"I Only Do Work that Terrifies Me"

Rebecca Novick and Marissa Wolf in Conversation

Rebecca Novick: So, tell me the timing of all this. It’s early September now—are you about to move?

Marissa Wolf: Yes. In a week.

Rebecca: Oh my god.

Marissa: It’s joyful chaos. The offer came to me exactly three weeks ago. So it will be four weeks.

I’ve surrendered to these few weeks, juggling both jobs and this move with a child and a family. We’ll open a show here at Kansas City Rep on Friday night and then on Saturday I’ll get on a plane with Elijah and my mom, get off of it in Portland, and go directly to Portland Center Stage’s first preview.

Rebecca: I remember when you left Crowded Fire. You found this position in Kansas City and you had a very clear plan: you wanted to work in a larger theatre, somewhere where it could be your full-time and only job. Does this next step feel like where your sights were set since leaving Crowded Fire?

Marissa: When I got the offer, I literally ran home and, over dinner—which I could barely eat—said to Tom: I wish I could talk to my Crowded Fire self in my last year there, where I was asking myself a lot of questions. Or I wish I could talk to my twenty-two-year-old self who felt so overwhelmed with how to carve a path. I feel like it’s been a lot of climbing—wedging myself through windows rather than just opening a door and walking into the promised land. Each moment in my career started with and was derived from excitement about projects and opportunities. And that started with interning at Crowded Fire, and the Bay Area Playwrights’ Foundation—feeling like I had small opportunities to create my own work.

That moment of leaving Crowded Fire after eventually serving as artistic director was one of the most heartbreaking moments I might ever encounter. It was the most incredible six seasons to serve the company. To put your money where your mouth is and do fantastic, hard, beautiful work. Ultimately I think I felt hungry for the next level of knowledge. Indie and small theatres, they can grow and grow and grow but, sometimes, they can’t grow as fast as your hunger.

But it was a profoundly hard thing to leave because not only was my artistic identity wrapped up in it, but my artistic home and community were too. It felt like leaving family. I also knew that there wasn’t a project under the sun that I couldn’t do there. That it was so deeply artistically satisfying. But I sought out the opportunity to leave and I knew it was right.

Rebecca: What you are describing feels very accurate to me. I left Crowded Fire with both a great deal of heartache but also a great deal of clarity. It’s so important to figure out when you’re ready for the next thing. I couldn’t wave a wand and turn Crowded Fire into what Crowded Fire is today. In fact, it took ten more years after I left and two more amazing leaders. I didn’t want to wait that long to be able to do the bigger things.

But it was a loss of a family and a community, and not something that I feel like I’ve found again. There’s something so special about working with the same group of artists over time.

Marissa: I totally agree. And you built that structure. But I just want to back it up one beat here. Our relationship began when I first moved to the Bay, and Crowded Fire was doing interesting, political, powerful new work. I sent you a little formal letter in the mail with a resume that had acting, directing, and dramaturgy on it. Then I called you and you were very kind and said, “Well, what do you want to do, and I’ll see if I can find an opportunity for you,” and I came on and did some dramaturgy for Slow Falling Bird by Christine Evans.

Rebecca: You were the assistant director.

Marissa: Yes! First you said, “Why don’t you do this dramaturgy research and if that works well maybe there’s an opportunity.” Then you said, “I’d like to invite you to be assistant director.” And I was like, “Yes!” I remember in one of the car rides with you when we were commuting to the rehearsal space, I was asking you something about how you pick projects, or how you were feeling, or something like that. You said something that has always stuck with me, which is, “I only do work that terrifies me.”

Somehow that fits into what we’re saying because it also has to do with transitions. There’s a moment of the joy, and the thrill and the terror come together in creating work. The vulnerability. There may come a moment when—it’s not that that element is taken away, it’s that it shifts. Or the question opens up in a different way.

Rebecca: Yeah! Interesting. I remember that conversation. I have so many things I could say about that show. It’s one of the ones I’m proudest of. But I had a miscarriage during it, I don’t know if you remember?

Marissa: I do.

Rebecca: And you took over for me for several rehearsals. Which was one of the key topics of the play. It was kind of strange and powerful, a mixture of things on that set.

a director in rehearsal with three actors

Marissa Wolf directing Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff, with Rebecca Naomi Jones, Enver Gjokaj, and Kyle Beltran. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Listening to you tell that story, I think part of what got hard—or less interesting—for me at Crowded Fire was the challenge of sustaining the institution as it grew. During the phase where we were building the company, I loved the invention and reinvention of how all of us were going to work together. Some of the choices we made were a function of having no money. But they also came from a commitment to collaboration and to making clear agreements with our artists. 

Marissa: Yes.

