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10 Things to Know About Moisés Kaufman

10 Things to Know About Moises Kaufman

Learn more about the acclaimed playwright and director, who today receives the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

Moises Kaufman, known for writing and/or directing such plays as The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and I Am My Own Wife, today will receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama at the White House. The medal recognizes outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States. Kaufman is in good company; among this year's other recipients are film director Mel Brooks, author Sandra Cisneros, actor Morgan Freeman, composer Philip Glass, and actress-singer Audra McDonald. (See the full list here.) Kaufman has had a long and varied career, and some facts about his life and work may surprise even devoted fans. Read on for 10 things you should know about Moises Kaufman.1_0

He is the son of a Holocaust survivor.

Kaufman's father, Jose, was a Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust. As a boy, Jose earned money by making and selling the yellow Stars of David that the Nazi regime forced Jews to wear. "He spent most of the war alternately hiding in a small room and selling Stars of David," Moises Kaufman recalled in the book A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, edited by Eve Ensler. After World War II was over, Jose made his way to Caracas, Venezuela. There he worked in a grocery store and eventually bought one, and he married Dora Akerman, a Venezuelan-born woman of Ukrainian descent. Moises was born in Caracas in 1963. His parents brought him up in the Orthodox branch of Judaism, and he attended a yeshiva -- a Jewish religious school -- which made Moises quite the outsider in the heavily Catholic nation, as did his realization at age 11 that he was gay. Moises moved to New York City in 1987 to pursue his theatrical career, in which many of his projects have dealt with outsiders, and some have touched directly on the Holocaust. In 2015 he directed a revival of Bent, Martin Sherman's play about gay men in a concentration camp, at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum.

Hail Cesar

The Laramie Project was a massive undertaking.

For The Laramie Project, which deals with the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and the reactions of the townspeople in Laramie, Wyo., Kaufman and his colleagues at the Tectonic Theater Project compiled 400 hours of interviews from over 200 people. Kaufman was in New York City when he heard about the attack on Shepard in October 1998. "I started getting phone calls -- 'Did you hear what happened?' -- and then I read it in the newspaper and I saw it on television," he recalled to The Advocate in 2008. "People have spoken about how we as gay people feel attacked, injured, constantly in our culture. And that image of that boy tied to the fence spoke to so many of us about our pain and about our sense of how we fit into the landscape of this country. The impact of seeing what this was doing to the country--that's when I decided to go to Laramie and do The Laramie Project." The Laramie Project premiered in 2000, has been performed widely, and was adapted into an HBO movie, directed by Kaufman, in 2002. And 10 years after Shepard's death Kaufman and his Tectonic collaborators returned to Laramie to compile a sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which premiered in 2009.

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Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde was banned in Russia.

This was Kaufman's debut as a playwright, opening off-Broadway in 1997, and it was a major success. It received numerous critics' awards and a GLAAD Media Award. It has been produced in dozens of cities in the U.S. and abroad, but a planned production in Moscow was abruptly canceled in 2015. The production was to be funded in part by the U.S. State Department, but the Russian government stepped in and said the Moscow theater company that was to stage it could not accept foreign funds. The real reason for the cancellation, Kaufman believes, was that this depiction of the great gay author and wit ran afoul of Russia's "gay propaganda" law, which bans any positive discussion of LGBT people or issues in forums accessible to minors. The play did receive a a star-studded benefit reading in New York City in the fall of 2015 to support the Tectonic Theater Project and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.


Pictured: Kaufman (left) and Ben Foster clown around at the premiere of the HBO film of The Laramie Project.

The Laramie Project has run into trouble a few places too.

The Laramie Project's gay subject matter has led high school administrators to cancel performances of the play in places as varied as Spokane, Wash.;Ottumwa, Iowa; and Burbank, Calif. The students in Burbank eventually were able to stage their production, although not at their high school -- it went on at the Los Angeles suburb's Colony Theatre, which donated the space, and with help from Tectonic. But the play also has had well-received, school-supported productions in many places in the U.S., including Xavier High School, a Roman Catholic institution in New York City.


His play 33 Variations gave Jane Fonda her first Broadway role in 46 years.

