Thursday, April 12, 2012

Interview with Susan Kosoff

I remember being scared of Susan Kosoff when I was a little baby work-study student. Not because she was threatening or terrifying, but because she always conducted herself and her business with such confidence and importance that it shook me. This is not to say that she never laughed (anyone who’s stepped foot in the Theatre has surely heard Susan’s classic “Hah!” floating out of her office and echoing down the hall) but rather that she is a force. Someone to respect, listen to, believe, and trust. Now I’m a grown-up with a kid of my own and I have mustered my own sense of confidence and importance, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a little anxious about sitting down with Susan to chat. (Of course, I didn’t sit with her, per se. It’s a long commute from Philly for a 30-minute interview, but Susan did graciously agree to chat with me on the phone, which is just what we did this morning.) With input from my fellow work-study comrades from the mid-1990s, I asked Susan about her time at Wheelock College, WFT, and what she has planned for the future when she retires this June.

RM: When is “Retirement Day” and what is Day One going to be like for you?
SK: Well, officially, my contract ends on June 30, but I’m leaving for Singapore on June 15th and I’m teaching there through the summer, so… And I am coming back to direct Oliver! next season, so it’s not exactly as if it’s a harsh break. I will obviously have a continuing relationship both with the College and the Theatre.

RM: Oh, I was just going to ask you if you anticipated continuing to direct at WFT.
SK: Not necessarily, but, I don’t know. I was reluctant actually to agree to direct Oliver! because I want to allow the person taking my place to have as much latitude as possible, but it seemed ok for this year.

RM: Do we know who that replacement will be?
SK: No, not yet. The College has a search committee and is interviewing 10-12 people and they’ll narrow it down. Jackie (Wheelock’s president) will make the final decision, I think, with input from all of us.

RM: So, ok. Why are you leaving, actually? Why now?
SK: I don’t wanna leave the party too late. It feels like the time. My mentor once said to me, “You should leave the job when you stop liking the problems.” So, there’s some of that and some of, well, I want time to do the things that I haven’t had time to do for a long time. Like write and paint and it just seemed like a good time to leave. The Theatre’s in really good shape and I feel like I’m leaving it in a positive place and I’m just ready. I’m not hanging on by my fingernails or anything like that. I’ve really enjoyed this year and I’ve been asked by [Wheelock’s president] to plan next season and I’m doing that and that feels fine. I just want to be able to do the things to things that I want to do.

RM: You paint? I bet that would come as a surprise to a lot of people!
SK: I do. I paint in oils. 

RM: How long have you been doing that?
SK: I haven’t been doing it; that’s the problem! I started doing it in high school, but it’s not the kind of thing you can do at 2 o’clock in the morning when you get home from rehearsal. I have managed to squeeze out some writing over the years, but not very much. I just want that sense of endless time.

RM: So, we know what you’re looking forward to. What will you miss the most?
SK: I think the people I’m close to. Having more accessibility to them and working together.  That’s how I love to be with people. Working toward a common goal.

RM: You have said you’re retiring to Cape Cod. Will you continue to direct there?
SK: I have a place there that I have had since 1973 that I have used very little the last five years because I’ve been going to Singapore in the summers, so yes. I am really looking forward to spending a lot of time on the Cape. But that doesn't mean I won’t be [in Boston] a lot or in New York a lot. It’s pretty easy once you get on the Cape to not go over the bridge anymore, but I don’t want to do that. I love Boston and New York. I’ve been asked to direct at Harwich Junior Theatre. They said I could pick any play I wanted, but I don’t know. I don’t want to book myself up. I want to try to stay open to the possibility of things. My life has been pretty much programmed for the last, well at least the last 20 years and I want to try to keep it open to new possibilities.

RM: Speaking of the last 20 years, what’s Emily (your daughter) up to?
SK: Emily finished at Wheelock in December and is going to march at my last graduation! And then she’ll come to the Cape with me.

RM: Do you have any advice for people who want a 40-year career at one place?
SK: One of the things that has been true is that I have done a lot of different things. In addition to faculty, I was the Director of the Graduate School for two years, Co-Undergraduate Dean for two years, Head of Arts and Sciences for two years, taught in the Graduate School, taught Undergrad, was the Coordinator for Pre-service in the Graduate School and then I had the Theatre also. Within the 40 years, I have had tremendous variety and that’s what has allowed me to be here so long. I think I’ve had as much variety here as a lot of people have by changing places where they work several times. I’ve taught in Bermuda, in Singapore – I’ve been able to have the best of both worlds. Continuity and stability, but great variety. Starting a theatre and nurturing it along has given me variety, too. It has changed a lot over the years. I don’t feel like I have gotten stagnant. I’ve certainly never been bored!

RM: Is there anything you wish you could have done that you may have left undone?
SK: There are some physical improvements that I’d hoped would happen. I think we’ve done a lot, but there are always more upgrades and attention to be given. I would love it if we had all new seats in the auditorium and we have a plan for that but I’m not sure it will come to fruition because it’s a huge expense. I would love to have been able to establish a cash reserve or endowment to help insure the Theatre’s future. This thing they’re doing for my retirement, the proceeds from the retirement event, which is kind of my swan song, are going to go to creating a fund that will help ensure scholarships and help people who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to shows. So if that could come to fruition, I would love that.

RM: People are really looking forward to that event. But I didn't know the ticket price was going toward that fund.
SK: They’re calling it The Susan Kosoff Legacy Fund and the idea is that it will make theatre accessible. Both the classes and the shows, which is what’s really important. The fund hasn’t been spelled out before, but people will see it on the invitation. I was horrified at the price initially, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. What’s the sense if the people who want to be there can’t be there? They’re trying to find ways to have different kinds of groups of people come for a lower price. If you really want to go and can’t, talk to Kay (Elliott) and she will work something out.

RM: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I know the blog readers will love this little glimpse. When I asked people for questions to ask you, I got such an overwhelming display of affection and love for you. Everyone’s really going to miss you around there.
SK: Thank you. Thanks.

A Salute to the Wonderful Wizard of Wheelock will be a comical, musical trip down memory lane, performed by WFT talents of all ages – and directed by the incomparable Wicked Witch of the West (Jane Staab)! There will also be a festive reception before the performance, where the food will be fanciful…the décor creative…and the company divine! This is an evening you won’t want to miss!
More info here:

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