Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Director Heather Cohn

Heather Cohn is a multi-faceted theatre artist: director, stage manager, set designer, producer, development director. And she puts all those skills to wonderful use in her position as Producing Director for a company she co-founded. Heather is a straight forward, WYSIWYG kinda woman, and I am very happy to have met her.  Read on, and meet her for yourself!

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Heather Cohn is up to it again! This woman just can’t stay away from wonderful projects. She is currently directing the thought-provoking new play by David Stallings, called Dark Water.

Dark Water, directed by Heather Cohn

Dark Water, directed by Heather Cohn

The swampland of Louisiana is hit with the most massive oil spill known to history. Barnacle, an old sea turtle, fights against man’s destruction, nature’s wrath, and her enemies of the wild to save her children trapped in the spill. Poetry, allegory, music, puppetry and movement create this magical world as the animals of Louisiana face the ultimate threat to their lives. The effects of the Gulf oil spill among other spills continue to jeopardize our oceans. DARK WATER humanizes the animals affected by the spill giving a voice to the true defenseless victims. The play also deals with other poignant issues such as immigration, religion and politics.

CP: Welcome Heather! I’m so looking forward to this conversation. When it was suggested that I interview you, I did some research and found out that we have quite a few things in common. But let’s talk about those as we get to them. Let’s just start off at the beginning – your beginning – what got you into directing?

HC: I guess two things: I was a stage manager and set designer – stage manager in high school and then started doing set design when I went to college. I had always wanted to direct, and I tried it in college, which didn’t go so well (lol) so I stuck with what I knew. But when I got to New York, I was fortunate that my first full time job in the city was with Theatre Communications Group (TCG) – where half the staff, at least, are all theatre artists themselves. I was looking for opportunities to be involved with theatre and through them I met a good number of people that hooked me up with the theatre community. One of those people was Gus, August Schulenburg, and he asked me to come on board as a producing partner for a play of his that was being done at Theatre for a New City. So, I got involved with that play as one of what we called “The Seven.” We weren’t a company, we were just a group of seven individuals that came together to put on this show. And through working on that, and getting to know Gus better, and expressing my interest in directing, basically, he gave me that opportunity. So Flux [Flux Theatre Ensemble], and me as a director, were sort of born simultaneously.

CP: And we’re already at one of the things we have in common, as I started off in theatre as a stage manager as well! I think that one of the beneficial things about being a stage manager is that you get to see directors at work. Did you get to work with a lot of different directors?

HC: I did, I did. Once you’re identified as a good stage manager, it’s very hard to make that shift to directing, because everyone wants a good stage manager!

CP: Absolutely. Stage managers are worth their weight in gold.

HC: Exactly. I think that because I started stage managing in high school, the first real director that I personally knew and looked up to was my drama teacher, Mr. Casey -yes, I’m in my 30s and still can’t call my teacher by his first name! His name is Emmett Casey, but he’ll always be “Mr. Casey” to me.

CP: Was he the one that you referenced in another interview, who said, “One moment at a time?”

HC: Yes! Ah, you DID do your research! (lol) He is a wonderful director, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I learned sooo much about directing by working with him as a stage manager.

CP: Has he ever seen anything that you’ve directed?

HC: Nooooo. He’s retired now, and hasn’t seen any of my work. But he follows Flux online and Facebook!

CP: Oh, that’s great. Hopefully he’ll read this! Did you continue stage managing in college?

HC: Yeah, in college I got to observe a bunch of different directors – I stage managed a lot.

CP: Student and faculty directors?

HC: Mostly student directors. I wasn’t actually a theater major so I didn’t work on the main projects. But I worked for the department in the shop for several years, teaching freshman stagecraft and working in the shop. I did scenic painting for the department, and worked on the student run productions. One of my first real stage management gigs in New York was with Jerry Ruiz when he directed a show at Repertorio Español.  He is a great director, who later directed for Flux in 2008. He gave me my first insight into what an Indie theatre director’s life is like. We were both there for each other at very critical times in our development as theatre artists. I learned a lot from him.

CP: What kind of director do you think you are? What’s your “style” as a director?

HC: I like to think that I’m a pretty collaborative director. I really value all the opinions in the room. I don’t ever go in with a clear vision of how it’s going to turn out. I have lots of ideas, and I have tools to use, but I find that I discover SO much in the rehearsal process. I like to cultivate a really collaborative environment.

CP: Do you have tools that you use to foster that environment? Certain ways you start rehearsal, etc?