Kaufman wrote and directed 33 Variations, about a music scholar studying one of Beethoven's most enigmatic works, and when it premiered on Broadway in 2009, Jane Fonda played the lead role. This was Fonda's first Broadway appearance since 1963, and she received positive reviews. "Whatever discomfort the actress may feel melds into her portrayal of Dr. Katherine Brandt, whose naturally assertive nature is humbled by the progressive, atrophying illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease," Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, adding, "For those who grew up enthralled with Ms. Fonda's screen image, it's hard not to respond to her performance here, on some level, as a personal memento mori."

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He discovered a different side of Robin Williams during Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

Fonda isn't the only major movie star who has appeared in a Kaufman play. In 2011, Robin Williams starred in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a meditation on the Iraq war written and directed by Kaufman. Williams portrayed a tiger who is killed in the first scene and then haunts the rest of the characters for the remainder of the play. Williams initially started rehearsals with what Kaufman called "the 10 a.m. stand-up." "He would start talking about whatever crossed his mind and would riff on it for the next 20 or 30 minutes, keeping all of us -- actors, designers, stage management -- roaring with laughter," Kaufman wrote in Salon in 2014, after Williams's suicide. "Like everyone, I was dazzled by the speed of his brain and the quickness of his wit, but I also noticed something else: an actor's natural trepidation about tackling a demanding role. As he developed his character ... the 10 a.m. monologues became shorter and shorter. He was feeling more at home in the rehearsal room, finding his groove in the role. Until, finally, the monologues were gone." Williams also developed "a real camaraderie" with his castmates -- and he occasionally showed signs of depression, the playwright noted. "For me, it isn't his brilliant sense of humor, or his wit, or his chameleon abilities that I'll miss," Kaufman concluded. "I'll miss the guy who came to rehearsal every day with humility and kindness, who sat around at lunch and shot the breeze. I'll miss the man who loved what he did every day. And who loved this community. I will miss my friend."

Self-Portrait 11.20.15 NYC

He's even directed operas, including one based on Puss in Boots.

Kaufman has proved his versatility time and again. In 2010 he took on the direction of Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge's chamber opera adaptation of the popular fairy tale. The production incorporated both puppets and human actors. Staging a show aimed at children was intimidating and also rewarding, Kaufman told the New York Daily News. "I've never been more scared in my life, because children don't lie," he said. On the other hand, he noted, "There's nothing better than hearing children laugh."


His most recent project is a reimagining of Bizet's Carmen.

Nothing if not adventurous, Kaufman and cowriter Eduardo Machado adapted Georges Bizet's 19th-century opera into Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical, set in 1958, changing the locale from Spain to Cuba, and making the sensuous factory worker Carmen a black woman who supports Fidel Castro's revolution. Composer Arturo O'Farrill adapted Bizet's melodies into jazzy tunes with lyrics by Kaufman and others. The play had its world premiere, directed by Kaufman, in February of this year at the Olney Theatre Center in Montgomery County, Md., near Washington, D.C.

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Despite all his success, Kaufman describes himself as shy and socially awkward.

"I'm incredibly shy, I am socially awkward, and I don't have many other interests other than my work," he told Los Angeles's Jewish Journal in 2011. "When I'm in the rehearsal room, I'm my best self. I've always known how to live in my work. I am not so good at living my life."


But he has managed to have a long-term relationship. He is married to Jeffrey LaHoste, with whom he founded the Tectonic Theater Project.

Kaufman and LaHoste founded Tectonic in 1991, with the goal of "developing innovative works that explore theatrical language and form, fostering an artistic dialogue with audiences on the social, political, and human issues that affect us all," according to the New York-based company's website. Kaufman is its artistic director, and LaHoste, a writer and producer, is a member of the board of directors. LaHoste has produced many of Kaufman's plays and several other projects, such as Kirby Dick's 2009 documentary film Outrage, about closeted politicians who support anti-LGBT legislation. He is also the author of author of Elysian Fields, a television series in development that was chosen as a participating project in the Producers' Guild of America's Diversity Workshop. Kaufman and LaHoste have been together for more than 20 years, and they were married in 2014.

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