It took over a month to get together with Jessica Kubzansky. Between commitments for directing plays in all corners of the country and attending her ailing father in Boston, Kubzansky had a window of about 48 hours in Los Angeles. Though she does actually have a local address, the message on her answering machine starts with one of two variations: “Hi, I’m back in town” or “I‘m out of town right now” — words that provide a small glimpse into her life.
We’re sitting in a back booth of Musso & Frank in the late afternoon. Her denim top is augmented by a beaded necklace and bracelet. The Hollywood landmark is almost deserted today. No blaring background music or TV. Just fading sunlight on the white linen tablecloth and napkins that seem to mute all sounds, even our voices. The place, the moment, provides refuge from the hurly-burly outside.
A freelance stage director once remarked to me that the only colleagues she knew who were making their living in the theater and were not attached to a company were gay and single: The profession‘s demands on a person’s time are irreconcilable with those of a meaningful relationship (let alone a family). Jessica Kubzansky is not gay, and when I ask if she thinks of starting a family of her own, she holds her silverware still for a moment, her eyes soften, and her lips form into a small, strained smile, as if hinting at a difficult decision on the horizon.
Kubzansky has been making her living from the stage for three and a half years now, and is one of the most sought-after directors in the region. She is not independently wealthy; in fact, she refers to herself as poor. She says her parents think of her as their annual charitable contribution — “They give me some mechanical equipment every year, a fax machine or something.” But financially, she‘s on her own, coaching actors, developing scripts, jetting around the country to direct four to five full productions per year plus many readings. And, finally, she faces constant decisions on whether to accept assignments that would meet next month’s rent, but for which she has little artistic attachment.
“I look for plays that are rich in language, textually challenging, theatrical. I turn down plays all the time that don‘t need me or don’t speak to me. I turned down Sylvia [A.R. Gurney‘s comedy about a married man’s preoccupation with a stray dog], I turned down The Diary of Anne Frank.”
When Kubzansky was studying creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, she wrote a play that caught the attention of Edward Albee. “He told me where my play should actually end, when it actually had an additional scene.” That play, Inventory, went on to be done around the country, directed sometimes by Kubzansky, sometimes by others. “That‘s how I came to be a director . . . Albee saw my staging of Waiting for Godot and asked me to be general manager of a new works festival, sponsored by Johns Hopkins, with my play in it. It was clear I had this instinct, knowing the actor had to wait three more beats before going to the window, then the next line will make sense.”
For a brief time after graduating, Kubzansky landed a full-time job, with medical benefits, as a computer-marketing communications specialist. “I hated it, but my parents were thrilled. I was there six months when my boyfriend submitted a play of mine to a theater group in Austin, Texas, and they asked if I wanted to come to Austin and direct it. My parents were horrified, but I did it anyway. I didn’t know I‘d been sleeping until I started doing theater again. I am most alive when making believe.”
Kubzansky sets her fork on her salad plate and drifts into a reverie.
“Anna, in Lanford Wilson’s play Burn This, says she never had a personal life, not because she was scared of it but because she never had a place for it. I resemble that remark. Directing is such a passion, for me, it‘s like having a love affair.”
JESSICA KUBZANSKY, freelance director. High points: The Mandrake and The House of Blue Leaves at West Coast Ensemble; Anatol at Buffalo Nights at the Powerhouse Theater; Lulu at Pacific Resident Theater; Moscow at Playwrights ArenaEdinburgh Festival Fringe.