Heather’s Bio

HC: Usually I don’t do a ton of table work, although the last production I did, we did two full days of table work, because this play, DEINDE, was set in the future. There were all kinds of world-building things that needed to be discussed. And there were several characters that were only in one or two scenes, so I realized that these people are not going to be together again in the room for at least three weeks. So, in order to foster a feeling of ‘we are all part of this together’ I chose to start off with table work. I asked tons of questions and invited all kinds of responses, to see what sticks, and what people feel good about, what they have in common, what are crazy ideas, etc. I approach each rehearsal process in a slightly different way depending on what the play requires, and how much time I have. In terms of tools, one of the things I really like and want to learn more about is ‘gesture work’ – how it can be used to bring the actor’s body into the world of the play. I find that very freeing in many ways. Actors can sometimes get stuck in their heads, so we look to find a physical source of an action. What’s going on for this character? What did they go through before the play that begins affecting moments and choices in the play? Then we work to bring that out through physical gesture work and exercises. This worked really well for The Lesser Seductions of History, because the play took place over the ten-year span of the sixties. So for each year the actor considered what happened to the character between one year and the next and we did gesture work to find a physical way of acknowledging that.

CP: Can you define ‘gesture work’ a little more?

HC: It’s not specific, like Viewpoints or anything, but it’s the idea of finding physical movements that can release something about the emotional life of the character, or the character’s past. It’s very rare that the gestures stay in the final production – it’s more like a rehearsal technique. For example, I directed a show where two characters had clearly undergone some serious trauma prior to the start of the play. Rather than talking through what this trauma was and having a long conversation about it, we did these physical exercises to tap into that. I didn’t ask the actors to tell me anything about what had happened to their character when they were a kid or whatever, but we started the rehearsal with them being in that mindset, and just playing with their body and trying to physicalize an emotion that they felt at that time.

CP: Do you get into blocking sooner in rehearsal, or do you let that come later?

HC: I block very early. Things always change – sometimes you get it right the first time, but very rarely, so I like to start it early and see what sticks. And then leave time to re-block. Usually my process is a little bit of table work, and then rough block everything very quickly, trying not to get too stuck in talking about little, tiny moments. Certainly there is conversation throughout the process, but I really just try to get a rough shape at first, so that I can see the whole thing together early in the process.  I want to see what’s working and what’s not, and then go back and really dig into the scenes. I feel that in order to see if all the various pieces are working and talking to each other, I just need to see everything from the start to the end sooner rather than later.

CP: Have you always done new plays, or have you also done classics? Do you usually work with the playwright in the room?

HC: Yes, I’ve done exclusively new plays. And I love having the playwright there. I feel like the playwright has such a unique perspective of the play – obviously! Sometimes there are things that seem like such a huge question – “How are we going to figure this out?” And then the playwright says, “Oh, I just meant this.” And it’s so nice and refreshing to find it’s much simpler than we were making it out to be. I really love collaborating with playwrights on new plays. And I very much welcome them into the room, all the time. I think that, as I continue my career as a director, it would be good to work on some classics, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet.

CP: How do you, personally as a director, get work? Is it typically through Flux, or do you go out and see work and bring it in? Do you solicit plays?

HC: Yes, one avenue is through Flux. I’m fortunate to have a company that, because I’m one of the co-founders, is very much in line with my values, aesthetically and personally, in terms of the work we do. I usually get to direct at least one Flux show a season. And also, through being part of the Indie theatre community, I have met tons of people in other companies, and have been asked to work on productions. I have also submitted my name for projects – for example, I directed in the Estrogenius Festival, and a couple of other festivals where you submit to be a director.

CP: And you got “Stranger to Kindness” outside of Flux, right? So we have a person in common – David Stallings, who wrote “Stranger” and who produced “Parts of Parts & Stitches.” And thank you, by the way, for coming to see “Parts,” I appreciate that.

HC: David actually discovered me through my Estrogenius play. And you’re welcome about “Parts.” It was great! I really enjoyed it. I loved it when the pot “boiled” – that was one of my favorite directing moments.

CP: I can’t take credit for that, the actor came up with that on his own.

HC: Well, that’s also the job of the director, recognizing when an actor’s making a very smart choice, that you choose to keep.

CP: You’re right, I think that’s part of what we have to do. If you’re going to say that you collaborate, then you have to acknowledge when other people’s ideas work, and acknowledge the creative origin.

HC: I think that’s one of the hardest things, but one of the most important things about directing, is knowing which ideas to keep, and which to get rid of, and which to honor long enough – cause sometimes there’s something an actor knows that you don’t know as a director, which might feel wrong at first, but you don’t want to cut them off to soon.

CP: Do you do a lot of research? You were saying that you had to do a lot on The Lesser Seductions, the one with all the years in the 60s?

HC: Yes, I do a LOT of research! I definitely do a lot of research before starting rehearsals. I feel that if I can come in prepared with that kind of information, it instills a confidence in the actors. I love doing research, and I find that I discover all kinds of weird, new stuff that I wasn’t even intending to research, especially now, with the internet, where every link leads to another! One quirky thing that I research – I love looking up the meaning of names for the characters. It’s just a weird thing that I do. I don’t know how often the playwright does that, or if they just find a name that feels right, but almost always there’s something about the meaning of a name that makes sense with the character.

CP: Do you direct anything besides theatre? Have you done TV, film, webisodes, etc? Are you interested in that?