Rebecca: When I went back and directed at Crowded Fire, we had our first production meeting and there’s Mina and Stephanie, and we had this really funny conversation where they looked at each other and were like, “This is the part where we usually make sure the director is clear on some of the ways we work.” I was like, “No, no, do it because I’m curious.” It was like listening to a game of telephone in a really interesting way. So much of what they said was baked in from the beginning and it was so delightful to me that it had been transferred. Of course there have been developments, wonderful stuff that you did and that Mina is doing that I didn’t begin to work on. But that was really cool. I think that there’s something interesting about figuring out how to mature the institution.

It was like listening to a game of telephone in a really interesting way. So much of what they said was baked in from the beginning and it was so delightful to me that it had been transferred.

Marissa: That’s actually a really beautiful story. All those years later. Having it spoken back to you, in different words but the same core.

Rebecca: It was very moving.

So you’re going to this giant theatre, kind of the institutional flagship of Portland. That fits in a very different political space than working in the kind of outsider realm of Crowded Fire.

Marissa: It’s so interesting. I do feel that my time at Crowded Fire is completely imprinted on my theatremaker DNA, how I move through the world. So the central questions that drive me, like: What stories are we putting on stage? Whose voices are we celebrating and championing? What audience members are seeing themselves on stage, sometimes for the first time, and what does that mean and look like? How is that reflected in a community? Those questions are part of why I’ve been hired in the places I’ve been hired.

One of the things I loved about being at Crowded Fire is that I would literally call playwrights, and I would say, I’m so excited about your voice. Please send me your weirdest stuff. Do not send me the stuff you’re sending to LORT theatres. I don’t want to read that. I want to read the stuff that no one else would touch. That’s where you’re working through something that’s wildly innovative, in structure, language, and form. That’s more political than you feel that you can do elsewhere.

It was a pivotal moment for me when I got to KC Rep. I was still reaching out to that vast cadre of playwrights who I’m excited about—those relationships are part of why I was hired. But the conversation shifted a little. There would be the personal side of saying, Here’s what I absolutely love about your work. Here are the crazy plays I love, and then, Here’s what I think we might be able to do at KC Rep. Or, Do you have any plays that don’t have full nudity in them? On the other hand, I feel like I’ve had a little secret joke with myself that I’ve sometimes fancied myself doing a secret sort of Crowded Fire Midwest through my programming in the new works program.

Rebecca: Oh yeah, that’s clear. We’ve all been watching.

Marissa: Being at a flagship theatre I’ve been able to cut my teeth in terms of the more mainstream, canonical stuff. I do love a good musical and if we’re going to do a good musical, then of course the lens of “why this, why now” becomes central the same way it does in new work.

Rebecca: I’m curious about how you are feeling in this moment, about the boomer retirement. I’m really interested in it. As somebody who’s a decade older than you, I’m very aware there hasn’t been a turnover like this before.

Marissa: I know.

Rebecca: Ten years ago, when I left Crowded Fire, there was still a sense that the boomers were just swapping places, if there was any movement at all. There was the idea that nobody who hadn’t already run a sizable theatre was qualified to move up. And it feels like now we’re seeing these really interesting leaps. I’m curious about how you would speak about your own sense of your readiness and your feeling about whether you’re going to have to encounter other people’s opinions about that.

Marissa: Occasionally, sort of through the grapevine, I hear feedback that people think I’m younger than I am. I have learned in this process to put the fact of having fifteen years of experience with new work and in leadership front and center, to try to speak to a body of experience that is important to speak to.

But I feel deeply ready. Maybe it’s because I had been an artistic director for six years and it was very hard for me to leave the realm of being a co-equal leader and go to the associate level. I knew that was the journey I was going to have to take to train to lead a LORT company, and it’s been a joy to be at Kansas City Rep, and to cut my teeth at the LORT level.

I’ve learned so much from Kansas City Rep—being the flagship theatre in town, serving a really wide and varied audience, building a company culture with a large and talented staff, innovating and creating new programs from within the structures of an institution. And, previously with Crowded Fire, I had gone six seasons of season planning, and budgeting, and board approval, and the hiring of all the peeps, and the rigmarole of when things really don’t work, when things go off the rails. I know what it feels like when the buck stops with you. When you have to pick up the phone and make the hard calls. When one of the shows you program and believe in doesn’t do well.

Rebecca: Your resume is the kind of resume that in the past would not have been seen as, this person is “ready” to take on a large-budget theatre. I think it’s really exciting that that’s not the case so much.

Marissa: Age and gender are so deeply tied to our cultural sense of readiness. A lot of men who have held these positions for a long time were coming from small- and mid-sized theatres.

