doyle ’19 and Elizabeth O'Donnell ’17, poses tough questions about the ways that art can or can’t change the world. Tippe and I met in a cramped back corner of Tatte Bakery & Cafe and chatted about the art that moves us most, the educational experiences that have shaped us and the beautiful uncertainty of the future. An edited version of our conversation follows.
What kind of work interests you?
I think my interests are really wide-ranging, but the two most common themes in the work that I’ve made in the last few years are plays with music – so not necessarily musicals, but plays that utilize music in a unique way, and collaboratively generated new work. In the last few years, I have conceived of a few different shows and then I’ve collaboratively written them with multiple writers. There’s usually a strain
How did your university experience influence your life and career?
I went to the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU; my program within that was called Playwrights Horizons Theater School. The sole focus of my studio was collaboration. We had to learn how to do everything and then we had to put that into practice. My freshman year, we had to do all the stage management, lighting design, etc. we were learning about. We had to be dramaturgs for each other’s projects, and I had to overcome my deep fear of ladders to hang lights. There was the sense that even if you haven’t mastered all of these things, you should have an awareness of what every person’s role is, because that creates an atmosphere of respect. The other cool thing about the program is how much they encourage new generative collaborative work. By the time I left college, I was writing shows with four other writers at a time and learning how to make art with people with very distinct personalities. Every show is just an experiment in collaboration. At the end of the day, your show is done. It disappears, and you burn the costumes and throw the sets away. You’re left with the experience of the collaboration with those people, and you carry that from project to project.
How have rehearsals for Far Away been going?
They are good. The actors are fantastic. Enosa’s a freshman, Connor’s a sophomore, and Elizabeth is a senior, so I love that I’m working with students at different levels in the program. It was pretty hard prepping for the show when I was in New York, because I was working on a lot of different things, and now that I’m here I feel like I can feel the community of Harvard. People here are smart and really invested – obviously smart, but you don’t really know if people are going to be invested and treat this like “just” an extracurricular, but I feel already that people want to be working on this play right now, because it has a lot to say.
Why did you choose to direct Far Away?
When I originally was pitching projects, I really wanted to work on a comedy. I wanted to do a piece by a female writer, ideally living, and I had pitched a whole set of plays, which I thought were strong. Then the election happened, and I wrote them back and said, “I need to start over – please give me another week!” I needed something more potent and I needed something that would also run me for a loop. I was very confused and angry after the election. I was questioning what art’s place was within the realm of politics and whether art could move people, change people, and have an effect on society at large. The thing about Far Away is that Churchill also challenges the notion that artists can make change, even though she’s written this play. What does artist activism actually look like? I think that’s one of the central questions of the play. The other thing that really interested me was this almost deafening fear of “the other” – by this, I mean every group of people that stands in for our fears about the way that the world is changing and the way that the country is changing. This play puts us in a parallel future where we justify punishment of the other and cruelty against them, and we dress it up as entertainment and righteous politics. So, it’s a really political play, but it’s also really funny and strange. There’s a love story. There’s a hat parade. You kind of get it all in under 45 minutes.
What goals are important for a developing department such as TDM?
I was required to do things that I really didn’t want to do. I thought that I was a director. I didn’t see the point in having to do run crew or stage management. I’m so lucky that I had to do every element. First, getting your feet wet with every element and doing the hard labor is so important. Being on a run crew is not fun, but when you’re done with that project you’ve learned 10 new things that a class would never have taught you. Second, all of the education was aimed towards sharpening our points of view about the world and being bold in what we had to say. I think a lot of programs are focused on career – how to get jobs in the theater – and overlook the importance of being able to strengthen your point of view and then to communicate that point of view through the work you have made. It’s not enough these days to make something because you like it. You have to have something to say.
What advice do you have for students hoping to pursue careers in the performing arts?
Find and pursue the people you admire in the arts. Find your mentors early and find the people who are going to go to bat for you. Every job that I’ve gotten is through early relationships that I made in college or coming right out of college. I got that work by working for my mentors; they helped me to extend my network. That’s basically been my grad school: assisting for directors I admire. Otherwise there’s no path. It may sound scary and I don’t mean it to, but there’s no path for a director. You could take a thousand routes to get to your goal. Surround yourself with people you admire. They’ll look out for you, and they’ll push you and challenge you do better work.
What’s does the future hold for you?
I confidently don’t know where I’ll be in five years, and I feel really comfortable with that right now. I think the most exciting art that’s being made right now is off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway, and while of course it would be an honor to eventually work on Broadway, none of the work I’ve been making seems to lead to that. I could also see myself, in a parallel world, directing for TV. Three years ago, it would have been really scary to say out loud that my goals up ahead were not clear. Now, I see it as this wide open field, and I feel much freer to say: I’m just going to follow projects I’m passionate about, and wherever that takes me, that’s the path I’m supposed to be on.