HC: I think that if the opportunity presented itself, I would not say “no,” but I’m not actively seeking those opportunities. From the little that I know about directing for film and TV, it’s such a different thing. It’s so much about the visual. But I think it would be fun! Please, send the opportunity my way! (lol)

CP: Webisodes interest me. The whole idea of directing something on a theatrical scale, but for the web. It’s such a marriage of what we do. The storytelling potential interests me. I’m learning about it, but I need to learn more about the technology.

HC: Right! Yeah, I’d have no idea how to get started, but again, if the chance to do it fell in my lap, I would take it!

CP: Do you have other things in your life, other hobbies, etc., that impact on your directing style? For example, I’m very into dogs, and one of my directing “teachers” is Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer! (lol) Because I feel like I can use the things I learn by watching him, in my directing.

HC: Well, I was a Latin American Studies major and some of my favorite plays are based in magical realism.  I love Latino/a playwrights, I just love that style. So I would say that my background in that, and speaking Spanish, and interest in that history and literature, certainly impacts the way that I work in theatre.

CP: Have you directed anything that was fully Spanish, or had Spanish in it?

HC: No, not yet. The closest was when I directed a stage reading of Jose Rivera’s play, Sueño, based on Life is a Dream, the classic Pedro Calderón de la Barca play. It had Spanish -and Spanglish- in it. That was actually very early in Flux’s existence and it was SO much fun – really, just a blast!

CP: How did you learn Spanish?

HC: In school, and then I spent a summer in Cuba, and then a semester in Chile. I’ve never directed a play exclusively in Spanish.

CP: You said something earlier that reminds me of a quote from another interview, where you said you are “sucker for magic” in plays, which I would really love for you to talk more about.

HC: I just feel like we have such an opportunity in theatre, to be more magical. Because we don’t have these million dollar budgets where – and I’m just making this up – a purple dragon appears from the sky. If you’re doing a film, you’re gonna HAVE the purple dragon. But in theatre, you have to create it in a theatrical way – using the imagination of the audience. And audiences can imagine a LOT, and will go with you if they have the freedom to imagine. I just have so much fun when you discover those magical moments – you’re reading the script and you think, “Well, I don’t know HOW we can do this play because THIS happens!” I just wrote about Bekah Brunstetter’s Miss Lily Gets Boned, which literally has the stage direction: “An elephant drives a car into the house.” Like, HOW are you gonna do that in theatre? But that’s what’s so fun, is figuring out how to do that.

CP: Which leads nicely into another interesting aspect about you: you have a background as a set designer. When you read a script, how does your background in design influence you as a director?

HC: Hugely! I’m an incredibly visual person, so when I read a script, I’m “seeing” it in my mind; though usually the set that I create in mind is NOT the set that ends up being in the production! I think that I’m very aware of space, and bodies in space, and the setting and the tone that a set creates for the world of the play due to my background in design. And it can frustrate some set designers, potentially, because I really dig into them and demand a lot. I ask a lot of questions about the world of the play. If they propose something, I’ll ask, “Okay, but WHY is it there, and what is it doing for the world of the play?” I think that just in terms of my aesthetic style as a director, I really value transformative theatre, which we talk about a lot in Flux: the idea is that nothing on stage is ever just one thing, and that it is going to transform over the course of the play. So, sets that are kind of fluid are much more interesting to me, where like a bed can be a bed, but then it can also be something else the next moment. I did the set design for Flux’s production of Adam Szymkowicz’s play Pretty Theft in 2009, and identity and “What do I look like” are big themes in that play.  There’s all these ballerinas and there was a huge mirror in that set, that then became the dying father’s bed. And it had so much more meaning than if we had just brought out a bed for that scene. [Note: Adam also does a wonderful blog where he interviews playwrights. You can read it here.]

CP: Here’s another thing we have in common: we both have personal relationships with people who we work with “in the biz.” You’re married to August Schulenburg, who is the artistic director of Flux, and my partner is George Allison, who also happens to be a wonderful set designer. George and I have worked together on many shows. Having a relationship with someone that you also work with has it’s pros and cons. For example, we have wonderful access to each other to discuss projects…like at TWO IN THE MORNING! (lol)

HC: Oh yeah, the 1:00am production meeting. I know it well!

CP: Exactly! So talk about that – what’s it like having a husband that is your business partner, artistic partner and life partner!

HC: It’s AWESOME. I really like it! It’s interesting, because our romantic relationship came after our creative and artistic relationship started. Gus and I are two of the co-founders of Flux, but at that time we were just friends. We got to build a rapport and a working relationship together for several years before we actually got together as a couple. And I’m really grateful for that time when we were able to establish what our working relationship was, because we’ve been able to sustain that, and grow it since becoming a couple. I really love directing Gus’s plays – I think he’s a fantastic playwright. I love that relationship – director and playwright – with him, and I think that when you spend that much time with somebody, and you know them that well, then your idea creation is seamless and things feed off of each other, and build. And so, we WILL have those 1am production meetings all the time, and will discover things.