Rebecca: Yeah, or were young when they founded the theatre company that they’ve run for forty-five years or whatever.

Marissa: Exactly! I do feel lucky to be at a moment when the cultural tide is shifting. In my mind it’s both age and time, with the boomers moving on—it’s just the sea change that inevitably was going to happen. But it’s also the #MeToo movement I think.

Rebecca: Yeah. To hire women.

Marissa: I held deep in my heart a profound fear that it would not turn the dial and that women would continue to be passed over. Including myself. I do think the #MeToo movement and what it revealed and has meant in terms of shakeups of certain companies and the mandate it’s given some boards has had a very large impact. Once you get a couple of boards “taking risks” nationally, putting people in leadership positions—people who don’t look like the previous leaders—it sends a signal. Which is maybe why every time I have seen a woman announced I have whooped and hollered at my desk. Each woman’s success buoyed me.

Every time I have seen a woman announced I have whooped and hollered at my desk. Each woman’s success buoyed me.

Rebecca: I want to talk about being a mom in relation to all of this. I hope that this next generation of women is going to be able to be more public about the ways they are and aren’t engaging in parenting. I feel like the solution for the generation before us was a lot like, how can I make this invisible. Or, how can I not have it affect me publicly.

Marissa: I think it’s worth noting that our departures both happened to coincide with moments in which we were having children. I find it really complicated. As you were heading towards knowing that having a kid was really important to you, something you were eager about and ready for, did you feel it might shift your relationship to Crowded Fire? Going into the process of trying to get pregnant, did you feel that it might mean departing? Or, was that a surprise to you?

Rebecca: I had been sitting with the question of whether it was getting to be time to move on from Crowded Fire for a little while. It really crystallized for me when I was on maternity leave. In retrospect, knowing what I know now about executive transitions, boy I didn’t give people a lot of space and time to plan or figure that one out. 

But, for me, it was primarily economic. I was ten years into running Crowded Fire. That last year, as artistic director, I got paid $15,000 for what was technically supposed to be a half-time job, but of course was not. I was also working two days a week at Theatre Bay Area, for which I was getting paid $25,000 to be their development director. And between those two jobs I was probably working at least sixty hours a week. Not counting directing plays. And then I was going to add a baby to that mix. A) babies are very expensive, and B) when was I going to see her?

So, it was painful, and it was a little bit abrupt. Because it was like, shit. She’s three months old and I’m going to have to go back to both my jobs and I’m never going to see her. And, even between them, the two jobs weren’t enough money to really be dealing with childcare and health insurance for the baby.

Marissa: I met you in a moment when you were hungry for a kid and I wondered what that felt like. Then I experienced it myself later. It’s real. It’s powerful. I was definitely thinking, How am I going to do this? Because I didn’t want to resent theatre for feeling like it was holding my life back, and I didn’t want to resent my life, or a kid, for feeling like I have to leave the field.

I think economics were a huge part of it as well. I loved nothing more than the idea of bringing a kid into Crowded Fire. Knowing the ethos of the company, I felt a kid would be so valued and welcomed. So, it was very sad for me to leave, when I was four months pregnant. I was doing a lot of teaching artist work. I was driving all over the Bay Area. I was directing readings left and right, and just kind of trying to hustle as much as I could to make ends meet. I think we could have figured it out because there was enough flexibility and family nearby. But I was craving more resources for that journey. But I don’t want to glorify regional theatre. Because regional theatre is also complicated for people in terms of paid time off and having a kid.

I don’t think there’s a good or perfect way to do it. I think whether you have a kid when you’re running a small company, or big company, or as an associate, it’s complicated.

Rebecca: Often women in their twenties find me and go, “How do you do it?” And “How does it work?” Although, more increasingly people are like, “Oh yeah I just don’t see any way to have kids.” And I’m so sorry to hear that. If that’s your choice, fantastic. But it saddens me when I feel like people are just believing it’s not possible.

Marissa: At Kansas City Rep, because I have been part of leadership staff, and so many of my colleagues have kids, I’ve been able to create my own rules. And my rules are: my kid visits the office once a day when I’m producing, and when I’m directing he comes to the last half-hour of my tech to watch, and then I have a dinner break with him. Or, he comes up on stage for the last five minutes as I’m giving a quick little rundown to my actors. And that’s small but very significant for me.

Rebecca: Yes!

Marissa: It has to do with my kid seeing where I am when I’m not with him, and that sense that this is how I bring joy into the house. And also the very complicated thing of saying I’m a leader in this room and I’m also a parent, and so in these five minutes you’re going to see both of those things happening, and that’s cool.

Rebecca: Right. Those don’t have to demolish each other. I think that’s so important.

