Trip Cullman is a workaholic. “I tend to work as much as I possibly can,” the prolific theater director says. “I love being busy.” Today, Six Degrees of Separation officially opens at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. Starring Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey as the clueless, affluent Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge, and Julliard graduate Corey Hawkins as Paul, a young man claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son, it is the first Broadway revival of John Guare’s dark comedy since its initial 1990 run. It also happens to be Cullman’s third production of 2017, following Anna Jordan’s Yen at MCC and Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other at the Booth Theatre.
“It’s not out of the norm that I do back-to-back-to-back shows,” says Cullman. “What is unusual,” he continues, “is that this is the first year I’ve ever been on Broadway, so that was particularly stressful and new.”
Raised in New York City, with a BA and MFA from Yale University, Cullman first made a name for himself directing new plays by the likes of Adam Bock and Leslye Headland. After a short, one-week holiday, Cullman will be back to the grind. “I’m doing two workshops,” he explains. “One of a musical called I Can Get It For You Wholesale—an examination of it to see whether it’s ready for a revival—and then a workshop of a new musical by Stephen Trask and his writing partner Pedro Yanowitz. Then I do Halley Feiffer’s new play, which is an adaption of Three Sisters, called Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow.”
EMMA BROWN: What did you do between college and graduate school? I know you had a two-year break.
TRIP CULLMAN: I did a lot of assistant directing, primarily for my two mentors, Joe Mantello and Mike Nichols. Then I did a bit of directing on my own in these sort of rat-infested storefront theaters on the Lower East Side, which are now all boutique hotels and clubs and bars. I went to grad school to figure out whether I wanted to be the next Liz LeCompte, who is the artistic director of The Wooster Group, or the next Joe Mantello and work on Broadway.
BROWN: Joe Mantello and Mike Nichols are two really impressive mentors. How did you come to know them?
CULLMAN: I had met Joe Mantello’s then-boyfriend Robbie Baitz, an amazing playwright, one summer when I was an intern at New York Stage and Film on the Vassar campus. He was up there working on a play and I was a lowly intern in the office, but we struck up a friendship and he said, “You should meet my boyfriend, he’s a director and you guys will get along.” So that’s how that happened. Then I met Mike because my mom is the Meryl Streep of interior design—she’s a super, super successful interior designer. She was doing Harvey Weinstein’s apartment, and Mike was doing The Seagull in Central Park at the time. My mom was like, “Harvey, do you know Mike? Can you make an introduction to him for my son?” So I went in, and I was a smoker at the time, and so was Mike. We sat down for what was supposed to have been a five-minute interview and smoked a pack of cigarettes between the two of us. It lasted four and a half hours. He became one of the most important people in my life.
BROWN: And you worked with Mike Nichols on Angels in America for HBO. That’s pretty amazing.
CULLMAN: It was amazing. Like Six Degrees of Separation, Angels in America was one of the formative theater-going experiences of my youth. When I was 14, 15 years old and trying to figure out who I was, the fact that my parents took me to Broadway and took me to those shows solidified some of the inklings I had about what I wanted to do with my life.
BROWN: How did you decide on theater director as opposed to film director or actor?
CULLMAN: I wanted to act initially, and I did act quite a bit. That’s actually how I met [Six Degrees of Separation playwright] John Guare. When I was a sophomore, Yale Repertory Theatre did a production of Landscape of the Body, which is one of his most beautiful plays. I guess as a cost-saving measure they decided to cast undergrads as the kids in it. But I figured out that I wanted to direct early. My senior year of high school, they let seniors direct one-act plays. Everyone else did these very tidy, cute little one acts, and I chose a play called Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, which they wrote when they were in the midst of this torrid affair. They locked themselves up in a hotel room in London and took a ton of drugs and just passed a typewriter back and forth between them and wrote this crazy play. The teacher was like, “You can do this, but we’ll have to put you at the end of the program. We’ll have to put a little warning that if anyone is offended by extreme language or situations, they have to leave.” Obviously I was like, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened. I love it!” I think I was a pretty mediocre actor; I was definitely a better director than I was an actor. I segued out of acting and into directing by the time I hit the real world after college.