CP: Which one of you has the hardest time letting things go at home? Leaving the play at the theatre…

HC: Oh gosh! You know, we go back and forth on it, but I think that’s really good because if one of us is super-struggling with something, then the other can say, “Take a breath, let’s let that go for now” and then vice versa. So, we actually complement each other nicely that way. Though honestly, we never REALLY let go of it! It’s always kind of there. If we’re working on a production, that production is in our apartment.

CP: Here’s our final “commonality” thing: I was the producing director at T. Schreiber Studio, where I would produce the entire season, and direct one of the shows. You’re a producer, a director, a producing director, AND you’re a development director! So, talk to me about how you balance expressing all those different parts of your personalities and skill-sets.

HC: You know, it’s funny. I am a much better producer when I’m not directing. Partly that’s because when you’re directing a show, your time is completely focused on that. Actually, a good example of a moment when balancing was tricky was when I was set designing. I was designing Pretty Theft and producing it, and that was the show that went most over-budget in terms of the set budget! It’s tough, because there are times when the producer knows that certain sacrifices have to be made, but when I’m working as a director – or as an artist in any capacity – that is harder to navigate. Because it’s much easier to say to a different director, “Sorry, we can’t afford to book the larger space.” But to say it to yourself is harder.

CP: These skills also use different sides of the brain. I’ve found it difficult sometimes when I’m producing and directing, to come into the room as a creative force when I’ve been balancing budgets right up to rehearsal time.

HC: Yes! And I also find it hard when you’re the director, and the one that signs the contract with the designers. Because you want to have a totally free, collaborative relationship with those designers as a director, but when they know that you’re the one writing the check, and you’re the one signing their contract, it is a little tricky to navigate. But even with all these challenges, I really like being a producing director.

CP: It’s a real strength – being able to do both. I don’t think a lot of people can do it. I think it’s a real gift that you’re able to do both. And I say “both” but I really mean “all three” because I want to talk about the development side, too. You’re the Development Director at Epic Theatre, right?

HC: Yes. Part of working in the Indie theatre world is that many of us have to have day jobs, because our theatre work isn’t the thing that makes our salary. And mine is Director of Development at Epic, which is a wonderful theatre.

CP: Does that use more of the producer side of your brain?

HC: Well, that’s the writer side, actually – I spend a lot of time writing grants. There are aspects of producing that help with the development, but I think actually that the fundraising skills that I use in my day job really help when I’m trying to fundraise for Flux. On the other hand, it’s tricky because the last thing I want to do when I go home is write another grant! So, when I spend my whole day fundraising, it’s sometimes hard to be motivated to go home and fundraise for Flux.

CP: But I bet it’s nice, after a day of fundraising, to be able to walk into a rehearsal hall!

HC: YES! That’s so wonderful!

CP: There’s not that many people that can run a company, either. So, let’s talk a little bit about running a company, the good and bad of having a company, and the origins of Flux Theatre Ensemble.

HC: Well, basically, Gus had an opportunity to produce one of his plays, called Rue, at Theatre for the New City. They were providing the space, but there was still fundraising that needed to be done. So he just picked people from different walks of his life, people he thought would be able to help him, because he didn’t know anything about producing his own work! There were lots of challenges in that process, but we all got very close during it, because we had to work together to face those challenges. And we pulled it off! We were all kind of surprised by that, and impressed with ourselves! (lol) And we were like, “That was actually kind of fun, and rewarding, and we’d like to do that again.” It was ridiculous because we didn’t know WHAT show we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to do ‘A’ show. But you can’t do a show without money, and how do you raise money if you don’t know what the show is? So we thought, “Why don’t we start a company? And fundraise for the company?” It was really just that simple and naive. That’s how it all came about. We started Flux. And July 28th will be Flux’s 6th official birthday!

CP: Happy Birthday to Flux!  So, is Flux a company of actors, or do you bring actors in?

HC: We’re an ensemble, but it’s not just actors.

CP: How many people are in the ensemble?

HC: Seven. Yeah, I know, back to seven! There are seven official ‘creative partners.’ And then we have positions within that: I’m the producing director, Gus is the artistic director, and Kelly O’Donnell, who is one of the other co-founders, is the communications director. We have a community called the “Friends of Flux” which is about 100 people – and they are not just artists, they are also audience members and donors – basically people who have made some kind of long term commitment to Flux: artistic contribution, financial contribution, audience participation, etc. Most of the artists that we work with are pulled from that community.

CP: So, as a director, how does it impact you, having a company? When you read a script do you tend to see certain actors already in it?

HC: It’s certainly one of the things that we consider in choosing what we’re going to produce – who’s in the ensemble, and are there artistic opportunities for ensemble members. Because within the ensemble there are people with multiple skills – I’m a director primarily but also a set designer; Gus is primarily a playwright, but also an actor and director; Kelly is a director primarily, but also a wonderful actor. Will Lowry, who is our newest creative partner, is a designer, exclusively. And then Isaiah, Matt and Tiffany are actors. So, we definitely take that into consideration how a production might benefit our members.

