It was an illness that led Kimberly Senior to the first principle of successful stage directing: Be a good listener. Senior has carved a prominent place on Chicago's theater scene since arriving here straight out of Connecticut College in 1995. But her revelation came just two seasons ago while she was directing Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" at Redtwist Theatre.
"At one rehearsal I was very ill — I had so much pressure behind my eyes -- that I spent the whole time lying down on a bench, giving notes on what I had heard," recalls Senior. "That turned out to be one of my most productive rehearsals ever. I think that's when I really learned to listen. Just being in the same space with the actors was enough. I didn't have to see anything. Now I spend less time with my head in a notebook."
The 39-year-old director also has another guiding principle that applies more broadly to career building: patience. That one she learned long ago.
To look at what Senior has accomplished, the prominence she enjoys on the Chicago scene, the frequency with which her name pops up on production credits, you might guess it was ever thus. She won rave reviews earlier this season directing Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" at American Theater Co. Her production of Amy Herzog's "After the Revolution" is currently playing at Next Theatre. And the 2012-13 season brings a pair of debuts as she shepherds John Lowell's "The Letters" at Writers' Theatre and Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" at Northlight Theatre.
But she will tell you it has been a long, determined and, yes, patient climb from the time she arrived fresh out of school to begin an internship at Steppenwolf Theatre.
"I don't think I've ever directed for someone who wasn't a friend," she says. "It's all about trust, and you earn trust. When an organization empowers a director, a third or a fifth of their budget is in the artistic charge of that person. How could that be someone they don't know?"
Senior cites her impending Writers' debut as a study case for young directors who imagine themselves knocking on an artistic director's door and expecting to be handed a show.
"I really wanted to work at Writers'," she says. "I had admired their work and (artistic director) Michael Halberstam for a long time. I wondered, 'How do I do that?' Eventually, about five years ago, I approached Michael and told him I'd like to direct there. We had a nice talk. Then we began to build a relationship.
"From that time forward, I went to see his plays and whenever I saw him at another show or event, I would say hello and introduce myself again. Last year, we started talking about some educational work and some readings. He went to see my plays. Now we have an authentic friendship. We have trust.
"But it's also about mastering your craft, and that also takes time. Some people say you don't really become a director until you're 40. At 25, I would have been totally devastated to hear that. I have over 100 professional credits. That represents thousands of hours working at the job, learning what actors need, just learning."
Among the lessons of Senior's career is the synergy of drama and comedy, and how they can spiral up together in powerful and often surprising ways. Talk with Senior very long and she'll soon invoke her beloved Chekhov. This was that moment.
"Chekhov was the original genre bender. We're complicated people and great plays remind us of that. I've done (Chekhov's) 'Three Sisters' three times — once as an actor many years ago and twice more recently as a director. There's an example of how tragedy creates the comic and vice-versa, and it means something new every time you visit it.
"But I also do a ton of contemporary work. New work is probably 60-70 percent of the plays I've done in the last five years. There's plenty of genre bending in contemporary theater. Take 'Pillowman.' The play is hilarious and terrifying and bone-chilling. The way it can make you gasp and laugh is something else. I have a great fondness for McDonagh." (Speaking of stretching genres and McDonagh, Senior directs his melancholy comedy "The Cripple of Inishmaan" at Redtwist, opening May 13.)
Yet whether the playwright before her is McDonagh or Chekhov or Ayad Akhtar, Senior says, her interaction with the actors who must make it work is the same.
"My job is to make sure all the parts are functioning at their utmost best, that people are pushing themselves. I'm a firm believer in actors bringing themselves to the role. Acting is about personal risk and cost. You have to share a part of who you are. The question is, how do I create that environment? The director is responsible for tone as well as understanding. No two plays are the same and no two circumstances are the same. There are no tricks or formulas you can apply."
And that means no shenanigans with the playwright's work.
"I always go back to the word," says Senior. "I'm a traditionalist when it comes to the text. It's our job to have the text sing. There should be no need to apologize for a play — and you're doing that when you don't trust what's there. You know you're headed for trouble when someone in the (rehearsal) room says, 'You know what would be so cool — what if there was a dragon and...' I'm a vigilant protector of the text."
Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is the editor of Chicago On the Aisle