BROWN: Did you keep in touch with John after meeting him?
CULLMAN: We have kept in touch over the years. John is an amazing champion of young writers and since I do so much work with young, up-and-coming playwrights, he sort of followed my career throughout the years. I would constantly see him because he would be there to support the work of Halley Feiffer or Leslye Headland that I was working on. I always thought it was impressive that he took such an interest in young writers. I definitely got that once-in-a-lifetime, pinch-me, is-this-really-happening phone call when my agent was like, “Would you like to direct the first Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation?”
BROWN: Did John suggest you? Do you know how that came up?
CULLMAN: It was the greatest possible way. The producer, Stuart Thompson, who is an amazing guy, called John into his office and was like, “John, I think it’s time for Six Degrees to be revived.” And John was like, “I agree. I’ve said no to a bunch of productions in the past because I haven’t liked either who they wanted to play Ouisa or who they wanted to have direct.” So Stuart said, “Why don’t you and I write down on a piece of paper who we want to direct and we’ll show it to each other at the same time.” They both wrote down my name. [laughs] It was pretty amazing. I don’t know how much better it gets than that.
BROWN: I know you’ve worked on a lot of new plays, but when you are doing something like Six Degrees of Separation, which is so famous, do you think about: “How am I going to make this mine?” Is it about that?
CULLMAN: I definitely think it is about that. When you’re doing a revival, you have to trick yourself into thinking it’s never been done before [and think about] what your personal stamp can be, while still honoring what the playwright has expressed to you as his or her MO for writing it. If I was just to have recreated the original production, that wouldn’t have been interesting.
BROWN: Paul is such a fascinating character, and we never fully find out where he comes from. Did you decide on a backstory for Paul for your production?
CULLMAN: We did a lot of talking and conjecturing about what his actual backstory was, and it definitely informed the way Corey Hawkins approached the role. But what’s so sophisticated about this play—what makes it such a brilliant piece of writing—is that you can’t reduce that character to, “He’s a mystery. He’s some magical person who transforms this white woman’s life.” The subtitle of the play could be like “Ouisa gets woke,” but not really, because the play itself is about self-loathing in a lot of ways. I think what’s radical is that Paul hates himself and is filled with his own self-loathing. He has much more dimensionality than a reductive, tertiary reading of who he is. I think the big revelation was, rather than always performing—that he is such an unbelievable actor—Paul really believes every lie that he tells. When he says, “Please don’t tell my father,” after he’s revealed in bed with a hustler, your heart wants to break a little bit for him, because he really is like, “Don’t out me.” I thought that was an exciting take on the character. I also think this play is about people who want so desperately to be seen. The kids desperately want to be validated and seen by their parents. For the first time in that final phone call between Ouisa and Paul, Paul is seen for who he really, not who he is trying to pretend to be. And shockingly, he sees Ouisa for who she really is and validates that also. That, to me, feels universal and timeless.
BROWN: I was a little surprised at what a funny play Six Degrees is at times.
CULLMAN: It is a deeply funny play until it’s not. That was something that John stressed from the beginning, “This is a comedy, make sure that the performances and the blocking are all a generous way of delivering the laugh lines.” There are all these secret rules of doing plays, especially on Broadway, like you’ll get a much bigger laugh if you face out for the punch line.
You rehearse and rehearse and get it whipped up into a certain frenzied shape and then when you add the audience, you have to start from the beginning again. The audience is the final element in the jigsaw puzzle, and their reactions dictate where we pause. I call it “surfing the laugh”—the laugh comes up like a wave, reaches its apex, and starts to descend. That’s when you can stick the next line in.
The preview audiences teach us what’s landing, what’s not landing, what part of the story did they not get. The play is so much direct address—characters are just speaking directly to the audience—that it’s fascinating to see what pieces of information we need to deliver more clearly or cogently. When Rick commits suicide, do we understand? The couple that are talking about and seeing the body outside of the roller derby, are we connecting those two events?