CP: Do you feel that having a company is a strong “pro” for you, that it’s a strong home base? Does it ever feel confining or stagnant?

HC: It really is my creative home. It’s Flux’s mission to build a creative home, and I certainly feel that it is one for me. As far as restricting, certainly when looking at upcoming opportunities, I have to prioritize. I have to determine what are the Flux shows that I need to be available for, as part of the team. I’m not going to take a project that is tech-ing at the same time as a Flux show. So, as I’m starting to work outside of Flux more and more, it’s something that I have to navigate. But right now, Flux is my creative priority.

CP: Do you tend to work with the same team? Same designers and stage managers, for example?

HC: We do. We have a wonderful team. Jodi Witherell, who’s an amazing, amazing stage manager, has been with us for a long time, and she’s our go-to SM. And Will Lowry…well, he’s ridiculously talented, cause he’s an amazing set designer and he’s also an incredible costume designer. And we worked now on several shows with Kia Rogers as lighting designer, and we’re hoping she’ll work with us…forever. She’s really, really wonderful to work with. Asa Wember is a great sound designer who works with us, and I like to believe that I helped Asa become who he is today as a sound designer, because we met at NY Theatre Workshop when he was running the board. And he said he was interested in designing and I said, “Well, come design for Flux!” and now he’s getting projects all over the place! So, I want him to remember how he got started! LOL.

CP: What does it mean to you, as a director, to have that core team?

HC: Oh, it’s so great! It’s so helpful, so wonderful, to go into a process already having developed that language, that way of communicating. And the fact that these designers have now worked with me on several different projects gives them a sense of my aesthetic, of how I work. They know what questions to ask me to get what they need for their designs. Because we have such strong designers that have worked with us, over and over again, I feel Flux is able to have some pretty high production values for the size budgets that we have. We just start from a place of strength.

CP: What’s your dream directing gig? Is there some play that you’re just dying to direct?

HC: I love José Rivera, pretty much everything he writes. I think it would be incredible to work with him on a new play, on a process with him. I saw a production of his play Cloud Tectonics when I was a sophomore in high school. It was one of those occasions where I saw a play at exactly the right time in my life for that play and it just affected me in such a huge way. So I hold a very special place in my heart for that play. It’s set in LA, and it’s a very clear time-period in LA, so my dream would be that José -because he now lives here in New York (and I’m hoping he reads this!)- will adapt it and set it in New York, in contemporary time, and that I’d direct the first production of it.

CP: Have you reached out to him?

HC: Not that specifically, no. I know him, we’re friends – I’m waiting for the right moment. Maybe this is it!

CP: Send this interview to him.

HC: Putting it out there in public! I think that would be awesome.

CP: Tell me what you think about new technology and it’s effect on theatre. It can be very helpful to a producer, in marketing. As a director, on the plus side maybe you could use it in a production. On the down side, people on their phones in the audience!

HC: I am married to the man who is now the Associate Director of Communications for TCG, and he is running basically all of TCG’s social media. And if you compare me to him, I’m like the little grandmother in the corner that’s terrified of new technology and that has never heard of Twitter. I’m not really that extreme, but I’m not one of the “Early Adopters” either. I think that I’m still, personally, struggling with how our world has changed because of the internet and social media, and I am trying to navigate that line of personal privacy versus what is helpful to put out in the world. I think it’s tricky when you are somebody that is starting to have any kind of public presence -not that I’m claiming myself as a public figure- but when you are associated with something that is bigger than yourself, like Flux, then I’m not just “me” – I’m “me-that-is-the-producing-director-of-Flux.” Or me as a director. I know that our world is completely changed, and this IS the way we’re going, this is the way of the future, but I’m still catching up to it. I recognize that theatre needs to think about how social media and technology factors into our work. But I’m also not somebody that feels like I need to do a show that incorporates multi-media. I don’t NEED to do that. I certainly would be open to it, if the play calls for it, but I’m not burning to do it. And I hate it when people are in the audience and on their phones. And it doesn’t matter how many times you ask them to turn them off!

CP: Daniel Talbott talked in his interview about the fact that it means that the person who is on their phone is not “present.” They aren’t giving energy to the players, and the difference between theatre and film is the interaction of that energy, back and forth. So if you’re not doing your part as a participant, we can’t give you what you want, because you’re not completely present.

HC: Yeah! On the other hand, I think there is this interesting world of trans-media – these pieces where the audiences are asked to keep their phones on, to interact during the show by texting, or answering questions, etc. And I think that’s cool, and awesome for those shows. But I don’t think that means that an audience member can come in to a show where that’s not the case, and still keep their phone on, and have that be ‘okay.’

CP: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is Flux’s Food:Soul series. The idea of linking theatre and food really interests me. Something about the idea of feeding people’s souls and stomachs at the same time appeals to me. So, I’d love to hear more about it.

