“Open hands, open hands,” said Carolyn Friedman at the conclusion of our hour-long breakfast interview, still reeling from closing night of The Bacchae 2.1. She had directed the smash production with King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe (KCST), Columbia’s premier Shakespearean theater group. I had asked her to talk about the theater community she built at Columbia; “fucking extraordinary,” she had answered instantly, eyes alight. From them, she told me, she had learned that if you “walk through the world with open hands, be vulnerable, dare to suck, remain open to even the oddest offers, you will catch so much good.”
Friedman has adapted this philosophy of “open hands” and carried it with her throughout her time as a student and director at Columbia. In building a creative team, she has worked to “dissolve” the typical hierarchies in show business into “as horizontal a creative power structure as possible.” Blushing, she humbly insisted that she couldn’t be sure had succeeded as director, but sincerely hoped so.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
No matter how lavishly I praised her work directing The Bacchae 2.1, which I maintain was truly extraordinary, she insisted emphatically that I should direct my praise elsewhere. “If you’re going to make really beautiful art,” she told me, “you have to have a team of people that is smarter, better, more creative in almost every way than you are. You can be good at one little thing, but bring in people who are far smarter than you in everything else. That’s how good theater gets made.” She raved about the other students involved in the show, aglow with admiration, describing actor Kristoff Smith as “beautifully captivating,” dramaturg Aditi Rao as possessing “such a brilliant mind … when we talk to her, our IQs go up 25 points,” costume designer Lexis Rangell-Onwuegbuzia as “a genius,” and so on. “I had, maybe, like, three percent of the job to do,” she told me. For the other 97, she refused to take credit, instead directing my admiration toward the talents of the rest of the creative team.
After walking me through the show’s evolution from proposal to performance, she finally began speaking about herself. The Bacchae 2.1 was not Carolyn’s first rodeo. She began directing in high school after reading a play called A Public Reading of an Unproduced Play about the Death of Walt Disney by Lucas Hnath. She remembered thinking to herself: “I have to be in this play or do something with this play and nobody’s ever going to direct it here in Atlanta so I’ll just have to direct it myself because it needs to exist.” And that was that. But the department refused, citing lack of funding and considerable logistical obstacles. Her response: “What are the things that I have to do for you to let me direct this show?” They provided a list of Herculean tasks, confident she would fail. She didn’t.
Carolyn told me she began acting as a young girl at the behest of her parents, who, she mimed, said, “She likes to be dramatic, let’s put her in theater class.” She soon took up dancing, years later, aerial silks, and finally directing. I asked what the future holds. Next semester, three months in Kenya studying environmental biology; next summer, working as an au pair in Spain and attending the British Academy of Dramatic Arts in London; after graduation, hopefully a few years of acting in the city and, one day, an MFA; long-term, forging “a creative space where I get to perform and I get to direct and I get to help create in a collaborative team space.”
As soon as I stopped recording, Carolyn broke into laughter and told me she felt so guilty just talking about herself all that time– “can’t we talk about you?” Half an hour of chatter about the New York City arts scene later, she gathered her things and gave me a hug, told me her seminar had started twenty minutes ago and she was starting to feel guilty, promised to connect me with opportunities to dabble in playwriting, and whisked away.
In the last moments before she disappeared, we talked about making participation in the dramatic arts more open and accessible to students. Aglow, she told me, “Acting is … literally just playing pretend. If you give people the space to play pretend they will play pretend all day, and they will do it beautifully in a way that other people are able to empathize and emote with.” I hope we can all find even a fraction of Carolyn’s open and imaginative spirit in ourselves, and play a little pretend.