One of the most challenging things is going a whole twenty-four hours without seeing them. I’ve realized a lot of people without kids don’t really understand until you say to them, If I don’t get home until after bed time, that means I’m going from the morning until the next morning and I don’t get to see them. And then when they’re older, and it’s Monday that you have off, they’re in school on Mondays.

Finding ways to have the dinner break, or like yesterday, when you were like, I can’t do five o’clock for this interview because I have to pop home before the preview. That’s so important.

I’ve realized a lot of people without kids don’t really understand until you say to them, If I don’t get home until after bed time, that means I’m going from the morning until the next morning and I don’t get to see them.

Marissa: And you know what’s funny? I still might not say that to everyone. I will say I just can’t do five o’clock. But, for people who are parents, or who know me well, I say the actual thing. And I can tell you I did not lead with “I am a parent of a small child” in any of my interview processes.

Let me go back for a moment to ask you about your journey. When you left Crowded Fire I remember you saying you were really interested in investigating your body of directing work, you were excited to be partnering with Erik Ehn. I also remember, maybe a couple of years later, when I was at the helm of Crowded Fire, you said you had a new shift in focus that had to do with community. I think you were talking about that participatory nature of involving community in art-making.

Rebecca: That’s really where my work has gone in the ten years since. The decade of Crowded Fire, which was very much about building a company and directing and developing new work, I look back and think, “Wow, I didn’t know anything or have any lens around race at the time.” I think in my tenure we did a really good job at elevating women’s voices. But we did very few playwrights of color and that’s something I so admire about where you took the company.

In the decade since I’ve left I’ve become really interested in not only the question of whose stories do we tell but how are we creating those stories and who is engaged as the makers and who’s in the audience and how do we leave the building. I have had a lot of really exciting opportunities inside and outside of institutions since then to learn about a lot of different methods of making work more in collaboration with communities, for non-traditional spaces, for non-traditional audiences.

I went into the Cal Shakes job with the question of, can a regional theatre move towards more civic engagement, more sense of itself as a citizen actor in the community, more porousness to more different kinds of artists? Of course Cal Shakes may be not the simplest example because it was beginning from a place of being a Shakespeare theatre. But at the beginning it was this really wonderful invitation from Jonathan Moscone, then the AD at Cal Shakes, and Deborah Cullinan, who was at Intersection at the time, to work with them as they began to explore how those two institutions could collaborate and answer those questions.

I feel really proud of what we learned and discovered and what worked and what didn’t. On a lot of levels I feel like one of the biggest successes of that experiment was that the theatre became a theatre that was attractive to somebody like Eric Ting, the new AD. Now I think he’s been able to go further because what I didn’t do in my role leading these community programs was imbed them more closely with the mainstage work. It took a new artistic leader to do that.

Marissa: Right.

Rebecca: One of the things that job led to is relationships with companies around the country that are leaders in this work. I directed for Cornerstone in LA, and I directed at Ten Thousand Things in Minneapolis.I’ve always been interested in having a directing career that left the Bay Area but I never expected that it would be in this very specific context. These theatres were working in very different ways and different places. I don’t know what that means about what’s next. I’m feeling like I’m really interested in running an organization again. But I’m not sure what size, or shape, or location is the right fit. I’m not in a moment of easy relocation, in terms of my family’s stage. I feel like I’ve also spent a significant amount of time being like, I don’t know if I want to stay in the theatre.

Marissa: Mm-Hmm. You have said that to me in the past.

Rebecca: I think I’ve had moments of disillusion, with whether my desire to make change in the world can really be addressed by being a theatremaker. I feel like one of the gifts of my time at Cal Shakes, and specifically my relationship with Michelle Hensley and Ten Thousand Things, was to give me back my faith that making and putting up a play could be a way to make real impact in the world. That I didn’t have to dismantle everything I know about theatremaking for it to be the kind of social change work I’m interested in. I can do that via the vehicle of directing The Tempest.

It sounds like it’s not a particularly profound revelation. But it’s sort of like going all the way back around the circle. To be like, Okay, yeah, the thing I already know how to do is the tool in my hand to make the change I want to see happen.

Marissa: I love that. I think that’s true. I agree that I see you as part of Cal Shakes’ revolution. That was an amazing moment to witness. From the outside and as an audience member, as Cal Shakes went from doing cool work on stage—it was this revolutionary moment of acknowledging its position as a historically white institution and actually reckoning with that. To me, that set a national bar.

Rebecca: I feel like we got in a little ahead of the curve. I’m very proud of that work. I learned a lot. Like you said, I also got to just learn how a theatre at that budget size operates. Being at a multi-million theatre, producing on that level, is a very different experience. And then again not. It’s so interesting how much of it translates.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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