HC: Well, you just said it. That’s the idea behind it, that we’re feeding your mind, stomach and soul. It’s our potluck staged reading series. Basically, when we have plays that we’re interested in producing, or playwrights that we really want to further a relationship with, we do a staged reading of their play, and precede it with a potluck dinner. When people are talking over food, I think it makes for a much more open environment, it makes things easier and feels less formal in a way, which is good for that particular phase of our process. We also have our “Have Another” series, which takes place at a bar, which also brings in that informal quality. I think that one of the things that is happening with social media is that physically going out and socializing in the world –live–  is getting more and more challenging. So, if we can encourage that kind of socializing by having food, or drink, and a play, then all the better.

CP: Do you solicit scripts? Do you want playwrights to submit new works?

HC: Right now, we do have an open submission policy, though it takes us a little while to get through those submissions. We’re catching up, though. Playwrights can submit, they just have to fill out a questionnaire. I think partly because Flux is led by a playwright, we don’t say “Only 10 pages” we take the full script. One thing that is really wonderful about our “Friends of Flux” community is that several of them have volunteered to be part of the literary committee. I think we have about 18 readers, which includes the Flux creative partners, and we make sure there are at least two readers per play. And then we determine whether that particular play is a fit with Flux and our aesthetic values. Or maybe that particular play isn’t a good fit, but we’re interested in them as a writer, and we want to see further work. But the majority of the work that we do comes through our Flux Sunday workshops and the playwrights that are involved in that.

CP: Let’s shift focus a little and talk about New York and doing theatre in New York. We already know when and why you came here, so let’s start off with the question: what are the challenges of directing in NYC? What would you tell someone that wanted to come to NYC and direct here?

HC: I think the biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity: that there’s SO much theatre here. It’s amazing because you can see any kind of show you want to see. You could see theatre every single night – I don’t even know how many options you have to choose from every. single. night.  And I don’t think that’s the case in many other places. And there’s amazing theatre here! And part of learning how to be a director is just to see a ton of stuff and see what resonates with you, that’s how you learn. I probably see two shows a week, at least, usually more. It depends if I’m in production or rehearsal. And I think it has made me a better director. It contributes to my process. But of course, it’s also a challenge, because we’re all kind of -I don’t want to say competing for the same audience, because I don’t think that’s true. Some people know the type of work they want to see, and some people are totally open, and might come see a Flux show AND a Lincoln Center show.

CP: In a way, I think it IS true that we’re competing for the same audience in that just getting word to a potential audience member is so difficult. I mean, how many “impressions” can a person take in each day about what to go see? You have to work to get your voice heard.

HC: Yes! THAT is so true! That’s why it’s so challenging. You have to find what is your unique voice. What do you have to offer that other shows don’t, other companies don’t, because there’s so many options for an audience member to choose from.

CP: As a producer, I’m sure you would agree that expense is one of the challenges of working in NYC.

HC: Yes, in some respects. But I don’t know what to compare it to. For example, I have no idea what the costs might be for a small company in Chicago. And we have so many resources here, that I think you wouldn’t have elsewhere. We have Materials for the Arts – we get SO much of our stuff from MFTA – FOR FREE! Show after show.

CP: Tell us about Materials for the Arts for the “listening/reading” audience. (lol)

HC: Materials for the Arts is a city run program where basically people donate goods to a big warehouse in Queens, and not-for-profits can use any of it. There’s tons of fabric, tons of paint, building supplies, arts and craft supplies, office supplies, total random junk that you can sift through.

CP: I think there’s a play there. Someone should do a play – go and get 10 things from MFTA and then write a play about it.

HC: Oh my god, I HOPE somebody does that play! That’s a great idea. MFTA is great, and they’re just one example. I think that the Indie theatre community is good about sharing resources. So there are ways to keep those budgets low – it’s just a little more work. You have to ask for help, and reach out to your different networks, but those networks exist!

CP: Have you ever thought about directing somewhere else? Would you want to direct outside of New York?

HC: You know, I would be very interested in that! I have a pending Observership application with the SDC program. Several of their opportunities are out of town, and if I get into the program, I would certainly be up for going out of NYC. But I’m not actively seeking out those opportunities right now, and I think that’s mostly because I have my own company here, which has a pretty ambitious season!

CP: Here’s another one of those big, general questions. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m gearing these interviews towards the “Indie theatre” which for me is off-off, and off-Broadway directors-

HC: You would consider Off-Broadway “Indie?”

CP: I would, for the purposes of these interviews. I didn’t used to, because it used to be more separate. But it seems that a more directors are starting to cross over more often. In other words, if I’m looking at directors to interview, if they’ve done a bunch of Off-Off work, and one Off show, I’d still consider interviewing them. In fact, I’d very much like to talk to directors who started something Off-Off, and then moved it to an Off-Broadway contract.

HC: That’s very rare, though.

