Interview by Jaclyn Bethany
Photographed by Zayira Ray at The Music Box Theatre, NYC.
Adrienne Campbell-Holt is a Brooklyn-based director and choreographer and the Founding Artistic Director of Colt Coeur, for which she has directed numerous productions: most recently, the world premieres of Empathitrax by Ana Nogueira and Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel. She is the associate director of Dear Evan Hansen, now on Broadway, and has directed productions at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Dorset Theater Festival, Williamstown Theater Festival, Denver Center, and South Coast Rep, among many others. She holds a BA from Barnard College of Columbia University. She has also completed two short films: Autobiography of Red (adapted from Anne Carson's epic poem), and Henry and the Trains.
Jaclyn Bethany: What was your childhood like? Did you always gravitate toward the theater community?
Adrienne Campbell-Holt: My childhood was very magical and definitely encouraged my imagination. We didn’t have a television or a ton of toys, so my sister and I made up lots of games, made our own toys and engineering projects, and frequently put on shows using the shower curtain my mom hung up in our living room.
JB: How did you form Colt Coeur?
ACH: I started Colt Coeur six years ago; I had pretty fully shifted my attention to directing and I wanted to create work with the wonderful artists I had met on different projects over the previous years. The brilliant directorAlex Timbers is a good friend, and one day we were talking and I was feeling sort of discouraged and disempowered—his encouragement of me to start Colt Coeur was deeply influential.
I’ve always been a starter, and I love the way you can create a community of people you want to collaborate with, [which in turn] helps to create opportunities for those people when you start something.
JB: How did the company find an audience? What makes it stand out?
ACH: As a fairly young, small-ish company, we can afford to take risks—and I feel it is incumbent upon us to take risks in terms of producing bold, powerful, intense material. I believe audiences are much smarter and more open-minded than many of the larger institutions/commercial producers give them credit for. Not a single theater in New York City was willing to premiere Dry Land, by Ruby Rae Spiegel, which unflinchingly tackles teen pregnancy and abortion. We sold out every performance and now the play has been performed around the country and around the world.
JB: In your career thus far, what projects have been highlights for you? What is it like to develop work alongside some of the most exciting female voices working in theater today?
ACH: I’ve loved and been incredibly connected to every Colt Coeur show—though the ones that we made from scratch with the playwright and actors and designers have been especially rewarding. Seven Minutes in Heaven (with playwright Steven Levenson), Fish Eye (with Lucas Kavner), and How to Live on Earth (with MJ Kaufman) stand out, because those plays would not have existed without Colt Coeur and our efforts as a team. 2016 was also super-special—I loved getting to direct the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s The Nest at the Denver Center (my first turntable set!) and I’m so excited to direct another premiere of hers in 2017.
JB: What would be your dream show to direct?
ACH: I am a huge Annie Baker fan and I’d love to direct a new play of hers. I’m also a tremendous fan of Lynn Nottage, Clare Barron, Sarah DeLappe, Sarah Ruhl, Adam Bock, Will Eno, and Antoinette Nwandu, so I’d love to work with them.
JB: What are some of your favorite NYC-based theater companies at the moment?
ACH: I love The Debate Society, The Mad Ones, Ars Nova, P73, Playwrights Realm, Playwrights Horizons, LCT3, Signature Theatre Company, Clubbed Thumb Theater, The Public Theater, Soho Rep Theatre, and new plays by Roundabout Theatre Company. I always make a point to see as much as I possibly can.
JB: As a director, what is your process like? Do you always start with the text?
ACH: Early on, well before rehearsals begin, I love to spend as much time reading and ruminating on the play as possible. This includes both “focused” work—like taking notes, re-reading, etc.—and more “wandering” work—going to museums, listening to music, taking walks. With new work, or with plays where the playwright is accessible, I try to have a meal (or many meals) with that person so as to start to understand the way their brain works.
I’m very visual and I make very in-depth presentations—mostly for myself, but also to share with my collaborators—that try to get at the essence of the play and that start to show my aesthetic ideas around the material.
JB: In spite of the progress made over the past few years, there is a staggering lack of female directors—particularly in film, but also in theater. Have you ever felt challenged or discriminated against as a director on the basis of your gender?
ACH: Opportunities in theater and film continue to be very tied to access, and as long as the overwhelming majority of directors are male, more males will benefit from opportunities because of a bias blind spot that many producers and artistic directors assure you they not victims of.
I have been told time and again that I don’t “look like a director” or “talk like a director.” Board members of a theater that employed me took me aside after opening night and asked me how I had directed that evening’s world premiere, a “muscular” play with an all-male cast. They commented that I was so petite, and so sweet. I told them I had directed it with my brain. They seemed stunned and confused.
We must be extremely conscientious about the language we use to celebrate strength and power— and remember that just because maybe, historically, directors looked a certain way, physical attributes are not actually relevant to the job. ★