This Is Who We Are: Brian Kulick

Carlos Barragán
February 13, 2024

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Professor Brian Kulick about theatre as a gamble, perseverance, and why the director should be the most patient person in the room.

Professor Brian Kulick’s recent book, Staging the End of the World: Theatre in a Time of Climate Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2023), offers an intricate exploration of empires falling, catastrophic floods, and apocalyptic narratives developed in theater. Curious about the boundaries of this art form, I asked him from the get go if there is something theater cannot do. Kulick, after a sonorous chuckle, replied that theater’s power relies on the medium’s ability to convey metaphors and existential themes through simple props. 

"I remember reading an article when I was a student titled 'Why I Hate Theater.' It listed all the reasons the author hated theater, which were, by the way, all the reasons why I love it,” Kulick said. “The major point was about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman coming in carrying two suitcases. The article’s author asked, 'What's in those suitcases?' You never see what's in those suitcases.' I'll tell you what's in them: existential angst! He's carrying the weight of the American dream in those suitcases. The idea that you don't have to show a lot and the audience will fill in the rest is one of the things I find particularly beautiful about theater. In film, a door is just a door, but in theater, a door can open up into hell or heaven."

Kulick is a director, writer, educator, producer, and current Chair of the Theatre Program. He’s been the Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company (CSC) where he directed Galileo with F. Murray Abraham, The Tempest with Mandy Patinkin, and The Forest with Dianne Weist. He commissioned and co-directed poet Anne Carson's award-winning An Oresteia, collaborated with composer Duncan Sheik on productions of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, Man’s A Man, and Mother Courage, and produced CSC's much lauded Chekhov Cycle (Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) with Alan Cumming, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Joley Richardson, Peter Sarsgaard, John Turturro and Dianne Weist. 

Kulick fondly recalls how his grandfather's vivid home reenactments of plays like A Raisin in the Sun sparked his initial love for theatre. “My grandfather was completely in love with this play. It was fun to watch him try to convey his enthusiasm for these plays, which I wouldn't experience for myself until many years later,” he said. Kulick's early familial experiences with theatre deepened his love for the arts, but didn't directly lead him to a theatre career. “I went into the theatre program at UCLA because it was an easier way to get into the film program. I wanted to do film, but I just fell in love with theatre,” he said. “I didn't think that I would have a career making theatre. Maybe if I'm lucky, I could teach theatre. Luck smiled on me and I was able to have a career and also teach at the same time.”

"The idea that you don't have to show a lot and the audience will fill in the rest is one of the things I find particularly beautiful about theater. In film, a door is just a door, but in theater, a door can open up into hell or heaven."

Kulick's approach to directing involves guiding actors through questions rather than dictating actions, fostering a collaborative and discovery-oriented environment. This philosophy extends to his classroom, where he encourages students to explore and find their own answers, but with some differences. “There's a form of directing by indirection. In a rehearsal room, a fellow artist doesn't necessarily want to know what you think they should do,” he said. “Actors want to discover what they need to do,” he continued. “Part of your job is to create the conditions in which they can discover, and sometimes helping to create that is asking certain questions that might lead them to an answer, as opposed to telling them what to do. Students really want to know the answer right away. They don't necessarily want to have a process of discovery. They're paying a lot of money and only have so much time—[they think] 'please just tell me what I need to do to be successful.'”

Kulick's philosophy of fostering self-discovery aligns with his insights on managing expectations in graduate school, where he emphasizes the importance of resilience, adaptability and patience in the face of industry challenges. “I always say I got two educations at Carnegie Mellon,” he said, “in theatre and how not to live your life. I saw very talented people who were very unhappy because the world didn't conform to what they had hoped it would be. It took a toll on many of them. I thought to myself: I have to figure out how to navigate that kind of disappointment.”

But then, how does one juggle chasing success with knowing it takes time to master art and understanding one's own limits? Kulick, drawing on wisdom from his mentor, George C. Wolfe, compares the pursuit of a career in the arts to a Las Vegas bet. The key, he suggests, lies in tenacity. “You go to a slot machine and you put all your money in. At a certain point, people get frustrated and walk away. Then somebody pulls it, and surprise! [Wolfe] told me: keep pulling the lever. What you are doing as an artist will eventually pay out. Some artists blossom later than others. Be patient. By the tenth year out of school, things will look different.”

In the realm of theater, there's a well-known adage that Kulick often finds himself reflecting on: "Plays aren't written, they're rewritten." This sentiment is a cornerstone of his approach to developing new material, writing books, and teaching a class: perseverance is vital for making one's best work. Just as the finest writing emerges from multiple drafts, so too does excellence in the realm of theatre. Kulick sees his role in the classroom as continually encouraging improvement, always ready to say, "That's fantastic, let's do it again," or "That's amazing, just one more time,” or “That was not exactly what I meant, but good try.”

Kulick, deeply immersed in ancient Greek drama, is currently guiding students through the intricacies of Antigone. He’s also working on a book about the myth of Protesilaus, the first person to die at Troy. “I’m still trying to puzzle out why it's a beautiful story, but it's a story that not enough people know and [I'm] trying to figure out why some stories catch the imagination and become part of the collective unconscious and why some other stories sort of exist in the shadows."

As we wrapped up the interview, I asked Kulick to share his thoughts on what theater does best.

“The magic of theater," he said, "lies in its ability to transform the individual. You got there with problems, you need to pay your bills, this person at work is driving you crazy…But then, the play poses a question and says, 'What are we going to do about this?' The Greek theater, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Susan Laurie Parks, Tony Kushner, all of them ask: 'This is a problem, how are we going to solve this?' Everyone congregates around the question mark and sits with it for a period of time. You take that question home, and maybe change your life a bit while you try to answer it.”