CP: Oh yeah – which is why I’d love to talk to them! (lol) So, what are your thoughts on the state of Indie theatre? And to help narrow down the size of the question – you know that I’m on the committee for the NYIT Honorary Awards–

HC: Of which Flux was a recipient, and very, very grateful!

CP: Well deserved! So, we talk a lot about the Indie community: networking, and helping each other out. So I’d love to hear your thoughts about the state of that community.

HC: Well, I think that we’re at a really exciting time, just because it’s actually kind of new that we’re identifying as the “Indie Theatre” community. That’s not a very old idea, at least in the way that we’re talking about it now. It used to be that you did a showcase so that people could come and see actors that they would want to cast in much bigger shows, and you were always trying to work towards ultimately producing for Off-Broadway or Broadway. Whereas now, I feel that there is a very vibrant Indie community that is happy being “the Indie Theatre Community” and wants to make sure that it is sustainable, that we’re able to survive as a community. I think that it’s really great that we’re very much a self-identified group, and the fact that NYIT exists, and the fact that LIT [League of Independent Theater] exists – and the new LIT fund thing – I think that’s amazing! I’m so curious to see where that goes. I guess I should explain that for anyone who might not know: the idea is that some Indie theatre groups have committed to giving five cents off of every ticket  -and we don’t charge much for our tickets, so that’s significant-  to LIT’s general fund.

CP: What are they going to do with the funds? Do you think it’s on their website? [It was, you can read about it here.] 

HC: I’m not sure. It’s literally brand new. But the idea is to use it to help with grants, emergencies and advocacy. Another wonderful resource is ART/NY.  They are wonderful because they recognize Indie theatre theatres as “real” contributing theatres. They acknowledge that we contribute to NYC, economically as well as artistically. Flux is an associate member of ART/NY and I know a lot of other Indie theatres are, too. I like the fact that we have said, “We don’t want to be called Off-Off-Broadway. That makes us sound like we’re something we’re NOT, as opposed to what we are.

CP: As though we’re a derivative of something else, rather than something on our own.

HC: Right. Instead, we want to be called “Indie” or Independent theatre, because that’s what we ARE.

CP: Riffing off of the LIT mention, I’d like to ask you about networking. This is one of my personal challenges. One of the things you’ve talked about in some of the other interviews you’ve done, is your networking through programs like Women’s Project Lab, and how much that experience has helped you with connecting with other people. Could you talk more about that?

HC: I was in the Women’s Project Producer’s Lab, the 2008-2010 class, and it was really great in terms of meeting potential collaborators and other amazing, talented, strong women working in theatre, that I could reach out to – and I have! I’ve brought some of the playwrights from that group into Flux and have become friends with several of the other participants.

CP: There is really a general need for networking in this business – not just for individuals but between groups as well.

HC: Yes – something that is really important to Flux is that we recognize that we’re part of this larger community and that it’s only beneficial to us and to the community to really connect with those other companies. For example, we did the BFG Collective, which was with Boomerang, Flux, and Gideon theatre companies. We were three companies that had supported each other, seen each other’s work, and basically wanted to try to work together on a larger scale. So we got together and did this whole six-month residency at the Secret Theatre, in Long Island City, and it was amazing! And we were able to negotiate a discounted rate at the Secret Theatre because we were presenting a six-month rental, essentially, instead of just the typical 3-4 week rental as a single entity. And it was a really great experience. We were able to share some resources, and certainly cross-promoted each other’s plays. Because so many of us in the Indie theatre community are working day jobs in addition to our theatre work, sometimes we pass up those opportunities to collaborate, thinking it’s too much trouble. But it actually makes certain things easier.

CP: Is there other networking that you do?

HC: Yes. We participate in The Community Dish, which is the project that Tim Errickson and Amanda Feldman run. It basically does regular meetings throughout the year, with the Indie theatre community, and each meeting has a topic. A recent one was all about venues, and what are we going to do about the fact that we’re losing venues, and the ones that remain aren’t affordable, etc. There has been all kinds of interesting topics that we discuss.

CP: Oh my! I think we’re at the Fast Five! Are you ready for that?

HC: Not really! Even though I looked at the questions from Daniel’s interview! (lol)

CP: Whoops! Maybe I’ll have to rotate questions from now on! Well, here goes: What’s your favourite NYC spot for inspiration? Or for after rehearsal?

HC: I have two answers, if that’s okay. First, I actually LOVE playgrounds. I don’t want to sound like some weird, creepy person, but I just find that hanging out on a playground and seeing how kids play, is so inspiring. The joy of “pretend” is so wonderful. I go in order to remind myself what “joy” looks like. Joy is one of Flux’s core values and it’s certainly something that– I can sometimes take myself too seriously, so sometimes I just need to remind myself that I’m doing this because I love it and it should be fun! So, I like to go to a playground and remind myself what “fun” looks like. And second, I love to go to Washington Square Park, especially when that guy brings his grand piano out, on Sundays, and just plays beautifully! in the park!

CP: What is your favorite superstition or ritual?

HC: Can I do superstition AND ritual?