There are lots of jokes in the play, especially in the first half, that played more broadly and were not as loaded in 1990 as they are now. Jokes about blackness, for instance, that elicit uncomfortable laughter now. There’s a line where the South African, Jeffrey, is talking about having a black film festival and having Poitier down to be president of the jury. He says, “They must have some new blacks.” The bold racism of the line in 2017 is shocking; people laugh now and then you feel them be like, “Wait, why did I just laugh at that?” They criticize themselves for laughing, and I think that’s really exciting. In that speech of Jeffrey’s, he says, “I know Cosby,” which actually now gets a big laugh line for a totally different reason.
BROWN: Once a show has opened, does it feel finished? Do you feel okay leaving it?
CULLMAN: [laughs] It never feels like that. Flan has this great speech where he talks about going to a parent-teacher meeting and asking the teacher why all of her students are brilliant artists, and she says that knows when to take their drawings away. John said to me the other day, “Trip, I think it might be time to take your drawing away from you.” I keep futzing and futzing and futzing, and at some point, I have to give it over to the actors and let them reclaim it and own it for themselves.
BROWN: Will you go back and see the play after it opens?
CULLMAN: I like to go back once every two weeks or so to make sure that it’s maintaining its shape. I like to think that I give the actors a bandwidth of expressivity that the play wants to live inside of. They can vary within that bandwidth night to night, but they can’t go above or beneath that bandwidth. I always want to make sure that they are not morphing it into a shape that we didn’t agree upon. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you like having the playwright around when you do a show? Is it nice having someone to bounce ideas off of?
CULLMAN: I think theater is such a collaborative art form, and I love collaborating with other human beings. To have John Guare in the room and engage with him in conversation about a moment, a line, a comma, and hear where he was coming from, and have him tell stories of how he wrote this play and what the play did for him in his life, and all the different stories of people who were conned by David Hampton… To me, that’s priceless. I love having that. In some ways, as a director, I see the vibe of who the playwright is and then try to channel that into the production itself. So I think it’s a joy and a privilege to have a playwright around. It can be tricky. I did a production of The Substance of Fire by Robbie Baitz a couple years ago. He had been out of town for a little bit and then came back and we showed him a run through of Act One. I was like, “Isn’t it genius? Aren’t we so good?” And he was like, “Trip, it’s a comedy. That’s not the play.” So that’s useful to have as well, to have a writer be like, “That’s 100 percent not what I intended, you have to start over,” which we did.
BROWN: That’s interesting. I feel like in other mediums, once you put something out into the world, it’s no longer yours. Does it really matter if it’s not the play that they wrote?
CULLMAN: At the end of the day, in the theater particularly, the hierarchy is always that the writer has the last say. I think that’s appropriate. I would never want to create something wherein the writer felt like it was at odds with his or her intentions. I think that’s part of the skill set of a director: to synthesize the writer’s impulses, your leading lady’s impulses, your designer’s impulses, and come up with something that satisfies everyone’s creative thoughts and yet can also be coherent.
BROWN: Significant Other and Six Degrees are your first two shows on Broadway. Does being on Broadway really feel different?
CULLMAN: It does. I think the biggest difference is that Off-Broadway, you are most likely going to be in a not-for-profit, institutional theater, which means that you are making art and you have no onus to create something that is commercially successful. On Broadway, the bottom line is the bottom line, and the pressure of that is constant. But I also was extremely lucky in that I had Jeffrey Richards and Stuart Thompson as my respective producers, and they were terrific. And I had the best theaters ever on Broadway—the Booth and the Barrymore are the two most gorgeous, beautiful, perfect theaters. It was like a fairytale, 15 years in the making. [laughs]
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION OPENS TODAY, APRIL 25. FOR MORE INFORMATION, OR TO PURCHASE TICKETS, VISIT THE PLAY’S WEBSITE.