CP: Sure. My blog – my rules, so I say “yes.” (lol)

HC: Superstition: I DO like the ghost light. I strongly believe in that. And again, a shout out to Mr. Casey on that one. That was a very, very important thing at our high school theatre, making sure the ghost light was on. And then ritual: something that I really like to do before opening night, I like to gather everyone in a circle and just let each person -if they want to, it’s not required- share their favorite moment from the show, something that touches them, whether it’s their scene or someone else’s. I find that it goes back to the idea (Mr. Casey!) that the show is made up of all these little moments that come together and gel, and tell the story. It’s a reminder that every single moment is precious but that we also have to move on. It’s nice because usually after previews, everyone is focused on the things that are going ‘wrong,’ so before we open the show, it’s nice to remember all those beautiful things that are going right.

CP: One of the things that you said that stuck with me is the importance of teachers. You go back to Casey, and I have teachers that I think about a lot too. Those people should hear how much of an impact they have on our lives. They stick with us long after we leave their classrooms.

HC: My sister is about to be a teacher, and both my parents were teachers, so yeah, BIG shout out to the teachers!

CP: What’s the oddest prop you’ve ever had on stage?

HC: This is the question that I was like – “What am I going to say? I have no idea!” I guess I would have to say that it was Flux’s production of Angel Eaters where we basically had to have a dying chicken in a bucket. It needed to sort of flail about, and be chopped up, and bloody! Yeah. You know, we’ve actually had some weird chicken history – like, in Rue, we had a steering wheel on this crazy ship, that actually -nobody would know this- but the underneath was made out of one of those rubber chickens.

CP: WHHHYYY? (lol)

HC: Because it was the right flexibility and the right size. (lol) I don’t even know. Again, limited resources! You use what you have.

CP: What’s your favourite tech rehearsal snack?

HC: Chocolate covered pretzels: it’s got the salty, got the chocolate, got the carbs to keep you going.

CP: The perfect food! What’s your favourite or most valued trait in an actor?

HC: I would say: making strong choices. Because even if the choice ends up being something we don’t keep, at least they tried it. There’s something to work with, and I think – especially as someone who didn’t train as a director – it’s really valuable for me to work with actors who take their work seriously, who work hard and make those strong choices, because then it gives me more to work with. And it goes back to that wanting to have a collaborative room, and not wanting to be the only one giving ideas. It’s just not as fun that way.

CP: I think it’s important for actors to hear directors say that. That there are directors that want you to share ideas, make choices. Even if the choice doesn’t end up sticking, just the fact that you’re pitching ideas – just keep throwing that ball!

HC: I also like that sometimes actors will make such strong choices that I’ll think, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that was possible! But now that I know that it is, then “Yes. Please! Let’s keep that!”

CP: So, what’s next up on tap for you?

HC: Well, I’ll be directing a reading of Stephanie Swirsky’s play Jessie & Sam, or Sam & Jessie: A Totally Absurd Love Story, with The Platform Group, in their “Ladder Series.” I had just directed a 10-minute play of her’s for The Brick’s Democracy Festival, and she asked me to work on this full-length – so that’s exciting.

CP: So, in closing, for our audience out there in internet land, any final words you have for them about directing and/or directing in NYC?

HC: I guess I would just say, “Go see tons of stuff.” See lots of things. It has really been so helpful for me.

CP: The good, bad and ugly.

HC: Yeah! Because it helps you figure out what you like, and what kind of work you want to be doing, and what kind of work you DON’T want to be doing, and who are those people that you want to reach out to and network with.

CP: Excellent suggestion! Thank you so very much for talking with me today.

HC: Thank YOU!

Check out Heather’s reading recommendations in our library. What’s your favourite part of the interview? Share it in the comments below!


6 comments on “Director Heather Cohn

  1. Emmett Casey
    July 25, 2012

    The only think that compares to having a good teacher is having a wonderful student! It is such a joy to follow the accomplishments of people that you have been blessed to know. I am proud to say, “I knew Heather Cohn when”, because, look at her now!

    • Cat
      July 27, 2012

      So great to hear from you, Mr. Casey. Thank you for sharing your talent with your students and most of all, for supporting Heather, Flux and Indie theatre! You should be justifiably proud of the inspiration and knowledge that you’ve put out into the world.

      • Emmett Casey
        July 27, 2012

        You know, you and Heather CAN call me Emmett! Congratulations on an excellent article.

      • Cat
        July 27, 2012

        LOL! Well, I’m on board with that, but I think you’ll find Heather a tougher sell.

  2. Shara Ashley Zeiger
    July 30, 2012

    Heather will be working with The Platform Group on Stephanie Swirsky’s play, not “The Platform Theatre Group” which is a defunct company since 2009. We have no affiliation. The Platform Group’s website is: (incase anyone was interested in checking out Heather’s work with our Ladder Series).

    • Cat
      July 30, 2012

      I have updated the link, thank you for that info. And you’re welcome for the mention. Thanks for stopping by!

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